Persecution of Pakistani Christians

Will rebranding Christians make their lives any easier in Pakistan?

By Azam Gill

Published in the Express Tribune, a New York Times affiliate

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Pakistan’s Christians will now be respectably called ‘Masihi.’ Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) has issued orders regarding use of Masihi for Christians instead of Esaayi, in the column for Religion.”

Pakistani Christians had been seeking rebranding for quite some time.

“The Urdu ‘Isai’ (derived from ‘Esa’, the Arabic word for ‘Jesus’ used in the Qur’an) now carries strong overtones (of) ‘unclean’ demeaning occupations. This use of language feeds the narrative which makes Christians feel like second-class citizens in today’s society.  On October 8, 2015 in Lahore, more than 500 Muslim students took an oath that they would not call Christians ‘Esaayi,’ but would use the word ‘Masihi’ themselves.”

These noble gestural efforts from all concerned are commendable in their own right. But just treating symptoms allows the disease to thrive.

And the disease here is the association of Christians with scavenging sanitary work which gained them the insulting designation of chuhras (C-word).

The real objection of Pakistani Christians to being called Isai is that the word has, over time, become synonymous with the degrading C-word. After all, Isai, referring to Hazrat Isa/Al-Masih, constantly evokes Muslim-Christian commonality which, in these troubled times, should help shield Christians against violence. At the end of the day, when Pakistani Christians are bombed, their Muslim neighbours’ goodwill is of inestimable value.

Yet, even though Pakistani Christians are well aware that Isai puts them in an advantageous position within communal hostility, they are strongly focused on burying the word (insultingly pronounced Ssa’ai in the Punjab), for having become a de facto replacement for the pejorative C-word. So, while the brand name is a variable, the content it projects is invariable and until that content changes, it will vitiate each new brand name.

When the number of Christians, fuelled by circumstances and blatant discriminatory practices, into employment as sanitary workers decreases the word Isai will become as respectable as Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Jew or Parsee. Dedicated educational, vocational and affirmative action programs, spearheaded by Christians but patronised by powerful, wealthy and enlightened Muslims will go a long way in achieving the goal of decreasing the number of Christians employed as scavengers and sanitary workers.

Very few Muslims realise that Christian hymns and hymn singing to musical orchestras in churches and prayer meetings have resulted in generations of musicians and lyricists invisible to their Muslim neighbours, their talent drowned in the open drains outside the hovels of their bastis.

This is a gold mine hidden in plain sight for talent scouts of the entertainment industry under the aegis of Pakistan’s business-savvy Muslim elite.

The United States Civil Rights movement could never have succeeded without the support and participation of enlightened Whites. Christian community leaders should concentrate on lobbying the Muslim leadership to refine and ensure the implementation of educational, vocational and affirmative action.

History might be replete with examples of communal rebranding, but in recent times, renaming of communities resulted in the United States’ exportable semantic cesspit. As Red Indians evolved into American Indians, Original Americans and finally Native Americans, Blacks finally became African-Americans while the Jews stayed Jews and Indian Americans are quite pleased with themselves.

The rebranding succeeded since it offered a cop-out – white America and the successful middle class of the community concerned could mitigate their commitment to changing the situation and toss a crumb as a substitute for positive action.

Cute.

The Jews never bothered to reinvent themselves, realising that the cause of persecution is not the name but the situational components. The unchanged word Jew has come a long way from the Shakespearean Shylock to a signifier of wealth, power, status, culture and reliability.

Despite their complaints of Islamophobia, no Muslim has asked to be called anything other than a Muslim and would never be fooled by a semantic hand-out!

With minorities suffering direct persecution, it is irresponsible to let the majority community off the hook by asking for superficial concessions. The focus should be on fundamental changes.

Minority leaders should maintain moral pressure to change the situation and constantly remind the majority of how well they are treated when they find themselves in a minority in more enlightened spaces.

Rebranding a deteriorating product offers middle-class Christians and their supporters a cosy cop-out and good short-term press for the politicians involved in this undersized game.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose – By any other name would smell as sweet.” Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2).

“And that which we call a cesspool – By any other name would stink as much – As did the state of Denmark – When foul play spiked its rightful king.”

 

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The Verbal Persecution of Pakistani Christians

Pakistani Christians may be Chief Justices, magistrates, sessions judges, police bosses, generals, surgeons, college principals or street sweepers, but they are all verbally persecuted by being referred to as Chuhra — the C-word. Legislation will not repair the damage since it cannot change hearts and, name-changing of persecuted communities across the world has also failed to redress their conditions. Something else is needed, but before that an explanation of the background of the C-word and how it stuck itself to the proud sons and daughters of the Punjabi soil — a tale of lost heritage, conversions and death by the kindness of bumblers.

Being indiscriminately associated with the C-word (below) has played such havoc with the psyche, identity, self-image and well-being of Pakistani Christians that being called Isai or Masihi is no longer relevant.

