Unacknowledged existence of minorities in Azad Jammu and Kashmir

Unacknowledged existence of minorities in Azad Jammu and Kashmir

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By Jalaluddin Mughal
A year after declaring members of the Ahmadiyya and Bahai community non-Muslim minorities through a constitutional amendment, the government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) is showing reluctance in revealing information about various ethnic and religious groups and their numbers in the region.

Details of the 2017 census in AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) have not yet been made public. Therefore, it is unclear how many people are now categorised as religious minorities. 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. It is rumoured that there are some atheists too, but AJK has always been known as a Muslim-majority state.

Sonia Riasat, 27, is the only Christian employee in any government office along with a dozen sanitation workers in municipalities. She has a postgraduate degree in English literature. Sonia secured her job in 2009. Nine years later, Riasat is still waiting for her confirmation as a permanent employee

“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,” says Dr Rukhsana Khan, a cultural heritage expert and an assistant professor at the University of AJK. Dr Khan says some cultural events such as Nowruz, Eid and Urs of various saints are celebrated by most ethnic and religious groups.

When I contacted officials of Board of Revenue (BoR) and the Planning and Development Department (P&DD) to obtain official statistics, I was told that no such data exists on government record. Yet in the 2017 census forms, there was a separate column for people to declare their faith and it is widely believed that all minority groups declared their affiliations. The data remains hidden from public view.

Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) Deputy Census Commissioner Muhammad Riaz told this scribe that the census data pertaining to AJK and GB was restricted for official use only.

“The dissemination of this data has been restricted as per policy guidelines of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Ministry of Interior,” he wrote in an email. Both ministries did not answer several requests for data made by this scribe.

One senior official privy to the matter told this scribe on condition of anonymity that census statistics had not yet been provided to the current government and its arrival was not expected any time soon.

AJK Services and General Administration Department (S&GAD) confirmed via an official letter that neither there was no specific job quota for non-Muslims, nor was there any non-Muslim government servant above grade 16 in the entire region. Only a few non-Muslims had been recruited as sanitation workers in hospitals and municipalities – most of them on daily wages or on short-term contracts.

One source claims that the AJK government does indeed maintain data of religious minorities but there were restrictions on publicizing such a record for the safety and protection of minority groups. “Allocating quota for them in jobs and giving them representation in legislative and civic bodies simply means making them more vulnerable,” this person argued.

Dr Khan insists that, “The government needs to ascertain the exact number of minorities in the region and to develop policies to ensure their socio-economic development, creating jobs not only in government services but also in other sectors.”
Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) Deputy Census Commissioner Muhammad Riaz told this scribe that the census data pertaining to AJK and GB was restricted for official use only.

“The dissemination of this data has been restricted as per policy guidelines of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Ministry of Interior,” he wrote in an email. Both ministries did not answer several requests for data made by this scribe.

One senior official privy to the matter told this scribe on condition of anonymity that census statistics had not yet been provided to the current government and its arrival was not expected any time soon.

AJK Services and General Administration Department (S&GAD) confirmed via an official letter that neither there was no specific job quota for non-Muslims, nor was there any non-Muslim government servant above grade 16 in the entire region. Only a few non-Muslims had been recruited as sanitation workers in hospitals and municipalities – most of them on daily wages or on short-term contracts.

One source claims that the AJK government does indeed maintain data of religious minorities but there were restrictions on publicizing such a record for the safety and protection of minority groups. “Allocating quota for them in jobs and giving them representation in legislative and civic bodies simply means making them more vulnerable,” this person argued.

Dr Khan insists that, “The government needs to ascertain the exact number of minorities in the region and to develop policies to ensure their socio-economic development, creating jobs not only in government services but also in other sectors.”

Followers of the Bahai faith originally came from Iran and settled here long before Partition. They enjoy all civil rights, including the status of first-class citizens in AJK, but they have no recognition as a religious minority

Christians in AJK

In a dank and dark telephone exchange room of the Prime Minister’s House in Muzaffarabad, I met a young lady in her mid-20s. She was busy receiving and transferring telephone calls to prime minister and other officials working there.

Sonia Riasat, 27, is the only Christian employee in any government office along with a dozen sanitation workers in municipalities. She has a postgraduate degree in English literature. Sonia secured her job in 2009. Nine years later, Riasat is still waiting for her confirmation as a permanent employee.

“Some people who started their careers with me were confirmed within six months of their appointment,” she said. She said many colleagues had been promoted in all these years but she was still serving in the same position. She could not get a promotion because of her temporary position.

“I have filed many applications to higher authorities, including the prime minister. He was very helpful and granted a relaxation in the rules which bars my confirmation as a non-state subject,” she said. “But for reasons known only to the authorities, I am unable to get confirmation as a permanent employee,” she added.

According to unofficial statistics, there are 40,000-45,000 people non-Muslims in the region. Of these, Ahmadis are believed to be the largest religious minority group, followed by Christians and Bahais.

Most of these people natives and own properties in various cities. Christians are the only community who migrated here from the Punjab, mostly from Rawalpindi and Sialkot.

“The AJK government brought our ancestors here with a promise to provide jobs and basic rights,” Riasat said. “Since then, we have only been struggling for fundamental rights such as citizenship, quota in education and jobs.”

Saqib Javed Raja, an activist from Mirpur, says there were many Christian families living in Bhimber before Partition in 1947, and some of them had property rights. But the majority did not enjoy the same rights.

For decades, Christians in AJK worked odd jobs in government departments, especially municipalities, and they worked on daily wages to feed their families. Most of them were unable to educate their children to enable them to secure better jobs in public and private sectors.

