Author: Haroon Khalid
Publisher: Westland Ltd.
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Perhaps one of the most controversial issues about Pakistan today is the state of its minorities,with news of forced conversions and formal and informal persecution coming out regularly. Journalist Haroon Khalid’s work, A White Trail, claims to study the lives of these very minorities sans stereotypes, focusing on their daily lives within the broader context of a country whose national identity is often claimed to be the religion of Islam. He does this by interweaving a number of first person interviews taken on festive occasions with relevant information about the obstacles they face in practicing their religion freely.
Beginning with an episode about the attacks upon Hindus in Multan following the Babri Masjid demolition in India, Khalid traces the current status of the community through their festivals like Holi and Navratri. However, he also delves deeper , showing how the small communities in areas like Multan and Killa Katas are resuming their festivals, and through them, their identity. In this, they are helped by progressive Muslims, though the overall divisions which were sharpened during the Islamicization in the 1980s, remain. Rather surprisingly, Khalid’s interviews indicated that it was this very Islamicization which led the Hindus to search for their identity, paving the way for the re-emergence of their festivals.
Moving on, Khalid narrates his visit to Maryabad, which is one of the holy sites for Catholics in Pakistan. Thereafter, he narrates the celebration of Christian festivals in two prominent churches of Lahore, giving one a glimpse of the lives of ordinary Christians who live in gated communities. In the process, one learns of the political importance of Christians in Punjab, as well as the deep respect they feel towards political liberals like Salman Taseer.
Next, we’re given brief glimpses of Zoroastrianism and the Baha’i sect. Observing Navroz in Lahore, Khalid notes how the community has dwindled, not through any forced conversions, but through the willingness of the community to allow anyone to marry a person of any religion. Athough Khalid regrets not being able to visit Karachi, which has the greatest concentration of Zoroastrians, he nevertheless does justice to this small but highly educated and liberal minority.
Similarly, the study of the Baha’i festival of Hazrat Bab’s birthday brings forth the interesting fact that whereas migration out of Pakistan is generally what we’re familiar with, the Baha’is in Iran have been migrating into Pakistan to avoid persecution from the regime in Iran.
The final section of the book deals with Sikhs, which notes without bias both the migration of Sikhs due to Taliban attacks in FATA, and the growing assertiveness of the community in Nankana Sahib and other cities related to the ten Sikh Gurus, due to this migration. Students of history would find the incidents leading to the formation of SGPC, and the Pakistan SGPC (which standard history books ignore) quite interesting.
What is striking about the entire book is the lack of bias shown by the author in narrating incidents which affected the minorities in different ways. He admits that many interviewees were guarded in their response, but the book does give the impression that Khalid has managed to actually study the minds and hearts of these people without subscribing to any of the stereotypes created by international media. The author could have avoided extensive digressions into the mythology of the religions, and one may need to consult a standard history of Pakistan (like Ian Talbot) to fully understand the events. However, in the space of 300-odd pages, Khalid has done an excellent job of bringing out the lives of the ordinary people within their communities. As such, this book is highly recommended for anyone who wishes to know the story of Pakistan’s minorities beyond the black and white of popular media portrayals. Read some more here and here.
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