April 2012


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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Polishing Shoes for Communal Harmony in India and Pakistan

Sabur Ali Sayyid

Hunched on the floor of Gurdwara Sis Ganj, a Sikh temple in New Delhi, Khurshid Ahmad Khan, Pakistan’s deputy attorney general, earnestly polished the shoes of devotees flocking to him either in delight or amazement. To him, polishing shoes served as penance for the brutal killing of a Sikh man at the hands of the Taliban two years prior in Pakistan. Engaging in this lowly act, for him, relieved the burden on his conscience about the problems that minorities face in his region. He believes they deserve a better life, free of intimidation and coercion.

Some may disagree with Khan’s philosophy of redemption. Khan, himself a Muslim, took time out during his visit to India to shine the shoes of devotees at places of worship, regardless of whether they were Sikh houses of worship or Hindu temples. In doing so, he wanted to show his respect for humanity and for other religions.

No one would dispute the fact that communal harmony in South Asia, particularly in India and Pakistan where each year a large number of people are killed in the name of religion, is far from satisfactory. Moreover, no significant progress can take place in this area unless it is backed by the introduction of a multipronged approach to bring about greater communal harmony.

The genesis of Hinduism and Sikhism lies in South Asia. It has been welcoming to Muslims, Christians and people of other faiths, such as Jainism, Taoism and Shintoism. Peaceful coexistence has been a hallmark of this region. Though there have been instances of great strife, this tradition of coexistence is equally a part of the region’s history.

The Liaquat-Nehru Pact of 1950, which binds India and Pakistan to take every possible step to ensure that minorities are protected, is one example of this tradition.

Unfortunately, this pact has sometimes been ignored.

To address this problem, key stakeholders in India and Pakistan, including members of the media and civil society, could exert maximum pressure on their governments to ensure an empowering and safe environment for all citizens. There are other ways too that both countries can help vulnerable communities be seen as part of the mainstream. For example, students could be encouraged to learn about similarities among different religions rather than learning about points of friction or confrontation.

Closely examining the teachings of the region’s religions makes it clear that they stand for love and peace. The prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) always emphasized the protection of minority rights, and the teachings of Jesus, Buddha and the notable Sikh saints Bhagat Kabir and Guru Nanak call for love and peace. Such realities should be highlighted at every opportunity.

Furthermore, the religious holidays of minority faith groups should be observed by the State as public holidays and seen as adding to the beauty and diversity of the national culture.

Lastly, activists within the judicial system have so far not given enough attention to the status of minorities in both India and Pakistan. The courts have been sluggish in discharging justice when it comes to high-profile cases on these issues. For example, in India, the cases of those accused of the destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992 as well as those accused of the deaths of hundreds of Muslims in the 2002 Gujarat riots are still pending.

The situation is equally disappointing in Pakistan. It has been over three years since the ransacking of a Christian colony in the Punjabi village of Gojra where a mob attacked a Christian community on the charges of desecration of the Holy Qur’an in August 2009, but the accused have yet to face trial. The situation is the same when it comes to the burning of churches in Faisalabad in 2009. A formal process demonstrating a functioning legal system and rule of law can go a long way to discourage those spoiling communal harmony.

Hopefully, Khan’s very public message will not go unnoticed and, indeed, will be the impetus that spurs much needed action in the region.

* Sabur Ali Sayyid is a journalist based in Islamabad. He writes about human rights, women and India-Pakistan relations, focusing on Kashmir. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: CGNews, April 24, 2012, <www.commongroundnews.org>.
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