To your temples

Published in Dawn

Amid the trauma of Partition, a writer called Saadat Hasan Manto wrote Siyah Hashiye, a collection of absolutely shocking short stories. The humour was as dark as the title.

One story begins and ends: ‘The mob suddenly veered to the left, its wrath now directed at the marble statue of Sir Ganga Ram, the great Hindu philanthropist of Lahore. One man smeared the statue’s face with coal tar. Another strung together a garland of shoes and was about to place it around the great man’s neck when the police moved in, guns blazing. The man with the garland of shoes was shot, then taken to the nearby Sir Ganga Ram hospital.’

In the seventy years since Manto wrote Siyah Hashiye, we’ve turned the knife on ourselves more than we’d care to admit. While it’s high time to correct course – and Pakistan has, of late, been trying to wheeze its way there – the old impulses remain.

A case in point is the construction of Shri Krishna Mandir, a Hindu temple in Islamabad. The project’s lately come under fire from parts of the religious right. It’s an odd look for the pretty city, known more for its boredom, bureaucrats, and both kinds of burgers.

But Islamabad is no stranger to intolerance. Much of the noise is last-minute: the CDA under Nawaz Sharif had already allotted the land; the parliamentary secretary for human rights had already laid the foundation stone; and Prime Minister Imran Khan had gone on to release $1.3 million for its construction.

And yet the right is always right: the project was frozen, pending consultation with religious scholars. Not helping matters was coalition king Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, who put in a star cameo to pooh-pooh the idea at length. It’s good to see Mr. Elahi rediscover himself as a religious conservative; so many of us were under the mistaken impression that he stood for nothing at all. This sudden change is even more convenient when one remembers Mr. Elahi and his cousin invited a poison toad like L. K. Advani to inaugurate their temple restorations not so long ago. Sooner than later, the PTI is bound to learn the same information Nawaz Sharif’s boys did in the Punjab Assembly as early as 1986: the Chaudhrys are palace intriguers par excellence, and will never let the centre hold.

To come back to the issue in hand, where does that leave the temple? The government has lobbed the decision to the Council of Islamic Ideology. Unpredictable at the best of times, the CII has put out positive statements so far. The Pakistan Ulema Council has also lent the temple much-needed support. In a subtle dig at our land of the five rivers, the council’s chairman snickered that there’d been no such outcry over reopening the Kartarpur Corridor for Sikh pilgrims.

As for the criticism itself, the argument goes that a Hindu structure can’t be built in a city named after Islam. The inverse is true: it is an affirmation of the faith. Islam had no inquisition; persecuted minorities from across the world would flee to its lands; and its teachings are rooted in compassion and tolerance for one another. We’ll leave aside the fact that Islamabad only exists because our field marshal was a sentimental man, and wanted the capital next to his native village.

Second, there’s the declaration of law. In a landmark judgment, Chief Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani held, ‘The very genesis of our country is grounded in the protection of religious rights for all, especially those of minorities,’ in what would be the broadest interpretation of Article 20 and freedom of religious expression. Not a year later, Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja ordered that a Hindu temple, Shri Paramhans Ji Maharaj, be rebuilt in Karak; it had been attacked and taken over by a mufti – the moral opposite of the Indian judiciary’s dishonest verdict on Ayodhya.

Third, there’s also the not-so-small matter of what this country was always meant to be. Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s speech of 11 August – the father of the nation, speaking to its Constitution-making body, on the verge of independence – is no less than a foundational document. ‘You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques,’ are the most famous words of the most extraordinary figure of the twentieth century.

For reasons legal, historical, and theological, the mandir needs to be built. Others tell us it’s savvy branding; that it serves as a counterpoint to the saffron Nazis next door. Such cynicism is unnecessary: we’d do better to build it because it’s the right thing to do, and because a minority’s freedom was why this country was won in the first place. If the dream is to be realised, Islamabad must have its temple.