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“How archaeology in Pakistan is forced to deny the nation’s Hindu past”

Archaeological site in Pakistan Photo credit: Concordia Expeditions Pakistan

By Own Correspondent

Don’t be taken in by the Pakistan government’s lip-service to becoming a multi-religious society every time it promises the repair or reconstruction of a destroyed Hindu temple in that country. It just cannot mean what it says in this context. 

That is the way to read the recent drama in Pakistan over what was announced as the first Hindu temple in the capital city, Islamabad. Reality, instead played out somewhere else in the country, just before the dawn of the new year, 2021, in the wanton destruction of a temple in Khyber Pakhthunkhwa.

If it were left to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it would dig up the country all the way down to erase the last vestige of Hindu heritage and thousands of years of cultural and religious history that makes its own 73-year-old history a blip in the cosmos of sub-continental civilisation. 

The controversy over repair or reconstruction of Hindu temples in Pakistan has been playing out since June, 2020 when Prime Minister Imran Khan declared that his government was allocating $1.3 million for the construction of a new temple complex, the Shri Krishna Mandir, in Islamabad. The complex would have a community hall, a large parking area, accommodation for pilgrims and a crematorium. 

The foundation stone was laid on June 23. Within a week, a Lahore-based Islamic institution, Jamia Ashrafia, issued a fatwa stating the construction of the temple was not permissible under Islam. Punjab assembly speaker Chaudhary Pervaiz Elahi backed the fatwa citing the reasoning as correct. 

Pressure grew on the government to withdraw its commitment to the temple. It did so on July 3. Two days later, a mob demolished a boundary wall. By July 7, police were guarding the demolished construction site.

To save face, Imran Khan government referred the case to the Council of Islamic Ideology, a national body that rules on religious issues. In late October, the Council said the construction of the temple was not against Islamic law, but the government cannot spend public money directly on the construction of a minority place of worship. The Council made everyone happy. Khan’s word was kept.

The fatwa was not dishonoured either. 

Around the time the Islamic Council was examining the temple case, an ancient Hanuman temple was demolished in Karachi, in August. Around 20 Hindu dwellings near the temple were also razed to the ground. No, it was not an act of the government. A local builder, who had purchased the land around the temple brazenly brought down the temple.

He could do it with impunity. Also, the lock down time helped him. Nobody chided him.  

The Karachi example is indicative of the mood in Pakistan about minority religious establishments, irrespective of what Prime Minister Khan says or does. It is not that Khan is altruistic. The Financial Action Task Force and Amnesty International are at his heels, ready to pounce on even a minor misdemeanour and hand him an economic sanction. 

In April, 2019 the Khan government announced it will restore Hindu temples and give them back to the Hindu community.

The number of such temples, which had been turned into madarasas or government offices or shops and homes over the decades, stood at around 400. The government even decided which two temples will benefit right away: Two famous temples in Peshawar and Sialkot.

That July, the government handed over Sialkot’s Shwala Teja Singh temple to the Hindu community. It was re-opening after 72 years. It had been damaged by vandals in retaliation to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The Gorakhnath temple in Peshawar was also declared a heritage site. 

If these developments were seen as attempts by Imran Khan to project Pakistan as a secular country in front of the world, his political chicanery was soon exposed too. In February, 2020, the Pakistan government made a great propaganda show out of the handing over of an ancient Hindu temple to the Hindu community in Balochistan. The government apologised to the community for keeping the temple under unlawful occupation since Partition in 1947. 

It was a cleverly managed public relations exercise. By February, the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in India were at their peak. One of the provisions of the act was awarding citizenship to Hindus living in Islamic countries, like Pakistan, who were fleeing those countries on grounds of religious persecution. The Balochistan temple served as an example for Khan to show there was no such persecution of minority Hindus in Pakistan.  

Well-known academic, journalist and anthropologist, Haroon Rashid, was among the first to expose the dire straits of places of worships of minority religions in Pakistan. Documenting his travels in Pakistan, Rashid wrote what is considered an epochal article in 2013 in which he visited Hindu temples across Pakistan to see for himself how they fared at present.

He told the stories of Hindu and Jain temples in Lahore, Multan and Malka Hans which were converted into madarasas, but strangely the Hindu architecture, paintings, motifs and other religious signs were not tampered with. 

Khalid’s writings told a larger story. They told you the significance of the cities and towns where these temples existed. These places were much older than the temples. That is probably why these temples came up there.

These places were known, in ancient times, thousands of years ago, for their Hindu rulers who figured in the Mahabharatha or Ramayana or other Hindu texts or, in later periods, entered history books as being part of Hindu kingdoms. 

For instance, as Khalid stated, the ancient city of Multan is “believed to have been once ruled by Hiranyakashipu, the tyrant father of Bhakta Prahlada (Bhagat Prahaladain Punjabi”. Bhagat Prahlada, by the way, is the patron saint of Multan. 

We are coming to the crux of Pakistan’s essential hatred of its Hindu minority. 

In their work in The Dawn newspaper of Pakistan on Lahore’s shift “from a cosmopolitan to monolithic culture”, three academics, Samee Ahmed, Aliza Amin and Mohammad Samee Arif come up with an intense piece of writing: “In Pakistan, the Hindus have never been persecuted, says Shams Gill, but the anger against us has been vented on our temples. Gill has reached the crux of the issue: Pakistani Hindus, a term that many consider to be an oxymoron, are represented through physical space.”

If they know what they are writing, what they are saying is this: It is not Hindus that Pakistan decries. It is their history that lies buried every inch of Pakistan.

That country has been busy since 1947 not in developing itself into a modern nation, but busy erasing “its” Hindu heritage. That is achieved not by harassing the minority Hindus but by destroying Hindu cultural and religious blocks, along with those of Jains and Buddhist, which dominated and influenced life in the region long before Pakistan was born. 

An Indian newspaper wrote last August: “…frustration has developed into resistance towards acceptance and cherishing of a minority culture and its symbols. This hate has spread across the land. It is not confined to a handful of regions or people. The poison against minorities, particularly Hindus, has seeped deep into the society. Since separation from India, hundreds of Pakistan temples have quietly disappeared and many have morphed into shops, mosques and other buildings. The efforts to erase the past have been vociferous”.

Destroying minority places of worship in Pakistan even as its government promises a multi-religious environment only reinforces the inevitable that the Pakistani State cannot but be monolithic.

Haroon Khalid says it the best: “How archaeology in Pakistan is forced to deny the nation’s Hindu past”. 

About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende