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Unable to rest in peace: Peace-loving Swamis of Thar forced out of own graveyard

By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: May 11, 2014

protest thar
Members of the Swami community held a protest in Chachro, Tharparkar, on May 5 to reclaim the alleged encroachment on their graveyard and demand better governance in the area.

Ninety-year-old Satram Das has been participating in the protests every day. PHOTO: COURTESY AWARE

The peace-loving Swamis of Tharparkar’s Chachro district are being forced out of their own graveyard, where they have been burying their dead for the past 250 years.

A group of encroachers are standing on the doors of the graveyard, threatening the locals. “This graveyard is 250 years old,” pointed out 90-year-old Satram Das, a retired school teacher. “It is part of our faith to come here.”

Swamis believe in harming no one, even in death
Unlike most people of the Hindu faith who cremate their dead, the Swamis in Tharparkar follow a unique ritual when a person in the community dies. “We make the body sit in the grave and cover it with salt,” explained a local Utam Gur. “We are a peaceful people and we do not want to harm the environment, the underground water, the soil or even the insects. So we feel it is best to allow the body to decompose in a way that harms no one.”
Some ‘saints’ of the community who attained a higher spiritual status have even opted to be buried alive in salt. “It is a stage when they do not want anything to do with the mortal world anymore,” Gur said. Ever since the encroachment on this cemetery started, the community is facing a tough time visiting the graveyard to pay respects to their deceased. Gur’s wife, Dheli, had been visiting the graveyard frequently to pay respects to their 13-year-old grandson, who died nearly a month ago of a congenital heart defect.

Dheli used to pay regular visits to the shrine of a local religious leader for as long as she can remember – sometimes every week on the days assigned by their religious leaders, and at other times, according to sighting of the moon.


Their peaceful rituals came, however, to an end around 10 days ago when she was stopped by armed men from entering the graveyard. “There are armed men there now,” complained Gur, adding that the encroachers have placed those men there with pistols and axes. “But I will go as it is a holy place and I am afraid of no one.”

Apart from demands to reclaim the land, the community wants the authorities to address issues such as mismanaged wheat distribution, poor governance and lack of educational facilities in the area. They gather outside Chachro Press Club every day and are supported by a local civil society organisation, the Association for Water Applied Education and Renewable Energy (Aware). The local Muslim residents also stand alongside their Hindu neighbours.

The community members have approached the courts and submitted an application to the district and sessions judge of Tharparkar. “The court issued orders in our favour,” said Utam Gur, a resident. “The encroachers were told to evacuate the graveyard but they are still there.”

The residents named the alleged encroachers as Daim Rahimoo and Hashim Rahimoo, who apparently enjoy the support of a political party. The two men have issued several threats to the community.

A social activist in Chachro, Ali Akbar Rahimoo, claimed the encroachment has to do with urbanisation in Tharparkar that has picked up in the last 15 years. “Chachro now has a road leading to it, electricity and more water supply,” he said, adding that more and more people are moving here now. “The encroachers actually are like a qabza group [land mafia]. They take over plots of land by force and want to build houses on them.”

Another social activist, Gotam Rathi, has also joined the protesters. “The destruction of graves is despicable and we demand the culprits be punished,” he said. Also at the protest, Anwer Ali Bajeer appealed to the Tharparkar SSP to set up a police picket near the graveyard to drive the encroachers away.

‘Not Hindu land’
For the local police, the protests do not pose a major threat. “I don’t think it is such a big deal,” claimed the SHO of the area, Hamid Mari, while talking to The Express Tribune. “The land does not even belong to the Hindu community to begin with. It is government property,” he said.

“The graveyard is so old that it has almost became flat land where the animals graze,” he pointed out, adding later that he was unaware of the court orders. “I don’t think there are any encroachers there anymore,” he added.
When The Express Tribune tried to ask one of the respondents, Daim Rahimoo, for his side of the story, he cut the call as soon as he heard the word ‘graveyard’.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2014.

