In a rare move, amid a suspension of most bilateral ties between India and Pakistan, the Ministry of External Affairs announced on Friday that it was “positive” and “willing to engage” with the Pakistani authorities to discuss a proposal from the Pakistan Hindu Council that requested pilgrims from both sides be allowed to fly to religious destinations rather than the circuitous border route by foot that they presently have to take. Talks between the two sides, which sources said could begin as early as this week, have put the spotlight on the organisation in Pakistan that is gaining traction for its work on what some would call twin “lost causes”: the rights of religious minorities in an increasingly Islamic Pakistan, and bettering ties between India and Pakistan that have reached their lowest ebb in 75 years.
For nearly two decades, Pakistani doctor and legislator Ramesh Kumar Vankwani and his organisation, the Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC), have taken up the problem of the nation’s most vulnerable religious minorities. As a teenager in the 1980s, Mr. Vankwani had watched the situation deteriorate with the promulgation of blasphemy laws during military dictator General Zia Ul Haq’s tenure, leading to their misuse to harass the few minorities left in the country and forcing them to either convert or flee the country.
One of the four sons of a Hindu doctor in Sindh province, all of whom qualified as doctors, Mr. Vankwani studied at the Jinnah Sindh Medical College before deciding in 2000 to join politics. He stood and won one of the nine seats in the Sindh Provincial Assembly, which are reserved for non-Muslims by the by the Constitution, and voted on through a “separate electorate” system. An earlier attempt to stand for a regular seat from Sindh’s Thaparkar constituency, where a large number of Hindus live, failed.
Mr. Vankwani had been vocal about minority rights throughout his political career, but it was in 2005, after he fought the case for three young girls abducted and forcibly converted, that he decided to set up the PHC to build more awareness for the problems faced by non-Muslims, including blasphemy charges, land grab, abduction and kidnapping of young girls, forcible conversions and killings. Their numbers have dwindled since Partition. If in 1947 minorities made up more than 20% of the population, it reduced to less than 5% by 2017, when the census found Hindus form 2.14% and Christians form 1.27% of the population. Some of the other campaigns Mr. Vankwani has been at the forefront of are the movement to restore temples that have been bulldozed or seized across the country, and he was instrumental presenting the Supreme Court case that ordered the reconstruction of the ‘Swami Paramhans Mandir’ in Khyber Puktunkhwa, which had been demolished and occupied by a local cleric in 1997. This month, Mr. Vankwani also convinced the Imran Khan government to allow chartered flights to take visiting Hindu pilgrims to the remote area in KPK to visit the restored temple. He has also lobbied for years, without success, for Pakistan’s government to appoint a Hindu as the head of the Evacuee property board that manages land and homes that were abandoned by Hindus during Partition when they left for India.
Mr. Vankwani’s latest mission is to promote “faith tourism” with India, at a time when most exchanges between the two countries are in abeyance. Since 2016, there have been no high level meetings between Indian and Pakistan leaders, and since 2019, trade and travel routes have been snapped. The Delhi-Lahore bus, and the Samjhauta express train, and all air links that catered to thousands of Indians and Pakistanis wishing to cross over are suspended. If the PHC’s proposal to send Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) charters with pilgrims, each of whom will be charged about $1,500 for a four-day tour, including shrines in Ajmer, Delhi, Agra and Haridwar, is accepted, it will be one of many firsts.
The flights would mark the first time a Pakistani airline has landed in Delhi in three years, and the first time ever it would have landed carrying worshippers who are allowed under the 1974 joint protocol on religious pilgrimages. If the PHC’s second proposal, to bring Indian airliners on reciprocal flights to Pakistan, is cleared, it would be the first such flight since 2008. When asked if his promotion of minority rights and of good ties with India during times of high tension means he is targeted in Pakistan, Mr. Vankwani shrugs and says that agenda is “not hidden” and he cannot be criticised for being honest about what he is pushing for. It also helps that Mr. Vankwani has stayed on the right side of every government, and stayed with whichever party comes to power in Pakistan.
“I feel if I help religious people, be they of any religion, to visit these shrines, I will also gain blessings in the process. I want to be a bridge between India and Pakistan,” Mr. Vankwani told The Hindu of his almost Sisyphean struggles thus far.