When, on 17 November, a 'private members' day', the leader of the small opposition, Saeed Manhais, stood up to speak in the majestic colonial building of the Punjab Assembly in Lahore, those in the galleries expected a strong tirade against the government over issues such as rising inflation, rampant lawlessness and a spree of extra-judicial murders by the police. Instead, the honourable member moved a resolution to change the name of Rabwa, a sleepy town of 50,000 located some 150 km south-west of Lahore."In the opinion of this house, the name of Rabwa should be changed to 'Chak Dhaggian' or any other name," went the resolution. And in an unparalleled show of solidarity, the move was unanimously adopted by all 76 legislators present in the House. The only objection came from a minister who said that Chak Dhaggian was not a proper name, so a committee was formed to find another one.

The move came as a rude surprise to residents of Rabwa who came to know of it only the next day through news reports. They had no idea a change was being considered, and indeed the arbitrary decision was intended only to provide sadistic pleasure to the country's small but powerful religious lobby. That is because nearly everyone in Rabwa belong to the Ahmadiya community, the religious sect that was declared a non-Muslim minority by parliamentary act in 1974.

Most of the people of Rabwa migrated from the Indian Punjab town of Qadian during the Partition in 1947. Qadian is the birthplace of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, considered by the Ahmadiyas to be the Messiah promised in many holy books of Islam, including the Qur'an. When Mirza Ahmad proclaimed himself the new prophet of Islam towards the end of the 19th century, many religious scholars had denounced him and his followers for blasphemy, saying that there was no place for a new prophet in Islam. For their part, Ahmadiyas continue to insist that Mirza Ahmad's position is in accordance with the scriptures.

Most Ahmadiyas living in present-day India decided to move to Pakistan after independence. Though they settled in different parts of the country, those coming from Qadian decided to live at one place and create a new centre for the community. For this the Central Ahmadiya Organisation bought some 11,000 acres of barren land and named it Rabwa, a word from the Qur'an which means high and fertile place. As the seat of the community leader, called Khalifa by the Ahmadiyas, Rabwa soon became the new Qadian in Pakistan, a focal point for the Ahmadiya community, which claims a membership of three to four million in Pakistan alone.

Ahmadiyas had actively participated in the formation of Pakistan. The first foreign minister of the country, Chaudhry Zafarullah Khan, was an Ahmadiya. (So was Pakistan's only Nobel laureate, the late Abdus Salam.) But contrary to their expectations, Ahmadiyas soon became religious pariahs in Pakistan. The movement, at times violent, to declare Ahmadiyas non-Muslim started in the early fifties, but successive governments stood firm against the mullahs.

It took the first elected prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to bow to the religious lobby and sacrifice the Ahmadiyas. Through the Second Amendment to the 1973 constitution Ahmadiyas were declared non-Muslim. "Qadianis, or who call themselves Ahmadiyas, are not Muslim only for the purposes of constitution and law," declared the amendment. In 1984, Gen Zia-ul Haq took the matter to even more absurd heights and through ordinance disallowed Ahmadiyas from calling their places of worship mosques and from using certain specific symbols of Islam.

Their calling themselves Muslim was made a criminal offence punishable by two years in prison. Even quoting a line from the Qur'an on invitation cards could land an Ahmadiya in jail. The ordinance was given constitutional status with the 8th Amendment to the Constitution in 1986, which started a whole new chapter in the persecution of Ahmadiyas. Their present leader, or Khalifa, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, fled the country the same year.

Ahmadiyas are probably the most persecuted community in Pakistan. Dozens of Ahmadiyas have so far been murdered by religious zealots and hundreds have been put behind bars under the country's 'blasphemy laws'. When it comes to Ahmadiyas, so complete is religious apartheid that all Muslims, while getting official documents like the national identity card and the passport or getting registered as a voter has to declare that they are not Ahmadiyas and do not consider Mirza Ahmad a prophet or a reformer. As a result, Ahmadiyas have been disenfranchised. There is not a single Ahmadiya representative in Parliament or any of the provincial legislatures. What is even worse, the media and human rights groups often choose to remain silent on the issue of their persecution for fear of a backlash from the religious groups. For even a supporter for the human rights of Ahmadiyas can be dubbed an Ahmadiya, perhaps the most dangerous label to carry in Pakistan.

Going back to the re-naming of Rabwa, Ghalib Ahmad, a spokesperson for the Ahmadiya community argued, "Rabwa is private property. How absurd it is that we can't even name our own property and that too a name which is not controversial and which doesn't not hurt anyone's feelings."

But there is more in the attempt to change the name than is obvious; it shows a deeper malaise in the society. As the English daily, Dawn, noted: "The idea of changing the name is an example of our tendency to get passionately involved with non-issues and to recklessly drive our people deeper into mire of bigotry and sectarianism. It also shows how the majority feels threatened by such insignificant symbols of minority cohesiveness as the name of a place."

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