In the lingering winter cold, which is refusing to let spring emerge, we have been witness to another murder, which has further chilled us to the bone. Most of us, in our personal capacities, have been shocked to bits about our Minister for Minorities Affairs being shot dead in Islamabad in broad daylight. It is as if the white portion, which depicts the minorities on our flag, has been soiled so mercilessly yet again. It was bad enough that we lost the Governor of Punjab only two months ago to sheer intolerance, it is even worse to have the Minorities Affairs Minister murdered thus. And the sinking feeling in the gut is that this is not the last murder we have seen of someone killed because of bigotry and hatred.
“I am ready to die for a cause, I am living for my community...and I will die to defend their rights...I will prefer to die for my principles,” said Shahbaz Bhatti in a video floated on the internet, filmed apparently some four months ago.
The seculars in the society are showing solidarity with the countless men and women of Christian and other faiths, who have rendered meritorious services to Pakistan in different fields, and have always owed allegiance to the land of their birth. I will not quote Mr Jinnah’s speech to the Constituent Assembly here again, as a reminder of his vision for Pakistan since it has been done to death and still has no effect on those who have made it their life’s mission to fan the winds of bigotry. The state of Pakistan is being held hostage by those who were in the forefront against its creation at partition, but have now become, as the saying in the vernacular goes, its mamas!
When I was nine years old, like most other children I spent all the day with friends from the neighborhood cycling and playing cricket at the Race Course ground in Rawalpindi. Faraz and Aneeq, brothers roughly my age, were prominent members of the small gang of friends and brilliant batsmen of the team I played for. One summer day, news broke out that they we are Christians. I knew little about how to react and I remained a silent spectator as my group of so-called friends expelled us from the group, ultimately stopped talking to us altogether and finally isolated us in the ground we played in. Their father was a serving Lieutenant Colonel in the Pakistan Army and our only crime was that they were Christians. Nine-year-old children already knew enough to hate friendly and happy-going people of other faiths based just on their religion. Little did I know that the country I was growing up in was far more discriminatory, contemptuous and jaundiced with bigotry and fanaticism. Three days ago, its land became even more bloody with the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti.
Hindus in Pakistan are discriminated against and remain stuck in the worst of economic conditions, besides being forced into conversions. Ahmedis cannot even proclaim their religion openly and are murdered in broad daylight round the year. Jews just ran away from this country knowing what was in store for them. Christians, Pakistan’s second largest minority, are discriminated against and killed in the name of blasphemy laws. They are called “choorraas” (sweepers) and are subjected to the worst form of abuse. They are considered unclean and they are forced into jobs that Muslims feel are below their dignity. Janitor, cleaner and sanitary worker — that is what the Pakistani Christian has been told is his or her worth. A couple of years ago, the Capital Development Authority (CDA) had put up a banner on the Islamabad Expressway inviting the Christian biradari (community) to apply for janitorial jobs at the CDA, openly stating as if these were jobs reserved for them in a shameful, abominable and disgusting show of behavior from the state itself. Pakistan’s Christians have given more to this country than this country has given to them. From Wing Commander Cecil Chaudhry (Sitara-e-Jurat, Tamgha-e-Jurat), who protected the airspace of this country, to Air Vice Marshall Michael John O’Brian, from the melodic Benjamin Sisters to the great human rights and peace activist Julius Salik, from A Nayyar whose melodious rendition of “Utho meri duniya” remains one of the best recitations of Iqbal, to Iqbal Masih, the young boy who broke the shackles of bonded labour and became a global symbol of hope, from Wing Commander Mervyn Middlecoat (Sitara-e-Jurat, Sitara-e-Basalat) to Ruth Pfau, Hilal-e-Pakistan, the legendary woman who has fought leprosy in this country, to Air Commodore Wladyslaw Jozef Marian Turowicz — the man who headed SUPARCO in its days of glory and the father of our space and missile programme. The list goes on and includes great men like Bishop Anthony Lobo, Bishop John Joseph, Justice A R Cornelius, Air Vice Marshall Eric Hall (Hilal-i-Jurat, Sitar-e-Jurat), Joseph Francis, the great photo-journalist F E Chaudhary, GoC 23 Div Major General Noel Israel Khokar, and countless others besides the hundreds of great teachers who have, continue to, and will go on to further enlighten students at the historically magnificent missionary and convent schools in this country.
When a man convinced to kill innocents struck at the Islamic International University (IIU) in Islamabad, it was another Pakistani Christian who sacrificed his life to save many others. Pervez Masih blocked the path of the human bomb and sacrificed his life to save dozens, if not hundreds, of female students. A poor janitor, like many of his fellow community members, he had worked at the IIU for only a week. He made the ultimate sacrifice to protect his fellow Pakistanis and yet his community continues to be harassed, exploited, discriminated against, murdered and haunted by the memory of their loved ones consumed by the hydra-headed demon of extremism, militancy and fanaticism.
It has been 14 years since the massacre of Shantinagar and just two years ago Gojra’s Christian community saw their homes and churches burnt down by the forces of evil. Shahbaz Bhatti stood by them as he stood by Asia Bibi.
How can the state even begin to face the families of Mervyn Middlecoat? How can the state even face Cecil Chaudhry? The family of Pervez Masih? Bishop John Joseph shot himself with a handgun to protest the blasphemy laws at the spot where a victim of the blasphemy laws, Ayub Masih, had been killed. Little has changed since his death in 1998 and perhaps little will.
The people are so insecure as a nation that they undercount the minority populations in the census. We have become a country ruled by mobs, by angry men who preach hatred, bigotry, xenophobia and irrationality. We cannot coexist peacefully until these madmen are taken to task, legally, for spreading messages of hate. Rest assured, things are looking extremely bleak and Shahbaz Bhatti will be just another victim in our bloodstained history. Our all-consuming, self-righteous and fire-breathing media was back to regular programming within two hours of his coldblooded assassination. That is the level of respect and honor that a brave, patriotic and great Pakistani deserved from our 24-hour news channels. People shall continue to blame the Yanks, the Indians and every other force for our own machinations whilst our Christians, Hindus, Shias and Sunnis, men and women and even children are murdered in our land.
The unleashed demons also provide ample opportunity to those who would like nothing better than to destabilize Pakistan. One has the feeling that their plans are being actualized. The portraying of the country, as one that cannot keep its rogue elements in check, is being put into practice. The whole Raymond Davis affair further strengthens this belief. Admittedly, the space for this has been created by the practiced policies of each and every power wielder in the past, who nurtured myths and had fanciful notions, totally removed from reality as well as the actual vision of Pakistan that was given by Quaid-i-Azam. These follies have created the space for countless others to try and plant the last nails in the coffin. It adds to our woes to realize that the government of the day seems unable to deal effectively with any situation or calamity that arises. It does not plan ahead. It gets us no satisfactory answers, takes no unambiguous stands, and in fact has its own ministers playing both sides of the coin constantly to try and appease all sides. It does not realize that the long-term good of difficult decisions will bear the party in better stead than short-term appeasements.
Rest in peace (RIP) Shahbaz Bhatti. This country did not deserve you or any of the great Christian citizens whom any other country would have boasted of as sons of the soil. I just hope this home of ours does not go up in flames soon.
The writer is a Islamabad-based human rights activist and can be reached at [email protected]