Unwelcome Guests and Hostages: Minority Claims on the State

By Ghazal Asif and Natasha Raheja

India’s controversial Hindu nationalist Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) expedites Indian citizenship for Pakistani Hindus fleeing persecution, reducing their waiting period for naturalization from twelve to six years. As anthropologists working with Pakistani Hindus on both sides of the border (Rajasthan and Sindh) we consider how this population figures in discourses of majority-minority relations that undergird state formation in the region. Pakistani Hindus claim rights and equal citizenship both in Pakistan, where they experience exclusion as a non-Muslim religious minority, and as refugee-migrants in India, as “Hindus in Hindustan.”[i]

CAA codifies India as a Hindu refuge and Pakistan as a Muslim refuge, reinforcing a colonial legacy that mapped religious identity onto citizenship and territory (van der Veer 2002). Focusing on one population’s imbrication in the logics of two successor states that inherited this colonial legacy, our cross-border analysis moves away from operative essentialisms to develop a robust theory of how concepts of “the hated other” shift across geographies and history.

A cartoon circulating among CAA supporters on Hindi-language social media in February 2020 explains the current situation of Pakistani Hindus, caught between the minority-majority politics of India and Pakistan. A “Pakistani Hindu Visthapit (displaced)” family carrying few belongings cowers between two identically angry, weapon-clutching Muslim couples, representing the “Pakistani Majority” on the left and the “Indian Minority” on the right. As Muslims on both sides yell, “Udhar jaao!” (Go there!), the caption laments, “Jaaen to jaaen kahan?” (If we must leave, then where are we to go?).

The Indian Hindu is notably absent from this image. Her secular obligations to the Indian Muslim make her regrettably unavailable to extend refuge or support to the visthapit family. In this zero-sum game, the binary configuration of Hindu and Muslim as a codependent pair of essentialized others persists across the region. This is a common trope of the religious right.

Whether as a minority or as a majority, Hindus are under the specter of Muslim threat; these are the colonial logics in which Pakistani Hindus make their claims for citizenship in India. The Hindu-Muslim antinomy is reinforced in the Pakistani ideal of a Muslim citizenry that excludes Hindus and others. Caught between colonial legacies of divide and rule, and the constrained imaginaries of belonging in Pakistan and India, the Pakistani Hindu family are suspended between the deferred promises of Indian secularism and Muslim nationalism. The caricature angry Muslims wield batons: NO CAA (secularism) on the right and kattarvad (fundamentalism) on the left. In spite of its trite depiction of the Hindu-Muslim binary, the cartoon gestures to longer debates about possibilities for minority recognition and citizenship in liberal democracies within religious modernity.

The essentialized Hindu-Muslim binary is fixed by framing key touchstones such as debates around Partition, the Liaquat-Nehru pact, CAA, and contemporary political Twitter discourse through a mode of citizenship that tacks between understanding minorities as guests or hostages. As India and Pakistan selectively welcome and delimit the rights of religious minorities by pitting them against one another, we contemplate fragile possibilities for cross-border solidarity that resist the essentialization of the Hindu-Muslim binary.

In the immediate aftermath of the anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi in February 2020, the All Pakistan Hindu Panchayat (APHP) condemned the violence and called for solidarity with “Indian Muslims who lost their loved ones,” issuing a statement on its Facebook page. The statement further condemns the attack on Faruqiya Mosque and includes two photographs of the burnt main entrance to a mosque.

The APHP is a non-representative organization in Karachi that makes claims on the Pakistani state on the basis of minority rights within the logic of universal citizenship while also carrying out social programs broadly inclusive of “upper” and “lower” castes. It does not usually go out of its way to cultivate an internationalist ethos based on a shared Hindu identity across borders. Hindu identity in Pakistan traverses various caste groups in ways that promote multivocal participation in devotional life (Schaflechner 2018). Regionally specific formations of Hindu devotional life enable the imagination of affinities that resist easy subsumption into a monolithic religious identity. We suggest that one possible reading of the APHP’s statement is as a moment of Hindu-Muslim minority solidarity across the India-Pakistan border.

Pakistani Hindu life enables a recognition of Indian Muslims as an adjacent confessional community based on shared minority status and tenuous claims to belonging. Yet simply marking affinities between minorities across borders who are beholden to majority recognition does not move beyond the essentialized zero-sum game. The recognition of a shared negation of membership in either state is at best a fragile solidarity that reinforces unsettling understandings of Hindus and Muslims as irreconcilable, essentialized others despite sharing cultural and ethnolinguistic ties. Thus, APHP’s statement can also be read as a hostage statement of loyalty under duress.

