Blocking construction of Hindu temple in Islamabad signifies Pak’s troubled relationship with minorities

A Hindu temple planned for Islamabad, the city’s first, was supposed to be a symbol of tolerance for Pakistan. But violence and controversy have turned it into an emblem of the country’s troubled relationship with its religious minorities.

On July 5, the local development authority in Islamabad stopped the construction of the boundary wall on the plot allotted to the Shri Krishna Mandir. According to the authority’s spokesperson Mazhar Hussain, the action was taken because a building plan had not been submitted to the authority, The New York Times reported.

“Any construction taking place in Islamabad, residential or commercial, requires a building plan (map) to be approved,” he was quoted as saying by local media.

When Pakistan’s former government allotted land for the temple in 2018, Muslim demonstrators quickly camped out on the plot, refusing to allow a Hindu structure to be built in Islamabad, according to The New York Times.

But the temple’s Hindu advocates seemed to prevail and the temple’s first foundation stones were laid last month. Days later, Prime Minister Imran Khan ordered the government to provide about USD 1.3 million for the temple’s construction, roughly a fifth of what is needed.

However, Muslim clerics stepped in again and things started changing.

Several clerics ruled that no Hindu temple should be built because Pakistan is a Muslim country. Citizens denounced the government for using their taxes to provide funding for the temple. Media outlets openly campaigned to shut the project down.

Under mounting pressure, the government late last week backtracked from its initial pledge to donate money to the temple’s construction, instead of asking for guidance from the Council of Islamic Ideology on whether to give the grant.

The violence over the issue reached heights on Sunday when a group of men destroyed the partially constructed wall around the temple’s land, claiming it was their Islamic duty to do so. They gleefully filmed their exploits and posted it on social media. Unfortunately, none of the vandals have been arrested.

In a matter of just two weeks, the hope surrounding Islamabad’s first Hindu temple was derailed, in a similar as many aspirations that the Imran Khan government had delivered on the religious coexistence when he had promised when he won elections in 2018, The New York Times reported.

In his election campaign, the cricketer-turned-politician had promised to improve conditions for Pakistan’s religious minorities, often treated as second-class citizens and targetted in attacks by Islamic fundamentalists with few repercussions. He had also vowed to restore their places of worship.

Khan seemed to make good on his promise late last year when the government reopened one of Sikhism’s holiest shrines, the 500-year-old Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur. But the latest move over the construction of Hindu temple in the capital province once again marred efforts of Imran Khan’s promise to religious tolerance.

Although Hindus are between two and four per cent of Pakistan’s population, Islamabad does not have a temple for them to worship in. If their relatives die, they must travel long distances with the body to Hindu-run cremation facilities to perform traditional burial rites.

As of now, Islamabad’s Hindu Panchayat has halted the construction and decided to visit the local authority office this week to discuss the matter further. Hindu Panchayat President Pritam Das told SAMAA news agency that the panchayat had already submitted an application addressed to the authority regarding the boundary wall construction on June 19, but got no response from them. The application said that the boundary wall was being built to secure the possession of the plot.

Last Friday, the country’s religious affairs ministry, in a press conference, said that it only “releases funds for the renovation and rehabilitation of minority’s worship places”, not for construction.

This, however, is not the only problem faced by the panchayat during the temple’s construction.

In a tweet on Saturday, PTI MNA Lal Chand Malhi said the Hindu Panchayat has announced that it is discontinuing the temple’s construction, even if the local authority now allows it, due to recent cases of violence and destruction of its site.

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