Earlier this month, a video clip showing a young boy uprooting the foundational walls of a new Hindu temple that is currently being constructed in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, went viral. A few days later, another video emerged of a boy no older than five warning Prime Minister Imran Khan that if the construction of the temple went ahead, he would “kill all the Hindus”. Several other posts that aim to humiliate the prime minister by depicting him as a Hindu deity also started to circulate on Pakistani social media around the same time.
These controversial social media posts were created in response to the Pakistani government’s recent decision to release funds for the temple’s construction.
The plan to build a temple complex in Islamabad to serve the city’s minority Hindu community was approved in 2017 under former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government, but construction had been delayed until this year by administrative hurdles. On June 27, Khan’s government allocated 100 million rupees ($0.6m) for the project and kickstarted the construction.
It is part of the Pakistani state’s broader policy of renovating existing non-Muslim religious spaces and building new ones across the country.
In 2005, the government of Pakistan renovated the Katas Raj Temple, an ancient Hindu-Buddhist site about 150km (93 miles) from Islamabad, and opened it up for the use of Hindu pilgrims. In January 2017, the then Prime Minister, Sharif, visited the temple complex and ordered further renovations. In October 2019, a historical Hindu temple in Sialkot was renovated and handed over to the Hindu community.
Alongside Hindu temples, several gurdwaras – Sikh places of assembly and worship – were also renovated by the Pakistani state in recent years. In March 2016, a historical gurdwara in Peshawar was renovated and handed over to the Sikh community. Similar renovations were also carried out at important Sikh sites in Nankana Sahib, Sialkot and Eminabad.
The Pakistani state’s interest in the country’s religious minorities has not been limited to construction projects either.
In March 2016, the government accepted a resolution that declared the days of minority religious festivals as public holidays. In November 2019, the Kartarpur peace corridor was opened to give Sikh pilgrims from India visa-free access to Kartarpur Sahib – a gurdwara that is on the Pakistani side of the border. In June 2019, a statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler of Punjab before the annexation of the province by the British, was unveiled in Lahore Fort.
While most of these projects were completed seamlessly, some drew a backlash. The government’s decision to celebrate Maharaja Ranjit’s legacy with a statue, for example, caused a lot of controversy on social media. Less than two months after the unveiling of the statue, it was vandalised by two men “on the basis of religious biases”.
It may be tempting to interpret these events as the “progressive” Pakistani state being challenged by “extremists” – an image that Islamabad eagerly wants to project.
The Pakistani state’s interest in the country’s religious minorities and their places of worship, however, should be viewed within the context of 9/11, the so-called war on terror, and the consequent association of Pakistan with religious extremism. In this context, Islamabad’s eagerness to “protect” religious minorities can easily be seen as an exercise in moving itself away from the narrative of “extremism”.
Regardless of its motivation, the Pakistani state’s new-found interest in Hindu and Sikh places of worship represents a much-needed paradigm shift in its relationship with the country’s religious minorities, as most of these temples and gurdwaras were in ruins prior to their renovation. Nevertheless, this shift has not been accompanied by structural changes that would guarantee the rights and freedoms of Pakistan’s religious minorities. And perhaps most importantly, the state has not taken the necessary steps to counter the narrative of Hindu and Sikh villainy versus Muslim heroism that it has long allowed to take root in Pakistani society.
The most influential structure that feeds into this narrative is the education system. Just like many other nation-states, the Pakistani state uses the country’s education system as an ideological tool to legitimise its existence and strengthen its founding myths.
The Pakistani education system has at its core the narrative of a centuries-long Hindu-Muslim conflict that supposedly reached its climax with the partitioning of British India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan in 1947. Certain Muslim Kings have been given particular significance in the Pakistani state’s educational retelling of this “historical conflict”, with the 11th-century Afghan king, Mahmud Ghazanvi, being one of the most important components of this “national story”.
The tales of Ghazanvi’s frequent raids on the Somnath Temple in India are presented to Pakistani children in a way that equates temple destruction with religious and national duty. Through these tales, lessons and stories, the Hindu becomes the other against which the Pakistani national identity is constructed. Interestingly in India, Ghazanvi plays the role of the villain against which the national self is defined.
Ghazanvi is not the only historic Muslim leader who is still being celebrated in Pakistan. Other Muslim kings who invaded or attacked India, such as Muhammad Bin Qasim, Muhammad of Ghor and Babur, are also seen as national heroes. The Pakistani armed forces name their missiles and bases after these leaders. The former Sikh and Hindu names of streets, squares and towns, meanwhile, are all but forgotten and there is no attempt by the Pakistani state to reintroduce these names that underline religious minorities’ historical ties to these lands.
As a result of all this, Pakistani society views the country’s contemporary relations with India through a lens of a supposed perpetual conflict between Hindus and Muslims. Thus, every time relations worsen between India and Pakistan, the situation is framed as a new chapter in this alleged historic struggle.
In March 2019, at the height of tensions between India and Pakistan, Punjab Information and Culture Minister Fayyazul Hassan Chohan uttered derogatory remarks against the Hindu community. Chohan was forced to resign following widespread criticism of his racist comments, but his attempt to equate the Indian state with Hinduism at large was indicative of a deeper problem.
Even though Hindus constitute the largest minority in Pakistan, many in the country continue to associate Hindus and Hinduism solely with India. This perception gained further strength in recent years following the rise of the Hindu right wing in India and the increasing Islamisation of the Pakistani state.
Today, many in Pakistan, thanks to an ideologically-charged education system and media, perceive all Hindus, including the Hindu citizens of Pakistan, as the enemy “other”. The attacks on the proposed Hindu temple in Islamabad also need to be understood through this nationalistic lens that causes many to believe destroying Hindu temples is a religious and national duty.
The Pakistani state’s new-found interest in protecting Hindu and Sikh religious spaces surely needs to be lauded. However, without structural changes to the education system, reintroduction of historical Hindu and Sikh place names and an active campaign to counter the deep-rooted narrative of perpetual Hindu-Muslim conflict, the state’s efforts to protect minority religious spaces will continue to face public backlash.
The Pakistani national story is one of Hindu defeat and Muslim victory, told through the battles and raids of historic Muslim kings, while Pakistani nationalism is imagined exclusively through the lens of Islamic identity. This exclusionary identity makes it impossible for Hindus and other non-Muslims to thoroughly become a part of Pakistan and have a say in national debates and decisions.
Without fundamentally changing this national story, the construction and renovation of Hindu temples would be nothing but lip service to minority rights. To call the latest attacks on the Hindu temple in Islamabad an “extremist backlash” is turning a blind eye to the exclusionary and divisive nature of the Pakistani nation-building process. The people who threaten the temple, and Hindus in Pakistan, are not “extremists” but typical examples of the loyal nationalists that the state worked hard to engineer in the last 70 years.