Chuhra Dalits are the lowest among the untouchables within South Asia’s shameful caste system. History reduced them to being scavengers and handling carrion. Actually, only the least fortunate among the approximately forty Chuhra clans are scavengers. Each clan has a designated vocation, such as executioners, assassins, basket-weavers, makers of winnowing sieves, bird-trappers, trackers, tanners, canine and equine groomers, machchi bakers and midwives, mirasi minstrels, doom singers, farm laborers and so on. The clans have names, traditions, genealogies, priests to perform their rituals and recount their kursinama genealogies at weddings.

They are also identified as the Balmiki faith community. Balmiki was the author of the Ramyana and is also known as Bala Shah and Lalbeg.

Converted to Islam, they are called mussalies. When they prosper, they may attach the prefix Sheikh to their name, as practiced by some of the higher caste converts. In South Asia, Islam was able to disassociate mussalies and Sheikhs from their erstwhile stigma of scavengers. Sikhism can claim even more credit for disentangling Mazhabis and Rangretas from their past — Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s elite Nihang units bristled with Mazhabis and Ranghretas as did many of the Sikh crack Light Infantry regiments of the British Indian army. The result is that a Sikh, irrespective of his caste or clan is addressed as Sirdar-jee. And they’re all levelled out with the Singh suffix.

Name-changing by Sikh and Muslim untouchable converts was helpful.

In the case of Christian converts it was tearfully comical.

The Christian ruling class didn’t mind them borrowing their names but that’s where the buck stopped. The Brits only socialized with the higher caste Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs —from a safe distance.

Socio-politically, Christian missionaries in South Asia failed to launder their converts’ past into a respected entity. It was asking too much from their British rulers to accept these converts within their ethnic and social hierarchy. And the missionaries also believed that a ‘Christian’ name was an English name. Converts with feeble antecedents were encouraged to attach the suffix Masih in the hope of instilling pride through a name-change. The approach failed but was continued since the collection of brilliant seminarians were unable to come up with a viable alternative actually staring them in the face.

Many caste names, especially those of the higher castes and in particular of the quarter million Jatt and Rajput converts to Christianity, were replaced by English first names. This quarter million potential buffer against the slur of the ‘C’ word disappeared into thin air, except for a few stubborn families who clung to their heritage.

Even among the forty untouchable clans only a small number were scavengers. It is a pity that proud clan names such as Luté, Jahé, Dhae, Sahi, Tengré, Goriyé, Kandara, Kotana, Kurtana, Pathan, Rawat, Machchi, Doom and others have been locked in cold storage.

Their founding myth is tragically illustrious.

In the time of the Mahabharta wars between the Kauravas and the Pandavas there were four sons of Kanwar Brahma, a Brahmin noble —  Bharata, Sadhara, Paratna and Purba. When their cow died they made Purba, the youngest, drag away the carcass, first promising to help him in his task, but eventually casting him out, disinheriting him and, dividing his inheritance among themselves. Purba found shelter with the scavengers and carrion-handlers who already existed as outcasts from other clans due to differing reasons. The descendants of Purba, the fallen Brahmin, are the Chuhras, themselves a collection of over forty clans.

Five consequences of the abortive Anglicization of Christian converts still challenge them.

They found themselves alienated from the macro-culture, they were bereft of a micro-culture, they became dependent on mission jobs and they are considered a residue of colonialism by Pakistani Muslims.

They are also  an embarrassing residue of colonialism for the former colonizers who have  smugly converted from Christianity to rationalism.

The consequences of God being considered an Englishman came home to roost after the creation of Pakistan.

The Muslim menial workers suddenly filled the gap of the departing Hindus and Sikhs in other vocations and new land-owners fired the Christian laborers on the former Hindu and Sikh farms. This happened on a scale yet to be measured and there was an influx of Christians in the cities seeking work. They were channeled into sanitary workers’ jobs eagerly vacated by Muslims who were retrieved by their newly empowered coreligionists for ‘cleaner’ jobs.

One has only to read Shauna Singh Baldwin, especially What the Body Remembers, to appreciate that before 1947, a regular household sweeper in Rawalpindi was a Muslim addressed as Sheikh.

 The Christians of Pakistan need to rehabilitate and reinstate their rightful clan names, whether they be low or high-caste. I always considered it a tragedy that the Director of the Lahore YMCA,  Sham Sunder Singh Sandhu, a land-owning, over six-foot tall Jatt had to become S.S.S. Albert at the Independence of Pakistan for fear of being taken for a Sikh and killed or harassed as being potentially seditious.

Pakistan has come a long way since then and the blunders of duffers can be tackled.

It is time for the Dalit Christians of Pakistan to stand up to the higher castes of their own community, get them to act on their behalf to change their situation through education and affirmative action and proudly claim their ancestral heritage of fallen Brahmins.

Further Reading. “Dalits Were Uppercasts”: BJP’s national spokesperson Bizay Sonkar Shastri, in “The Hindu”, October 29, 2015.

http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/dalits-were-upper-castes-bjp-leader/article7815509.ece