The surprise order by Pakistan’s apex court for reconstructing a vandalised historical temple has spelt hope for the minority Hindus but in a country torn by sectarian violence and beset with religious bigotry, it is difficult to visualise how the issue will reach its fruition, observes Prof Avinash Kolhe.
In an unprecedented order, Pakistan’s Supreme Court, on 5th January 2021 directed authorities to start reconstruction of a century-old Hindu temple vandalised by a mob in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It further instructed them to recover the money for the restoration work from the attackers whose act has caused ‘international embarrassment’ to the country.
It is heartening that the top judiciary in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan took cognizance and ordered the local authorities to appear before the court on 5th January. It also directed the Evacuee Property Trust Board [EPTB] to submit in court details of all functional and non-functional temples and Gurdwaras across Pakistan. The attack on the temple in Terri village in Karak district on Wednesday, 6th January 2021 by members of radical Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam party drew strong condemnation from human rights activists and the minority community leaders.
During the hearing, a three-member bench header by the Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed ordered the EPTB to start reconstruction work. The EPTB is a statutory board that manages religious properties and shrines of Hindus and Sikhs who had migrated to India following the Partition.
Like all South Asian countries, Pakistan too has a sizeable number of minorities. There are Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and Buddhists in Pakistan. According to the 1951 census conducted by the Government of Pakistan, West Pakistan had 1.6% Hindu population while East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) had 22%. Cut to 1998 census. Hindus made up 1.85% and Christians 1.6% or around 32 lakh people. These minorities live under the dreaded Blasphemy law which states that ‘whoever defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine’. It is more than clear that the law has been phrased in vague terms which violate the principle of legality. It is often used to level false accusations at people from religions minorities. Asia Bibi became the notable example of a person against whom such a violation did occur.
Religious intolerance in Pak
Then there is the centuries-old problem of sectarian Shia-Sunni rivalry. Add to this the plight of Ahamadiyas declared non-Muslims by the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government in the 1970s. It sums up religious intolerance in Pakistan. In June 2020, Hindus conducted the most unusual ceremony for the construction of a temple in Islamabad on 25th June. A week later, the site was desecrated by a fanatic mob of the majority community. On 3rd July, a mob stole about one tonne of iron kept at the site for the construction of the Shri Krishna Temple. The mob then performed ‘azan’ (Islamic call to prayer) at the site. The police were unable to stop the destruction.
Since then, voices against the temple construction have grown loud. On July 6, the government of Pakistan wrote to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) to ask if it is within the tenets of Islam for the government to financially support the construction of a new Hindu temple in Pakistan. On July 7, the Islamabad High Court dismissed three petitions against the mandir in question, each of which argued that there was no provision for the construction of a temple in the city’s master plan.
The politicians too jumped into fray. On July 2, Punjab Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi spoke against the construction of the new Hindu temple. “Pakistan was created in the name of Islam. Construction of a (new Hindu) temple in its capital is not only against the spirit of Islam but also an insult to Riayasat-e-Madina (the Islamic welfare state),” he said. Elahi is a member of the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid), an ally of the Imran Khan government in Pakistan.
According to the Evacuee Trust Property Board, there are approximately 1,300 temples in the country, of which 30 are functional. In 2014, Ashok Kumar, then a member of the Islamabad Hindu Panchayat (IHP), took initiative and requested land for a temple in Pakistan’s capital city, stating that Hindus in Islamabad have to go all the way to Sindh to cremate their dead and perform funeral rituals. In 2017, after three years of arguments and discouragement, IHP eventually got permission. The site was originally meant for the Buddhist community. It then took the Hindus three more years to complete all legal formalities to claim it in 2020. Hindus in Pakistan persevered despite hurdles.
Although the situation in Terry village and Islamabad appear different, at the core, they are part of the same story of religious freedom of the minorities in Pakistan. The events have triggered a debate about the role of state in religious affairs. In a video statement, religious scholar Javed Ahmed Ghamidi said the Pakistan government should assist in the construction of the temple. He argued that since the state supports the construction of mosques, it should also support the places of worship of other religions because all Pakistanis pay taxes and do their duty by the country.
There are no easy solutions and one can only wait and watch.