Human rights organization cautions against spread of communal violence across South Asia

February 2020 witnessed the worst anti-Muslim pogroms in India’s capital Delhi after the 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat riots and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) issued a statement that spoke about the “grim situation in Delhi – where violent mobs have seemingly been given a free hand by the administration to lynch citizens from the minority Muslim population, to burn their property, and attack mosques – is highly deplorable. This is happening at a time when the people of Kashmir have already been under siege for seven months.”

The HRCP noted that, “the Delhi violence and Kashmir siege warrant the international community’s immediate attention. Both developments have made minorities across South Asia increasingly vulnerable. We have witnessed equally violent reactions to such events in the past. Communal violence in South Asia does not occur in a vacuum. There is often a domino effect that causes state violence against minorities in one country to trigger violence against that minority in neighbouring countries. Our shared history, languages and cultures, and the fact that all South Asian states are bound to uphold their citizens’ human rights, should serve as collective strengths.”

Thus, the HRCP called on the international community and on all governments “to make every effort to treat all minorities as equal citizens, and to guarantee their protection and wellbeing across the region.”

Are Pakistani citizens less precious than All Weather Friend China?

After weeks of obfuscating, and after every country in the world has issued warnings and tried to protect its citizens, Naya Pakistan of Prime Minister Imran Khan has decided to take some action.

On February 27, Pakistan “shut schools in several areas and suspended flights to and from Iran to try to stop the spread of new coronavirus, after reporting its first cases of the infection. Authorities shut schools in the southern province of Sindh, including the country’s largest city Karachi where the first case was reported, and the southwestern province of Baluchistan, which borders Iran. They also began to trace nearly 8,000 pilgrims who recently returned to the country from Iran. Pakistan’s Civil Aviation said it was suspending all flight operations with Iran starting from Thursday evening till further notice. “We have decided to close the flights with Iran,” the aviation’s spokesman Sattar Khokhar told Reuters.

However, fears are high after two Pakistani citizens were detected with the virus after returning from Iran. “Sindh’s Provincial Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah said the 28 pilgrims whom the first cases were part of had been traced and would be scanned and monitored. “We’re going to the next step,” he told a news conference in Karachi, adding that the Sindh government was out to trace all the 1,500 people who had returned to his province from Iran in the month of February. There are a total 8,000 such pilgrims across the country, he said. “We’re locating each one of them,” Shah said, adding they will go through 15 days of strict monitoring before being allowed to leave their homes. Shah said all these people and anyone who had got in touch with them had to be isolated.”

According to government health adviser Zafar Mirza, “The authorities, who have kept more than 200 of the pilgrims in quarantine at the border, have stepped up scanning measures at airports and other border crossing, including western Afghanistan. He called on the people to not panic. “We don’t need to worry unnecessarily. We shouldn’t create any kind of panic,” he told a news conference Wednesday night. The health ministry has launched a media campaign to educate people, urging them to cooperate with authorities to help identify any suspected cases.”

HRCP Report on shutting down of minority communities sites of worship

Pakistan’s track record of protection of its minorities – religious or ethnic – is abysmal. On February 24, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) released a report titled “‘Access Denied’: Why are Minorities’ Sites of Worship Being Closed?” The report was put together by an HRCP fact-finding mission undertaken from August to October 2019 in Quetta, Zhob, Islamabad, Peshawar, Lahore, and Toba Tek Singh to “assess why religious minorities’ sites of worship or places of religious significance had been closed, making them inaccessible to the community.”

As the HRCP report pointed out there has been a substantial decline in Pakistan’s minorities with the current figures from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics placing the population of religious minorities at 3.7 percent of the total population of Pakistan “of which 1.5 percent are Christians, 0.22 percent are Ahmadis, 1.6 percent are Hindus and 0.07 percent are people following other various faiths and beliefs.”

The HRCP report identified “three major instances of the circumstances in which places of religious worship of religious minority communities are closed, which are as follows: Pressure from the Muslim majority inhabitants of the local area; The government taking over religious sites and converting them for use for other purposes such as building schools etc;  Internal differences between religious minority communities leading to laying claims to religious sites.”

The HRCP fact finding mission issued the following recommendations

  • “Relevant government and state authorities such as the departments of Auqaf and the ETPB need to ensure transparency in their processes and procedures of dealing with religious minorities and their places of religious worship and significance.
  • Data about the places of worship of religious minorities needs to be made public by the relevant government authorities and the ETPB.
  • Law enforcement agencies such as the police need to be sensitized towards the issues of religious minorities.
  • Police needs to be able to counter any undue pressures on them for acting against religious minority communities.
  • Relevant provisions of the Supreme Court’s Judgment in 2014 reaffirming the rights of religious minorities in the country with regards to the places of worship need to be implemented, especially the directives about providing safety to such sites.
  • Government authorities need to act against elements who misuse the premises of mosques to incite sentiments against religious minority communities in their areas.
  • Government authorities need to intervene in matters of dispute of places of worship to control the fall out of such circumstances.”

