Main minorities and indigenous peoples:
Main languages: Urdu (national language), Sindhi, Punjabi, Siraiki, Pushtu and Baluchi (regional languages)
Main religions: Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Ahmaddiya
Although the official position in relation to the existence of religious, linguistic and ethnic minorities is shrouded in controversy, Pakistan’s minorities can essentially be categorized as ‘ethnic and linguistic’ and ‘religious’. The term ‘minority’ is used in the 1973 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on several occasions, there is, however, no definition of this term. Successive federal governments have taken the position that minorities within Pakistan are necessarily religious and that there are no ethnic or linguistic minorities or indigenous peoples.
The most recently available official figures are from the national census completed in 1998, also restricts its data to religious minorities. According to the 1998 national census, 96.28 per cent of the population follows the Islamic faith. A vast majority of this Muslim population professes Sunni Islam, and owes allegiance to the Hanafi school of thought. Non-Muslims constitute 3.72 per cent of the total population: Religious minorities include Christians (1.59 per cent, 1998 Census), Ahmadis (0.22 per cent, 1998 Census), Hindus (1.6 per cent, 1998 Census), Shi’as, Isma’ilis, Bohras and Parsis. A census was conducted in 2017, though the full results have yet to be released. It is expected that the findings will show a decline in the proportion of religious minorities in the country, given the widespread persecution – and resulting emigration – many communities have faced in the last two decades.
Constitutional recognition is however granted to the inhabitants of Pakistan’s four provinces as well as those residing in Tribal Areas. Pakistan’s officially recognized nationalities are the Punjabis, the Sindhis, the Pashtuns and the Baluchis. Urdu is the official language and English has retained an official standing, used widely in governmental and official correspondence and the higher courts, as well as institutions of higher education.
Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, Scheduled Castes and others (including Sikhs and Parsis) are officially and constitutionally recognized as religious minorities. Shi’a, Ismaili and Bohra communities are recognized as Muslim communities. Ahmadis are now not recognized. The census does not provide any official figures on minority Muslim sects, although people belonging to these communities have been singled out and subjected to harassment and persecution. However, religious minorities claim these figures grossly under-represent their numerical strength.
For example, the Ahmadi community in Pakistan comprises approximately 0.22 per cent of the population according to the country’s latest available census figures from 1998. However, Ahmadi population statistics are especially contested. While the community is officially numbered at less than half a million, other sources estimate it at 600,000 and even into the millions.
The exact number of Christians, too, is unknown: while making up approximately 1.59 per cent of Pakistan’s total population in the 1998 Census, estimates range from less than 2 million to as many as 3 million.
Hindus in Pakistan account for approximately 1.85 per cent of the country’s population according to the 1998 Census – amounting to less than 2.5 million people. However, as with other minority groups, these figures are regarded by community organizations as unreliable and out of date. The Pakistan Hindu Council, for instance, has estimated that the total Hindu population now exceeds 7 million.
Pakistan is a pluralistic society with myriad religious and ethno-linguistic identities. This diversity has been shaped by ongoing demographic changes throughout its existence. Broadly, however, the proportion of religious minorities in relation to the overall population has drastically declined. The upheaval wrought by partition in 1947 saw an outflow of Hindus and an inflow of Muslims from India. In subsequent decades, but particularly from the 1980s onward, migration has changed the composition of Pakistani society, and many members of minority communities have fled Pakistan to escape persecution and pursue better economic prospects abroad. In Baluchistan, for instance, a spate of recent abductions and murders targeting minority members has contributed to migration among these groups.
A sense of exclusionary nationalism has also developed in Pakistan, and this has had dire effects on the status and rights of many religious groups in the country. Islam is, of course, not monolithic, and growing emphasis on a particular understanding of ‘Muslimness’ has severe repercussions not only for non-Muslims but also for intra-Muslim ideological divides and the resulting efforts to identify ‘enemies from within’. In addition to the divide between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, there are further notable subdivisions within Sunni Islam, primarily between Barelvi and Deobandi strands, which are perceived by hardliners to be at odds with one another. Consequently, in many aspects, Shi’a share a common experience of discrimination, persecution, and violence with other marginalized religious communities in the country.
In addition, although there are other smaller religious groups in Pakistan, including Sikhs, Parsis, Zikris, Bahá’í, Buddhists and Kalasha, the largest and most prominent minority religious groups are Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis.
Shi’a Muslims account for approximately 10–15 per cent of the Muslim population of Pakistan.
