By Sankar Ray
Twenty-seven year-old Sonia Riasat is the lone Christian employee in any government office along with a dozen sanitation workers in municipalities in the whole of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, which in India is known as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. She has a postgraduate degree in English literature and has been working there since 2009. But a substantive status or confirmation of permanent appointment remains a distant dream. She has to be “busy receiving and transferring telephone calls to prime minister and other officials working there” at a dank and dark telephone exchange room of the Prime Minister’s House in Muzaffarabad.
“Some people who started their careers with me were confirmed within six months of their appointment. I have filed many applications to higher authorities, including the prime minister. He was very helpful and granted a relaxation in the rules, which bar my confirmation as a non-state subject,” she laments stating that many colleagues who joined after her had been promoted all these years. “But for reasons known only to the authorities, I am unable to get confirmation as a permanent employee,” she added.
Although for decades Christians in AJK had to cope with odd jobs with daily or piece-rated wages in government departments, especially municipalities, thus making it difficult to keep from a wolf at the door. Sparingly few of them could educate their children to help them secure better jobs in public and private sectors. Saqib Javed Raja, a civil rights activist from Mirpur, says that many Christian families living in Bhimber before Partition in 1947 had property rights, but the majority of Christians are deprived of such rights.
Until 2005, there was no graveyard for Christians in Muzaffarabad. It was only when a family carrying the body of its daughter who succumbed to a road accident that killed seven was going to Sialkot that the government allocated some land for a Christian cemetery in Makri village, near Muzaffarabad. Of late, some land was allotted for Catholic and Protestant churches too.
Azadi is severely restricted to Ahmadiyya and Bahai community Muslims. They were declared as non-Muslim minorities through a constitutional amendment by the AJL government and the discriminatory amendment — the 12th Amendment in Interim Constitution of Azad Jammu and Kashmir — was passed unanimously in February 2018. Fanatic anathema of Sunni Islam against other sects of Muslims in Pakistan was evident when Islamabad denounced Pakistani Nobel laureate physicist Abdus Salam (born at Jhang Maghiāna, East Punjab) whose name is linked to the subatomic ‘God particle’. A non-hero at home, the only Nobel laureate in science in the Indian subcontinent in post-colonial era remained censored for three decades in school textbooks where his name too was stricken from. Two prime ministers – let alone the military dictators – kept him ignored. Appeal from a section of scientists at home, backed by non-resident Pakistani scientists created a wake-up call for the rulers for ending the ‘humanimalistic seclusionism’. Salam, who spent his life at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, rechristened as the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, was posthumously honoured, But it was less than symbolic as ostracisation of Ahmadiyyas remains unaltered.
Lahore-based The Friday Times carried an expose, authored by Jalaluddin Mughal, on denial of rights to Ahmadiyas, Bahais and Christians in AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan. In Gilgit-Baltistan, sectarian violence is endemic. UK-based Kashmiri scholar Amina Mir accuses AJK government of suppression of ‘information about the number of followers of any particular religion. One can easily see how a particular sect has dominated the policymaking process,” snapping fingers at the dominant Sunni Muslims.
Reports of population census (2017) pertaining to AJK and GB are yet to be made public. “The state has also not yet devised a policy to determine education and job quotas as well as representation of religious minorities in civic and legislative bodies. Although majority of the population in AJK is Muslim, a considerable number of Christians, Ahmadis and Bahais also live in the region. They are mostly found in Muzaffarabad, Kotli, Mirpur and Bhimber areas”, the TFT article states.
“AJK’s culture is rich and there is great diversity in terms of religion and ethnicity. It is unfortunate that neither our society nor our governments have ever acknowledged this,” emphasises Dr Rukhsana Khan, assistant professor at the University of AJK and a cultural heritage expert. She cites socio-religious celebrations like Nowruz, Eid and Urs of various saints by most ethnic and religious groups.
There are 40,000-45,000 people non-Muslims in the region, according to notional data. Ahmadis are the largest religious minority group, followed by Christians and Bahais. “Just before one enters Muzaffarabad from Chatter, a rusty board painted in blue and white points to a Bahai graveyard somewhere up the hill. After traveling a couple of kilometers on a steep but metaled road lead to Charrakpura village, there is a triangular concrete compound with metallic gate that is always open”, wrote Mughal. The cemetery was purchased in 1996 – the only Bahai graveyard in the region. (IPA Service)