ISLAMABAD - A group of young people demonstrated Wednesday in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, in support of the construction in the city of a Hindu temple that was halted under pressure from various Islamist groups.
The under-construction boundary wall of the Krishna Mandir, as the temple is being called, was destroyed by a group of men over the weekend who chanted religious slogans and later posted their pictures and videos on social media.
Simultaneously, multiple senior religious clerics gave statements against the construction of the temple, including Chaudhry Pervez Ilahi, a senior politician belonging to a party that is in alliance with the ruling party.
Money at issue
Last month, Prime Minister Imran Khan had approved a grant of more than $600,000 for the construction on land that was allotted to Islamabad's Hindu community for free by the government several years ago, but he later referred the matter to Pakistan's Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory group of Islamic scholars, when opposition mounted.
In parliament Wednesday, Pakistan's Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri said the administration would abide by the council's guidance.
Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani, a senior Pakistani cleric who has expertise in matters of Islamic jurisprudence, said the issue was not the construction of the building but who was paying for the construction.
"In a Muslim country, religious minorities have a right to keep their places of worship, or build new ones, wherever their population requires. However, it is not allowed for the government to use its money to construct such a place. Especially in a place where the minority population is low. So, in Islamabad, it is definitely not allowed for the government to spend money on constructing a Hindu temple," he said last week via Twitter.
Islamabad's Hindu community, with about 3,000 members, complains it has no space for religious ceremonies, marriages or even last rites and cremation of their dead.
"Some people go to Rawalpindi [a nearby city], some use the Buddhist cemetery, and with our other functions, like Hindu festivals Holi, or Diwali, we use various government buildings or hotels," said Pritam Das, the president of Islamabad Hindu Panchayat, a group representing the city's Hindus.
He said the community hardly had the resources to construct the boundary wall, let alone the entire complex, which is to include a community center, a cremation site, an auditorium, and temporary lodgings for Hindus who come from other cities.
"I am a Hindu and my father is a Taxpayer of Pakistan and like me Billions of rupees are being paid by Hindus in Pakistan. We are equal citizens and owners of Goverment Funds," tweeted Grouve Kumar Maheshwari, whose profile describes him as a "Proud Pakistani Hindu."
Over the past seven decades, Pakistan's government has paid for the construction of many mosques and even manages them and pays the monthly salary of many imams, or prayer leaders, in those mosques.
Sachal Jamal Pirzada, a student who was home for summer from Manchester University, said the hypocrisy of it all brought him to Wednesday's demonstrations.
"When somebody outside [the country] is building a masjid, we say they are doing a good job. But when a mandir [a Hindu temple] or anything else is being done for the minorities here, we say it's wrong," he said.
Role of social media
Wednesday's gathering outside the National Press Club in the capital city was started as a Facebook post.
"Honestly, I was sure that only one person would show up and that would be me. I'd just be here next to a tree," said Daniyal Chawla, who created the social media event.
By the time the demonstration started, 737 people had responded to it and 63 had committed to attend it, according to the Facebook event page. In addition, the invite was circulated in WhatsApp groups and through Twitter.
"Next thing you know, celebrities are sharing it, people with thousands of followers are sharing it. The response is greater than anything I could have imagined," said the 22-year-old student from New York University who was home due to the coronavirus.
Hindus in Pakistan
He said in his mind, this one event was greater than just the construction of a temple, it was about breaking the narrative that Pakistani Hindus were somehow linked to India and were not as Pakistani as their Muslim counterparts.
"The cause here is the Hindu phobia that goes on in Pakistan. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Pakistani Hindus are the most oppressed group in Pakistan," he said.
Islamabad resident and fellow organizer Sherkan Malik said building the temple was only the first step.
"It is about recognition of the Hindu community, respect of the Hindu community, and also tolerance of the Hindu community. Because the danger is that once this temple is made, it might have a terrorist attack on it or a fundamentalist protest outside of it," he said.
On Tuesday, international rights group Amnesty International issued a press release, calling on the government to fulfill its commitments to its minorities.
"The respect for the right to freedom of religion was promised to Pakistan's Hindus by the country's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Those who deny a long-marginalized community the right to practice their faith freely not only betray his legacy, but also violate the human rights of religious minorities protected under Pakistan's constitution and its international human rights obligations," said Omar Waraich, head of the South Asia group at Amnesty International.