Minority report: 1000 Christian & Hindu girls forcefully converted in 1 year

A matter of faith

By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: April 9, 2014

Alarming statistics released by a report highlight forced conversions of women. ILLUSTRATION: FAIZAAN DAWOOD

As he cites the example of that case that happened in 2008 when two young Christian girls were abducted, the voice of Nadeem Anthony breaks with emotion. “During the last ten years, the Christian community has seen an increasing number of abductions of young girls and they being forcefully converted.
A big number of these girls are poor child labourers who work in brick kilns or as domestic help. Abductions from schools have also happened,” said Anthony, a lawyer, a Christian rights’ activist and council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
The case mentioned by Anthony was of the abduction of ten year old A and 13 year old S from Muzaffargarh district in Punjab. Both were converted forcefully, and one of them was forcefully married. Despite the case being highlighted, Anthony says only the younger girl could be recovered.
The issue of forced conversions is once again in the spotlight due to the findings of a report released on Monday by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan (MSP). The report titled “Forced marriages and forced conversions in the Christian community of Pakistan” states that an estimated 1,000 women from Christian and Hindu communities are forcibly converted and made to marry Muslim men in Pakistan every year. The report estimates that up to 700 of these women are Christian and 300 Hindu.
As 42 per cent of Pakistan’s minority population, the Christian community stands at over two million in number, mostly settled in Punjab. The report mentions that according to the National Commission of Justice and Peace (NCJP), 80 per cent of the minority community is poor while 40 per cent lives below the poverty line. Poverty, as always, makes them more vulnerable.

The pattern

The report describes a predictable pattern of what happens to these women. “Christian girls — usually between the ages of 12 and 25 — are abducted, converted to Islam, and married to the abductor or a third party. The victim’s family usually files a First Information Report (FIR) for abduction or rape with the local police station. The abductor, on behalf of the victim girl, files a counter FIR, accusing the Christian family of harassing the willfully converted and married girl, and for conspiring to convert the girl back to Christianity. Upon production in the courts or before the magistrate, the victim girl is asked to testify whether she converted and married of her own free will or if she was abducted,” states the report.
By the time they come to the court, if at all, intimidation has taken its toll. “We have followed up a lot of cases. By the time the girls are produced in court, they say under pressure that they have converted of their own free will, because in a lot of cases they are living with the abductor during court proceedings. Survival becomes tough under pressure,” says Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the HRCP.
The report raises valid concerns about the future of these women. “Once in the custody of the abductor, the victim girl may be subjected to sexual violence, rape, forced prostitution, human trafficking and sale, or other domestic abuse,” states the report.

Willful conversions

Providing recommendations that can help solve the problems, the report also touches upon the societal attitudes that end up granting immunity to the perpetrators of crimes.
“If the girl is an adult and converts out of her own will, then it is her choice. Then that is not forced. However in most cases even if the husband accepts her wholeheartedly, the family of the boy never accepts her. They taunt her with titles like choori (sweeper) for life. In many cases they send the girl back to her parents,” says Anthony.
The entire social context has to be seen when analysing the issue, and the MSP report does that. Touching upon the historical and social contexts, the report discusses the grievances of Pakistan’s Christian community.
Yusuf is of the opinion that “even if the girl is willfully converting, the issue is actually connected to the broader issue of tolerance for minorities in Pakistani society. We have to give minorities the space to practise their faith.”
Anthony appreciates the efforts of voices like that of Maulana Abdul Khabeer Azad, the Khateeb of Badshahi Masjid, among others, who support what is just and fair. In the opinion of Anthony, one of the reasons for the recent spike in migrations of the Christian community members to countries like Thailand and Malaysia is that they feel scared for their girls.
“What is happening is unacceptable. The findings of the report should be taken seriously and the government should take notice of this,” says Anthony.
Along with the report, an appeal was issued by the MSP. An inclusive coalition is being mobilised by the MSP to sensitise people about this important issue.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 9th, 2014.

