Blasphemy of Aasia Bibi: How Pakistan’s Christians went from cheerleaders of Partition to its victims
Pakistani Christian woman Aasia Noreen, who spent nine years on death row after being accused of blasphemy, is a free person at last, but her community is everywhere in chains in Pakistan. Christians, who make up around 2 per cent of Pakistan’s population, occupy one of the lowest rungs in the country’s class-bound society. Largely ghettoised, they live in slums and are condemned to working menial jobs as sweepers and toilet cleaners. Christians such as Noreen also face daily discrimination in their villages where their mere touch or presence is considered polluting.
It was a combination of religious fanaticism and social intolerance that led to Noreen and her family’s decade long trauma. In June 2009, Noreen, also known as Aasia Bibi, was harvesting berries in Sheikhupura, Pakistani Punjab, when she was asked by her Muslim co-workers to fetch water from a nearby well. While doing so she took a drink herself – a perfectly natural act, considering the sweltering heat of summer. One of the Muslim women named Musarat, who had been involved in a property dispute with Noreen’s family, saw her and told her it was forbidden for a Christian to drink water from the same utensil from which Muslims drink.
Some of the Muslim women also said they considered her to be unclean because she was a Christian. According to Noreen, when her co-workers made derogatory statements about Christianity and demanded she convert to Islam, she responded: “I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind? And why should it be me that converts instead of you?”
Fired by her religious zeal and perhaps believing in the superiority of her Christian faith, and her humiliation by her Muslims co-workers acting as the catalyst, it is understandable why Noreen would make such a rash and dangerous statement. But while she may have got away with her statement in India – where Christians routinely abuse Hindu Gods and Goddesses – in the ‘Land of the Pure’ people have been lynched for much less. In a country where the discovery of torn pages of the Koran can lead to mob violence and murder, Noreen had said the unspeakable. When she was arrested and presented at court, the prosecution said it would not say or write her exact words in the charge sheet because the mere mention of the blasphemy charge would be considered blasphemy.
It is a measure of how strongly Pakistanis feel about Noreen that she spent much of her prison time in solitary confinement over fears she could be attacked by a guard or another prisoner. In fact, two politicians who defended her were assassinated; and in one of those cases the killer Mumtaz Qadri was raised to the status of a saint.
The reality is that Pakistani Christians are paying the price of backing the Partition of India in 1947. Indian Christians, who should have been loyal to the country of their birth, were more enthusiastic than the Muslims about breaking India. This proves Swami Vivekananda’s statement that the moment a Hindu converts to Christianity, his love for the motherland is replaced by loyalty to his Western masters. Alluding to the threat presented by converts, he said: “Every man going out of the Hindu pale is not only a man less, but an enemy the more.”
Indian Christians played the role of India’s enemy to the hilt. In a paper titled ‘The Role of Christians in the Freedom Movement of Pakistan’ Munir-ul-Anjum and Shahnaz Tariq write that the Christians supported Mohammed Ali Jinnah and All India Muslim League when there was substantial opposition to Partition within the Muslim community. Some Muslims especially the religious leaders did not hesitate to dub Jinnah as the British agent. The Christians paid no heed to these remarks and continued supporting Jinnah. (1)
Christian leaders who played a significant role in the Pakistan Movement were Dewan Bahadur S.P. Singha (speaker of the united Punjab Assembly later speaker of the western Punjab Assembly), Advocate Chaudhry Chandu Lal, Fazal Elahi, photographer journalist F.E. Chaudhry and B.L. Ralia Ram.
How it panned out
In accordance with the Cabinet Mission plan for the partition of India after the 1946 general elections, Muslims voted for the Muslim League in support of creation of Pakistan. In 1947 the provincial assemblies were to decide the issue of partition. When Punjab Assembly was asked to vote, it was equally split.
Pakistani author Dr Samiullah Koreshi explains the role played by Christians at this critical juncture in India’s history: “At that time S.K. Singha, a Christian was the speaker of the Punjab Assembly. He cast the casting vote for Pakistan. Thus he played a role in Punjab going to Pakistan. On this occasion, Master Tara Singh jumped out of the assembly waving his kirpan as a signal for taking revenge on Muslims. His words were reported by the press. Thus, a Christian vote led to the democratic choice in making Punjab a part of Pakistan.” (2)
Referring to the “sympathetic role Christians played during the Pakistan movement”, Koreshi points out that Mohammed Ali Jinnah “appointed a Christian, Pothan Joseph, as the first editor of Dawn, Delhi, the only main English language daily to promote Pakistan movement”.
