Religious Minorities in Pakistan

Politics of pluralism

Pakistan is an immensely plural country characterized by religious, sectarian and ethno-linguistic diversities. It is an overwhelmingly Muslim community with more than 90 per cent of its 142 million1 inhabitants adhering to Islam, yet they belong to several doctrinal groups. Sunni Muslims are in the ascendant, with Shia Muslims and Zikris facing discrimination. In 1974, the Pakistani National Assembly
declared Ahmadis – also called Qadianis – a non-Muslim minority. There are several Christian denominations, Bahais, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Kalasha, Parsis and Sikhs who identify themselves as as non-Muslim Pakistanis. While most Pakistanis converse in or understand Urdu – the national language – it is the first language of only c. 10 per cent of the population, while others speak regional languages such as Balochi, Punjabi, Pushto and Sindhi, among others. The Urdu-speakers are mainly immigrants from India or their descendants who, at the time of partition in 1947, opted for this predominantly Muslim homeland and left the Hindu-majority India. Partition and more recent migrations have greatly contributed to Pakistan’s socio-cultural and ethnic plurality.

Migrations and diversity

Around 2500 BCE, present-day Pakistan was the heartland of the Indus Valley civilization. This included invaders and immigrants from the neighbouring western regions and elsewhere who had migrated into the region. Around c. 1500 BCE, the Dravidians – generally believed to be the indigenous peoples of the Indus Valley – were overpowered by Aryan invaders from Central Asia who established the ‘Hindu’ Vedic era.2 Subsequently, this region became the centre of the Buddhist and Zoroastrian civilizations, latterly
to be recaptured by the Hindu ruling dynasties. The Greek invasion in the early-fourth century BCE was followed by invasions of various Central Asian tribes until the Arabs, Iranians and Turks established a 1,000-year Muslim period in South Asia. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Sikhism – a religion proposing a kind of synthesis between Islamic Sufism and Hinduism – emerged in Punjab (in the heart of the Indus Valley) and established its holy places in Amritsar and Lahore. The advent of the European powers added a new dimension to the South Asian sub-continent with missionaries introducing various Christian denominations. The interaction between the Indian and European cultural groups, and the primacy of British power, led to serious soul-searching among the South Asian religious communities.3 Consequently, several reform movements emerged that led to new groups among the Hindu, Mus-
lim, Sikh and other religions. Ecologically, Pakistan is characterized both by diversity and unity. Within the Indus Valley–Himalayan ecosystem, there are various sub-systems: mountains in the extreme
north, the tropical middle plains and the arid south-west. These different terrains – accounting for the Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Suleiman mountains; Punjab and upper Sindh’s plains; and Balochistan’s deserts – retain agrarian and pastoral communities, although demographically the alluvial plains account for more than 70 per cent of the country’s population. The urban centres of Faisalabad, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta have ethnically mixed communities, but in the rural and tribal areas the local caste-based hierarchies dominate. The urban areas account for c. 40 per cent of Pakistan’s population. The provinces of Punjab and Sindh are the most densely populous, due to their growing urban economies and long-established agricultural potential. The North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan remain sharply divided between tribal and urban communities.4 In addition to linguistic and regional diversities, there are demographic changes in Pakistan’s recent history that make it harder to demarcate clear-cut ethnic boundaries. Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, following the Green Revolution,5 and with greater social mobility and economic interdependence, the ethnic boundaries have become further blurred. Thus, despite the apparent homogeneity each of the four provinces of Pakistan – Balochistan, NWFP, Punjab and Sindh – their towns and cities have become immensely plural. Interestingly, the ‘traditional’ ethnic movements like those for‘Pushtoonistan’ (a separate homeland for Pushtuns), and ‘Greater Balochistan’ (a separate state inclusive of Balochi regions in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan) have subsided, while new ethnic configurations have evolved, such as the Muhajir identity of Urdu–speakers 6 in urban Sindh, as espoused by the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM).

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Content Courtesy- Dr Iftikhar H. Malik and Minority Rights Group International