On December 16, 2014, armed men of the Pakistan Taliban barged into the Army Public School in Peshawar and indiscriminately fired at students and teachers, leaving 150 dead, most of them children. A few days later, a so-called religious leader claimed on national television that the attack was carried out by members of the Ahmadi community. This, he claimed, was done to avenge the Pakistan parliament’s decision to declare them “non-Muslim” in 1974. The Tehreek-i-Taliban had already claimed responsibility for the attack and there was not a shred of evidence to back the cleric’s claim, but that did not matter. A few days later, an Ahmadi man was shot dead in Gujranwala.

In popular imagination, India, Israel and the US are external agents trying to destabilise Pakistan while internally, it is the Ahmadi sect that is against the country. The murder of an Ahmadi on the streets of Pakistan no longer needs to be justified. Accusations made against them need no verficiation. Along with Yahoodi (Jew) and Hindu, Qadiani (a derogatory title for Ahmadis) has become a curse word in the country.

Politicians are discredited and maligned by being called Ahmadi agents. Salman Taseer, the slain governor of Punjab, was also labelled such when he met leaders of the community in May 2010 after the Tehreek-i-Taliban attacked two Ahmadi places of worship in Lahore, killing about a 100. In January 2011, when he was murdered by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri for opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy law, Taseer’s sympathy for Ahmadis was one of the reasons cited to justify the murder.

Such is the sentiment against the Ahmadi community in Pakistan that it has become impossible for mainstream politicians to even express empathy for them. After the 2010 attacks, when Nawaz Sharif (now the prime minister) condemned the violence against Ahmadi “brothers”, he faced the wrath of thousands in the country. Enemies of Islam and Pakistan cannot be called brothers and sisters, they argued.

Turning point

The Ahmadiyya movement was begun by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed to be the Messiah for whom Muslims were waiting. Many mainstream Muslims rejected this claim and said Mirza Ghulam was claiming to be a Prophet, which goes against the basic tenet of Islam, according to which Prophethood ended with Muhammad (PBUH).

The sect has a long history of persecution and the anti-Ahmadi sentiment is as old as the Pakistan. In 1953, just six years after the country was carved out of India, Lahore and other major cities of the Punjab province witnessed massive anti-Ahmadi riots. Thousands of rioters attacked and murdered Ahmadis and ransacked their homes. Not even government property was spared.

To quell the riots, Martial Law was imposed for the first time in the country, on March 6 in Lahore. With the deployment of the army and the arrest of the protesters’ leaders, the riots died down. But the government’s reaction to the riot had set a terrible precedent with regard to dealing with anti-Ahmadi conflicts as well as the military’s influence over governance, which would only increase in years to come.

The irony

At the vanguard of the anti-Ahmadi riots was Majlis-i-Ahrar, a religious organisation headquartered in Lahore. Founded in December 1929, the radical and conservative nationalist organisation had aligned itself with the Indian National Congress before Partition. The organisation was vehemently opposed to the Muslim League and its demand for the creation of a separate Pakistan State. Prior to the country’s creation, the leaders of the organisation had referred to Pakistan as Palidistan (the land of impure) or Kafiristan and one of their prominent leaders, Maulana Mazhar Ali Azhar, had once called Muhammad Ali Jinnah “Kafir-e-Azam”.

In comparison, the man who emerged as the face of the Ahmadi community during these riots – Chaudary Zafarullah Khan, the foreign minister of the country at the time and one of the most important leaders of the Muslim League – had drafted the Lahore Resolution, the document that paved the way for Pakistan’s creation. Such was Jinnah’s faith in Khan that he was asked to represent the party before the Radcliffe commission that decided on boundary line between India and Pakistan.

In their protest against the Ahmadis, Majlis-i-Ahrar was joined by Maulana Abul Ala Maudoodi’s Jamaat-i-Islami, also a religio-political organisation. Much like Majlis-i-Ahrar, Jamaat-i-Islami under Maudoodi had also been opposed to the creation of Pakistan as Jinnah had envisioned it.

But after the birth of the country, these parties wanted a pure Islamic system in Pakistan. Cadres and leaders of these two religio-political organisations asserted that because of his religion, Khan could not be loyal towards the Muslim country. A man who had spent most of his adult life fighting for the creation of the country was now being called anti-Pakistan by those who had, for the majority of their political life, opposed its formation. They demanded the removal of Khan and other Ahmadis who held important government positions from their posts.

The imposition of the Martial Law on the March 6 resulted in the dissolution of the Federal Cabinet and Khan was removed as foreign minister. Thus, even as it was supposedly tackling the rioters by force, the government had conceded to one of their most important demands. This little space conceded to them in 1953 was to make way for their complete dominance in coming years.

What was at once an absurd claim by peripheral religio-nationalist organisations – that Ahmadis are not true Pakistanis – has today become the mainstream political narrative. The anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953 marks the hijacking of Pakistani nationalism by those who had once opposed the creation of the country. Those who were once overtly against Pakistan today have the power to decide who is a true Pakistani. It is one of the biggest absurdities of the nation.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books: Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.