Pakistan got Punjab, thanks to Christians
According to Munir-ul-Anjum and Shahnaz Tariq, “The support of Christians for the cause of Pakistan was based on their belief that the Muslim society in its nature was more secular than the caste ridden Hindu society hence more permissive for the rights and safe guards of the religious minorities.” (3)
“Christians strongly supported Quaid-e-Azam and Muslim League at that critical time when there was lot of opposition to the formation a new Muslim state. The All India Christian Association assured unconditional full cooperation to the founder of Pakistan. This crucial role of Christian population of the region was recognised by the founder of Pakistan and the All India Muslim League at all levels. These Christians played a very strong role in the creation of Pakistan….The Christian vote before the Boundary Commission was the only decisive vote for the true foundation of Pakistan. Christian leaders voted for Pakistan because they believed that Quaid-e-Azam would be the real protector of their rights and interests.”
In the last days of united India, Jinnah visited Lahore – where many Christians lived – as a part of his campaign to fetch the support of the minorities. He met the Christian leader Chandu Lal and Sikh leader Giani Kartar Singh. The Sikh leader turned down his offer while Chandu Lal declared unconditional support of the Christians for Pakistan. When the resolution to join Pakistan or India was moved and voted upon in the Punjab Legislative Assembly, the three Christian members voted in favour of Pakistan and saved the situation. Eighty-eight and 91 votes were cast in favour of India and Pakistan respectively. In this way the three Christian votes decided the fate of the province.
The Christian community as an expression of affection for Jinnah arranged many historical receptions in his honour for supporting his cause.
More loyal than Muslims
In the early 1930s when Cambridge undergraduate Chaudhry Rahmat Ali came up with the idea and name of Pakistan, it was an Indian Christian who first backed the idea with his own spin. Well known Christian leader Joshua Fazal-ul-Din wrote in the daily Inqilab that the areas comprising present day Pakistan had a direct relationship with Central Asia and therefore had no connection with the rest of India. He said that he was “in harmony with Rahmat Ali regarding the separation of this territory from India as it was in accordance with the voice of God”.
Pointing out the significance of Joshua Fazal-ul-Din’s support, Munir-ul-Anjum and Shahnaz Tariq write: “It is worth noting that at the time when the idea of Pakistan was considered as the brainchild of Rahmat Ali and many prominent Muslim leaders treated it as childish and impracticable, Rehmat Ali impressed by the statement of Joshua Fazal-ul-Din wrote in a later article that Pakistan would be a democratic country and all of its citizens irrespective of their colour, race or religion would be equal in the affairs of the government.” (4)
Either Joshua Fazal-ul-Din was a complete fool or he was possessed by some kind of Abrahamic zeal to split India so that it would not be led by Hindus in a democratic form of government. Perhaps in his Christian worldview – which is shared by the likes of demagogue Kancha Illiah and many Indian Christians – only if India splits up into hundreds of small units would it be easier for Muslims and Christians to conquer it for Christ and Allah.
In 1928 an all-parties conference was held at Kolkata to deliberate about the future constitutional arrangement in India which could be acceptable to all concerned. This conference appointed a committee headed by Motilal Nehru to propose a constitutional formula which could achieve the agreement of all the communities. The committee presented its report which is known as the Nehru Report, but Jinnah rejected it saying that Hindus by virtue of their overwhelming majority could dominate all other communities.
The All India Christian Conference along with other minorities also rejected the report, expressing their lack of confidence in the Hindu leadership. In their unwitting stinging indictment of Indian Christians, Munir-ul-Anjum and Shahnaz Tariq write: “Well before the presentation of the Nehru Report, when Iqbal was claiming that ‘Hindustan is the best in the whole world; we are its nightingales and it is our home’, and Jinnah was portrayed as the ‘Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’ by Sarojini Naidu, at that the moment a Christian leader Joshua Fazal-ud-Din was very much clear and said that those believing in Hindu-Muslim unity were living in a fool paradise as any such attempt would make India a war place. (5)
Gurdaspur must go to Pakistan
Not content with breaking India, the Christians denounced and condemned the “unfair” distribution of Punjab province more forcefully even than the Muslims and tried their best to get the districts of Pathankot and Gurdaspur – currently in India – included in Pakistan.
When the proceedings of the Boundary Commission took place, Christian leaders S.P. Singha, C.E Gibbon (an Anglo Indian) and Fazal Elahi, in their recorded statement, demanded that for the demarcation of the boundaries, the Christian population be included and termed as Muslim population.
Chaudhary Chandu Lal served as a lawyer for the Christian community. He visited Pathankot and Gurdaspur and got a resolution passed by the Christian population in these districts to the effect that they wanted to be included in Pakistan. C.E. Gibbon appeared before the Boundary Commission to demand that Lahore must be part of western Punjab and that all the Anglo Indian Christians be transported to Pakistan as it was considered to be their final destiny. When the Radcliffe Award was announced in August 1947, it was taken by the Christian as a tailored decision aimed to create problems for Pakistan economy while facilitating Indian occupation of Kashmir. (6)
S.P. Singha raised his voice against the award, saying that as the principle of majority had been brutally crushed, it was one sided and unfair to Pakistan. Clearly hypocritical, because the same Christians had earlier rejected Hindu majority rule.