Life is Getting Harder for Vulnerable Sections of Pakistan Society

The mark of a society comes from how it treats its most vulnerable. The hari and mazdoor of Sindh are some of the most vulnerable segments of society. Following a hari and mazdoor convention in Hyderabad, a fact-finding mission of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) called upon “the federal and provincial governments to protect the rights of peasants, workers, women and religious minorities in Sindh.”

The HRCP was “deeply concerned that vulnerable and marginalised groups are bearing the brunt of rising inflation and unemployment, without adequate social safety nets to mitigate this impact. During the mission, stakeholders across civil society conveyed their need for more local jobs in development projects, decent working conditions and better access to health services, an end to forced conversions among religious minorities, and the development of reliable sources of clean water, especially for remote communities in arid areas such as Thar. Both the public and private sectors must be held responsible for paying their workers – both men and women – at least the official minimum wage and, moreover, paying wages on time. Given that women and children remain among the most vulnerable groups across labour and religious minorities, HRCP strongly urges the government to keep their needs at the forefront of all policymaking.”

‘Is Pakistan Following China’s Lead in Controlling Social Media’

One week ago, New Pakistan wrote about the repressive new social media regulations that were recently implemented by the government of Pakistan. The Pakistani deep state is so paranoid about any difference in opinion that it wants to ensure there is no difference of opinion either in mainstream or social media. It is also becoming increasingly clear that not only is Pakistan dependent economically and militarily on All Weather Ally China but that Naya Pakistan seeks to follow Big Brother China even in the realm of political and media freedoms.

According to lawyer, human rights advocate and columnist, Yasser Latif Hamdani, “the newly unveiled “Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020” (CP) slipped in secretly in January but notified on February 12 are just another case in point. This comes a century after the British imposed the notorious Press Act that had tried to but ultimately failed to control free press in the subcontinent. Yet the more things change the more they remain the same, principally the hubris of a government that seeks maximum control.”

Further, as Hamdani notes, “The objective, therefore, behind it is to intimidate the ordinary citizen and exercise a degree of control that borders on paranoia. It emanates from this idea of “fifth generation warfare” which has been taken to mean that everyone who expresses a point of view contrary to the established state narrative is somehow on the payroll of the enemy. One does not discount the possibility of such foreign interference but who is going to draw the line? Will it remain limited to the idea of foreign interference? Will not some pious operative not turn his attention to religious minorities and persecute them? Will the same pious operative not attack liberals, feminists, progressives and freethinkers for working against the “cultural values” which are in any event undefined. Where will this stop? Do we live in the 21st century or are we magically transported to the King Henry VIII’s England or Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain? Will we have a new inquisition in this country? You are calling forth a flood.”

In a recent piece titled ‘Pakistan puts press freedom at the core of struggle for new world order,’ James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, wrote about how Pakistan’s sweeping regulations restricting social media have “put freedom of expression and the media at the heart of the struggle to counter both civilizationalist and authoritarian aspects of an emerging new world order. The regulations, adopted without public debate, position US social media companies like Facebook and Twitter at the forefront of the struggle and raise the spectre of China’s walled off Internet with its own state-controlled social media platforms becoming the model for a host of illiberals, authoritarians and autocrats.”

According to Dorsey, Pakistan appears to be following in the footsteps of China. “Pakistan could become a prime country that adopts not only aspects of China’s 21st century, Orwellian surveillance state but also its tightly controlled media. The basis for potential Pakistani adoption of the Chinese system was created in 2017 in plans for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a US$60 billion plus crown jewel of the Belt and Road, an infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven initiative to tie Eurasia to China. The 2017 plan identifies as risks to CPEC “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. The plan appears to question the vibrancy of a system in which competition between parties and interest groups is the name of the game. It envisions a full system of monitoring and surveillance to ensure law and order in Pakistani cities. The system would involve deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.” A national fibre optic backbone would be built for internet traffic as well as the terrestrial distribution of broadcast media that would cooperate with their Chinese counterparts in the “dissemination of Chinese culture.” The plan described the backbone as a “cultural transmission carrier” that would serve to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples and the traditional friendship between the two countries.”