Among the most marginalized groups are the Hazaras, an ethnic group of Mongolian-Turkic origin who speak a Persian language. Most practice Shi’a Islam, though a few are Sunni. Hazaras are distinct from other Shi’a in Pakistan due to their language and facial features. While the majority of Hazaras are in Afghanistan, Pakistan also hosts a large Hazara population – estimates range between 650,000 and 900,000 in the country as a whole – with around 500,000 based around the city of Quetta.
Dalits, who are made up not only of Hindu and Christians as well as some discriminated castes among Muslims, are among the most marginalized communities in the country and frequently face intersectional discrimination. The last official figures on the community were from the 1998 Census, putting them at around 330,000, but these figures failed to include Dalits belonging to marginalized Muslim groups. According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network, Pakistani Dalit representatives state that their actual population could be as high as 2 million.
The Sheedi (also known as Siddi) community of Pakistan are the descendants of East Africans brought as slaves by Arab merchants between the eighth and nineteenth centuries. There is no reliable figure regarding the size of the community’s population, with estimates ranging considerably from 50,000 to just under 1 million according to the Young Sheedi Welfare Organization (YSWO). Nevertheless, Pakistan is recognized as having one of the largest populations of Afro-descendants in Asia.
A remarkable story of survival is represented by the Kalash people of Chitral. A Dardic indigenous people living in three remote valleys near the border with Afghanistan, they have maintained their unique language, polytheistic faith and cultural identity in the face of considerable pressures to assimilate into wider society. Only approximately 4,000 Kalash continue to practice their ancient ways.
Updated June 2019
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In recent years Pakistan has faced increasing levels of violence resulting not only from a range of militant organizations, including ISIS-affiliated groups, but also the operations of the country’s military in its bloody counterinsurgency campaign in Baluchistan. This has occurred alongside deepening social divisions and the country’s continued governance challenges, including corruption. In this context a climate of growing intolerance has flourished, demonstrated by the growing influence of religious organizations such as Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) and their ability to shape official policy. Pakistani Taliban and ISIS affiliates failed to derail parliamentary elections in July 2018 but killed hundreds of civilians, including 149 in Mastung, Baluchistan – the country’s second deadliest attack by extremists to date. In response, security personnel continue to perpetrate a range of abuses, including against civilians.
But while insecurity and violence have been felt across the country, affecting all communities, the country’s deep-seated ethnic and religious discrimination has left minorities especially vulnerable. Though religious communities such as Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus have suffered discrimination in Pakistan for decades, their persecution has intensified in recent years and has now reached critical levels. This insecurity not only exposes them to the threat of death and injury, but also reinforces their exclusion from political participation, basic services, education and employment. As a result, large numbers have been forced to emigrate from the country.
The dangers are especially acute for those communities facing discrimination on both ethnic and religious grounds, such as Pakistan’s primarily Shi’a Hazaras, who are targeted as a visible ethnic minority as well as for their faith. Living mostly in Quetta, Baluchistan, in recent years Hazaras have increasingly been targeted by Sunni militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and TTP. As Muslims, Hazaras do not face certain restrictions affecting other religions. However, extremist Sunni groups that operate within Pakistan view Shi’a as apostates and regularly carry out attacks against them. The Hazara population, due to their ethnic identity are readily identifiable, are especially vulnerable as a result. According to data from Pakistan’s National Commission on Human Rights, between January 2012 and December 2017, at least 509 Hazaras were killed and 627 wounded in targeted attacks in Quetta alone – although community representatives state that the actual figure is much higher. These attacks have continued unabated, with a targeted bombing of a vegetable market in Quetta in April 2019 leaving at least 24 dead and many others injured.
Violent attacks against minorities occur against a backdrop of discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives, including political participation, marriage and freedom of belief, by the widespread reluctance among law enforcement agencies to enforce legal protections against discrimination. In particular, Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, often used to settle personal scores and achieve political gains, continued to disproportionately impact Pakistan’s minority communities. Today, according to Human Rights Watch, at least 17 people are on death row following a conviction on the basis of blasphemy laws, most of whom are members of religious minorities. One of the most notorious cases concerns Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death after her conviction in a high-profile blasphemy case in 2010. In July 2015 the Supreme Court agreed to suspend her execution to hear an appeal against her sentence, although this was subsequently postponed in October 2016 after one of the judges recused himself from the case, until May 2018 when it was announced that Bibi’s appeal would be held soon. In October 2018, she was acquitted by the Supreme Court on the basis of insufficient evidence, but was prevented from leaving the country, where she still remains despite the confirmation of the verdict in January 2019. Bibi’s acquittal has triggered major protests throughout the country.
