How South Asia lets down its minorities
These aren’t the best of times for minorities in South Asia. From the Islamic republic of Pakistan to the Buddhist paradise of Sri Lanka to the secular democratic republic of India, minorities are increasingly being shown their place. Another Shiite massacre in Pakistan this week is followed by more pointless political platitudes. It makes little difference to the young, terrified children though who are too young to know the gravity of their loss.
Across the Line of Control, images of Afzal Guru’s forlorn son with his grieving mother and grandmother remain seared into public consciousness. Named Ghalib after the great Urdu poet, he was two when his father was taken away 11 years ago on the charges of aiding and abetting the attack on Indian Parliament.
Guru had spent 11 years, one month and 17 days on death row, as activist Harsh Mander points out, less than three years short of a life term. Which means he served the life sentence before being offered as a sacrificial lamb — ahead of others on death row — to assuage what Supreme Court calls the “collective conscience of the society.” Mander and numerous commentators see Guru’s killing as a “scar on Indian democracy.”
A friend of mine says the last time he felt so angry and betrayed was when Babri Masjid was razed in 1992. One can only imagine the trauma of Guru’s family and scars with which his young son, denied a farewell meeting with his father, will grow up.
This may be why Sri Lanka ensured Velupillai Prabhakaran’s son followed him soon on the eternal journey. This photograph of the 12-year old son of the Tamil Tigers’ leader, released by the Channel 4, is eerily familiar. When images of the slain boy had first surfaced a couple of years ago, they had generated worldwide protests.
Besides the pain of a young, innocent boy being done to death in such bestial fashion, what had moved me was his baby face and limpid eyes that reminded me of my own son. The latest images of the boy are even more appalling. He looks terribly lonely and frightened as he sits there, nibbling on a cookie. In the second photograph, he’s anxiously looking up clearly worried about his fate. The third image is that of the boy’s bullet-riddled body on the ground.
As Callum Macrae, who made the documentary, No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, says, “The new photographs tell a chilling story. In less than two hours he will be taken, executed in cold blood and photographed again.” The documentary, to be shown at the UN Human Rights Council meet in Geneva next month, has turned the spotlight back on the Tamil genocide.
Back then when I did a rather strong piece on the 2009 Lankan offensive that not just wiped out hundreds of Tamil fighters, including Prabhakaran, but thousands of innocent civilians, some of my Sri Lankan friends had protested. They insisted that the army action was justified considering the long reign of terror that the island, including Muslims, had suffered at the hands of the LTTE.
But whatever Prabhakaran’s crimes, the Tamils had nothing to do with them and deserved better. Besides, a ruthless regime that gets away with murder once can be encouraged to think it could get away with it again — and again. “Watch it. It will be only a matter of time before they come for Muslims, just as the Nazis did one vulnerable group after another,” I told them.
Events of the past few years have unfortunately proven me right. Terrorized by a vengeful regime, the Tamils still live in despicable conditions. And now that the Tiger is off Lanka’s back, attention has shifted to Muslims. With the blessings of the state, militant Sinhalese-Buddhist groups have been increasingly targeting the community. Unlike the Tamils, Muslims have lived in the island for centuries and have done well economically.
Understandably, the rise in the Sinhala extremism has been a source of grave concern and not just to Muslims. Many blame it on the current leadership and its encouragement of the militant Sinhala nationalism. Lawmakers like Mangala Samaraweera and many Muslim groups hold President Mahinda Rajapaksa responsible for the rise in attacks on minority targets.
Tisaranee Gunasekara writes in Colombo Telegraph that as the economic and political mess at home deepens, the regime is looking for a new, suitable enemy — a new bogey to rally the Sinhala majority. “And who better to do the job than a demonized racial/religious Other?” After the decimation of the Tamils, Muslims rather nicely fit the bill.
But what kind of bogey are Pakistan’s poor Shiites and who are the forces using them as pawns on the chessboard of opportunistic politics? The community has been under relentless fire, literally, over the past few years and months. Thousands have died in calculated attacks across Pakistan targeting their mosques and gatherings. Things have been so bad that recently in Quetta the mourners refused to bury their dead for days on end demanding action by the authorities. They relented only after the federal government intervened sacking the Balochistan government and imposing federal rule.
The carnage this week killing 90 people suggests little has changed in Balochistan or elsewhere in Pakistan. It’s a shame really considering the eminent role the Shiite have always played in the subcontinent’s and Pakistan’s history, politics, culture, literature and media. Indeed, the community had been in the forefront of the Pakistan movement.
Today, the community feels so alienated and insecure that some are even calling for a mass exodus, as Dawn columnist Murtaza Haider did this week. Unfortunately, when a multicultural society begins to unravel it’s its most vulnerable sections that are affected the most.
It’s no comfort that it’s not just the Shiite or other minorities who are in the line of fire in Pakistan; no one including those from the majority is safe from the assorted militant groups and fanatics. That doesn’t however absolve Pakistan’s politicians, administrators and security forces of their responsibility for the current mess.
If the Pakistani society and elites do not come together and act now to save Jinnah’s baby, soon it may be too late to do so. Religious parties in particular have a crucial role to play in reining in these lunatics. They cannot stand and stare while the fanatics kill at will in the name of the faith that they champion. Let’s face it. Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka are all guilty of letting down their minorities. Winning back the confidence of their minorities and ensuring their security is not just in their national interest but critical to their survival and future. The health of a democracy and society is determined by the well being of its minorities.