Pakistan's PM: Mixed messaging and a prisoner of political compulsions

As Islamabad embraces hardline Islamists, life for minorities in Pakistan is becoming tough, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor

Mahendra Ved Nov 15, 2021
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Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan (Photo: AFP)

Conflicting signals are emanating from Pakistan on the way Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government is dealing with Islamist militants on one hand and religious minorities on the other. The government’s attempt at making peace with the former could complicate things for the latter. 

Both are undoubtedly challenges that have daunted successive governments. Over the years there has been no fundamental change in their approach.  

Khan’s government holding talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has alarmed many, especially among the educated middle class in Pakistan. On November 10, Khan was summoned by the Supreme Court and grilled about the intent of these talks when TTP stands accused of gunning down 147 people, 132 of them students, at the Army Public School, Peshawar, on December 16, 2014.   

Anger over Khan’s dalliance with Islamists 

Khan was asked to appear, which he did with a retinue of ministers, officers and lawyers, because the parents of the slain students were present and wanted a firm commitment from the government that it would not “forgive and forget” the perpetrators of that massacre. 

The parents had protested against Khan’s visit to the school two days after the massacre. An opposition lawmaker then, he had come with his just-married second wife, Reham Khan. Both were forced to go back. 

The apex court highlighted the lapses of almost seven years during which none from the TTP has been brought to book over the massacre. Khan’s assurance that he was “committed to the rule of law” and that the government would punish the guilty may not have impressed the cynics. 

Khan was not the Prime Minister then (it was Nawaz Sharif), but his party ruled in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Granting that any government has the right to talk peace with a group to avoid “blood-letting” that would ensue if the government resorts to tough action, something the powerful conservatives are demanding, the record of both these governments at taking on the armed militants has been far from reassuring.  

That ministers of the Khan government routinely accuse India of supporting them has made it all the more ludicrous. 

Judiciary intervenes 

The apex court, for one, disapprovingly noted the collapse of the intelligence in failing to protect unarmed inmates of an army-run school. "Parents are asking where was the security system [that day]? Despite our comprehensive orders, nothing was done," the CJP observed. 

The only hope is that the judiciary’s intervention at the highest level could alter and improve things. The political class is fickle and vote-obsessed, the bureaucracy is foot-dragging, and the Islamist extremists are becoming increasingly influential. The Islamabad-aided rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan has added strength to their elbow. 

The same ray of hope emanates from the way the CJP last week participated in post-Diwali celebrations by the Hindu community at a temple, restored after being vandalized by Islamists, at Karak in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.   

Justice Ahmed stressed on Pakistan’s Constitution that guarantees freedom to practice religion to all.  His assertion found reassuring echoes in Pakistan Hindu Council chief and ruling party lawmaker, Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani. He, in fact, sought more Hindu temples in the country and security for them. 

Significantly, he stressed that Pakistan’s image needed to be improved. It is considered politically expedient in Pakistan to blame an adversarial India and “Western propaganda”, even islamophobia, for this image problem. But attacks are frequent on religious minorities – Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Shias and Sufis and Ahmediyyas, who were declared non-Muslim by a ‘socialist’ Z.A. Bhutto regime. 

The 2020 statistics say 31 dead, 58 injured and 25 blasphemy cases – that’s the toll taken on Pakistan’s religious minorities since Khan took office. 

Defiance against Islamist ideology 

There are some positives as well. Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent almost a decade in prison under false blasphemy charges, was finally acquitted on October 2018 and left the country. The Khan government had stood firm when the TLP staged violent protests against her acquittal and demanded that the apex court pass a death sentence on her. 

Those were early days for Khan. The last three years, however, have seen the rise of the TTP and the TLP, besides militant groups nurtured as 'state assets' to cause trouble in India, Iran and Afghanistan. The simultaneous dialogue with the TTP and the TLP, cleared by the federal cabinet, needs to be seen in that context. 

There is a view that governments in Pakistan are careful when it comes to the tiny Christian community since human rights and religious rights groups are vocal in the Christian West from where Pakistan gets much of its aids and grants. 

The same 'elbow room' is not available to other minority communities, less so for Muslim minority groups and none for the Hindus. Legislations pertaining to the Hindus giving them basic rights like birth and marriage registration and inheritance and attempt to protect them from forced conversion, especially of minor girls, have been scuttled. As if in justification, Khan and his ministers have been using vituperative language against the political dispensation in India. 

Yet, there is some reassurance from last week’s public outcry that helped the Hindus to regain a plot in Islamabad to build the national capital’s first temple. Allotted six years ago, and vandalized when only the wall was built, its lease/grant was cancelled in February. Protests, and probably, some correctives from the government at the top, worked to restore the permission. 

Otherwise, the Western-educated Khan would seem a prisoner of political compulsions like his predecessors. He nurses an anti-West image, is ‘soft’ on militants when in the opposition – General Pervez Musharraf would call him “Taleban Khan” - and talks to them when in power. With such mixed messaging, it is difficult to see which way he is going. 

(The author is a veteran journalist and South Asia analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at mahendraved07@gmail.com)