Published in The Express Tribune, February 2nd, 2015 ::
The Shia community, as well as minorities, be they religious or ethnic, are faring increasingly poorly in Pakistan. Faring equally poorly are a swathe of human rights, and the picture painted by the newly-released Human Rights Watch (HRW) World Report 2015 is bleak indeed. There was a significant rise in attacks on people based on their religion and sect in 2014 and if events in Shikarpur are any indicator, 2015 is unlikely to see any improvement. It is impossible to place an accurate figure on just how many members each sect and religion has as there has been no census since 1998, but it is safe to say that the Shia community and minorities number in the many millions. The HRW report is blunt — the government of Nawaz Sharif has failed to ensure religious freedoms. Not only that, it has failed to protect those women — as many as a 1,000 a year — who are from minority groups but forced into marriages with Muslim men; it has failed to curb the operations of extremist groups and comprehensively failed to provide a sense of moral leadership in times when it was most needed.
The report is a damning indictment of this and previous governments. This parlous state of affairs did not arise overnight as it has been growing for many years, aided and abetted by successive dispensations, be they civil or military. No government since Partition has gone out of its way to pay anything other than lip service to the rights of minorities, and slowly but perceptibly, the country is emptying of them. The government is failing in its most basic duty, namely to protect its citizens and uphold the rule of law. The bedrock on which intolerance and indifference is founded is the now firmly embedded extremist mindset that dominates the narrative, to the point of excluding social discourse and forcing moderate and secular segments of civil society into ever smaller spaces.
The HRW report acknowledges this by saying that there is institutionalised discrimination which fosters violent attacks — as well as supports a culture of impunity — against religious minorities and Shias. The recent emergence of the National Action Plan (NAP) goes some way towards setting out an agenda within which extremism and sectarianism may be addressed, but the NAP is already running out of steam despite the much-trumpeted arrests of more than 8,000 ‘extremists’.
The city of Karachi remains the epicentre of sectarian violence. There were 750 so-called targeted killings in the city between September 2013 and September 2014. Elsewhere, Balochistan has a human rights situation that the HRW report terms “abysmal” and the abuse of women and girls — whether or not they are a member of any minority — including rape, honour killings, acid attacks and forced marriages are all trending upwards. The Christian and Hindu minorities are particularly targeted for forced marriages. The Sikh and Hindu communities in Balochistan have been all but driven out. Significant curbs on the freedom of expression were put in place in 2014, and journalists who report on counterterrorism found themselves, if not killed, then increasingly threatened.
Pakistan has become desensitised to violence, intolerance and discrimination. This desensitisation is at every level of governance, both federal and provincial, and notwithstanding the massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar last December, it is deeply ingrained. This has become a brutalised society, where the moral compass broke long ago and the polarities of good and bad are reversed. Civil society inasmuch as it exists in any coherent and organised form is largely powerless in terms of being able to create a countervailing narrative; and is politically completely impotent. Such protest as there is is quickly nullified, and the media across all of its platforms buys into the prevailing culture of extremism by giving airtime to its proponents and propagators. There are no surprises in the HRW report and in many ways its contents are old news. Rolling back the culture that has promoted intolerance and murderous intent is a generational challenge, and one the current government, given its performance so far, seems ill-equipped to rise to.