A Window into the World of Religious Minorities
Name of the Book: A White Trail—A Journey Into The Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities
Author: Haroon Khalid
Publisher: Westland, Chennai & New Delhi
Price: Rs. 395
Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand
Based on detailed interviews, oral history narratives and participant observation at various religious festivals, Haroon Khalid weaves together a compelling story of what it means to be a member of a religious minority in Pakistan today.
At the time of the Partition, religious minorities accounted for around a fourth of Pakistan’s population. Today, they account for just three per cent. Over the years, pervasive discrimination, at the hands both of the state and civil society, forced many religious minorities to flee the country. Today, the few that remain live in increasingly precarious circumstances, as this book poignantly portrays.
The white stripe on Pakistan’s national flag symbolizes its religious minorities– the ‘White Trail’ that supplies the book its title. This book is one of the first on the subject of the major communities that compose that ‘White Trail’: Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Bahais and Parsis. The author, a journalist with the Lahore-based Friday Times, deals with his subject with great sensitivity and a clearly evident concern for the manifold problems that religious minorities in his country face on a daily basis. Based on detailed interviews, oral history narratives and participant observation at various religious festivals, Khalid weaves together a compelling story of what it means to be a member of a religious minority in Pakistan today.
Hindus are the single largest religious minority in Pakistan. The majority of Pakistan’s Hindus are from various Scheduled Castes. Most other Hindus migrated to India in the wake of the Partition. Khalid visits scattered Hindu populations in the Pakistani Punjab, and attends their festivals—Holi at Multan, Navratri at Bahwalnagar, Shivaratri at Katas Raj, and Valmiki Jayanti and Krishna Janamashtami in Lahore—to give us a window into the little-known world of Pakistani Hindus.
This account does not purport to portray what life is like for all Pakistani Hindus, though, because most Pakistani Hindus live in the southern Sindh province, where the situation is somewhat different. In some districts of Sindh, Hindus make up a sizeable section of the population. In these districts, their caste profile is more diverse than in Punjab, and they include some ‘upper’ caste industrialists, traders and landlords, too, although the majority there also consists of ‘low’ castes.
As can be imagined, being Hindu in Pakistan, especially in Pakistani Punjab, is far from easy. Khalid shows how the Pakistani Hindus’ patriotism is often doubted by other Pakistanis, which makes them concerned to stress their Pakistani nationalist credentials. Being mostly of ‘low’ caste background, their economic conditions are precarious. They are also treated as untouchables by some Muslims, even though this notion is foreign to Islam. Violence against Muslims in India—as, for instance, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Mosque—sometimes invites violence against Pakistani Hindus. Hatred for Hindus is propagated through the government school system, through textbooks that vilify Hindus/Indians. This further intensifies the discrimination that the few remaining Pakistani Hindus face. At the same time, as Khalid shows, this has not deterred scattered groups of Pakistani Hindus from asserting their identities and demanding their rights in recent years, with the formation of new organizations and reclaiming some temples, for instance.
Pakistan’s Christians are only slightly less in number than the country’s Hindus, but they are somewhat more vocal. This has much to do with a number of Christian institutions in the country—hospitals, schools, colleges and so on. Like Pakistani Hindus, most Pakistani Christians are of ‘low’ caste origin. Like them, they, too, face pervasive discrimination. The targeting of Pakistani Christians (and others, too) under anti-blasphemy laws has received considerable global attention. In recent years, attacks on churches and other Christian institutions by radical self-styled ‘defenders of Islam’ has taken a heavy toll of lives. Khalid’s Christian respondents, whom he meets at church services and pilgrimage centres in Punjab, tell the story of how in the face of pervasive discrimination, they struggle to survive.
Many of the Sikhs’ major shrines remained in Pakistani Punjab after the Partition. In the wake of the Partition, almost all the Sikhs of what became Pakistani Punjab migrated to India. Likewise, almost all Muslims in East Punjab migrated to Pakistan. Yet, a few Sikhs remained in the Pakistani Punjab. These, as Khalid shows, were later joined by groups of Pathan Sikhs from the North-West Frontier. Attending several Sikh festivities—Baisakhi at Hassan Abdal, Guru Nanak’s birthday at Nankana Saheb (where Guru Nanak was born), Ranjit Singh’s death anniversary at Lahore and so on—Khalid gives us insights into life of Pakistan’s miniscule Sikh minority.
Two other Pakistani minority groups that Khalid describes are the Parsis and the Bahais, both of whom are very small in number, though more educated and less vulnerable than the country’s other minorities.
This account of Pakistan’s minorities could have been made more comprehensive had it incorporated insights from parts of Pakistan other than urban Punjab. Readers would also have benefitted if Khalid had also highlighted alternate Islamic discourses in Pakistan that critique the interpretations of religion articulated by radical
self-styled Islamist groups, and that stand in solidarity with the country’s minorities. This would have added much-needed nuance to ongoing debates about the status of minorities in Muslim-majority states like Pakistan.
The rich Islamic Sufi tradition that once flourished in what is now Pakistan and was once preached by scores of Sufis are a manifesto of peace, love, compassion and harmony and appreciation of goodness that transcends narrow boundaries of caste and creed. Reviving something of that particular understanding of Islam can have crucial implications for the fortunes of Pakistan’s beleaguered minorities—and this is something that Khalid could have discussed. After all, the travails of Pakistan’s minorities have much to do with the unfortunate conflation of Pakistani nationalism and misplaced Muslim supremacism that is premised on the denigration of people of other faiths. The understanding of religion that this reflects is fundamentally opposed to the Islam of noted Sufis of the region—people like Bulleh Shah and Baba Farid in the Punjab, and Shah Abdul Latif and Shah Inayat in Sindh, for instance, who continue to be adored and deeply revered by millions of people in Pakistan, and in India, too—by Muslims, but also by Hindus, Sikhs and others as well.
This well-researched and engagingly-written account of Pakistan’s minorities cannot afford to be missed by anyone interested in contemporary Pakistan.