While in recent years there have been some positive signs that the malicious use of blasphemy laws may be curbed through stronger regulations – in January 2017, the Senate officially opened discussions on whether the blasphemy provisions should be reformed to prevent misuse – blasphemy-related violence remains high. In particular, there has also been an escalation of anti-blasphemy activities online and through social media, often with official support. In May 2017, for example, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority sent out a mass text to millions of Pakistan citizens – reportedly following a court order – urging them to report any ‘blasphemous content’ they encountered online. This was just a month after Mashal Khan, a student who identified as humanist, was lynched by more than 50 fellow students and university staff members after rumours spread that he had spread blasphemous content online.
Prejudice and negative stereotypes are also actively disseminated against religious communities in a range of contexts, including in some mosques and classrooms, as well as in certain media outlets. Though many Pakistanis do not subscribe to these views, the failure of authorities to curb the spread of negative stereotypes and hate speech is directly affecting their representation. This in turn is reinforcing inequalities in employment, service access and other areas.
In particular, the persecution of Pakistan’s Ahmadi community – the largest Ahmadi population in the world – is also encouraged by a constitutionally sanctioned legal regime, broadly referred to as the ‘anti-Ahmadi laws’. Despite their established presence in Pakistan, however, Ahmadis are among the country’s most persecuted communities, with many forced to conceal their faith for fear of attack. Discrimination against the community began as early as the 1950s, with the formation of anti-Ahmadi movements calling for restrictions and their designation as heretics: this culminated in a 1984 presidential ordinance that made it illegal for Ahmadis to ‘pose as Muslims’ or ‘refer to their faith as Islam’. Under this law, it became a criminal penalty to describe an Ahmadi place of worship as a mosque or their call to prayer as azaan. Even saying an Islamic greeting can be a non-bailable criminal offence for an Ahmadi in Pakistan. Against this backdrop of institutional discrimination, Ahmadis are marginalized in almost every sphere of public life. Community members report increased discrimination as a result of anti-Ahmadi hetoric employed by Prime Minister Imran Khan during his 2018 election campaign and various legislative measures passed in the same year, including a March 2018 High Court verdict requiring all citizens to publicly identify their faith when applying for identity documents – a move widely seen to target minorities and Ahmadis in particular.
Migration and a protracted process of social and religious homogenization has seen the Pakistani Hindu community dwindle over the decades. Recent reports have suggested that between 1,200 Hindus to as many as 5,000 Hindus leave Pakistan each year due to religious persecution, the majority from Sindh province. In Sindh and elsewhere, despite a long tradition of diversity and tolerance, growing religious polarisation is evident, fuelling discrimination and violence towards the Hindu population.
In addition to violent attacks, a key challenge is the kidnapping and forced conversion of Hindu women and girls to Islam. The women who are subject to these coercive practices are predominantly poor, as highlighted by the disproportionate number of Scheduled Caste Hindu women among the victims. While there are no reliable statistics available regarding the number of forced conversions that take place each year, human rights activists have estimated that approximately 300 cases of forced conversion of Hindu women and girls take place annually, although they expect the scale of the problem may be greater due to gaps in reporting and documentation.
Pakistan’s Christians have also long been the target of violence and discrimination. However, in recent years sectarian violence in the country has intensified, bringing with it new threats in the form of targeted terrorist attacks. One of the worst incidents for the community took place in Lahore on 27 March 2016 when Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), bombed Gulshan-i-Iqbal park and killed more than 70 people, mostly women and children. Although the majority of the victims were Muslims, the intended target were the many low-income Christian families who had gathered in the park that day to celebrate Easter. This was the third major terrorist incident specifically targeting Christians. The first, a twin suicide bombing in September 2013 at the All Saints Church in Peshawar, a city in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, left more than 100 dead and many others injured. In March 2015, the simultaneous targeting of two churches in Lahore by Taliban suicide bombers resulted in at least 15 casualties. Increasingly, Christians have also increasingly been targeted by ISIS-affiliated groups, including an attack in December 2017 on a Christian church in Quetta killing nine worshippers and injuring 57 others.
However, while these attacks have drawn considerable attention to the plight of Pakistan’s Christians, they are only part of the picture of everyday violence and persecution the community experiences, including the constant threat of blasphemy allegations. Neighbourhoods have been attacked, homes set ablaze and individuals burnt alive as a result of false accusations. Recent years have also seen Christian girls increasingly subjected to abduction, forced marriage and conversion to Islam. According to UNICEF, 21 per cent of girls are married before the age of 18 in Pakistan, particularly in the country’s most marginalized communities. Though Pakistani law sets the minimal age of marriage to 16 for girls and 18 for boys, this rule is rarely enforced, as sharia often outweighs national law in the judicial system. The Council of Islamic Ideology, a constitutional body which gives Islamic legal advice to the government, has moreover repeatedly declared as ‘un-Islamic’ previous attempts to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 nationwide. The latest attempt in date has been approved in January 2019 by the Upper House of the government and was passed by the Senate in May 2019, though it has yet to be approved by the National Assembly.
