Some sobering lessons

Barring a few exceptions, Pakistanis have rarely played a constructive role when religious and ethnic minorities face systematic discrimination

On May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year old handcuffed black man, was pinned down by a white policeman, aided by three other policemen, in Minneapolis over suspicion that he had passed a $20 fake bill in the nearby market. The policeman’s nine-minute knee-on-the-neck effort killed Floyd. Protests erupted shortly afterwards. Demonstrators became increasingly violent and took to arson attacks on police pickets.

When news of shoplifting by the demonstrators began making the rounds, US President Donald Trump made a signature move by posting an incendiary tweet, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Some protestors in DC came ominously close to the White House. Trump tweeted that [if the protestors had tried to breach the White House fence], “they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons.”

The vicious-dogs warning was met with outrage because it evoked a deeply disturbing and heinous chapter in the American history when dogs were employed as an instrument of terror against the black people long before the civil rights movement.

The reaction of most Pakistanis towards racial violence in the US has been of a smug and self-righteous “as you sow, so shall you reap” variety. The dominant Pakistani narrative on social media is that the US is licking the dust because of the atrocities it committed around the world. Images of burning cars and properties in the US are being shared as manifestation of poetic justice. What is not clear, however, is how we feel about the violation of the fundamental rights of the black people in the US.

The self-righteous reveling at the prospect of poetic justice being supposedly served in the US for its errors of omission and commission is not only pernicious but also ignores the fact that we have our fair share of discrimination. Pakistani society is deeply divided along religious, sectarian, and ethnic lines. The controversy surrounding the proposed inclusion of Ahmadis in the newly established National Commission for Minorities aimed at safeguarding the minorities’ rights, and then keeping the Ahmadis out of the commission gives a clear message about the state of religious minorities in Pakistan.

Persecution of and violence against the Hazara community in Balochistan is another example of the plight of the ethnic minorities in Pakistan. Unsubstantiated allegations in the initial days of Covid-19 in Pakistan against the Shia pilgrims and Tableeghi Jamaat for spreading coronavirus highlight the complicated nature of Pakistan’s sectarian landscape.

How the majority responds when the social fabric of a society is under strain, holds key to understanding the strength or weakness of the society. If we compare the ways in which a majority of the American society responds to the perceived discrimination against the rights of the black people with how we deal with our minorities, we learn some sobering lessons.

We see a growing number of white people in the US joining hands with the black people in the protest demonstrations, and sympathy for the black people is pouring in from other parts of the world. Compelling pictures of people mimicking being pinned down like Floyd are emerging in several cities in the world. Media is unreservedly bashing Trump for his narrow political maneuvering and is giving a massive amount of airtime to give voice to the concerns of the black minority. Elite military leadership is openly denigrating the shenanigans of Trump. Twitter flagged tweets of Trump because “when looting starts, shooting starts” seemed to glorify violence. A large number of employees of Facebook protested against Mark Zuckerberg for not doing enough against malicious propaganda by Trump.

However, there are very few examples in Pakistan of the majority empathizing with the plight of discriminated minorities or vulnerable groups. Even a slanted reference can coss one dearly. Following the deadly attack on the Ahmadis in 2010 in Lahore, which killed 95 worshippers, when Nawaz Sharif said that Ahmadis were as much citizens of Pakistan as people of other religions, he was roundly condemned by many religious leaders.

Trump’s vicious-dogs warning was met with outrage because it evoked a deeply disturbing and heinous chapter in the American history when dogs were employed as an instrument of terror against black people.

The double standards wielded by the Pakistanis vis-à-vis its minorities are all too obvious. New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden, has become an iconic figure in the popular imagination in Pakistan because she consoled the Muslim community after the mosque shooting that killed 50 worshippers. Pakistanis were overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude when New Zealanders gathered by the hundreds to create a human chain outside a mosque after the attack to provide a symbolic shelter to Muslim minorities of New Zealand.

Similarly, following Modi’s deeply racist and anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act, which paved the way for one of the worst pogroms in India’s history, many Hindus earned the respect of Pakistan, whose defence of the rights of their fellow Muslim citizens went viral on social media.

While Pakistanis are deeply indebted to non-Muslims for their care for their Muslim minorities, Pakistanis are not ready to mete out a similar treatment to their minorities. The last months of the previous government were dogged by a series of events. One such incident was the alleged attempt by the PML-N government to amend the oath of Khatam-e-Nabuwwat in the Election Act 2017. The issue touched many raw nerves. Twin cities came to a standstill because of mass protests by certain parties. PML-N leader, Khawaja Asif, was left black-faced in an ink-attack. A shoe was hurled at Nawaz Sharif in Jamia Naeemia for the alleged role of his party in the amendment in the Election Act. Ahsan Iqbal, the then interior minister, was shot at and accused of ‘blasphemy’.

The actual role of PML-N government in the legislation and what extraneous factors lurked behind the scenes is a matter of speculation. The detailed judgment of Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) suggested that the “whole parliament” (both government and opposition) was guilty of oversight in the matter of an important constitutional issue. Following the change of regime the matter took the backseat.

It is tempting to believe that only the majority discriminates against the rights and interests of the minority. The reality, however, is that smaller groups can have clout disproportionately larger than their numerical size. Such small groups can compromise the well-being of the majority in perverse ways.

Pakistan International Airlines is a classic example of this power equation. Around 15,000 PIA employees have been smart enough to frustrate all efforts to privatise this loss-making behemoth. PIA reported a loss of Rs 56.04 billion in 2019, down from Rs 66.66 billion in 2018. How a small but strategically connected “sugar mafia” has plundered the national wealth and has jeopardised the interest of the common man is an open secret. Enlisting the services of powerful networks, land mafia in Pakistan has become so powerful that it has virtually become a state within the state.

Small groups of public servants have time and again proved their power to frustrate the hopes and expectations of a large majority of service users. Anyone encountering the judicial arm of the state will testify to the deeply embedded problems that make provision of speedy, easy, and inexpensive justice an impossibility.

The painfully slow justice system is one of many factors driving people to dispense raw justice among themselves. The strike calls by the lawyers’ associations have become a regular feature of the functioning of the courts in Pakistan. Every fourth working day is lost due to the strike calls by the lawyers.

Pakistan has an unenviable history of police brutality, extrajudicial killings, and a large under-trial prisoner population. The Sahiwal tragedy is still fresh in the minds of the people and conjures up terrible images of the custodians of law becoming the worst perpetrators of unlawful violence. Several political parties demanded an independent judicial commission to investigate the tragedy but over time the public has visibly lost interest in the case.

Barring a few honourable exceptions, Pakistanis have rarely played an active, constructive role when religious and ethnic minorities face sustained and systematic discrimination and the majority is pulverized by vested interests.

It is much better to put our own house in order than self-righteously enjoy the discomfiture of others.

The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at COMSATS  University Islamabad, Lahore Campus

George Floyd death: Some sobering lessons