South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

The writer is a barrister.
The writer is a barrister.

COMMON SENSE dictates that if you truly wish to empathise with another human being, all you really have to do is put yourself in their position — slip into their minds and bodies, try and imagine things from their perspectives, their lived realities, their versions of the truth. And so, for this piece, I invite the reader to come and don the skin of any person that qualifies as a ‘minority’ in our country — take a little stroll through their neighbourhoods, study the legal (and social) architecture in which they are made to exist, its long and claustrophobic streets, its gloomed and doomed alleys.

The first thing you may wish to look at is the country’s Constitution, this being the ultimate law of the land. Upon reading the preamble, you will be happy to note that it aspires to observe “equality” as a foundational principle, along with promising “freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith, worship and association”. You will be even happier to read Article 20, which gives every citizen “the right to profess, practise and propagate their religion”, and will positively squeal in delight at Article 25, which graciously states that “all citizens are equal before law” and therefore, entitled to its equal protection.

Read a bit further though, and you will soon realise that the equality you have been promised does not exactly conform to the traditional, dictionary definition of the word, for despite being ‘equal’, you cannot become the president of the country, or even its prime minister for that matter. Both these offices are reserved solely for Muslim citizens, and you, by virtue of your religious affiliation, are legally barred from occupying them. Other than that, you are technically eligible for almost any constitutional post — chief justice, member of the cabinet, governor of a province, army chief, whatever floats your boat to be honest (aside from certain understandable exceptions, like say a judge of the Federal Shariat Court).

Most crucially however, secured by Article 20, you shall be free to worship under the open sun — you may mark your festivals, observe your sacred rituals, build and maintain your places of worship as you see fit (potential controversies by right-wingers notwithstanding). You may also, should you choose to do so, preach your faith and invite other citizens to join it, although for obvious reasons this is not particularly advisable.

All of this will stand true, unless you happen to be an Ahmadi citizen, in which case Article 20 shall offer little utility. While the 2nd Amendment only went so far as to officially declare you “non-Muslim”, Zia’s subsequent tinkering with the Penal Code effectively criminalised all outward expressions of your religious beliefs. It is an offence for you to simply profess your faith in public, and in this sense, it is perhaps incorrect (and even a bit insensitive) to classify you as a minority, because the bone-chilling truth is that you are not — you are something less than that.

Now, as is always the case, the law is but a reflection of a purported ideal, never of reality. Peer away from its shimmer and glimmer, and you will quickly realise that these structural modes of discrimination are only part of the problem. Your everyday persecution takes many forms, and here, the skin you wear really does define the contours of the treatment you are meted out.

Walk as a Hindu and you will find that your religion and your people have been systematically villainised in popular imagination, courtesy of a national mythmaking project that has always cast you as the evil ‘other’. In Sindh, where most of your community is based, your physical safety is a question mark — men like Mian Mithu roam the deserts, abducting young girls and forcibly converting them. As a Christian you will fare little better — ghettoised, deeply impoverished and trapped in janitorial jobs, generation after generation.

Add Dalit ancestry to either of these identities and the spectre of caste (which remains criminally unaddressed to this day) will act as an additional prison by itself. To round this all off, there shall always be the glistening dagger of blasphemy laws, which, as statistics make clear, disproportionately target non-Muslims. These are all uncomfortable truths, making it that much more necessary that they be confronted without exception.

At the end of the day, minorities are nothing but creatures of numerical disadvantage. Simply put, one is relegated to this status as a mere consequence of being outnumbered. But in democracies, which are premised, not on unanimity or consensus but on majority rule, minorities are the first victims. This is a very well recognised flaw of the basic principles of democratic governance, and so, in a desperate bid to tame the dominating (and often predatory) instincts of any majority, we put in place little safeguards like civil and political rights — freedom of religion being only one of them. This is precisely what empowers Muslims living in any other country to be treated in the same manner as their non-Muslim counterparts.

Oddly enough, the Muslim majority of this country is extremely quick to call out foreign nations whenever they enact any laws that act to the detriment of Muslims. This is certainly an excellent moral position to take, but, without applying the same standards to non-Muslim citizens here at home, it is nothing but sheer hypocrisy — a double standard so plain that it renders even the most eloquent of outrage as nothing more than shameless grandstanding. We must come to realise that like most other liberties, the right to religious freedom is a two-way street.

Finally, as we bid farewell, it is crucial to bear in mind that the ability to slip in and out of the skin of any minority is an exercise steeped in privilege, capable only of delivering a crude and simplistic understanding of their lives. Unlike those who partake in such sympathetic endeavours, minorities do not have the option of discarding their skin once it is over.

The writer is a barrister.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2021