The rising climate of intolerance has also put at risk the existence of some smaller religious minority groups, some of which have not typically been the target of violence. This includes Pakistani Parsis who, as a vulnerable minority in an unstable environment, have been prompted to leave the country in recent years, speeding the dwindling of their community. For Pakistan’s small Zikri population, rising extremism – including the appearance of pro-ISIS graffiti in south-west Pakistan – has fuelled fear in the community. Following a series of violent attacks, many Zikris have been forced to conceal their identity and flee their historic homes to other parts of the country. Sikhs, many of whom now live in the northwest of the country and whose heritage stretches back 500 years to when the religion was founded in what is now Pakistan, have also been compelled to leave the country in increasing numbers.
Religious minorities are not the only groups that suffered discrimination in Pakistan. Pakistan has become an increasingly hostile environment for the country’s mostly Pashtun refugees from Afghanistan, the majority of whom have lived in Pakistan for decades. They now face harsher limits on legal residency that in turn has encouraged greater levels of police harassment and extortion. With the total number of Afghans in Pakistan estimated at around 2.5 million, including 1.4 million registered refugees, the government has repeatedly threatened mass deportations. A UNHCR-assisted process of repatriation for refugees is currently underway, but the future prospects of returnees to Afghanistan – a country some may not have visited for decades – is uncertain amid continued conflict and the absence of long-term reintegration strategies.
Meanwhile, in the context of the continued separatist struggle in Baluchistan, disappearances, torture and extra-judicial killings of armed separatists and activists by security forces reportedly continue, sustained by a climate of impunity. While Baluch militants have been responsible for killings of non-Baluchis and armed extremists have also been active in the region, creating widespread insecurity, security forces have also contributed to the deteriorating human rights environment though enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and heavy-handed measures to repress any dissent. This includes the targeting of peaceful protestors and activists associated with Baluchistan, which remains widespread and systematic.
Pakistan lies between Iran in the west, Afghanistan in the north-west, India in the east and south-east, and the Arabian Sea in the south. Notwithstanding the secession of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971, Pakistan remains a populous country covering a substantial terrain. It is currently the sixth most populous state in the world and, after Indonesia, the second largest Islamic state. As a country Pakistan presents astounding geographical and climatic variations. Pakistan occupies a landmass of 880,254 sq km and is administratively divided into four provinces, a capital territory and federally administered tribal areas (FATA). The state also claims jurisdiction over the western parts of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir, organized as two political entities – Azad Kashmir and Northern Areas.
The foundation of Pakistan
Nearing the end of British colonial rule in India, calls for an independent Pakistani state gained momentum among many Muslims in the east and north-west of British India, who had faced various forms of discrimination at the hands of the colonial power, as well as the majority Hindu population. However, independence came at a significant cost. In August 1947, the end of prolonged imperial rule in Pakistan and India brought about a violent partition that resulted in a death toll of approximately 1.5 million and the forced migration of 20 million people. This, together with the unresolved territorial dispute over the province of Kashmir, initiated what would become a legacy of bitterness between the newly independent countries that continues to negatively affect both Muslims living in India and Hindus living in Pakistan.
Though led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the head of the Muslim League and eventually the first leader of an independent Pakistan, the movement for an independent Pakistan was far from monolithic. In British India, Muslims were not a single community but rather were divided by a number of factors, including language, ethnicity and denomination. There were also various ideological differences amongst Sunni Muslims between modernism, reformism, traditionalism, and Islamism – represented by the Aligarh, Deobandis, Barelvi, and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) movements, respectively – over what role Islam should play in the future development of the Pakistani state. While Jinnah’s vision for an independent Pakistan was informed by a pronounced Muslim identity, it also encompassed protection and equality for its minorities – a stance rejected by some conservative religious leaders and religio-political parties. This would remain a deeply divisive political issue in the years to come.
Building a Constitution (1949–73)
Early efforts to develop a Constitution in Pakistan encountered a variety of obstacles, including the death of Jinnah in September 1948. These difficulties were largely a result of geographic and religious discords, particularly regional disparities between East and West Pakistan as well as differing opinions on the place Islam should have in the state polity. Notably, religious parties – many of which were initially against the idea of a Pakistani state – now directed their efforts towards pushing for a Constitution that would provide the new country with an ‘Islamic identity’. This was reflected in the passing of the Objectives Resolution in March 1949, which established the key principles to guide the development of the country’s future constitution.
