Sectarian Violence in Pakistan: The Minority Discourse

Many years ago, when the representatives of newly created Pakistan had assembled to decide the framework of their future constitution, words of caution had rung out. In the moments leading up to the passage of the Objectives Resolution of 1949, Sris Chandra Chattopadhyay, the leader of the opposition in the Constituent Assembly had said, “By introducing the religious question, the differences between the majority and the minority are being perpetuated, for how long, nobody knows … I say, give up this division of the people into Muslims and non-Muslims and let us call ourselves one nation. Let us call ourselves one people of Pakistan.”

But his plea was ignored. Pakistan was divided, legally and discursively, into majority and minority. As Chattopadhyay had predicted in the rest of his speech, “Pakistani” became linked to “Muslim” and non-Muslims could not appeal to a shared Pakistani identity for protection. Non-Muslim Pakistanis and their advocates had to fall back on the unpopular discourse of minority protection.

Today, when Shias in Pakistan are facing an unprecedented bloodbath, liberals have rallied with the same slogans of protecting religious minorities. Suddenly, the unfortunate fate of Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, and Shia “minorities” are all being condemned in one breath. In 1949, no one would have dreamed of speaking about the Shia “minority”. Yet today, Shias are relocated and subsumed without comment into the discourse of minority.

Sunni extremists on the right have been trying for decades to evict Shias from the fold of Islam. Liberals, while condemning these efforts, do not realize that their minority discourse is contributing to that very process. Subtract all the minorities in the liberal’s list and you find revealed the Sunni majority, the same majority the extreme right has been trying to bring about.

Then why insist on recasting Shias as a minority? Perhaps because it is a readymade discourse that the liberals can mobilize in their defense. But it is also a discourse proven to be politically ineffectual. Chattopadhyay had recognized this long ago. In calling for the abolition of majority/minority distinction he had also understood the constructed and mutable nature of these categories. He would not be surprised at the reconstitution of these seemingly fixed and self-evident categories that is taking place today. He would, I am sure, be confounded by liberals’ uncritical affirmation of this process, when the way forward is not to create more minorities but rather to do away with this discourse entirely.

This is a guest post by Shayan, a student at Tufts University.