When the storm of Partition arrived, it totally shattered Punjab. While Sikhs and Hindus became the biggest victims of Islamic jehad unleashed by Muslim League goons, the Christians who had hoped to benefit from the exodus of Hindus and Sikhs were left holding the pan. Christian leaders were practically salivating at the prospect of getting some of the land abandoned but they got nothing. In retrospect that was kind of expected as Muslims are clear to this day that because Pakistan was created for India’s Muslims, other communities should not expect anything.
Some 60,000 Christian families who had been tenants of Sikh landlords were now homeless and without employment. Much of the evacuee land had been distributed among the Muslim refugees, and each family had received from six to eight acres, but these Christians who had managed to make out a living under the Sikh landlords had been ignored completely and whatever little land they tilled has been given over to the refugees.
And yet Singha behaved in a churlish manner. Instead of holding to task the new rulers of his chosen country – which had effectively disenfranchised and pauperised the entire Christian community – he blamed the Sikhs. Speaking in the Punjab legislature on January 20, 1948 he deplored the Sikhs for leaving for India, and “for leaving behind a legacy of misery and suffering for the Christians”.
Seeing the ground slip away under the feet of the Christians as their chosen homeland showed its true jehadi face, C.E. Gibbon said in the Punjab legislature: “I beg to ask for leave to make a motion for the adjournment of the business of the House to discuss a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the grave situation arising out of the policy of the Government in respect of the wholesale eviction of Christian Sepis Athirst and tenants from their home holdings and lands without providing any alternative means of shelter and livelihood, thus rendering nearly 3 lakhs of Christians homeless and on the verge of starvation, the consequences of which are too horrible to imagine.” (7)
Modern day Abrahamic hell
Pakistan is a hell for its people, especially those who are non-Muslim. Noreen’s case became a cause celebre because she was incarcerated. Had she been lynched, which is the most common fate of those accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, she would have merited a single column mention in an Urdu paper. Even children are not spared – in February 1995, two Christians were sentenced to death on dubious charges of blasphemy; one of the accused, Salamat Masih, was 13 years old. In 2012, Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl suffering from Down Syndrome, was wrongly accused of burning the Koran. After months of hiding in Pakistan, she was relocated.
In view of the growing Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistani society, things are likely to get much worse before – or if at all – they get better. The number of blasphemy cases has risen in direct proportion to the incremental stringency of the laws. There were only a handful of such cases until 1984, when Zia barred Ahmadis from using Islamic terminology and made blasphemy punishable with life imprisonment. Nawaz Sharif’s government did one better in 1992 by changing the punishment for blasphemy into a mandatory death penalty. Accusations of blasphemy against non-Muslims, more often than not, provide a moral cover for settling personal scores. No one is safe from the charge in Islamic Pakistan, says Ayesha Jalal.
In April 1994, the Lahore High Court extended the scope of the blasphemy laws to all the prophets mentioned in the Koran, including Jesus, underlining the judiciary’s bias toward religious extremists. As Muslims firmly reject Christ’s divinity, the ruling endangers the lives of Pakistan’s Christians. (8)
Aasia may have made the great escape but nearly two million Pakistani Christians continue to pay the price for their leaders’ great betrayal of their motherland. It is a lesson to modern day Indian Christians who – prodded by their Western masters – reflexively hate Hinduism. Christians are safe in India only as long as Hindus are a majority. If Muslims ever take control of the country through demographic warfare, they will erase Christianity from India. If you have any doubts just look across the border. Remember, Pakistan is India without Hinduism.
- Munir-ul-Anjum and Shahnaz Tariq, Pakistan Journal of Social Sciences Vol. 32, No. 2, page 441
- Dawn, https://www.dawn.com/news/1144099
- Munir-ul-Anjum and Shahnaz Tariq, Pakistan Journal of Social Sciences Vol. 32, No. 2, page 337
- Munir-ul-Anjum and Shahnaz Tariq, Pakistan Journal of Social Sciences Vol. 32, No. 2, page 439
- Munir-ul-Anjum and Shahnaz Tariq, Pakistan Journal of Social Sciences Vol. 32, No. 2, page 440
- Munir-ul-Anjum and Shahnaz Tariq, Pakistan Journal of Social Sciences Vol. 32, No. 2, page 441
- Punjab Legislative Assembly Debates, 30 April 1952, Vol-IV, p. 132.
- Ayesha Jalal, The Struggle for Pakistan
Featured Image: express.co.uk