Significantly, in part as an attempt to mollify religious groups, the Objectives Resolution described Pakistan as an Islamic state. Though intended to be primarily symbolic, this definition would later be exploited by some religious groups to promote a narrower sense of nationalism which has actively excluded the country’s minorities. This came to the fore a few years later, when the Deobandi ulema (body of Muslim scholars) – whose influence had been strengthened as a consequence of the Objectives Resolution – called for the designation of Ahmadis as non-Muslims and their exclusion from political office. In 1953, following the government’s rejection of these demands, widespread violence against Ahmadis broke out across the country.
After more than a decade of framing, the first Constitution of Pakistan was adopted on 23 March 1956. It largely embodied the ideas put forth in the Objectives Resolution, which served as its preamble, and designated Pakistan as an ‘Islamic Republic’. A key issue that concerned religious minorities also remained unresolved: whether there should be separate or joint electorates for Muslims and non-Muslims in the country. This provoked significant public debate and further divided liberal politicians and regional parties who were in favour of joint electorates from religious parties such as JI, which rejected them.
However, before the Constitution could be effectively institutionalized, President Iskander Mirza declared martial law on 7 October 1958 and shortly afterwards the Commander-in-Chief of the army, General Ayub Khan, took power through a military coup. Under his rule, the role of the military and the centralized means of administering the country were further entrenched. Though martial law in Pakistan came to an end when Khan put forward the 1962 Constitution, this did not bring about a more inclusive form of governance.
Pakistan’s pluralism was further undermined following heightened tensions between East and West Pakistan. These would reach a crisis point in 1971 under the martial law of Ayub Khan’s successor, General Yahya Khan, when a civil war began that would bring about an independent Bangladesh in what was formerly East Pakistan. A key outcome was that the overall proportion of Pakistan’s Muslim majority increased, as the sizeable Hindu minority in East Pakistan were now part of the newly established country of Bangladesh.
Nevertheless, during this period liberal parties such as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Awami League (AL) were able to gain influence. The founder of the PPP, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was appointed President in 1971 and would later become the country’s Prime Minister upon the implementation of the 1973 Constitution. This version remains in place today, though it has been heavily modified in the ensuing years, particularly under General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq who seized power in 1977 and became President in 1978. With regard to minorities in the country, the new Constitution allowed for their increased representation, with six seats reserved for minorities in the national assembly, and between one and five seats reserved for minorities at the provincial level. Similarly, it institutionalized joint electorates throughout the country and provided additional safeguards for religious minorities.
However, the Constitution also contained certain provisions that continue to marginalize religious minorities to this day. Besides retaining the Objectives Resolution, declaring Islam as the state religion and stipulating that the positions of President and Prime Minister could only be held by Muslims, it also included plans to develop a Council of Islamic Ideology to align national laws with Islamic teachings. These provisions may have been seen as a way to mollify Islamic activists, who were an increasingly powerful force of opposition in the country.
The growth of religious intolerance (1974–88)
In 1974, violent anti-Ahmadi demonstrations took place in the country following confrontations between students and the Ahmadi community in Punjab. Across the country, Ahmadi families, homes and businesses were targeted on an enormous scale. Echoing the anti-Ahmadi calls in 1953, Jamaat factions demanded that Ahmadis be declared non-Muslims. In this instance, however, rather than resisting these demands, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto passed the Second Amendment to the Constitution declaring Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority. This was a milestone for the growing religious intolerance in Pakistan and was connected to the greater political power possessed by religious parties at this time, particularly in electoral politics. Despite Bhutto’s efforts to accommodate religious groups, mounting opposition to the PPP emerged from a coalition of anti-PPP parties called the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) which included religious and right-wing parties, supported by military elements. In response to the PPP victory in the 1977 elections, the PNA led violent street protests which allowed General Zia, then Chief of Army Staff, to impose martial law. This initiated the third period of military rule in Pakistan and, for the first time, established close ties between the military and clergy in the country. Under Zia’s rule, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was executed and the activities of parties such as the PPP and other pro-democracy initiatives were severely repressed, thereby reducing organised opposition to his policies. In the years that followed until Zia’s death in 1988, the country saw the growth of an exclusionary form of nationalism through the acceleration of policies that marginalized minority communities.
