On Tuesday, Punjab government spokesperson Fayyaz-ul-Hassan Chohan was asked to step down from his position following his derogatory comments against Hindus. During a speech on Monday, Chohan had targeted the religious beliefs of the Hindus amid the ongoing crisis with India.
Even though Chohan apologized and maintained that his comments were directed at the Indian media and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the social media uproar that included scathing criticism from the senior leadership of his own Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party meant that his sacking had become inevitable.
While in many countries across the world similar ramifications for such bigoted comments would be expected, especially for someone spearheading the information and culture ministry, for Pakistan Chohan’s removal carries historic significance.
More pertinently, the need for Pakistan to embrace religious pluralism had become an existential question, given that it has been marred by Islamist terrorism for the past couple of decades.
Jihadist militancy has thrived on Islamist supremacism, which has been perpetuated by the state to nourish its geostrategic militant assets in the region. However, that strategy has boomeranged on Pakistan with over 80,000 of its own citizens being killed by the erstwhile militant assets or groups overlapping with them.
These radical Islamist groups continue to hit the state in various shapes and sizes, with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) being a recent manifestation of it. The TLP’s use of tried and tested radical Islam has meant that two successive governments have capitulated to its demands.
Chohan’s sacking hints that the state is willing to readdress its Islamist narrative and replace it with one that promotes egalitarianism, which is the essence of any democratic country. With other progressive moves recently, like the acquittal of Asia Bibi following false blasphemy allegations and indeed the crackdown on the TLP as well, the state has definitely taken baby steps away from its masochist Islamist inertia.
Even so, Chohan’s removal carries historic significance because anti-Hindu bigotry isn’t a fringe opinion in the country or limited to proscribed India-bound militia. It has been etched in curricula and a part of the ubiquitous conspiracy theories.
Pakistan’s raison d’etre is based on the idea that Muslims and Hindus of the subcontinent are two different nationalities, since dubbed the Two Nation Theory. As a result, animosity against the Hindus has been regularly reinforced by the Pakistani state to justify its own birth.
Also given that Pakistan, throughout the course of its existence, has been an insecure state – especially post-1971 when it lost its eastern wing, which became Bangladesh – it has had to perpetuate the Pan-Islamic “ideology of Pakistan” to keep a stranglehold over a disintegrating populace bounded together by the idea of Muslim supremacy over others.
This has meant that over seven decades since Partition, Pakistan has continued to define itself through anti-Indianism, failing to create an identity for itself that wasn’t fabricated through Islam, resulting in the religious minorities bearing the brunt of the state’s failures.
While many have long suggested that Pakistan needs to abandon the 1940s divisive politics of the Muslim League as its rigid ideological position, and embrace a more progressive idea of nationalism, the state has largely failed to pull itself out of the Islamist quagmire it voluntarily jumped into.
Where Chohan’s sacking is a small step to undo the state’s bigoted past, it is worth reminding that echoes to revise Pakistan’s narrative had come under the previous Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) regime as well.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s inclusive Holi address in 2017, where he spoke about making religious diversity the state’s strength and maintained that Pakistan’s creation itself was against religious supremacism, came four months before he was formally ousted in what was a corollary of the military establishment’s differences with Sharif.
While current Prime Minister Imran Khan is deservedly lauded for his diplomatic efforts for reconciliation with India, Sharif’s attempts to do the same were met with allegations of being a traitor and “Modi ka yaar” (Modi’s friend) by his detractors, including Khan himself.
And where it’s evident that Sharif paid the price of looking to uphold civilian supremacy and, more critically, wanting to the government to be independent from the Army’s influence, Khan is very much on the same wavelength as the military establishment.
Does that mean that the Army is now okay with a religiously tolerant narrative? Possibly. What is more likely, given that a pluralistic Pakistani narrative would put the mullah-military nexus in jeopardy, is that the establishment is looking to capitalize on India succumbing to the hardline approach of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by presenting itself as the peacenik in the region, especially on the back of recent success in military skirmishes over its neighbor. The timing of the Kartarpur corridor’s opening suggests the same as well.
Therefore, Imran Khan’s real test would come when he has to walk the talk once the upcoming Indian general elections are over and the war hysteria dies down in the neighborhood.
Will the ongoing crackdown against Islamist militants, including India-bound jihadists, prove to be yet another measure designed for optics, or will Islamabad play an actual part in containing centrifugal militancy originating in Pakistan?
The establishment’s quest of internationalizing Kashmir along the lines of Afghanistan suggests that it would continue to mainstream India-bound militant assets. But perhaps the new narrative would solely be anti-India and not conflated with anti-Hindu bigotry.
Pakistan’s geostrategic double-play notwithstanding, the recreation of a pluralistic national identity for itself would be critical for its own survival. And Imran Khan’s own past apologia for radical Islam would be forgiven and forgotten if he can spearhead Pakistan’s shift toward sustained religious tolerance.