I would have given my life for Quaid-e-Azam: My mother’s Pakistan

“He was a weak, frail man. But when he spoke, his voice was like a lion’s. He stressed each word. Strong, determined voice.”

Dementia is ruthless. It doesn’t give you a choice about what you want to forget and what you don’t. But while the words may disappear at the cruel hands of memory loss, the feelings often don’t. My mother may at times confuse the names of her children, but she never forgets that she is ammi and we are her children. She also never forgets what Pakistan means to her, and to us. Her eyes still light up when she hears the name “Quaid-e-Azam”.

She hasn’t forgotten the most important things in her life – the good ones and the bad. Milestones are etched in her mind. Her days as a young girl in her teens who volunteered in the partition movement are a milestone for sure.

And so, for me and my siblings, Independence Day can’t be just another day. Every year, we sat around her, and in later years my nieces and nephews as well, listening to those anecdotes, stories and patriotic songs till they became a part of our own memories. The tradition of telling stories verbally is sadly fading. Thankfully, my mother kept it alive for us. Those sessions have been an inspiration for the activism in my life, I suspect, though at that time they were nothing but stories we enjoyed listening to because ammi –  a poetry lover and a literature buff – told them so beautifully.

On August 14, my mind is filled with random excerpts of those sessions with my mother… oral history from the lens of a teenager who saw Pakistan being formed and got a chance to contribute. Through the glimpses from her memories we were acquainted with a revolution that changed the lives of millions; a revolution, the essence of which is now being doubted.

“He was a weak, frail man. But when he spoke, his voice was like a lion’s. He stressed each word. Strong, determined voice. As a child, I stuck close to the radio, waiting to hear his voice; hanging on to each word. My elder sisters were part of the Women’s Guard and although I was young, I would tag along.

Thousands of us. One cause. I don’t even remember any of us asking each other who was a Punjabi, a Pathan, a Balochi or a Sindhi or any ethnicity for that matter. We hadone leader, and we trusted him. I would have literally given my life for him as would have all the young people of the time.”

Ammi would then sing in her lovely voice:

“Millat ke liye kya hee ghaneemat hai tera dam

Ae Quaid-e-Azam

(What a blessing you are for this nation, Quaid-e-Azam)

Maana ke hai purpaich buhut zaada-e-manzil

Darpaish hai mushkil

(Agreed, the path to destiny is winding and we are faced with challenges)

Tu qaafila salaar humara hai to kya gham

Ae Quaid-e-Azam”

(When you are our leader, why should we worry, O Quaid-e-Azam)

My mother, a Punjabi by descent, lost her father at a very early age. My nani (grandmother) widowed with five young children faced a tough challenge.

“But when we heard that trains full of our muhajir (those who migrated to Pakistan) brothers and sisters are coming to us, the doors of our hearts opened! We saved every penny and with that cooked loads of food and took it to the Lahore train station, waiting for them, trying to make sure they don’t go hungry or thirsty when they arrive. Sometimes, the coming of the train was not a very happy occasion. Many had already embraced martyrdom,” she’d say.

Through it all, my mother’s narrative never reeked of hatred. She talked of her Hindu friends, whom she missed because they migrated to India. These were not memoirs based on anger and hatred. These were actually memoirs based on unity, faith and discipline.

Today, we are in a different world altogether. Some of us even doubt if Pakistan should have come into being in the first place but thanks to my mother, I never do. I know the purpose behind this country; it was a nation’s way of asserting their right to their identity and to practice their faith. That never meant denying that right to followers of other faiths or those who differed in opinion. It was taking everyone in the fold of Pakistan.

In some ways, it’s nice that ammi is not as awake to the bitter realities of today’s Pakistan.The killings of the Hazaras in Quetta and the Punjabis in Mach, the children in Lyari and the innocent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – my mother’s peaceful soul would not have not taken all this well.

Thanks to ammi and her memoirs, I refuse to give up hope in better tomorrows for Pakistan. I refuse to be jaded and refuse to stop trying. Things may look bleak, but hope is all we have.

