EVERY year, on August 11, Pakistan officially observes the National Minorities Day to honour the services and sacrifices rendered by religious minorities for the country over the years. On this occasion, events, seminars and social gatherings are arranged across the country by members of various religious minorities and the Ministry of National Harmony. The Government of Pakistan declared 11 August as National Minority Day in 2009. It has always been the endeavour of the Government to safeguard fundamental rights, safety, security, honour, life, liberty and prosperity of minorities in line with the historic speech of founder of the nation Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah at the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947. In his speech, Quaid-i-Azam said, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”
It merits mentioning that in accordance with the vision of Quaid-i-Azam, the Constitution of 1973 protects the rights and interests of minorities, living in Pakistan on August 11, 2014, Shahid Mairaj, the Dean of the Cathedral, stated in his message, “The governing principle is to let people of every faith live in peace as they choose, and understand that the state belongs to everyone. This country is our mother, and it is a duty for all of us to help it to advance and flourish.” In this regard, the then Member Punjab Assembly and minorities’ leader Najmi Saleem remarked, “Minorities in Pakistan have exactly the same rights and responsibilities as majority citizens”. The then Minister Incharge for National Harmony Dr. Paul Bhatti said, “The Minorities Day provides us an opportunity to renew the pledge for the promotion of tolerance and interfaith harmony as in a pluralistic society, there can always be a divergence of opinion on a number of issues, but these differences can be solved through interfaith harmony which means a cooperative and positive interaction between people of different religions, traditions, faiths and spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at all levels.”
He acknowledged by pointing out, “Many steps have been taken by the Government for the protection and promotion of minorities like the reservation of 5 percent quota in Government jobs/services, enhancement representation in the parliament, declaration of August 11 as the Minorities Day, including observance of optional holidays and celebration of the festivals of minorities at official level”. A Sikh leader, Sardar Bishan Singh shared similar thoughts and pointed out that all citizens of Pakistan worked together for the growth of the country. Last year, leaders of various religious minorities also expressed their positive thoughts in their messages in relation to this very day. It is notable that the Ministry of National Harmony was formed after the devolution of Ministry of Minority Affairs to acknowledge the sacrifices and services of minorities to promote peace, patience and tolerance for creating an understanding and brotherhood among the people of different schools of thought. However, since the formation of Pakistan, minorities are contributing in every sphere of life and their political involvement is also worth appreciating. Therefore, the day is dedicated to the minorities who played their constructive role in Pakistan. While, India which claims an arch secular State has surprised the world because of continued attacks on other minority groups, especially Christians, Muslims and Sikhs—and events of forced conversion of Christians and Muslims into Hindus.
Unlike India, where religious minorities are being targeted by the Hindu fundamentalist outfits like the ruling party BJP, RSS, Shiv Sena etc., all the minorities such as Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis and Budahists enjoy fundamental rights in Pakistan, including all other rights of citizenry in Pakistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan which came into existence on the basis of Islamic principles to provide respect and protection to all the segments of society is giving full safety to all the minorities as mentioned in the Constitution. Besides other minority groups, particularly Christians are not only serving in the Armed Forces, but are also working in other departments. Without any discrimination by the Muslims, they also run their own businesses and are working in private sector. The commendable role played by our heroes from minorities in the nation-building like Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry (Fighter pilot, Human Rights Activist), Brig (R) Simon Sahriff, Chief Justice Alvin Bobby and Robert Cornelius (4th CJ of Pakistan) might be cited as instance.
Particularly, Rana Bhagwandas was the first Hindu and the non-Muslim who was appointed acting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan for a few days in 2005 and 2006, during the absence of then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry from the country. He was again appointed as acting Chief Justice of Pakistan during the judicial crisis in 2007. After retirement from the Supreme Court, Bhagwandas was appointed as the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) chairman in November 2009. There have been numerous non-Muslims who have risen to the rank of Brigadier; and in the 1990, the first Christian promoted to the Rank of Major General was Julian Peter who commanded the 14th Div in Okara Cantt. Capt. Hercharn Singh, the first Sikh as Commissioned Officer in Pakistan Army. Nonetheless, the National Minorities Day not only expresses gratitude for the contributions, made by these religious communities, but also professes that future development of Pakistan hinges crucially on their efforts.
—The writer is freelance columnist based in Lahore.