To build or not to build a temple – in Pakistan

Mahendra Ved

Going by conflicting trends on social media, one saying ‘Mandir Tau Banega’ (Temple will be constructed) and the other, ‘Mandir Nahin Banega’, (Temple will not be constructed), the road to Pakistan’s first Hindu temple seems long, controversial and full of uncertainties.

The temple is to come up as part of a community complex for the federal capital’s 3,000-plus Hindus on a four kanal plot in Sector H-9/2 that the Hindus have been given possession. However, there are objections and some youths even vandalized the temporary fencing around the temple site. Clips of the attack and a person offering ‘azan’ went viral on social media.

Mufti Zia-ud-Din of the Lahore chapter of Jamia Ashrafia, a leading cleric in Pakistan, has issued a fatwa against the construction of the temple by calling it “un-Islamic.” The fatwa, issued initially when the federal grant was approved, also states that according to Sharia laws, it is not permitted for non-Muslims to build their new worship places or rebuild those, which were in ruins as “this is a sin in an Islamic state.”

Minorities in Pakistan

The issue reflects the inner contradictions in Pakistan, an Islamic Republic. Of the estimated 221 million Pakistani citizens, over 96 percent are Muslim and around 1.85 percent are Hindus – although the Pakistan Hindu Council claims the latter number to be much higher.

Pakistan has only pre-partition shrines for Hindu, Christian and Sikhs; some of these are historic and serve the country’s dwindling minorities. According to the Evacuee Trust Property Board of the Government of Pakistan, there are approximately 1,300 temples in the country with only 30 considered currently functional.

According to a recent report in The Express Tribune, “over the years, temples have vanished from Pakistan’s largest city (Karachi), their remnants both a reminder of the past and a foretelling of a bleaker future for the port city’s Hindus”.

The federal cabinet under Prime Minister Imran Khan cleared Rs. 100 million (£500,000 or $630,685) worth of state funding on June 27. Following this, the Minister for Religious Affairs, Noorul Haq Qadri, told the National Assembly that there was “no question” about the temple, but about the ability of the government funding. The minister had himself sought the grant from the cabinet after meeting a delegation of Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) belonging to Hindu and Christian minorities, including Lal Chand Malhi, Dr. Ramesh Vankwani, Jai Prakash Ukrani, Shunila Ruth, and James Thomas.

The Islamabad High Court on July 8 rejected a bunch of petitions questioning the government’s move from political, constitutional, religious, civic and administrative standpoints. The Ulema Council of Pakistan, a body of the Islamic clergy has approved of the government’s decision.

The government told the court that the issue had been referred to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) on whether Muslim taxpayer’s money can be used, for construction of the temple. CII Chairman Qibla Ayaz has acknowledged the receipt of the ministry’s letter and he forwarded it to the council’s research department to formulate an opinion. CII is a statutory body and the construction of the temple can only begin if the CII gives a favorable decision.

Clearly, the government’s decision has been praised by some while some radical religious groups spoke against it. Some even threatened to kill the Hindus. Those in support point out that the taxpayers’ money would be used and they include members of religious minorities as well.

Pakistan’s political right and the Islamists say a shrine for a religious minority in the Islamic Republic is against Islam. The Holy Quran and the Hadith is being quoted in support. 

Imran Khan – a liberal?

Prime Minister Khan is considered personally a liberal, but his politics have been deeply conservative. He had supported the Taliban while in the opposition. However, projecting Pakistan as “a symbol of hope and tolerance, away from its violent sectarian past” has been part of the election promise that he made in the 2018 elections.  He had also promised to improve conditions for Pakistan’s religious minorities.

While conditions in the ground have remained largely unchanged, Pakistan under Khan has played to the Western gallery by curbing militants like Hafiz Saeed, who heads the proscribed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and ensured freedom for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted and jailed for long years on the charge of blasphemy.

The government’s move on the temple, some media commentators suggest, is to show Pakistan in a better light in comparison with India, which is seen as being driven by Hindutva forces that are against India’s religious minorities. In The Express Tribune (July 13, 2020), columnist Umair Zafar Malik states: “The very foundations of Pakistan lay in the desire of a religious minority to escape persecution and create a homeland where they would not face social, political or economic discrimination.”

Opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) of the three-time premier Nawaz Sharif has supported the government’s temple move. However, the political right has echoed criticisms like that of the religious right. The Speaker of the Punjab Assembly along with other political leaders has voiced strong contestations against the construction stating that it is against Islam and an insult to the Islamic kingdom.

In Dawn (July 10, 2020), political worker, writer, and teacher, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, criticized those who are opposing the temple project. “The temple may eventually be built, but the hateful and threatening polemic which comes to the fore around such issues is endemic. Hateful polemic is, in fact, just the tip of the iceberg; in both the past and present, churches have been burned down, Hindu and Christian girls and women forcibly converted and married off, unnamed and unseen thousands suffered lynching and targeted killings…”

 â€œâ€¦the temple episode is also instructive because it provides both insight into the deep penetration of state ideology into society, segments of which now propagate religious supremacy as a matter of course, as well as the distinct material interests associated with places of religious worship.” 

The New Arab (July 10, 2020) quoted the Amnesty International: “Halting the construction of a Hindu temple in Islamabad is an unconscionable act of bigotry that must be reversed immediately. Everyone has a right to freedom of religion or belief, a right that is guaranteed in Pakistan’s constitution and its international obligations.” –South Asia Monitor

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