Who will help the Christian slum dwellers in Islamabad now?

Published: February 16, 2015
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Time is running out for Nazia and her family. Waheed worries over how he will be able to provide for his sister and eight other members of his household, should the CDA reinitiate its slum eradication plan and bulldoze their rusty one-bedroom abode. PHOTO: ELISHMA KHOKHAR

Three-year-old beady eyed Nazia frolics mischievously around the room, trying to coax a response from me. Her mother scolds her, ordering her to go play with her younger brother outside. I, for one, am glad that Nazia is a child as she is oblivious to the constant fear that looms over her family – a fear of being left homeless by the end of this year.

Nazia and her family are one of the 80,000 unfortunate slum inhabitants, living in Maskeen Colony Islamabad, one of the thirty odd slums that have been notified by the Capital Development Authority (CDA) for evacuation on the pretext of being illegal settlements encroaching on public and private land.

The slums came under renewed scrutiny – after an attack on a judicial court in Islamabad in March 2014 – on the official claim that katchi abadis are harbouring both criminals and terrorists.

In reality, these slums are home to a vast population of ordinary Pakistani citizens, mostly poor Christians, who have been residing on the premises since the inception of the capital city in 1960.

Legally, such settlements have to be improved upon their original location. Only in exceptional circumstances can a removal take place, and that too after a resettlement plan has been drafted and approved through consultation with the residents. At least that is what the National Housing Policy 2001 proposes on paper.

Rather than carrying out legal investigations for criminal or terrorist activity, criminalising the urban poor has been the easy way out for the state. Starting in 2002, eviction drives were also carried out against the Afghan Basti located in I-11, but vested interests of the rich living near the slum saved the settlement from being evicted.

Sadly, there is no knight in shining armour for their Christian counterparts.

Nazia’s brother, Waheed, informs that initially the demolitions were to begin right away. The sole reason they have postponed the action is due to the mass protest organised in November last year, by slum inhabitants and Christian clergymen with the help of minority rights activist Julius Salik and the Awami Worker’s Party (AWP).

Maskeen Colony, Sector G-8/4, Islamabad. Photo: Elishma Khokhar

Poor, downtrodden and non-Muslim

“It is one thing being poor, but when you are poor and Christian, things are far worse,” says 20-year-old slum resident Saleem.

Most of the poor Christians residing in Islamabad’s slums migrate from other parts of Punjab, mainly Sialkot, Narowal and Faisalabad, in search for a better life.

“But upon arriving, they find themselves being worse off, acquiring low-paid marginalised jobs like sweeping roads and domestic work,” explains a local activist.

“If it is of any consolation, at least the world has its eyes on bigger cities like Islamabad. In small towns, the discrimination is starker.”

His words echo memories of the heinous Kot Radha Kishan murder, where Christian bonded brick kiln worker Shahzad and his wife Shama were burnt alive on a blasphemy allegation.

Even if the situation is not life threatening in the cities, it is certainly no better. Article 38 of the Constitution of Pakistan states that promotion of the social and economic wellbeing of the people of Pakistan, irrespective of sex, caste, creed or race, is one of the basic tasks for the government.

Yet Nazia and her family are treated like dirt on a daily basis, having little or no hope of accessing even basic necessities such as food, clean water and sanitation. Conditions for their neighbour Rahima and her family of five are equally deplorable.

Many poor Christians of the slums also find it difficult to procure decent jobs in the city, for the mere reason that they are Christian.

“When I was unemployed, I was selected on the telephone for a job interview. But upon finding that I am Christian in person, the recruiter told me: ‘Sorry yaar, hum Esaiyon ko nahi rakhtey’ (I’m sorry friend, but we do not employ Christians),” says Waheed.

“Even though many Muslims also reside in the capital’s slums, life is far better for them as they often obtain better paid jobs like that of a mechanic or a blacksmith, whilst fellow Christians pick up the socially stigmatised leftover cleaning jobs.”

Children of slum-inhabitants also face discrimination at school. Many children drop out of schools permanently. Those who are lucky are transferred to Christian schools. Indeed many dejected parents feel that even if they invest in their children’s education, not much would change in terms of their intergenerational mobility – given the faith-based discrimination they face.

Many of the residents conclude:

Christians tou sirf safai key liyay hain” 

(Christians are only good for cleaning)

Time is running out for Nazia and her family. Waheed worries over how he will be able to provide for his sister and eight other members of his household, should the CDA reinitiate its slum eradication plan and bulldoze their rusty one-bedroom abode.

Upon being asked whether Waheed is hopeful, he gives a broken smile and says,

“There are no equal rights, not for Christians. This is our 17th year here, living in this colony and it just keeps getting worse. They are already knocking down colonies elsewhere, and now, they are threatening to send us off in trucks ‘to wherever we have come from’. If only they understood – this is our home too.”

