March 06, 2019
The Punjab’s information minister was supposedly flaunting his patriotism when he unleashed slurs against the followers of Hinduism during a press conference on February 24. The minister assured his audience that Pakistanis were superior to the Indians in terms of fighting – because of their Muslim faith. A slur that was supposed to be directed at India targeted Hinduism and its rituals instead, thanks to the minister’s intelligence. He probably forgot the difference between India and Hinduism.
There was not even the slightest hint that the Punjab government’s “eloquent” spokesman cared about the fact that 2 million Pakistani citizens profess Hinduism. He simply didn’t care. It was a stone-cold disregard for the sensitivities of Pakistan’s Hindu population. And tragically such an irresponsible and dangerous behavior is no longer shocking to us. There is a pattern of this behavior, rooted in the culture of impunity. The minister was most likely sure he won’t be held accountable for his harangue.
The destruction of a community does not happen overnight. It follows a long process of dehumanization in which a vulnerable part of the population is portrayed as the “other” or “subhuman”. Genocide studies expert Jacqueline Murekatete observes that people do not just wake up one day and want to systematically murder their neighbors. Mass persecution of a community occurs in certain conditions built up over years.
Mindless rhetoric wrapped in sham patriotism and targeted at people’s religious or ethnic identities can have grave consequences. Such an irresponsible practice is particularly alarming for a society that has been bruised and traumatized by violent extremism. A public office holder should be the last person on earth to use his words publicly as carelessly as the information minister did.
The problem with invoking hatred on the bases of faith, race, or ethnicity is that the victim is almost always the minority. History shows that such a criminal practice has often led to massive atrocities against the minorities. From the genocide of the Armenians a century ago to the recent mass murders of the Yazdis under ISIS all the victims were minorities in their countries. And the destruction of a community does not happen overnight. It follows a long process of dehumanization in which a vulnerable part of the population is portrayed as the “other” or “subhuman”. Genocide studies expert Jacqueline Murekatete observes that people do not just wake up one day and want to systematically murder their neighbors. Mass persecution of a community occurs in certain conditions built up over years.
A study of genocides during the past decades suggests the decimation of a community is often not a deliberate policy. It is just a hideous byproduct of a dehumanization process that precedes the actual violence. For example, the Hutu politicians in Rwanda termed the rebels of minority Tutsi community as “cockroaches” in the 1960. By early 1990s the term became an ethnic slur applicable to all Tutsis – rebels, civilians, men, women, and children. And two years later, the majority Hutus descended on the Tutsi community with machetes which resulted in the Rwandan genocide – an irremovable blot on modern history. Slaughtered bodies of men, women, and children clogged the roads and villages in Rwanda. Over 500,000 were murdered.
Susan Benesch writes in the World Policy Journal that each modern case of genocide has been preceded by a propaganda campaign directed by a handful of political leaders and transmitted via mass media. If such propaganda could be stopped – or their masterminds deterred – genocide might be averted. Similarly, Professor Helen Fein says before genocide can occur, one group of people must re-categorize another group of people as outsider. The dominant group must come to see the victims as subhuman.
We have seen the degrading of vulnerable people to subhuman in history. The Nazi leaders termed the Jews as germs and pest; the Hutus called their rivals as cockroaches; Serb President Slobodan Milosevic called the Muslims ‘black crows’ and his anti-Muslim hate campaign ultimately led to the Srebrenica massacre of the Bosnians. Dehumanizing of any population by political leaders can have a heavy price for the victims who often pay with their lives. And life is all they have, in most cases.
In Pakistan, one doesn’t have to have a super memory to recall how frequently people belonging to minority communities have been trampled by violent mob in recent years. Sometimes a slight incitement to violence has quickly transformed into major human tragedies. With insensitive and irresponsible behavior over years, we have created pockets of dehumanized populations that we can take care of if the situation warrants.
In 2011, a study by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom revealed that textbooks in Pakistani schools foster prejudice and intolerance of Hindus and other religious minorities. It also found that most school teachers viewed non-Muslims as “enemies of Islam”. The study’s findings might have turned some heads here or raised some eyebrows there, but they hardly contained anything shocking for an ordinary Pakistani citizen who has been through the country’s schooling system. The study only reaffirmed what Pakistani historian K. K. Aziz wrote long ago in the ‘Murder of History’.
The latest anti-Hinduism harangue of the Punjab information minister should ring alarms in the heads of the people in the higher helms because a society already fractured by terrorism and violent extremism cannot give a free pass to the kind of insensitivity shown by the minister. If we are to avert a tragedy in future, we have to act today. Let the information minister be the last elected official spewing hatred against his own citizens with impunity. This impunity must end now.