So today, on August 14, I am going to sit with her and remind her of those chants and slogans and show her the green and white flag fluttering away; just the way she did for all her children.

The slogans are not all obsolete. Specially “Hum Pakistan banayein ge” (we will make Pakistan).

It is time once more to re-build parts of Pakistan that are hurt and damaged; maybe this Independence Day we can all get the wheels of transformation to start moving.

Pakistan Zindabad!

Water woes: When heads cannot be held up high

Published: May 19, 2013

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Almost all of the 3,000-plus people in the village walk with their spines bent. PHOTO: AWARE

ISLAMKOT: As he tries to get up from his bed, no more than a threadbare ralli on the floor, Ramesh reaches out for his cane. Once up, he cannot stand straight. Though his full height is some 5 feet 8 inches, he is bent over so much that he seems only half as tall as he really is. He tries to manage a smile which only exposes discoloured and decayed teeth. He is 34 years old.

Nearby his mother, 53-year-old Hurmi, cannot walk at all, and is forced to crawl on the ground. This is not just the story of one house or one family. This is the story of each and every household in village Sammon Rind in tehsil Chachro, Tharparkar, about 480 km from Karachi. Almost all of the 3,000-plus people here walk with their spines bent, unable to stand up straight. The reason for their suffering is the very substance that sustains life itself: water. And in this village, every drop is tainted.

A timeline of Ramesh’s life is typical of almost all residents of this area. The highly contaminated water first affects the teeth, which start becoming deformed around the age of five to seven. Between 12 to 15 years of age, bone deformities start setting in. Coupled with the harsh and hot desert climate and chronic malnutrition, even adolescents start acquiring a shriveled appearance, mimicking old age. By the time they are 25-year-old or above, almost all of them walk with their spines bent. Water, the source of life, has ended up crippling not just their bodies but their dignity and their chance at a normal life. And no one seems to care.

Former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan once said that contaminated water jeopardises both the physical and social health of people, and is therefore “an affront to human dignity”. The reality of this remote part of Pakistan is that no head is held up high, literally.

Almost poison

Seeing the standards the World Health Organisation (WHO) has set for water safe for human consumption, one is forced to wonder how people in villages like Samoon Rind and Mau Akheraj in parched Tharparkar are still alive. But a look at their lives makes one wonder if this can be called life at all.

High fluoride content is mostly the culprit. According to the WHO, fluoride levels above 1.5 mg/l cause Fluorosis resulting in the pitting of tooth enamel and deposits in bones. Above about 10 mg/l causes crippling skeletal Fluorosis. In Tharparkar, fluoride content is found to be up to 31 mg/l.

Many of these victims suffer from diseases of “jaws, bones, teeth, liver, kidneys – contaminated water can affect all organs and these effects can be irreversible,” says orthopaedic surgeon Dr Tayeb Asim.

The arsenic contamination of underground water in Thar has been confirmed by United Nations International Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF) and chronic arsenic poisoning is considered to be a serious health emergency.

The WHO consumption limit for Total Dissolved Salts (TDS) is 1500 mg/l. But more than 50% of the population in Tharparkar is getting water that has TDS of more than 5,000 mg/l. In village Narowari, the water’s TDS content can go as high as 20,000.

A worthless struggle?

“The people of this area have been struggling to draw attention to these problems but all we get is promises. Governments come and go but no one does anything to help us,” says Ali Akbar, Executive Director, Association for Water Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE), who has been working closely with effected communities.

He mentions the likes of Nisar Khuhro and Sharmila Faruqi giving commitments that never materialised. In January, locals went on a hunger strike in Mithi when they heard that President Asif Ali Zardari was expected to visit, but he never came.

Talking solutions

The preferred option is to find an alternative water source with lower Fluoride levels, as it is difficult and expensive to reduce a high natural level of fluoride in water. If there is no other possible or cost-effective source, de-fluoridation must be attempted to avoid the toxic effects. Digging deeper wells, rainwater harvesting, and installation of de-fluoridation and desalination plants is what should be done urgently.