Elishma Khokhar

Elishma Khokhar

The writer is a passionate story teller and musician currently working as a researcher at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad. She tweets at @elishmanoelk (twitter.com/elishmanoelk)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • syed india

    Good insight into Pakistan. Had no clue about these issues.Recommend

  • Maryam

    I am glad that for once someone is voicing out the concerns of
    the minorities of Pakistan. Their voices have been buried deep under the
    ongoing pseudo concerns of our politicians. Trying to wash out the whole
    community under the false blanket of “terrorism” is simply appalling.
    Minorities have been neglected for far too long, they belong to Pakistan just
    like the rest.
    Green and white…Recommend

  • bigsaf

    Deliberate and systematic state discrimination is appalling. A hopeless situation and hell-hole for the poor minorities.

    The embedded link in the phrase ‘vested interests’ in the article is worth a read.Recommend

  • Visibly

    Well, if you really want support for the Christians in Pakistan, just start saying officially that they are suffering and need support from the West! One possibility that would be rational is that Western Christian nations accept Christian asylum seekers, while the muslim asylum seekers with their opinion of belief and Sharia can be accepted to muslim nations. As citizens.Recommend

  • islooboy

    They are illegal land grabbers periodRecommend

  • TAHIR

    Nobody will help them …we are heartless and emotionless people …….Recommend

  • ovais

    just because they are christians they are allowed to grab land and illegaly live there ?? what logic are you presenting. Same happens to slum around the world . More needs to be done by the govt for all people in poverty dont make it a religion issue. maybe ET just loves to highlight the minority rights only in every single thing . Sometimes they are just land grabbersRecommend

  • former isloo

    They are poor people who ar efacing discrimination at all fronts. Pity they cant grab the land as baboos do via CDARecommend

  • UzairH

    Sorry, but this is no solution. For starters why should other countries accept Pakistani citizens for asylum on the basis of religion? Christians living in Pakistan have as much a right to live here as any Muslim.

    The real issue is the systemic and socially accepted discrimination the Christian community faces. One that I fear will not be resolved any time soon thanks to the we-are-superior mindset of Pakistani Muslims.Recommend

  • UzairH

    They’ve been living there for decades.

    As someone from a relatively well-off family that owns a house in a posh sector and yet has one of these slums in that sector, I would love to see the “great unwashed” poor people and their dirty housing gone.

    However neither I nor the government (that serves the interests of the rich) has a right to throw families out on the streets. There needs to be a real relocation plan with alternate housing provided.

    The real question is: what is the GOP and its thought-leaders (who happen to be the mullahs mostly, with the media mixing it up in recent times) doing to curb the ongoing population explosion?

    We have tens of millions of poor, uneducated people with no hope of landing decent jobs and who will not contribute greatly to the country’s economy. Instead of taking steps to halt and reverse this growth, we are blissfully adding millions of humans to our already overcrowded cities each year.

    This population explosion is why, being a realist rather than an idealist, I see very little hope for our country. The number of poor will only increase, there is little scope for increased resources (even if we use existing resources faster, they will simply run out faster, the natural gas shortage being a good example).Recommend

  • Farrukh Khan

    Very well written at least one person in Pakistan cares about minorities Recommend

  • yousuf

    truly a sad state of affairs. my community is suffering. a plea to all my community members to get together and help them.Recommend

  • ovais

    i am sorry so does people in katti pahari, so does people in all slums , it just doesnt make it right .if only CDA can take action against it then kudos to CDA. And poor people everywhere in pakistan are discriminated . I like the article . my only problem is why mention just christian. to be very honest in pakistan a poor has no voice regardless of him being muslim or christian but ET loves to highlight sects , religion etc rather than bashing all those who were or are in power especially the liberal MQM PPP ANP and PMLN for not launching a massive poor housing schemeRecommend

  • Solomon2

    “Many poor Christians of the slums also find it difficult to procure decent jobs in the city, for the mere reason that they are Christian.”

    See, Indians? The two-nation theory IS a reality:

    1) Pakistani Muslims and
    2) Pakistani non-Muslims treated as scum by Pakistani Muslims, regardless of the law.

    What Jinnah feared would be the fate of Muslims in a united India his heirs have made the fate of non-Muslims in a truncated Pakistan.Recommend

  • islooboy

    Being does not give you a sacred right to occupy other people,s property.Recommend

  • islooboy

    Islamabad represents Pakistan these Afghan and Christian slums are an eyesoreRecommend

  • sharabi

    well if they are not Wahabi Sunni Muslims then they are second class or maybe Third class citizens.Recommend

  • Visibly

    Well, let us say it bluntly. Would the average Westerner prefer a Christian, who is usually easy to integrate, or a Muslim that never integrates?
    I.e., strict Muslims, liking Muslim and cultural style, should seek asylum in other Muslim countries. Non-muslims, as long as they are willing to adjust to western life-style, should be welcomed into the Europe.Recommend