This reading echoes the post-Partition “hostage theory” (Zamindar 2007), solidified in the 1950 Liaqat-Nehru Pact, which made India and Pakistan accountable to one another for their treatment of minority citizens (Raghavan 2016). Pakistan’s Hindus and India’s Muslims have been yoked together since, not in a shared recognition of minority vulnerability, but as “hostages” to guarantee good behaviour. Pakistani Muslims would treat Pakistani Hindus well, as long as Indian Hindus did the same for Indian Muslims. The Pact of course is an extension of the two-nation theory, in which Hindus and Muslims cannot be compatriots.

The Pact’s logic animates recent proclamations by state officials. Indeed, in the parliamentary debates leading up to the CAA, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah asserted that Pakistan’s violation of the Pact had necessitated the protection of Pakistani Hindus by India. In a contrapuntal vein, Prime Minister Imran Khan recently tweeted in English and Urdu that any (retaliatory) violence against Pakistan’s “non-Muslim citizens or their places of worship will be dealt with strictly.” His warnings revived memories of sustained retaliatory anti-Hindu violence, including temple and idol desecration in 1993 following the destruction of the Babri Mosque in India, as well as recent incidents of anti-Hindu violence in the towns of Ghotki and Umerkot.[i] Since Khan was specifically responding to anti-Muslim violence in India, his assurance of the Pakistani state’s protection of Hindu minority further instantiates the logic of the CAA whereby specific minorities are not full citizens of the state. This is further emphasized as the full thread begins with an analysis of Hindu nationalism in India. “Our minorities” (humari aqliyatein), the tweet concludes, “are equal citizens of this country.”[ii] This formulation obscures Sunni Muslim majoritarianism in Pakistan; counterintuitively, it presumes a prior sovereign body politic which is exterior to the minorities it lays claim to.

Pakistani Hindus face exclusion in Pakistan and India.[iii] Meanwhile, the larger discourse around minorities in South Asia deploys alternative conceptualizations of exclusion and equality—the gritted-teeth toleration of hostages held for insurance and the expulsion of over-staying infiltrators (ghuspetiya) to create much-needed room for long-lost kin.

While the limits of liberal democracies and the double-edged nature of minority recognition remain the subjects of fruitful anthropological debate, in this essay we have chosen to discuss specific histories and discourses about shifting figurations of “the hated other” (Povinelli 2002, Middleton 2015). Cross-border analysis of Pakistani Hindus, and their relationships to Pakistan and India in the midst of Islamization and Hindutva projects in the context of the CAA, offers a way to recognize how these states are enabled and limited by the logic of postcolonial, liberal democracy. Ultimately, within these constraints, Pakistani Hindus’ claims-making strategies and modes of recognition elude binary essentialization.

Ghazal Asif is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Anthropology. Her research examines political claim-making and economies of affect among minority Hindu communities in Pakistan.

Natasha Raheja is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University. Her research and films examine citizenship claims and cross-border migration in South Asia. The working title of her book manuscript is From Minority to Majority: Pakistani Hindu Claims to Indian Citizenship.

Works Cited

Middleton, T., 2015. The Demands of Recognition: State Anthropology and Ethnopolitics in Darjeeling. Stanford University Press.

Povinelli, E.A., 2002. The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism. Duke University Press.

Raghavan, P., 2016. “The Making of the India–Pakistan Dynamic: Nehru, Liaquat, and the No War Pact correspondence of 1950.” Modern Asian Studies50(5), pp.1645-1678.

Schaflechner, J., 2018 Hinglaj Devi: Identity, Change, and Solidification at a Hindu Temple in Pakistan. Oxford University Press.

Veer, P.V.D., 2002. “Religion in South Asia.” Annual review of anthropology31(1), pp.173-187.

Zamindar, V.F.Y., 2007. The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories. Columbia University Press.


[i] In October 2019 and January 2020 respectively.

[ii] Even as the Pakistan National Assembly rejected a bill in October 2019 that would expand eligibility to non-Muslims to run for the office of Prime Minister.

[iii] Pakistani Hindus in India can experience stigmatization for being from an ‘enemy state’ and a ‘lower’ or non-caste or Indigenous background (Dalit and Adivasi), limited mobility across India, denial of return to Pakistan, and the deferral of citizenship-related access to basic social welfare.

[i] Pakistani Hindu refugee-migrants sometimes use this phrase as a claim to Indian citizenship.

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