A parched life in Tharparkar

•  Tharparkar is ranked by the World Food Programme as the most food insecure of Pakistan’s 120 districts.

•  89% of underground water in Thar is not fit for human consumption.

•  On an average, 3 people from each household spend 3-5 hours daily to fetch water for human consumption and watering the animals.

•  Women and children have to pull the rope by hands.

•  High maternal mortality rates in Tharparkar are related to lifting heavy water-carriers for hours and miles. Pregnant women suffer the most

•  The bones of these women are not well- formed, which is why they often cannot sustain child-bearing and die

•  No one wants to marry girls and boys of this village after ages 12-15 as because of brackish water, they acquire the appearance of old age. The result is high incidences of child marriage

•  Drought causes fodder shortage and animals get weaker, which is why livestock keepers migrate to barrage areas

•  High incidences of migration disrupt normalcy of life, which is why dropout rate of school-children is high

•  Due to difficulties of collecting water, people use it sparingly, which results in unhygienic conditions leading to diseases

•  The men suffer more as they do more physical work, hence they feel more thirsty and consume more water which is highly contaminated, and develop debilitating diseases

Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2013.

Salam Namaste

Salam Namaste

Published: January 31, 2013

The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @FarahnazZahidi

It is said that there’s enough religion in the world to make men hate one another, but not enough to make them love. But what if religion were to become a common ground where shared religious and ethical values are celebrated? Perhaps, too far-fetched a dream for the world that we live in. Especially for Pakistan. For we do not unite in the name of God. We dissent, for God’s sake. Quite literally so.

But this might be a good time to take a closer look at the possibilities of an inter-faith understanding, if nothing else. Tomorrow, we embark on the World Interfaith Harmony Week, celebrated in the first week of February each year. What does this even mean? And what does it mean for Pakistan in particular, a county ravaged by polarisations. We are divided in the name of faith — we are Muslims and Christians and Hindus; we are majorities and minorities; we are the green and the white; we are the crescent and the star. Tier two of being poles apart: division in the name of denominations within the framework of the same faith — need I even say Shia and Sunni? It stares us in the face, way too close for comfort.

Hence, there is a need for not just interfaith dialogue, which ensures empathy, tolerance and understanding between followers of different faiths, but also inter-religious (bainal masaalik) dialogue.

Yet, this seems an under-celebrated and under-emphasised concept today in the post 9/11 world, and in present-day Pakistan in particular. Often, in interfaith fora, experts sit proselytising others to their own, in desperate attempts to convert and convince the others to ‘our’ way of thinking. And if not that, at least establish the supremacy of our faith over the others. An attempt at hegemony.

One reason we see resistance against sincere interfaith dialogue is that it is seen as a conniving, insidious attempt at syncretism — something that will take away my religious identity from me and make society a melting pot where all ideologies are conflated into one, basically leaving us with none at the end. Something like what John Lennon was trying to say in his song ‘Imagine’.

In reality, however, the interfaith dialogue process actually helps us understand and strengthen our own faith better, and also learn to respect other ideologies. If it involves all stakeholders, it helps get rid of stereotypes. It helps a nation get over the ‘us vs them’ phenomenon.

If these efforts were made with the genuine intention of understanding one another, the benefits for Pakistan, a religio-centred nation, would be immense. Consensus-building does not do away with agreeing to disagree. What if followers of different faiths and different religious denominations come together on things all religions believe in — peace, justice and sustainability. Practical implications can include things that give a huge push to Pakistan’s developmental issues. To cite one example, we are 180 million strong, and the world’s fifth most populous nation has no hope of population control unless this is discussed by faith-based representatives and a consensus is built. Indonesia has achieved it by bringing all Muslim denominations, as well as Catholics and major religious leaders on board.

Interfaith dialogue is linked closely to human rights. Which brings us to the third tier at which this discourse needs to be fostered — dialogue between the seculars and the religious. In a society which cannot realistically do away with either element, it would be a good idea to create spaces where commonalities can be celebrated for civic and national stability.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 31st, 2013.

Its elemental my dear Singh


By Farahnaz Zahidi / Photo: Myra Iqba


Published: December 30, 2012

Saidpur Village exists in present day Pakistan but chunks of it look like they’re straight out of the Mughal era.

Saidpur Village, Islamabad, exists in present day Pakistan, but chunks and parts of it look like they’re straight out of the Mughal era. Nestled among the picturesque Margalla Hills, this tiny village has bits and pieces that are restored remnants from an age gone by. One can picture a bazaar set up by Sultan Said Khan, the Gakhar chief of the region during the reign of Babur, after whom the village was named. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, going about their daily business — buying, selling, co-existing. Peacefully.

20-year-old Suraj Singh would have fit right in that era. A look at him and the time machine seems less of a myth. Basking comfortably in the sunshine of a sunny winter day in Islamabad, Singh looks unfazed by the fast pace of life, as he sits on a chair perched outside his shop on a slope of Saidpur. His flushed, reddish-fair complexion and striking green eyes stand out under a magenta turban, tied on his head in the typical Sikh fashion. The heavy-set young man is almost shy on approach.

“I’ve never thought about doing anything else,” says Singh, who dropped out of school and is now learning the ropes of herbal medicine from his older brother Sardar Amarjeet Singh. It is, after all, a part of his Sikh-Afghan heritage.

Singh tends to his father’s Yoonani dawa khana, which offers traditional herbal medication in the genre of hikmat. His father, a Sikh hakeem called Sardar Rawail Singh, owns three stores: one in Rawalpindi, one in Saidpur Village and the oldest one in G-11 Markaz. Rawail and his three sons shuttle between their home in Hassan Abdal to their shops in the twin cities. “Ask anyone in G-11 where the hakeem sits and they will guide you to my father,” says Singh with pride.

On an average, the Singh family’s shops earn between Rs6,000 to Rs20,000 a day which allows the family a comfortable living. However, business was better when competition was not so tough. The influx of Sikh migrants over the years, and more Sikh hakeems setting up shops, has reduced their clientele.

Some 22 years ago, Suraj’s family migrated from Kunduz, Afghanistan, to Hassan Abdal, a small town in northern Punjab, and made a modest home near the Gurdwara Panja Sahib, one of Sikhism’s holiest sites. Singh and his family live as part of a tightly knit Sikh community, near the revered temple where every year thousands of Sikh devotees gather for pilgrimage.

Sikh 03


Yoonani, in Arabic, means “Greek.” This very title pays tributes to its origins, as it is said to have been developed by the legendary Greek physician Hippocrates, who expanded on the medical traditions of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia Though it’s been practiced in one form or another for thousands of years, it is now considered a formal branch of what allopaths may term “alternative medicine”. While many still believe staunchly in treatment through hikmatand not allopathy in Pakistan, speculations that steroids are heavily added to it make users skeptical. It makes it therefore imperative that the hakeem they go to is not a quack but a trusted one. Singh’s family seems to have earned that trust over the years.

Hikmat is based on the ancient concept of the four ‘humours’ that exist in the human body, and their corresponding ‘element’. These are Blood (air), Yellow Bile (fire), Black Bile (earth) and Phlegm (water). These elements must be in a state of balance, or else the body can suffer different kinds of ailments.

It occurs to me at this point, that Pakistan’s own elements — the religious majority and minorities — are anything but balanced. Were they to exist in a state of harmony, peace and coexistence, Pakistan would undoubtedly be a happier, healthier and more functional place.

Sikh 01

Luckily, Singh jolts me out of my somewhat depressing reverie by telling me, “I have never suffered any discrimination or persecution in Pakistan. It is my home.”