After the catastrophic earthquake in 2005, some organizations started working with Christians to improve their living standards and provided resources and opportunities to educate their children.

Succumbing to demands from the community, the government recruited a handful of Christian men as sanitation workers in some departments where most of them are still working on daily wages.

Sonia believes that a significant number of Christian youth have graduated from universities in the last few years. “Now they are looking for jobs but all the opportunities in the government sector are only for Muslim state subjects and there is no job quota for minorities.”

According to a data maintained by Christian community organizations, there are around 4,500 Christian residents in the region. Bhimber is home to most of them, followed by Mirpur and Muzaffarabad. A few dozen families also live in Kotli, Poonch and Bagh.

However, the Christian community has been struggling to get residential status and property rights in AJK. All they own is some piece of land for their churches and graveyards in Bhimber and Mirpur.

In Muzaffarabad, there was no graveyard for Christians till 2005. Then, a family had a road accident while taking the body of their deceased daughter to Sialkot. After the fatal accident, which claimed seven lives, the government allocated some land for a Christian cemetery in Makri village, near Muzaffarabad. Recently, some land was also allotted for Catholic and Protestant churches.

In 2008, the government allotted 50 kanals near Muzaffarabad Airport for a residential colony for sanitation workers. This was supposed to be only for Christian families. “Some houses were built and handed over to Muslim sanitation workers displaced in the 2010 flood,” says Yaseen, president of Sanitary Workers Federation (SWF) of Muzaffarabad. He said Christians could not own property in AJK under state subject rules “Shelter remains a distant dream.”

Prime Minister’s Inspection Commission Chairman Zahid Amin Kashif said the Workers Colony project was initiated under the Muzaffarabad City Development Project (MCDP) but after Pakistan People’s Party took over in 2011, the project was ignored and was not completed.

“The government has many alternative options to provide shelter to Christians, including temporary possession of government-owned land, but it is always a matter of priorities,” he said. “After recently taking public office again, I have raised the issue with the PM and we will resolve the matter soon,” he said.

Footprints of the Bahai community

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.

“This is the only known Bahai graveyard in the entire region,” said Faiza Gillani, a local journalist pointing to a white marble plaque. “The Bahai community living in Muzaffarabad and its surroundings purchased this land in 1996,” Gillani said.

Again, there is no official data on the total number of Bahais in AJK. Only six families are known to be living in Muzaffarabad while some of them live in rural areas.

Gillani said followers of the Bahai faith originally came from Iran and settled here long before Partition. They enjoy all civil rights, including the status of first-class citizens in AJK, but they have no recognition as a religious minority.

Many academics, poets, doctors and other professionals of Bahai faith have achieved distinction in their respective fields.

Vulnerability of the Ahmadiyya community

On February 6, 2018, the 12th amendment in AJK Interim Constitution Act 1974, declaring Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority, was unanimously passed during a joint session of the Legislative Assembly and the AJK Council. I received a call from an unknown person introducing himself as Mudassar, a member of the Ahmadiyya community in Kotli district. He convinced me to write an article about the vulnerability of his community. He believed that many journalists and writers were aware of the structural and cultural discrimination against Ahmdiyya community, but none of them dared to write about it.

Mudassar said many residents of Goi village had been practicing the Ahmadi faith for generations and had been living under threat of persecution.

“From social boycott to pelting stones on places of worship to children being expelled from government schools, there forms of violence we have faced,” Mudassar said. He said the new amendment would add to their vulnerability as he believed that the government had segregated a specific community without providing any kind of protection.

A few weeks later, I met Mudassar at a roadside dhaba (tea stall) in Islamabad. When I asked how the constitutional amendment had affected his community, Muddasar said although no incident of physical violence had been reported, they were regularly receiving threats from extremists.

As with other groups, there is no official data to ascertain followers of the Ahmadi faith. Their number is estimated to be somewhere between 20,000 to 25,000 and most of them live in Kotli, Mirpur Bhimber and Muzaffarabad.

Followers of this faith have been living in these areas before Partition and have status of first-class citizens. They have been held top administrative and judicial offices in the past and have many academic achievements.

“Almost all of the followers of the Ahmadi faith are registered voters in AJK and we cast our votes,” Mudassar said, adding that they had no separate political identity or representation at any level. “We cannot ask for separate political representation because we know its consequences,” he said. “All we want from the government is to provide us constitutional and legal protection and access to our basic rights as citizens of AJK.”

Mudassar complained that representatives of all major political parties made promises before elections but after the polls, they never kept their word. “When the 12th amendment was tabled in the assembly, none of the MLAs who secured our vote even discussed the issue of social protection of minorities.” He said the same MLAs had promised to raise their issues in the parliament in their election campaigns.

Despite several attempts, no government official or public representative was willing to comment on the rights of religious minorities and their existence in AJK.

Some of these officials feared that if they shared their comment, they would be linked to the same community and get noticed by extremists.

An official on condition of anonymity some of followers of Ahmadiyya community held administrative and academic positions in many government departments but they keep their religious identity hidden.

A major problem in Gilgit-Baltistan was sectarian violence. “This could be one reason why the government of AJK does not disclose information about the number of followers of any particular religion,” said Amina Mir, a UK-based Kashmiri scholar said. “However, one can easily see how a particular sect has dominated the policymaking process,” she added.

A number of Hindus and Sikhs also lived in Kashmir before 1947. Many of them were killed or they escaped and took refuge in areas now under Indian control. Some were converted to Islam. Till the 1965 war, there were some Hindus and Sikhs living in Mipur, Bhimber and Muzaffarabad district, who either converted or migrated across the LoC. Since then, religious minorities have never been acknowledged by the government of AJK.__Friday Times

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