Key measures under Zia’s programme of ‘Islamization’, which entrenched a strict interpretation of Sunni doctrine, included further anti-Ahmadi legislation, amendments to the colonial-era blasphemy laws, the reintroduction of separate electorates, and the Islamization of the legal system. Anti-Ahmadi measures were expanded through the introduction of Ordinance XX in 1984. This legislation amended Pakistan’s Penal Code (PPC) through the addition of sections 298-B and 298-C, which served to bar Ahmadis from ‘directly or indirectly posing as a Muslim’, ‘propagat[ing] [their] faith’, employing Islamic terminology, or using Muslim places of worship. In effect, this law characterized as a criminal offence almost any public act of practising the Ahmadi religion, including ‘offering Ahmadi funeral prayers’ and ‘making the Muslim call for prayer’.
This programme was motivated by Zia’s own religious orientation as well as an attempt to gain the backing of religious groups such as the JI who were gaining influence in Pakistan. Their growing influence was helped by the spread of money into the madrassa (religious school) network from oil-rich countries in the Middle East, in particular Saudi Arabia – encouraged, in part, by fears of the Shi’a theocracy in post-revolutionary Iran – as well as the US-sponsored support of mujahideen in Afghanistan following the USSR’s invasion of the country in 1979. This discrimination on the basis of religion was also further entrenched under Zia with amendments of the PPC through Sections 295-B (1982) and 295-C (1986). These stipulate life imprisonment for anyone who ‘defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an… or uses it in any derogatory manner’ (295-B) and that ‘whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine’ (295-C). The legislation has frequently been abused due to weak safeguards and the low threshold of evidence required to secure a prosecution, as well as the lack of effective penalties for those who make false accusations. This has exposed religious minorities and Muslims, including social activists and critics, to dubious allegations of blasphemy that often appear to have been driven by personal disputes, political disagreements or economic gain.
The legal situation of religious minorities and women was also undermined by Zia’s introduction of the Qanoon-i-shihadah Order in 1984. In effect, this stipulates that the evidence of one male Muslim is equivalent to that of two women or two non-Muslims, thereby making it less difficult for Muslim men – and more difficult for anyone else – to pursue legal proceedings. A Federal Shari’a Court was also established in 1980, with the power to review and determine the conformity of the country’s legislation with Shari’a law.
The issue of electorates also came to the fore once again under Zia’s regime, which reintroduced separate electorates for religious minorities in the country. Although some argued that separate electorates would do more to ensure minority representation, this system further marginalized religious minorities under the pretext of providing them with greater political involvement. For example, since each of the 10 constituencies designated for minorities covered a vast area, many community members encountered difficulties reaching their representatives. Similarly, since areas in which minorities resided did not fall under the constituencies of the majority, these were largely ignored in development plans.
Pakistan after Zia (1988–present)
Zia’s Islamization programme is widely regarded as responsible for deepening religious divisions which already had historical roots in the country, further disadvantaging groups including religious minorities and women. Following his death in August 1988, however, civilian rule was re-established in Pakistan. Nevertheless, the governments that emerged over the next decade were unwilling or unable to undo the marginalization of religious minorities that had been institutionalized under his regime. The first government to emerge was led by Benazir Bhutto and the PPP, and while they showed support for reversing measures such as separate electorates, upon the departure of her government in 1990 they had overall failed to resolve the underlying issues of discrimination towards minorities. This pattern continued for the remainder of the 1990s under the governments of both Sharif and Bhutto. Since the reforms introduced by Zia remained largely intact, the ulema, who had grown in influence by this point, were able to continue to influence state policy. The political landscape of this period also provided grounds on which militant Islamist groups in the country could flourish, facilitated by regional tensions, including Pakistan’s support of jihadi militants operating in Kashmir.
In October 1999, another military takeover by General Pervez Musharraf brought to an end the period of civilian rule in the country. Guided by a programme of ‘enlightened moderation’, Musharraf reintroduced joint electorates in 2002 for all except the Ahmadi community and a number of banned groups. Musharraf’s other attempts to reverse discriminatory laws were largely unsuccessful, however. Efforts to amend the blasphemy laws, for example, were quelled due to resistance from hardliners. During Musharraf’s rule, religious minorities in the country – in particular, Pakistani Christians – were also impacted by the regional context of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ and the alignment of Pakistan with the American-led alliance.