Above the shop’s door, a signboard hung over baked red clay bricks says, “Dawa hum dete hain. Shifa Allah deta hai (We prescribe medicine. It is Allah who Heals).” Underneath the signboard, Suraj Singh, a follower of Guru Nanak Dev, sees you off with a smile. Here at least, it seems the elements have some together.

(With additional input by Myra Iqbal)

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 30th, 2012.

Peaceful Co-existence – Possible in Pakistan?

As a die-hard patriot who still harbours hope in the goodness of the Pakistani people, and the resilient strength of this nation, this 23rd March 2012 I found myself thinking. The day commemorates the resolution which became perhaps the most important founding document of this country. Our forefathers believed in why Pakistan was created. My mother’s most important memories as a young girl are of the times when she worked as a political activist in the Women’s National Guard in which women worked to support men in the Pakistan movement. When she and her family were struggling to help out their brothers and sisters who had migrated to the newly founded country called Pakistan. Migrants who had sacrificed homes, lives and more, just for the dream of a country where they could live on their own terms.

And the reason both the muhaajireen (migrants) and the Muslims already living in the areas that today comprise Pakistan did what they did was because they believed in the cause – that Muslims, like any other race or followers of any faith, have the right to live life on their own terms – terms that may be religious, traditional or cultural. At the same time, minorities, it was very clear, in this new state that was to be called Pakistan, would have a right to co-exist in complete peace and security, and will not be punished for believing in a different god.

Some 64 years later, sad things have happened. If we just take the last couple of years as an example, we see examples of the oppression and persecution of minorities like the Ahmadiyyah sect. We see stories of many who are forcefully converted to Islam. The recent most story is of Rinkle Kumari who was forced to become Faryal, while her heart I have no doubt remained that of Rinkle Kumari. Over the last 120 years, claims of caretakers of the Bherchondi shrine in Sindh point in the direction that on an average at least 250 people are coerced into accepting Islam every year.

This is insane. And it saddens me at many levels.

It saddens me because, at the risk of being called an apologist, and a risk I am willing to take, I know that Islam is not about force. Faith, like love, is a matter of the heart.

Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful, says in the Qur’an: “Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth has been made clear from error. Whoever rejects false worship and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that never breaks. And Allah hears and knows all things.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 256]

What, then, are we forcing people to convert to? A soulless, dead declaration which will in fact act as a repellent against Islam? If I ever meet Rinkle Kumari, I would want to go hug her, and tell her that my dear sister, please know that what they converted you to is not Islam. It is a product of bigotry and a complete lack of awareness about Islam’s true essence.

Having said that, I will not say to Rinkle Kumari that I have failed her. That WE have failed her. Because the obstinate believer in goodness of my people that I am, I believe that a bigger majority of Muslims in Pakistan would not and will not commit or approve of atrocities and hate crimes against minorities.

This saddens me because many Rinkle Kumaris have been wronged on my homeland….my home land Pakistan,  for which I refuse to use the sarcastic slur word “land of the pure” because I believe that a lot of purity still does exist here.

But on 23rd March, in retrospect, what saddened me even more was that because of these extremist incidents and attitudes, we are borderline apologetic for having believed in wanting to create a homeland where Muslims could peacefully practice their faith. And may I add, without harming or marginalizing the minorities. Ever so often, we hear people say “what was the whole point in getting an independent homeland for Muslims?”. It seems we are being forced to choose sides. If you believe that this country was rightfully created to safeguard rights of Muslims, does that make you someone who is against the rights of minority communities?

Politically correct or incorrect, I still believe it was the right thing to do… want to have a homeland where the sound of azaan resonates through the air five times a day, but where my Christian brothers can peacefully visit the church whenever they want to…..that was the idelogy on which Pakistan was based.

Muslims were not getting their rights back then, so they struggled for them, fought for them, and got them, under Quaid e Azam’s leadership. We may not realize that today, but we are blessed that they did. So here I say it, loud and proud, that I am thankful for the gift of an independent homeland where I can practice my faith. And that does not make me a bigot who is aiming to undermine minorities. There is always a middle ground. Always. Let’s stay there.