Grassroots organization fights minority discrimination in Pakistan07 May 2013
Too little has been done to address this growing danger by a Pakistani Government already stretched in their fight to contain militancy in the country’s north. Recent anti-discrimination laws designed to better protect minorities do little to address or change ethno-religious tensions. And accusations of Pakistan’s police and military ambivalence towards extremist Sunni groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba have only increased minority distrust of authority in Pakistan.
What is needed is a stronger civil society that slows and reverses any slide into religious and sectarian strife. And a proven but underused way of fostering a stronger civil society is through grassroots community organising.
While extremist groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who claimed responsibly for January’s bombing of Shias in Quetta pose a potentially grave physical danger to minorities, a longer-term danger lies in violent extremist or sectarian ideology seeping into community consciousness and strengthening the formation of isolated in-groups along ethnic, religious and sectarian lines.
Communities, when faced with an overwhelming challenge or threat, unite and in part define themselves by such experiences. And bigger challenges can bind people together not only within communities, but across them. It is this principle that grassroots community organising can apply by framing constructive challenges as the uniting points around which communities can shed their differences and work together. The collective action such collaboration fosters is a vital antidote to the increasingly dangerous ghettoisation of communities in Pakistan.
This approach has already shown success in helping better integrate a religious minority that has experienced one of the greatest challenges to integration in Pakistan - the country’s Hindu minority.
Against the backdrop of Pakistan’s traumatic partition and on-going hostilities with India ever since, Pakistan’s Hindu minorities have experienced on-going discrimination, as documented by openSecurity and Human Rights Watch. But Sindh’s Thardeep district in Southeast Pakistan, one of Pakistan’s lowest socio-economic indexes, a one-third Hindu population with historically strained relations between the two communities, has seen relations improve. This is thanks largely to the grassroots work of Thardeep Rural Support Programmes (TRDP), a local non-governmental organisaiton and part of Pakistan’s largest development network.
Based on a self-help philosophy of grassroots community organising and social mobilisation, TRDP’s work cuts through religious, sectarian and ethnic divides, uniting local village communities around common development challenges that affect them all, like access to education, better sanitation, medical care, economic empowerment and emergency relief.
When the floods of 2010 devastated rural Pakistan, Thardeep’s community organisations were catapulted into action. The ensuing relief work was delivered with the support of all of Thardeep’s religious communities; it was work delivered by everyone, for everyone. TRDP’s work has reportedly reached 70,365 people and they have rebuilt over one hundred schools to date.
TRDP has enhanced the accepted role of not just Hindus, but of Hindu Dalits – those who rank lowest in the caste system – in public life within Thardeep. TRDP’s previous CEO was himself a Hindu Dalit, as well as the first Pakistani Hindu ever to be awarded the Medal of Excellence, the highest civilian honour in Pakistan. This is no small achievement in the Indian Subcontinent, where Dalits have traditionally experienced relentless discrimination.
Hindu and Sikh Pakistanis play a prominent role in TRDP, as Board Directors, community organising leaders and local activists. As such, the organisation stands as a model of cooperation that dismantles stereotypes, empowers minorities and brings previously disparate communities closer together, even against the backdrop of powerful divisive narratives.
More of this kind of civil society action is needed if Pakistan is to bridge its widening sectarian and religious divides. Substantive grassroots action can act as a buffer again extremist and sectarian ideology.
* Shiraz Ahmad is Director of Unitas Communications, an international cross-cultural communications agency that works to build stronger relations between the Muslim and Western worlds. Shiraz has managed projects on behalf of the Federal Government of Somalia and the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 7 May 2013, www.commongroundnews.org