The lot of religious minorities in Pakistan was never pretty, but it has gotten far worse in the last few years
Earlier this month, provoked by a grenade attack, hundreds of militants affiliated to radical Sunni groups stopped buses in Gilgit-Baltistan (a part of the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir under Pakistani control), rounded up Shia passengers and executed them. Similar incidents in the region over the past few months have claimed scores of lives. We do not know how many exactly, because Pakistan has imposed a media blackout. It is already clear though, that the killings of Shias were systematic and carried out with the connivance of the Pakistani state authorities.
That’s not all. All of Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities are under attack.
While the lot of religious minorities in Pakistan was never pretty, it has gotten far worse in the last few years. The brazen, unpunished and celebrated assassinations of personalities like Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti divert attention from the violence against minorities on a day-to-day basis. There are reports of several dozen Pakistani Hindu families seeking asylum in India. Compiling figures from Sindhi language newspapers, Marvi Sirmed, a Pakistani writer and activist, has estimated that 3,000 Hindu girls have been abducted and converted to Islam in the province. Christian families have been forced to flee after charges of blasphemy were levelled against their members.
It’s a similar situation for ethnic minorities. In Balochistan, the Pakistan army’s counter-insurgency strategy includes terrorising the population through enforced disappearances, torture and killing of citizens followed by the dumping of their bodies as a warning to the rest. The Shia Hazaras are not only a religious minority, but also an ethnic one. Over the last two years there has been an escalation in violence against them in Balochistan, in FATA and Gilgit-Baltistan.
The perpetrators and immediate motives in each of these cases are different. They range from Sunni jihadi groups targeting people they consider apostates, to rival communities seeking domination, to the Pakistani armed forces fighting insurgents. They are called sectarian violence, gang warfare, ethnic cleansing, kill-and-dump or counter-insurgency. It is perhaps because there are individual names for these crimes that we are missing the possibility that they might amount to a bigger one — genocide.
This is not a word to be used loosely. Genocide specifically means “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. It includes killing people on account of belonging to a group; causing them serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting conditions to destroy the group in whole or in part; preventing births and transferring children by force. The situation in Pakistan today satisfies many of these criteria, and to varying degrees.
How many people have died? The blackout, censorship and violent intimidation of journalists makes it hard to estimate even the order of magnitude. Baloch nationalist groups, for instance, have criticised the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan for reporting 35 disappearances and 173 dumped bodies in 2011. They claim over over 14,000 disappearances since 2005 and 400 dumped bodies since July 2010. It would be wrong, though, to wait for the body counts to rise to some arbitrary level for the world to take action.
A genocide takes place in stages. These can be rapid or drawn out in time. Gregory Stanton, an American human rights scholar and president of Genocide Watch, has identified eight stages, starting from classification of people into “us and them” and ending in extermination followed by denial. Pakistan is already through many of the early stages. Instead of waiting until it is too late for too many, the proper thing to do now is to squarely place Pakistan in a genocide watchlist and bring the intense focus of international public opinion to bear. It is understandable that the governments of the United States and India are unwilling to take up the violence against minorities for reasons of realpolitik. It is understandable that China and Saudi Arabia don’t care. It is therefore understandable that the UN Security Council doesn’t care. What is not understandable is that international media and human rights groups appear oblivious to this ongoing tragedy.
The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) and the International Coalition for The Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP) — two prominent international NGOs that champion the Responsibility to Protect populations against mass atrocities as an international norm — do not even list Pakistan in the crises they are tracking. Organisations like Human Rights Watch are bravely reporting events on the ground, but their wide mandate precludes them from focusing on this one issue.
The UN Human Rights Council is more interested in outlawing giving offence to religion than killing in its name. The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), always ready to talk about the world’s oppressed Muslims, can be trusted to maintain a resolute silence in this case.
Closer home, the Indian media stands indicted too. So completely are our television channels beholden to the narrative of the peace process that they are, literally, overlooking mass murder.
The white stripe on Pakistan’s flag is being eaten up. The geopolitical implications come later. At this time it is already a human tragedy that is unconscionable for Indians to ignore. In Bob Dylan’s sublime words, “Yes, and how many deaths will it take till he knows/That too many people have died?”
The author is founder and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank on strategic affairs
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