Undoing the discrimination against non-Muslims

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Yasser Latif

We must also change the constitution and allow in principle non-Muslims to hold the highest offices in the land. When will we take these principled steps?
On June 24, 1947, the editor of the Time magazine wrote a letter to Mohammad Ali Jinnah enclosing the 1946 cover of Time with Jinnah’s picture on it with the caption “Mohamed Ali Jinnah, His Muslim tiger wants to eat the Hindu cow.” The editor requested an autograph of Jinnah on the picture and included in the letter postage stamps for return. Jinnah sent a reply that was classic Jinnah — to the point and curt: “As I think the description ‘Mohamed Ali Jinnah, His Muslim tiger wants to eat the Hindu cow’ is offensive to the sentiments of the Hindu community, I cannot put my autograph on the cover page of the Time magazine as requested by you.”
This was at the time when bitterness between the Hindu community and Muslim community was at its peak, and here was the sole spokesman of the Muslim refusing to endorse a cover page that he considered offensive to the sentiments of the Hindu community.
The Time magazine’s coverage of India’s politics at the time was especially lopsided. It went out of its way to present the Congress point of view at the expense of the Muslim League. Jinnah’s forthright and principled reply must then have come as a shock to the folks at Time magazine, operating as it was in a country still plagued by racial segregation and prejudice. It would have certainly upended their misguided notions about what Jinnah and his party stood for. We cannot fault the Time magazine alone. This is the kind of stuff you will never find in Pakistan Studies either.
It is hard to square off Jinnah and his principles with the reality that is Pakistan today. Our syllabus is full of offensive references to Hindus and even Christians. I have also repeatedly written about the declaration an officially Muslim citizen of this country has to sign about the Ahmadis on the passport. It makes no logical sense whatsoever. In principle the religion question should not come up on a passport form. Still on a logical plane, if I am required to sign a statement affirming my faith that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was the absolute last prophet of God, I am ready to do it. Why am I required to declare another community non-Muslim, though? Is this not a denial of my constitutional rights that I am required to affirm the disbelief of another community in order to be recognised as a Muslim in the post-Zia Pakistan? And what of the offence caused to that community? So you have declared them non-Muslim for the purposes of law and constitution but can you force them to think of themselves as non-Muslims?
We celebrate August 11 as the National Minorities’ Day. The irony is unmistakable. Jinnah on that day spoke of a Pakistan where angularities of majority and minority would vanish, and we would all become equal citizens of one state. Still I suppose at least there is some realisation that minorities are mistreated and a day has been set aside for them. Speaking on the occasion this year, Pakistan’s non-Muslim parliamentarians asked a very pertinent question. Why are non-Muslims barred from holding the office of president or prime minister in this republic of ours? The constitution promises equality of citizenship in one clause and then by creating this bar the constitution nullifies the same equality. The underlying implication is very clear: we do not trust non-Muslim Pakistanis to serve the country.
Ironic because some of Pakistan’s finest in most fields have been non-Muslims. Pakistan has not had finer judges than Justice AR Cornelius, Justice Dorab Patel and Justice Rana Bhagwandas. Non-Muslims have laid down their lives for the country in battle. Names of Mervyn Middlecoat and Peter O Riley come to mind.
If Ahmadis are to be considered non-Muslims as per the constitution, then Pakistan’s first and finest foreign minister was a non-Muslim. So is Pakistan’s finest scientist, Dr Abdus Salam, according to the Pakistan constitution that is. There was no finer patriot of this country than Ardeshir Cowasjee who was a Parsi. The work he did for Karachi as an activist and a litigant is all part of the record. It was his father, by the way, who was entrusted to set up Pakistan’s National Shipping Corporation. Pakistani non-Muslims have, time and again, proved themselves as completely loyal to the country. How many of their stories do we tell our children? We instead tell our children that Pakistan is an Islamic state, and only a Muslim can be the head of state and government in this Islamic state of ours. Can there be anything more offensive to
Pakistani non-Muslims?
Pakistan has become a badly majoritarian state. We do not even allow for effective representation for non-Muslims in Pakistan. According to the formula that was the basis of the constitution, minorities should have five percent representation. That would mean 17 reserved seats in the National Assembly. At the moment Pakistan only allows 10 reserved seats, which are then distributed amongst mainstream parties according to their share of the general vote. As a result the minority representatives are not elected but selected, forced to toe the party line. Imagine if there was a solid group of 17 elected minority representatives in the National Assembly. They would be able to at least raise their voice without fear of going against the party line. This is precisely why the people in power would rather not have them elected.
I have no qualms in repeating for the umpteenth time that the need of the hour is to revive Jinnah’s principles in Pakistan. We have to reclaim Pakistan and ensure that no citizen of Pakistan feels a lesser son or daughter of Pakistan on account of his or her religion. We must also change the constitution and allow in principle non-Muslims to hold the highest offices in the land. When will we take these principled steps? I hope we do so sooner rather than later, because, as I wrote last week, these discriminatory policies eat away at Pakistan’s soul.