On November 30, 2020, the Punjab Law and Parliamentary Affairs Department issued a notification directing measures to refer to the Christian community as “Masihi” instead of “Essai” in all government records, documents, and correspondence.
The use of this nomenclature while addressing Christians in Urdu or other local languages has been a longstanding demand of the community in Pakistan. The Supreme Court has issued clear-cut orders in this regard as well but the word Essai is still used in official parlance. This prompted minorities’ rights activists to take up the matter and approach the relevant quarters for compliance, resulting in the order stated above.
Exactly 20 days before the issuance of this order, leaders of the Valmikan community of the country, which is so far categorised as Hindu by religion, gathered in Bahawalnagar, Punjab, and decided to launch a struggle for achieving their own separate identity. They disassociated themselves from Hindus or the Sanatan Dharmis [Hindus’ reference of themselves) and demanded to be registered as followers of Adhi Dharam’in Pakistan. Under the head of zaat (caste), they want to be referred as Valmikans.
The developments underline a religious group’s right to be referred to as per their wishes, which is guaranteed as per the country’s laws.
The landmark 2014 Supreme Court judgment which laid out several measures for the protection of minorities, stated that, “….every citizen can exercise this right to profess, practice and propagate his religious views even against the prevailing or dominant views of its own religious denomination or sect. In other words, neither the majority religious denominations or sect nor the minority religious denomination or sect can impose its religious will on the citizen.”
Essai — Masihi
Samuel Pyara, chairman of the Implementation Minority Rights Forum, a non-profit working for the rights of minorities, shared that the apex court, in May 2018, had referred to a decision of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) regarding this issue. The CII, he informed, had approved in September 2009 that members of the Christian community should be addressed as Masihi and not Essai. Following that decision, then-prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani had also passed an executive order in this regard.
However, Pyara pointed out that despite the lapse of almost a decade, the order was not being implemented across the board. For example, while the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), various textbook boards, and several government departments have complied with these orders, the phrase is still being used by the police, revenue department, as well as news outlets. The level of compliance of this order is weakest in Punjab, he claimed further.
Explaining the demand’s premise, Pakistan Minorities Teachers’ Association Chairman Anjum James Paul asserted that Christians want to be referred as how the Bible mentions Christ instead of how the Quran refers to him. He added that the word ‘Messiah’ is used in the New Testament which is why Christians want to be referred to as Masihi. Paul also recalled instances of threats and resistance back in 2008 when he attempted to get the country’s media to change how they refer to Christians.
However, Peter Jacob, the executive director of Center for Social Justice and Peace, said somehow Christians have come to believe that Essai is not the correct term for referring to them and is used to show contempt and discrimination. He countered that Christians of Pakistan have been giving names like ‘Essa Nagri’ to their localities for ages.
While noting that the change of nomenclature would be a good thing, unfortunately, it would not lead to any substantial positive change in the lives of the communities. Achoots, he shared, became ‘scheduled castes’, harijans and finally dalits, but their lives have remained mired in endless cycles of poverty and misery.
Hindus — Valmikans
Similarly, a large section of the minority group categorised as Hindus also seeks a change in nomenclature on the basis of castes. Amarnath Randhawa, chairman Adhi Dharam Samaj Seva, Punjab, said he is a part of Valmikans who follow Adhi Dharam which believes in one God — Pramtama — and considers others, like Ram, the messengers of God. Ours is a different religion and we should not be called Hindus, he asserted further.
Sharing the word’s roots, Randhawa claimed that the term ‘Hindu’ is geographical in nature and was given by Aryans to those who had settled around Hind Ghati (Hind mountain) — a name influenced by the word Sindh. Earlier, Randhawa had himself been advocating for referring to Hindus as Sanatan Dharmis — “eternal order” —, asserting that it was the real name of the religion which was later changed on geographical grounds.
There are around one million Valmikans in Pakistan who do not associate themselves with the upper caste Hindus who identify themselves as Sanatan Dharmis, proclaimed Randhawa. “We want to be registered as followers of Adhi Dharam and Valmikans by zaat (caste), he added.” As per its definition, Adhi Dharam is a social, cultural, spiritual and educational movement of the oppressed among aboriginals who were once the rulers of Bharat (India) before the advent of Aryans.
Similarly, Mangat Ram Sharma, the Sialkot-based head of Pak Dharam Asthan Committee, advocates for the use of the word Sanatan Dharam for Hinduism. He explained that an awareness campaign about the issue is under way among their community and following its completion and after having enough persons on board, they will make a demand to the government as per the laid down procedure.
Punjab Ministry of Human Rights, Minorities Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Deputy Secretary Ministry Muhammad Yousaf informed that the notification for the Christian community had been issued on their request whereas the similar demand of the Valmiki community will be reviewed once officially submitted along with documentary evidence.
Randhawa described that it is also important to get rid of the tag of ‘Hindus’ as Pakistanis identifying themselves as such often have to bear the brunt for the wrongs and excesses against Muslims in India by rightwing Hindu mobs. He added that this sentiment is common among all sub-groups of their religion.