Furthermore, anti-American sentiments coupled with the exile of political leaders such as Sharif and Bhutto meant that in the ‘sanitized’ elections held by Musharraf in 2002, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of religious groups, made significant gains in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Although the popularity of such groups at the federal level has not persisted, they have contributed to Pakistan’s drift towards increasing intolerance. This is reflected in the targeting of political moderates and centrists in the country in recent years, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007. More recently, in January 2011, the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was murdered by his bodyguard, followed two months later by a militant attack on Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti. Both deaths were connected to the support of Taseer and Bhatti for the unsuccessful PPP-led attempt to amend the blasphemy laws in 2010. These targeted killings have not only eliminated prominent voices calling for reform, but also terrorized many others into silence.
The May 2013 election brought into place a Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) majority government led by Sharif and saw a particularly low success rate for religio-political parties, including Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI)-F and JI. Nevertheless, after the election the discrimination and violence suffered by religious minorities or those who sympathize with them continued unabated.
Since then, Pakistan has suffered a series of brutal attacks that have undermined its stability and seen a further slide into insecurity. In particular, the tragic events of December 2014 at the Army Public School in Peshawar – an attack by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that claimed 141 lives, including 132 children – was an important milestone, leading to the country’s escalation of its military operations in the country. The government introduced a 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) that relinquished greater political authority to the military and introduced a broad range of measures with the stated aim of eradicating terrorism from Pakistan. These and other attacks, including a suicide bombing in Quetta in August 2016 that killed more than 70 lawyers, have threatened the foundation of rule of law in the country.
However, alongside a broad backdrop of violence and insecurity, religious and ethnic minorities have also been particularly targeted in recent years. This has been due to the continued presence of domestic militant groups but also the growth of ISIS-affiliated groups which have launched a series of targeted attacks against minority communities, including the bombing of a Sufi shrine in February 2017 that left at least 73 dead and wounded hundreds more. Other communities targeted include Pakistan Christians, with an attack in December 2017 on a Christian church in Quetta killing eight worshippers and injuring more than 30 others.
The failure to provide adequate protection to ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities in Pakistan is an unfortunate aspect of the country’s chequered legal and political history. In this regard two particularly worrying trends have emerged: first, the suppression of the rights of ethnic minorities such as Baluchis, Pashtuns, Mohajirs and Sindhis, all of whom have had their demands for greater autonomy met with severe government repression. Second, the freedoms of religious minorities, such as Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis, have contracted as a result of harsh legislation around the issue of religious offences.
Ever since its creation, Pakistan has had to face serious problems in relation to its ethnic and linguistic minorities. The rather artificial nature of the national boundaries, large-scale discrimination against Bengalis and persecution of Hindus were all evident prior to the secession of East Pakistan. Since 1971, the most serious threat to the integrity of Pakistan has taken the form of the Baluchi insurgencies. The ethnic and sectarian violence in the urban parts of Sindh, most prominently in Karachi, has been particularly disturbing, resulting in thousands of casualties. The actions of the law enforcement agencies, in particular the extra-judicial killings of opponents of the present government, is a matter of serious international concern as repeated human rights abuses have been reported, many targeting civilians, with hundreds forcibly disappeared by the military and a brutal crackdown on NGOs and activists operating in the region.
The 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010 has paved the way for a more decentralized governance structure by devolving considerable powers to the provincial level. This has represented a crucial step towards developing a more inclusive political structure and addressing the legacy of the One-Unit Scheme, where West Pakistan’s four provinces were amalgamated into one single unit dominated by Punjab, antagonizing Baluchistan, NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, or KP) and Sindh. While this arrangement ended in 1971, the historical structure of the federation and the ways in which power and resources have been distributed between groups and provinces has been a key area of contestation, many of which have taken on an ethno-religious nature.
Moreover, devolution has helped to facilitate some specific pro-minority legislation; for example, a 2013 law in Sindh province focused on ‘safeguarding religious properties of minorities for communal use and barr[ing] transfer of such properties without authorization of a committee comprising government functionaries and minority representatives’. However, since the passage of the 18th Amendment, there are signs that the government does not see this development as an end in itself. Rather devolution and decentralization must be approached as a process focused on developing a more inclusive and representative political system.
Concern among Pakistan’s religious minorities arises from several sources, including the continuation of the ‘anti-blasphemy laws’ and the Hudood Ordinances. During the Islamization period of the military ruler, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88), a series of anti-blasphemy related offences were inducted in Chapter XV of the Pakistan Penal Code 1857. Based on these laws a person found to be critical of the Prophet of Islam or his companions could face a jail term. Subsequent amendments made the death penalty mandatory for anyone defiling the name of the Prophet Muhammad. The induction of these provisions opened the way for persecution of religious minorities under the pretext of anti-blasphemy legislation. The arbitrary nature of the legislative provisions, their exploitation by religious extremists and the severity of the punishments involved have attracted enormous international criticism and rebuke. Nevertheless, the issue is so contentious that even a recommendation to reconsider the existence of these laws risks evoking serious recriminations; hence any official proposal of repeal appears highly unlikely. Despite concerted efforts, Benazir Bhutto, during her second term as prime minister (1993-6), failed to bring about procedural changes to the anti-blasphemy laws. Similarly, the previous government of President Pervez Musharraf was unable to substantively modify the anti-blasphemy laws, reflecting its unwillingness to secure minority protection.
