The other Pakistan
What does it mean to be a Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Parsi or a Baha'i in Pakistan? Journalist Haroon Khalid's A White Trail is a pathbreaking attempt to read between the lines of the many religious minorities who live in the country. With insightful accounts, he seeks to go beneath the socio-economic fabric of these lesser-known constituents of the population. Excerpts from an email interview with Fiona Fernandez
Deciding to embark on such a book must have invited plenty of challenges, opposition from naysayers and fear from your well wishers; how did you go about working on this book keeping in mind the obvious sensitivity of the subject?
One of the initial hindrances was my own predicament. I wasn’t sure if I should be talking about the religious minorities in such a candid manner. I was unsure if my writing about them would end up attracting unwanted attention towards them and hence, put them under threat.
My friends were shocked by my idea. They could not understand why a Pakistani would want to study Hindu and Sikh communities; Pakistan, in this case, being synonymous with Muslim and Hindu and Sikh being confused with Indian. There were a few others who were genuinely concerned. Some of them would tell me jokingly, of course, that some fanatic would kill me for what I am doing.
Other than self-created issues I don’t think there were any other problems for me working on this book. A minor concern was that some of the interviewees took up a long time to open up and share their true stories with me. After a while, one learns to read between the lines.
You had mentioned in the book’s introduction that you covered five minorities in and around Lahore; weren’t you tempted to cover Karachi and the other urban areas of Pakistan?
I was. I particularly wanted to work in Southern Punjab and Sindh where there are huge Hindu settlements. I do plan to do that for some of my other projects. I did travel outside of Lahore to interview people from other cities, including Multan, Bahawal Nagar, Nankana Sahib, Hassanabal and Maryabad.
Since you had covered the subject earlier during your reportage, what sort of an advantage did it give you, if at all?
By the time I stared writing the book I had been writing about religious minorities for a year. The book became an extension of what I was writing. There is a huge difference between journalistic writing and writing a non-fiction book. The constraints of time, word limit, etc. don’t apply. So, what I was writing about remained the same but how I was writing changed.
What were some of the eye openers that you stumbled upon by the end of the journey?
There were several. One of them, which perhaps in terms of its scale might not be as significant as the rest but it had captured my imagination. This, because it had captured the essence of social discrimination ingrained in society between the distinctions of ‘Esai’ and ‘Masih’. I have always heard the Christians being referred to as ‘Esai’ but during the course of my research I found out that the Christians do not associate with this word; in fact, they take it as an offence. They prefer ‘Masih’. This was something minute and harmless yet so prevalent.
Are Pakistan’s minorities hopeful that the scenario will change for the better?
The basic point of the book is that there is much more to minority debate in Pakistan than the binary distinction of the oppressed and oppressor. For example, in the book, I have mentioned how in certain places despite the rise of Islamic extremism, the youth of the minority community has started exerting itself. They are now slowly trying to recapture the social space that was robbed from them at the time of Partition.
On the other hand, one cannot deny that the overarching atmosphere of persecution and oppression remains which sometimes finds its way out in the form of mob attacks or legal actions using the code of religion. I would though, in the end like to refrain from making any statement that chooses either one -- improve or worsen. There are way too many distinctions between different religious communities and even within same communities to make such a statement.