In the Capital Development Authority’s (CDA’s) explanation for the demolition of Christian slums in Islamabad, traces of why Pakistan’s Christian community faces so much persecution become apparent. Viewed as an unwanted and unclean minority, Pakistan’s Muslim majority population sees Christians almost in terms of untouchables. This has led to generations of discrimination that has left Christians in Pakistan poor, uneducated, and persecuted. What has to happen to turn this trend around? What investment must be made in Pakistan’s Christian population to break out of this discrimination and allow them to advance in Pakistan?
12/8/2015 Pakistan (Daily Times) – In its badly spelled official response to an inquiry by the Supreme Court (SC) on the spate of katchi abadi (slums) demolitions, the Capital Development Authority (CDA) shamelessly betrayed the ignominious bigotry deeply ingrained in the institutions of Pakistan. Amidst the plethora of poorly articulated and illogical assertions, one despicable ‘justification’ for this energetic trend of razing informal settlements took the cake for being the most blatantly odious. The CDA earnestly observed how “Most katchi abadis are under the occupation of the Christian community” and thus constituted an encroaching demographic threat to the pristine Muslim majority of the capital city. The CDA duly presents itself as an unabashed noble protector of the ‘Islam’ in Islamabad, even if it is impossible to imagine a reality where a disenfranchised and marginal group can in any way present a credible ‘threat’ to the well-being of an overwhelming majority. The rest of the response goes on to rue how Islamabad — formerly one of the most beautiful cities in the world, apparently — has come to “resemble ugly villages” and that removing these katchi abadis was necessary to give the “citizens of the city” a better environment. The implication is clear: Christians as a group can never be conceived of as anything more than filthy outcasts unworthy of being given even the most rudimentary rights and protections afforded to ‘real citizens’.
It should be clear with this disarmingly frank admission of the CDA that such drives are not simple by-products of a ‘value-neutral’ desire to achieve development and curb illegal land occupation. The drive to render swathes of people homeless overnight without regard for their shelter and safety is underscored by a particular vision of development that would service only a select class. It is characterized by a state that engages with its people not as individuals but as ‘essentialised’ groups of desirables and undesirables. The document is coded with an entire history of oppression and though it is reprehensible and farcical, it is also important as evidence of institutionalized prejudice. The state-led drive to raze the largely Christian occupied katchi abadis is inarguably consistent with the more palpable ‘private’ acts of intolerance and targeted violence, like the attacks on Gojra, Joseph Colony and Youhanabad, since they all germinate from the same milieu where Christians are viewed and treated as inherently inferior.
The Christians of Pakistan, who barely make up two percent of the population, are pejoratively referred to as chuhras in regular parlance but few are aware that this demeaning term was once the name of the Hindu caste from which most Christians in Pakistan descend. The emergence of indigenous South Asian Christians was a consequence of the colonial state’s desire to render a diverse Indian populace ‘knowable’, thereby starting the practice of census taking, which solidified previously fluid identities on the basis of ‘inescapable’ caste characteristics. The chuhra caste was one such group of predominantly landless people in the larger Punjab region who found themselves stuck being labelled ‘untouchable’ and ‘impure’, and entirely at the mercy of powerful patrons. The same colonial enterprise that condemned them to a fixed identity also offered a chance of escape: after 1875, entire communities of chuhras started to convert to Christianity en masse one after another in a bid to escape their lowly status as promised by the stream of missionaries descending on Indian soil. Within a few decades, the number of Christians went from less than a few thousand to almost half a million, and under the auspices of the church the emerging community got access to its own villages, health services and education.
When Pakistan came into being based on an exclusionary movement, the Christians suddenly found themselves in a precarious position and lacking the previous cushion of state patronage. Despite the fact that Pakistani books denigrate Hinduism and talk up Islam’s egalitarian spirit, Pakistan’s social systems have a wholly unacknowledged caste-based paradigm. The tragedy of the chuhras is that though they gave up their original religion and strove for generations to shed the ‘untouchable’ label, they are never allowed to escape their historical position and are constantly objectified as intrinsically ‘unclean’. Waste management has become the sole preserve of this community and every governmental job listing the position of ‘janitor’ comes with an asterisk signifying that only Christians are allowed to apply. They cannot be imagined as having aspirations beyond base servility.
Because they are ‘unclean’, Christians are effectively ghettoized and consigned to their own insecurely held pockets within a hostile urban landscape. These ghettos, whether ‘formal’ like Joseph Colony in Lahore or ‘informal’ like the katchi abadis of Islamabad under threat, at once act as a jail and a sanctuary where they can observe and preserve their religious practices relatively unobstructed. But being conceived of as ‘inferior’ is a potent tool in perpetuating and normalizing acts of extreme violence against the group, which go unpunished and unprosecuted by an apathetic criminal justice system. Born poor and to a minority held in contempt, the Christians cannot hope to have access to the state’s protection and even the aforementioned ‘sanctuary’ is distinctly vulnerable.
During a research project to investigate the razing of Joseph Colony in March 2013, I encountered local residents from surrounding neighborhoods, denizens of the markets, members of the police and union councils. Consistent in all the interviews was the invocation of tropes that caricatured Christians as filthy criminals who spread the vices of gambling and alcohol, and deserved to be punished for ruining the moral fabric of the surrounding areas. It was clear that the small portion of land occupied by the colony in a large steel market was deeply resented and the pretext of blasphemy was all the ammunition needed to activate a mob to run out a whole community. The attack on Joseph Colony was but one fortuitously non-fatal example; if one sets out to compile a list of brazen, unpunished attacks on Christian individuals or communities by sickening hordes eager to assert their credentials of ‘piety’ — as I did — one would come away with hundreds of pages and the deepest sense of despair.