Amid the testing times when the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic which has taken humanity hostage, it’s time to understand that we need to truly stand together. This pandemic highlights the importance of protecting the most vulnerable, irrespective of which faith they come from. If we’re unable to protect those who need it the most in this crisis, we are unable to protect all of us.
As COVID-19 continues to spread, vulnerable communities within Pakistan are fighting hunger and despair to keep their families safe and healthy. Food is the most basic of all amenities and must not be denied because of one’s faith. The world is united in fighting against Covid-19 pandemic but for Pakistan, religious discrimination remains a top priority amidst this global crisis.
So, has the State decided to abandon the people?
Pakistan’s ominous obsession with image and Machtpolitik raises serious questions about its lack of moral limits. In the latest turn of events, the country has stooped so low that even a US government organisation has taken note of the situation. Such is the poor administration of the country that not only are they unable to provide basic medical facilities and safe quarantine facilities for its own provinces but they even prioritize discrimination and hatred amongst communities during these testing times. The latest revelation comes against the backdrop of umpteen cases of religious discrimination and persecution of minorities witnessed in the country.
The country’s Hindus and Christian minorities are not being given food supplies by authorities, saying they are meant only for the Muslims.
One such instance of refusal of food aid to the minorities was reported from the Saylani Welfare International Trust in Karachi. As per reports, the non-government organization which is established to assist the homeless and seasonal workers has been refusing food assistance to Hindus and Christians, arguing that the aid is reserved for Muslims alone. The coronavirus “aid is reserved for Muslims alone” and this NGO selectively handed out food to the majority community of Pakistan and denied providing relief materials to the minority community.
Scores of marginalized people gathered at Karachi’s Rehrri Ghoth to receive food supplies and daily essentials as shops remained shut to curb the spread of coronavirus. But those belonging to the Hindu community were told to go back since the rations were only meant for Muslims. Hindus and Christians are being denied food aid amidst the ongoing coronavirus lockdown in Pakistan, whose Prime Minister Imran Khan and other leaders claim to be the champions of minority rights.
A US bipartisan panel that monitors religious freedom and persecution around the world, expressed grave concern over reports that Hindu and Christian minority communities in some parts of Karachi, Pakistan were being denied food, aid, and other basic necessities amid the coronavirus crisis. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has expressed disappointment at the denial of food aid to Hindus and Christians by Pakistan amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In an official statement released by the organisation, the USCIRF commissioner Anurima Bhargava has referred to the actions by Pakistan as ‘reprehensible’.
Also, even in the 2019 annual report, USCIRF noted that Hindus and Christians in Pakistan had to “face continued threats to their security and are subject to various forms of harassment and social exclusion”.
Pakistan has time and again been exposed over its brutality towards minorities and attacks on them while the Pakistani government keeping its mouth shut on the atrocities on minorities. Besides the latest reports of discrimination over food aid, Pakistan had earlier resorted to attacks on Sikh Gurudwara, kidnapping and forced conversion of Hindu and Sikh girls to Islam and also killing of minorities.
How Pakistani leadership fans communal hatred
We often ascribe a basic level of humanity to even the cruelest leaders, but Pakistan’s Imran Khan’s actions have forced us to rethink this assumption. The emphasis that its authoritarian system places on not dealing with the problem likely gave the disease a sizable head start infecting the people. Test of leadership always comes at difficult times and popular leaders take tough but right decisions. Only in Pakistan’s case, we cannot tell whether Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision not to go for limited ‘lockdown’ of major cities or steps like that to prevent the spread of deadly coronavirus was right or has it caused more problems to the nation.
First it was the weak decision of the government. It was surprising because when he himself warned the nation that, ‘this virus will spread,’ it should have been followed by steps and decisions taken by the government. Instead, he only appealed to the people to take good care of themselves.
Then it was Pakistan’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak in Baluchistan, the least developed and most impoverished province of Pakistan, which was tasked with dealing with the outbreak on its own. Thousands of people were kept in close quarters in hot, squalid conditions in Taftan, with not even basic precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
Then it was seen that as the situation worsened it came down to the local leaders to take control. At least Sindh took the lead in following the Chinese model while the Centre followed the policy of ‘wait and see’ as reflected from the weak speech of the PM. His defence against the ‘lockdown’ that it may result in people dying of hunger clearly showed that the State was not ready to take the responsibility whereas Chief Minister of Sindh, Syed Murad Ali Shah, had apparently done his homework and contacted a number of welfare organisations, which would look after their daily wagers.
While in Pakistan, fearing backlash Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has not even been able to ban people praying in mosques, leading to increased risk of coronavirus spread. There is a belief at the mass level that not praying in a mosque is akin to leaving Allah. There is strong resistance to even the advisory against avoiding handshakes, with believers saying that it is a Sunnah (tradition). To those who advise them against visiting mosques the ‘believers’ pose this question: what else are you willing to leave just to save your life?
As they wait for Godot, an unending and rather useless debate on lockdown and curfew continues in Pakistan. What is a lockdown and what is a curfew? Can a poor country like Pakistan afford a curfew? But with hundreds and thousands of lives at stake, can the government afford inaction? One set of governments, Sindh, Balochistan, and Gilgit-Baltistan follow a strict lockdown. While Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa along with Islamabad are following a token lockdown.
In a country such as Pakistan, that has over the years overly relied on religion, giving the people a false sense that only they are the true contractors of Islam, you cannot blame the people for having stringent beliefs. This inculcation of Holier than thou attitude has led Pakistan to a point where you have a population that is resistant to change or scientific reasoning. The argument that Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Iran or Indonesia have all closed down mosques falls on deaf ears. The fact that coronavirus has no religion, it will impact you and others regardless of your colour, religion or creed, has hit a dead end in that nation.
This virus exposes the fragility of our systems, which are meant to protect the vulnerable. It is often easy to ignore the weaknesses in these systems, but in a public health emergency, how systems support the most vulnerable affects us all. Afterall viruses don’t discriminate, it doesn’t care whether someone is in Hindu or a Muslim or not. In a country where even the President’s call to maintain social distance and offer Friday prayers from home goes in vain, it is no surprise that they harbor such feelings of communal distrust and hatred towards minorities. Since their belief in Allah unites them all, even at the cost of participating in large gatherings at the mosques, let us pray that Allah delivers them from this evil path of discrimination to a world full of equality.
16 Apr 20/Thursday Written By: Saima Ibrahim