While spearheading a movement to provide shelter, nourishment health facilities and education to street children, we came across a slum dwelling of rag pickers, living in the most makeshift and deplorable conditions. We decided to help them but soon learnt that they were bonded labour who had escaped from the clutches of their local landlords and preferred living in sub human conditions in the city rather than being victims of the landowner's tyranny in the villages. They were a mixed community of Muslims, Christians, and mostly Hindus. Regretfully, one of our members, an educationist owning a prestigious school of her own, emphasised vehemently that we should not help people who aren't Muslims and rather help 'our own'. I guess she forgot what the white in our flag stands for.
I often heard my mother-in-law - who migrated from India - speaking about how religious minorities and Muslims had lived as neighbours, attended the same schools, been friends and celebrated each other's festivals before partition. Listening to her, I used to imagine an idyllic existence, 'free from tensions'. But sadly, we grew up in the reign of a military dictator who gave the country a new flavour of religion, bringing in 'Islamic punishments' and the 'Hudood Ordinance'. That military regime, I believe, scarred us for life and our country is still reeling from its after effects in the form of bigotry and religious extremism taking a toll on us.
Recently, there was uproar in the press about forced conversions in Tharparkar. Having lived and worked in the area, I was quite astonished by the whole news because the first time I visited the region, it was a different picture. Majority of the population included Hindus but along with Muslims they lived together in harmony. Just like a page from history...
The sight at Tharparkar was pleasant. Living amongst the locals was wonderful with each community respecting the others' customs and beliefs. I celebrated Diwali and Eid, enjoyed all the days off and holidays equally. The Hindu women I worked with wore their traditional ghaghra choli, and never did I see them being ridiculed or stared at in the market place. Similarly, my colleagues moved about comfortably in their shalwar kameez or even jeans. I've never witnessed such relaxed acceptance in Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad the way I did in Tharparkar. I realised that one could easily fall in love with the place because of the people's resilience, their ancient culture - unspoilt with the ravages of time - and even the harshness of the desert.
Interestingly, there are around two million Hindus - 90 per cent are Sindhis in Sindh province - living in Pakistan. Hindu temples are all over the country, with at least 2 in every major city. In Sukkur alone, I know a minimum of 6 at least. Hindus of Pakistan are very organised, not isolated and spread out. There is a panchaet in every major city of Sindh (that deals with festivals, maintenance of temples and other community issues) and even dharamshalas.
According to some friends I interviewed there, "Hindus in Pakistan are culturally free, as long as they keep it to themselves. We can wear whatever we want, celebrate our festivals and pray in any way we like. That is to say you won't hear some mullah issuing fatwas to Hindu women who don't start wearing burqas or the locals complaining of noise from the fireworks on Diwali or the government issuing a ban on idol worship altogether."
In cities where there is education, there is peaceful coexistence for most of the time. There are temples and churches, nicely maintained. Christians and Hindus study with Muslims in schools and colleges. In the enlightened portion of our society, a Muslim would even be pleased to greet and meet people from other religions. Although due to the prevalent cast system, a Hindu might not want to break bread with a fellow Muslim or others. Otherwise, Pakistani Hindus are patriotic folks, same goes for the Christians and Sikhs. However, we can't ignore the darker element here. Extremism exists, and we have seen it more than often in the recent attacks at places of worship and target killings. Obviously, these extremists don't reflect the views of all Pakistani Muslims. However, in villages, where illiteracy is widespread and in certain portions of cities where there are muddled mindsets present, it is certainly difficult for minorities.
The misuse of the law for blasphemy is a nuisance. Often, a dispute, unrelated to religion like money etc, will be turned into one by spreading rumours in order to seek revenge. Something similar happened to a poor Christian couple recently. The husband had a financial dispute with his employee. Apparently to seek revenge, the employee used a local Imam to spread rumours that the man had desecrated the Quran. He managed to rile up a mob that tragically burnt down the Christian family. So, there are two sides of the coin, both positive and negative about Hindus, Christians and others living in Pakistan. But mostly if laws are implemented, we are a law abiding and peaceful nation.
While visiting Sri Lanka and Hong Kong recently, I came across many Sindhi Hindu business families, who had migrated from Pakistan right after partition. They were all nostalgic and eager to revisit their ancestral villages and their birthplaces. Sadly, most of them were afraid to, owing to rumours abounding about terrorism, killings and forced conversions. When living abroad, every story gets magnified and every myth becomes a reality. Sindh is not the easiest of places to live in, with the hot weather, soil and lack of water not being the most conducive to earn an easy living here; fortunately, I did not experience anything negative between the majority and the minority, be it Hindu or Muslim.