The Hudood Ordinances brought into operation by Zia reinforce criminal laws for offences in relation to having sex outside of marriage, false imputation of rape and property-related offences. The implementation of the Hudood Ordinances has had seriously damaging consequences on all sections of Pakistani society. Women and religious minorities, in particular, have been targeted and victimized as a result of these Ordinances.
The imposition of the Hudood Ordinances, an exclusively Islamic code, on non-Muslims is also discriminatory in the manner of its application. As a prerequisite for the application of Hadd punishment, strict evidential requirements must be satisfied. In most cases this means a number of adult Muslim witnesses. In accordance with evidentiary requirements, while Muslims can give evidence against non-Muslims, non-Muslims are barred from giving evidence against an accused who happens to be a Muslim.
Further instruments of exploitation and discrimination deployed against religious minorities appear in the form the Qisas and Diyat Ordinances. These Ordinances imply that, in the application of certain penal laws, only the family of the victim, and not the state, has the option to pardon the convicted person, in return for monetary compensation. Non-Muslim minorities point out, however, that under these Ordinances, if a Muslim murders a non-Muslim, he is eligible to pay compensation to the victim’s family, but not vice versa; a non-Muslim is barred from paying ‘blood money’ and must face either a prison sentence or the death penalty. The issue of the rights of women in the context of an Islamic society has been the subject of intense controversy and debate. As exemplified through the arbitrary usage of Hudood Ordinances, the Islamization process has resulted in serious discrimination against women.
Pakistan’s Ahmadis have also faced unique levels of discrimination, enshrined in the country’s legislation. Discrimination against the community began as early as the 1950s, with the formation of anti-Ahmadi movements calling for restrictions and their designation as heretics. Following countrywide protests against the community, the state cemented this stigmatization with the Second Amendment to the Constitution in 1974 which declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims. This effectively imposed minority status on Ahmadis – a status which members of the Ahmadi community reject. A decade later, this persecution was reinforced by a 1984 presidential ordinance making it illegal for Ahmadis to ‘pose as Muslims’ or ‘refer to their faith as Islam’. Under this law, it became a criminal penalty to describe an Ahmadi place of worship as a mosque or their call for prayer as azaan. Even saying an Islamic greeting can be a non-bailable criminal offence for an Ahmadi in Pakistan. Blasphemy accusations, then, are among the most common forms of persecution for the community, aided and abetted by this legislative context.
Despite the continuities between the historical processes outlined above and more recent events in Pakistan, the social and political situation in the country has been far from stagnant and discrimination against minorities has not gone unaddressed. Even amid the mounting violence in the country, efforts have been made by certain elements of Pakistani civil society, such as human rights and minority activists, as well as NGOs and independent think tanks, to promote tolerance and spread awareness of the discrimination confronted by religious minorities. These efforts have been promoted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and, broadly speaking, aim to promote a more plural conception of society and a notion of Pakistani citizenship premised on equality.
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
AGHS Law Associates (Legal Aid Cell)
Human Rights Watch (UK)
Young Sheedi Welfare Organization (YSWO)
Sindhis and Mohajirs
World Sindhi Congress (UK)
South Asia Forum for Human Rights (Pakistan – Lahore Office)
Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (UK)
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News and updates
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- EVENT: An Overview of Online Hate Speech in Pakistan (27 September 2022)
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- Notes from Islamabad: How MRG is helping to build a new generation of actor-activists in Pakistan (1 June 2017)
- ‘Violent attacks and high levels of everyday discrimination’ – MRG launches new online resource on religious minorities in today’s Pakistan (20 October 2016)
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- Pakistan’s religious minorities ‘face acute levels of persecution’, warns new report (9 December 2014)
- Pakistan’s religious minorities ‘face acute levels of persecution’, warns new report (9 December 2014)
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- UN Human Rights Chief: Speech laws must strike balance (24 April 2013)
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- MRG condemns Quetta bombings, calls for swift and long-term initiatives to ensure protection for religious and ethnic minorities (21 February 2013)
- Time to act in Pakistan is now, say human rights organisations (1 November 2012)
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