By a Pakistani Professor — who cannot identify himself because of the repression in that country
Recently a report published in the Washington Post about Pakistan stated that Pakistan is among the most ‘racially tolerant countries’ in the world. This may be correct if you see the Pakistani society from thousands of miles away or analyze racism as it is defined in the dictionary or as it exists in US or Europe. But if we go deep into the society to analyze the racism we can easily find many facets of racist attitudes prevailing in Pakistan.
Racism is a universal problem that exists all over the world, including Pakistan. Here we experience discrimination of diverse types in our everyday life. In some parts of Pakistan we observe upper class people, either feudalists or capitalists, treating lower class people in very discriminatory and humiliating manners. No poor person is allowed to sit on chair or bed in front of rich landowners, and when they are asked to see their “lords” they are supposed to be very obedient with downcast eyes. These poor people have no right to ask any question or to decide things on their own even for their families—imagine, they cannot decide about the marriage of their daughters. If someone disobeys the lord’s orders, he or she is can be put in jail. These poor farmers are called lower cast or “Hari”(landless farmers, whose parents and grandparents were also landless farmers), and they are not considered to have equal humanity to the people of the upper class.
Dark skinned people make up much of the poorest working class, and have such jobs as sweepers, at the brick kilns and big farms, where they suffer exposure to all weathers and toxic conditions. Pakistanis of African origin (Sheedis) are also deprived of economic, social and political rights and also not considered as equal to citizens with fairer skin.
There are so many racial, religious, sectarian, tribal, regional and ethnic prejudices in Pakistan because Pakistani society is very diverse. There are people from different religions (Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Kailash and etc.), different ethnic backgrounds (Punjabi, Baloch, Pashtun, Sindhi, Kashmiri and Mohajirs), different sects (Ahmadi, Ismaili, Shia, Sunni, Wahhabi and etc.) and different tribes (Rajput, Jaat, Syed and etc.).
HOW PAKISTAN CAME TO BE A FRACTIONATED SOCIETY
Pakistan was separated from India in 1947 as a country for the Muslims of South Asia, while India would be home to Hindus. Before partition, a wave of strikes in the months after WWII had united workers of all religions, which made both the Muslim and Hindu upper classes nervous. The deal for separate states allowed the elites to turn workers against each other and maintain their ruling status. Over 15 million people migrated north or south to their religious “homeland”, and one to two million died as ethnic passions were whipped into a frenzy of bloodshed.
Nonetheless, it was claimed that Pakistan would be a moderate state where minorities would have full rights. Pakistan was a secular and tolerant society in the 1950s and 60s, but when the capitalist class started to label dark skinned Bengalis (who composed 55 percent of the total population of Pakistan) inferior and waged a war against them, it sowed the seeds of hatred and intolerance. Three wars with India, Islamization led by US backed military dictator Gen. Zia ul Haq, support for militants fighting against Soviet-backed Afghanistan in the 1980s and the conciliation of hard-liner clerics by weak governments seeking validity have led to a steady religious and nationalist radicalization of Pakistani society. Saudi Arabia also built up jihadism in Pakistan to oppose the soviet-backed Afghan government.
Other reason for the expansion of hatred and prejudices in Pakistan are textbooks in schools which nurture prejudices and intolerance. The Islamization of textbooks began under the US-backed rule of vigorous fundamentalist and reactionary army dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, who courted Islamists to support his rule and US policy in Afghanistan. In the Zia era it was made a priority to avoid a ‘communist’ revolution in Pakistan, which might be stimulated by the then leftist government in Afghanistan, by bringing fanatic religious people into the schools, police, army, judiciary and other state institutions. Jamaat-e-Islami, a fundamentalist religious party fighting against the Soviet-backed Afghan government in the 80s, provided the manpower and so-called religious support. Other US-backed religious and political parties used sectarianism, nationalism, tribalism, ethnic differences and ‘multi-purpose’ prejudices to divide the masses. Ignorant and fanatic teachers and text books spread discrimination on the basis of religion, which helped the bosses to sustain the fight against the USSR in Afghanistan.
We are now living in a society fragmented on the basis of religion, sect, caste, color, descent, ethnicity and language, which facilitates racist attitudes and hatred among the people of Pakistan. Therefore racial discrimination does exist in Pakistan in several subtle as well as manifest forms, and unfortunately, in state policies as well. Progressive activists, religious and ethnic minorities or those brave enough to speak out against narrow-mindedness, bigotry and racist attitudes have often been killed by militant sympathizers.
Let me start with the brand of racism that non-Muslims face in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. We observe in everyday life that derogatory terms are used when referring to Christians, who compose two percent of total population of Pakistan. They have been downgraded to cleaning duties, sweepers, in our homes, offices, and on the streets. I have never been met a well-to-do Christian doctor, engineer or bureaucrat in Pakistan, but there may be few in big cities. These Christians are required to only use their own utensils for drinking water and meals. Some Christian families have been converted but still they are not allowed to use common cups or plates at homes or hotels where they are working!
Small populations of Kailash people, living in the northwest of Pakistan, who have a beautiful culture and have been practicing their beliefs for centuries, are being deprived of their basic rights as well as forced to convert. Nomads, gypsies and tribesmen have never been documented and are also denied all rights and face racist attitudes and bigoted remarks.
If we talk about the Hindus (one percent of total population of Pakistan), they are passing through a very difficult phase of their lives. Their daughters are being abducted to marry with so-called Muslim men after forced conversions. Religious clerics justify this kidnapping, conversion and marriage by saying “God commanded us to do that”! Many Hindus who have lived here for generations are leaving for India because our government failed to protect them against this scourge of forced conversions and abductions.
It is to be noted that not only non-Muslims but Muslims are also facing prejudice in Pakistan. In educational institutions, in books, on social media, and even in mosques, Shias and Ismailis are ridiculed, verbally abused and denounced as ‘Kafirs’ (non-muslims) .
We have discussed our peoples’ racist attitudes from a religious perspective; let me turn our attention to the provincial aspect of this intolerance. If we ask the average Baluch, Pashtun, Mohajir, Sindhi, Sraiki or Kashmiri what he thinks about Punjabis, and most likely we will receive an answer loaded with swearwords and utter loathing. Nobody can justify this type of hatred against the entire population of Punjab. This is the very definition of racism. At the same time, we are observing that Muhajirs (people who migrated from India to Pakistan in 1947) are being treated with contempt and disdain by the indigenous Sindhis, who think that the ‘Muhajirs’ are destroying their culture and utilizing resources of Sindh. Punjabi people who are settled in Baluchistan province of Pakistan are being killed by Baluch nationalists to spread fear among non-Baluchi population in Baluchistan. Many actresses and models have been killed in various provinces of Pakistan in the name of modesty, which illustrates that male chauvinism is also everywhere in Pakistan.
Enlightened, tolerant and progressive teachers, scholars, students, professionals and working class people are being attacked and killed by racist attitudes. Prejudice against an ethnicity, a sect, a clan, a tribe, a nationality, a class, a profession, a religion, a gender or an ideology can all be called racism. Racism, which serves to divide and weaken ordinary people, deceives them about the source of their problems and keeps the elites in power. The battle to defeat racism is primary in Pakistan, as in most other countries of the world.