It was a June afternoon in 2009. Temperatures at this time of year reach the mid-forties in the plains of Pakistan Punjab. Aasia Bibi, a 38-year-old woman hailing from the only Christian family in the village, was working in the fields along with her Muslim companions. Her village, Ittan Wali, is only a few kilometres from Nankana Sahib, the holy city where Guru Nanak was born and first preached his message of peace, tolerance, and caste equality.
Taking a break from her work, Aasia Bibi went to the village well. On its rim was a utensil used by all the villagers to draw water. She drew the water and drank it from the same utensil.
And then all hell broke loose. A Muslim woman saw Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, using a “Muslim” utensil. They got into an argument and soon religious history and doctrines became part of the fight. It is alleged that in that heat of the moment, Aasia Bibi said something derogatory about the Prophet. This constituted blasphemy, punishable by death in Pakistan.
Later in the day, instigated by the woman and the local prayer leader, a mob gathered outside Aasia Bibi’s house and threatened to kill her and her family. The police rescued her but then a case of blasphemy was filed against her. In November 2010, a judge at the Sheikhupura Court found her guilty and sentenced her to death. Aasia Bibi became the first woman in the country to be given capital punishment for blasphemy.
The case attracted widespread attention, particularly when the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, came out in her support and declared that he would intercede on her behalf for presidential pardon.
Several other progressive politicians joined his bandwagon, including Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister at that time, and Sherry Rehman. There was national media coverage and the issue was hotly debated in the press.
Then on January 4, 2011, Salman Taseer was shot dead by his own guard for supporting Aasia Bibi. On March 2, 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti too was gunned down by unidentified assailants, presumably for his support to Aasia Bibi and his criticism of the blasphemy laws.
Overnight, Aasia Bibi’s case became an international issue with several prominent personalities from around the globe coming out in her support, including Pope Benedict XVI.
On October 16, 2014, the Lahore High Court dismissed her appeal and upheld her death sentence. However, on July 22 last year, the Supreme Court suspended Aasia Bibi's sentence for the duration of the appeal process. She is currently in Multan Jail, in solitary confinement because she fears for her life.
Reinforcing a stereotype
The case of Aasia Bibi, the assassination of Salman Taseer, and the hanging earlier this year of Mumtaz Qadri, Taseer’s killer, has all led to some constructive and other not-so-constructive discussion on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. However, what has been missing in all of these discussions is the concept of untouchability and impurity, which became a source of the conflict.
On principle, Islam believes in the equality of humanity and there is no concept of untouchability. Nor does doctrine dictate that Muslims should separate their utensils from members of other religious communities. Untouchability is a purely South Asian concept that has its origins in the caste hierarchy of Indian society. Perhaps the logic of this discrimination is rooted in the belief that the majority of Christians in Pakistan are converts from Hindu untouchables.
This stereotype is further reinforced by the fact that an overwhelming proportion of cleaners and sweepers in the country are Christians – former Hindu untouchables who retained their professions even after conversion. Whereas earlier it was their lower position in the caste hierarchy that prompted this prejudice, over time it became crystallised into religious identities. Christians, irrespective of their former castes, started to be treated in this manner, with Muslims refusing to share their utensils with them. There is a specific term which is now associated with these “low-caste” Christians – Choda.
In contemporary Pakistan, it is not only Christians but also members of other religious groups who are treated in a similar manner. A few years ago, I was interviewing Kalyan Singh, a PhD scholar from Punjab University, who told me about being turned away from a couple of restaurants in Lahore because of his religion. He recalls how a manager at a restaurant in Model Town, one of the better residential areas in Lahore, dominated by the upper middle class, told him, “We don’t have your utensils.”
To see for myself, I walked into a small dhaba in Lahore and asked them if they used separate utensils for non-Muslims. The proprietor proudly showed a separate set of utensils reserved for non-Muslims. “How would you know if a particular customer is Hindu or Christian,” I asked him. “We won’t. But we expect them to tell us as a courtesy.”
“We always inform hotel owners we are Christians before we order a meal,” said Siddiqa, a Christian maid who has been working at my uncle’s house for more than a decade now. Her name is as Muslim as it gets. Sunni Muslims believe that Ayesha Siddiqa, the youngest wife of the Prophet, was also his favourite. “I always tell hotel owners I am Christian because you never know how they would react once they find out we are Christians. Things can get heated very quickly over such issues.”
Listening to Siddiqa, I am reminded of Shams Gill, an 80-year-old Hindu man I met at the Valmiki Temple in Lahore, one of the two functional Hindu temples in the city. His real name is Khem Chand, but he changed it to Shams Gill sometime after Partition when he officially became a Christian.
This was only a political move, however, as Khem Chand believed it was better to be a Christian than a Hindu in Pakistan. He, like several others, is Christian in official documents, but still visits the Valmiki Temple in Lahore and associates with Hinduism. For Shams Gill and many others, his Christian and Hindu identities are fluid and interchangeable.
“Once we went for a wedding to Bhai Pheru [in Punjab],” Shams Gill said. “We stopped at a small tea stall on the way and had tea. When we finished, the proprietor, who had earlier failed to recognise that we were ‘Christians’, got angry at us for not warning him. We got into an argument with him, but were conscious of the fact that things might get out of hand. The argument was resolved when we also ended up paying for the cups that we had used, because he could not use them again.”
In their shoes
Once, while walking with Kalyan Singh in the streets of Nankana Sahib, he decided to show me another exhibit of this particular kind of untouchability. Since we were at a gurdwara prior to attending a religious festival, I was wearing a turban and my beard was by chance untrimmed.
Kalyan stopped at a juice shop and asked the vendor to show us the non-Muslim glass he keeps. The young boy brought out two unwashed glasses and placed it on the counter. “If you order juice I will give it to you in these glasses,” he said, looking me in the eye.
He thought I was a Sikh. Growing up in Pakistan as a Sunni man, I could only intellectually understand this particular kind of discrimination. However, that night at Nankana Sahib, I had placed myself for the first time in the shoes of the religious minorities and tried to feel, if only for a fleeing moment, what they feel every time they are refused at a restaurant or offered special utensils which they are expected to clean themselves. I could have easily taken off my turban and gone back to the world where I am not discriminated against, which unfortunately members of religious the minorities cannot.
Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.