LIFE Summer Fellowship reflections: From 23% to 4% of the population, Pakistani religious minorities continue to suffer

This is the first blog post in a series written by the 2021 recipients of the Duke University Libraries Summer Research Fellowship for LIFE Students. Priyah Parkash is a senior majoring in Economics and Statistical Science. 

I grew up as a Hindu attending a Catholic school in the Muslim-majority country of Pakistan, where minorities form only about four percent of the population. Although I was privileged to grow up in diverse subcultures that have conditioned the nuanced layers of my identity and facilitated a multicultural outlook, the reality for minorities as a whole in Pakistan is rather grim.

Religion in Pakistan is the source of political legitimacy and the basis for the state’s identity; throughout Pakistan’s short history, it has demonstrated itself to be an explosive force when it is used to shape culture, social institutions and the state itself, embroiling the nation in Hindu-Muslim riots, inter-sectarian violence, forced conversions and other religiously-related conflicts. Religion is not a popular subject for discussion without tension and there is a repeated pattern of our national leaders dismissing the contributions of religious minorities to our nation and treating them as second-class citizens. However, Hindus of Pakistan did not migrate from present-day India but were the original rulers and inhabitants of the land surrounding the river Indus that constitutes Pakistan today and have actively contributed to the region’s culture and development throughout history. However, this history is intentionally ignored as Pakistan’s Constitution, political and economic institutions systematically disadvantage religious minorities. For example, the Pakistani Constitution explicitly prevents non-Muslims from running for the office of the President and the Prime Minister of Pakistan .

Although religious minorities in Pakistan have suffered discrimination since the inception of Pakistan, the human rights abuses suffered by minorities over the last four decades have reached an all-time high as the state has increasingly moved to the right with the institutionalization of Islamization in the quest for legitimacy and national cohesiveness. This has further led to the development of state apparatus that further disadvantages non-Muslim citizens by exposing them to legal prosecution and extrajudicial persecution in the form of blasphemy laws, forced conversions, target killings, and desecration of temples, etc.

Through the Duke University Libraries LIFE Undergraduate Research Grant, I set out to delve deeper into the history of religious minorities of Pakistan and see if their experiences and status could be demarcated into different phases that parallel the trends in their emigration numbers using a variety of library resources such as government documents, books, journal articles, and newspaper records. In this process, I also hoped to shed light on the contributions of Pakistani minorities to the country’s economic, strategic, and cultural development.

This deep dive helped me recognize that Pakistan’s history pertaining to religious minorities can be divided into three distinct phases. The first phase lasting from 1947 to 1972 was characterized by protection of the freedom and rights of religious minorities, when religious minorities formed approximately 23% of the Pakistani population; the second phase saw a contraction of this protection as a result of the new formal constitution; the third and the current phase began with the institutionalization of Islamization under the martial law regime of Zia-ul-Haq and saw the ascension of radical religious forces that sought to reorder public and private life in line with a fundamentalist conception of an Islamic state, causing the minority emigration rates to skyrocket.

This summer research project also drew my attention to the status of non-Muslim Pakistani women as “double minorities”. For my next project, I wish to elevate minority women and give them a voice by collecting and sharing their stories of silent suffering, rebellion, perseverance and revolution.

My personal research experiences, both this summer and in the past, have not only pushed me out of my comfort zone but also enhanced my emotional intelligence and equipped me with the skills of weaving my way through complex rationale, mediating between conflicting viewpoints, and seeking commonalities, which will prove valuable, regardless of what I decide to pursue next.

If you are someone who has a subject area that they are interested in, regardless of how bizarre or controversial it might be, I encourage you to take a leap of faith and pursue your research interests. Use the Duke network and resources around you, voice your ideas, seek feedback, and get comfortable with the idea of being a leaf in the wind—you may not always be able to answer what you set out to explore, but you might end up in a whole new world of exciting (research) possibilities and perhaps discover a new area that you didn’t originally think you would be interested in.

I am deeply grateful to Duke Libraries for funding my research and allowing me to use their resources this summer. I would also like to recognize my faculty mentor Dr. Ellen McLarney and Duke librarians Carson Holloway and Arianne Hartsell-Gundy, without whose mentorship and support this project would not have been possible. I intend to continue to further the cause of religious minorities in Pakistan and around the world through research and applied projects and look forward to the upcoming discoveries and milestones.

 

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