In February 2021, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, while on a visit to Sri Lanka, invited Sri Lankan Buddhists to visit Pakistan to witness the rich Buddhist heritage and culture that it houses. The move was seen as an appeasement policy by Khan towards Colombo to further their engagement on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and soften the Lankan Buddhists’ perception about Islamabad. Similarly, Pakistan has also ramped up preservation activities around Buddhist heritage sites in the country in recent years.
Such a spate of overtures by Islamabad in the direction of Buddhism can be termed as its adoption of Buddhist Diplomacy, carrying with it the message that it will promote interfaith harmony and give impetus to Buddhism in the country.
However, the reality of the situation of Buddhists in Pakistan is far from the rosy picture that Islamabad has been painting to the outside world. The deplorable conditions in which the Buddhists in Pakistan are forced to live in highlight Islamabad’s double standards on their want to protect and promote Buddhism.
Gandharan Buddhism in Decline Buddhism took roots in Pakistan 2300 years ago in Gandhara (present-day Peshawar in Southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in north-western Pakistan) under the rule of Ashoka the Great in the erstwhile Mauryan Empire. As a result, Gandharan Buddhism was born, and the region became famous for its Buddhist iconography. The present-day Gandhara region also houses the ancient and highly revered stupas in Taxila and Swat, apart from a rich collection of Buddhist heritage sites, relics, and art in other Gandharan areas.
Despite such a rich tradition and history of Buddhism in the nation, Buddhists in Pakistan today have been left completely ignored by the government. According to the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) of Pakistan, only 1884 Buddhists possess national identity cards (NICs), while the real number of Buddhists exceeds 16,000 in the country. This statistic itself is the biggest revelation in itself about the condition of Buddhists in Pakistan.
The fact that more than 14,000 Buddhists there do not have NICs means that they will not be allowed to vote, open a bank account, obtain a driving license or a passport, purchase train or plane tickets, buy a PTCL connection, obtain electricity, gas, and water, and secure admissions to colleges or universities.
Thus, it would not be an understatement to say that Buddhists in Pakistan do not have access to the very basic necessities in life. While the Imran Khan government harps about interfaith religious harmony and building religious tolerance in the country, their actions are clearly headed in an opposite direction.
Recently in September 2021, it was reported that Pakistani Buddhist heritage was witnessing widespread demolitions (including stupas, carvings, and statues of Buddhas), especially in the Swat Valley region. Moreover, Buddhist carvings and scriptures numbering more than 30,000 are going to be destroyed because of a Chinese-funded hydropower project in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Similarly, in July 2020, a 1700-years old Buddha statue was destroyed by the digging workers in the Takht-i-Bahi region at the behest of a local Maulvi.
Years before that have also witnessed widespread destruction of Buddhist heritage and iconography that exposes the discriminatory mindset against Buddhists that is prevalent in Pakistan. And it needs to be understood that this discrimination against Buddhists is present at both policy and public perception levels in the nation.
Exposing Double Standards
Minorities in Pakistan have been at the receiving end of religious intolerance in the country for a long time. From Hindus to Christians to Sikhs and Ahmadiyya Muslims, Islamabad has failed to protect its minorities, as also outlined by the Human Rights Watch in 2021.
But despite such a deplorable track record in protecting its minorities, Pakistan’s sudden focus on Buddhism in terms of announcing an impetus to Buddhist tourism and preserving Buddhist heritage is indeed surprising and calls for deeper scrutiny of the situation. Plus, Pakistan recently hosted a 14-member delegation of Sri Lankan monks who met with PM Imran Khan and other high-powered officials. At the same time, visits from monks from Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan are in the pipeline. Moreover, online content on Buddhism in Pakistan has suddenly spiked in the last year.
What is even more interesting is the fact that Pakistan is set to host a huge Buddhist Conclave in 2022 that aims to promote religious interfaith harmony and bring together Buddhist monks and scholars from all over the world. Simultaneously, Pakistan is planning to set up the Gandhara International University in Taxila to revive the historic Taxila University, in what is being seen as a way for Islamabad to counter its negative image around religious intolerance.
But these overtures by Pakistan need to be seen through a bird’s eye view to better understand the strategic motivations behind their undertaking.
Pakistan, while aiming to counter its negative image regarding religious intolerance, is also looking at forging better relations with countries across the world, especially in Asia. In doing so, Pakistan now wants to tap into its Buddhist history to further its relations with Buddhist nations like Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan in what can be called Islamabad’s adoption of Buddhist Diplomacy. Pakistan’s ramped-up Buddhist outreach to Sri Lanka, as mentioned previously, is a case in point. Moreover, the adoption of such a policy also stems from Pakistan’s want to reach out to these countries for the expansion of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Although one might argue that such overtures will help the Buddhists in the country, it is certainly not the case. They can only be termed as publicity gimmicks and fail to resolve the real issues that the Buddhists are facing in Pakistan- lack of recognition from the government, discrimination, and lack of basic rights and amenities. And it comes indeed as a shock that Taxila, a place that Islamabad wants to promote as the hub of Buddhist tourism, is overwrought with serious crime at this very moment. Recently it was reported that hundreds of political, religious, and trade leaders staged protests in Taxila against rising crime in the town due to police inaction.
These instances raise enough red flags about Pakistan’s commitment to the protection and promotion of religious freedom and interfaith harmony. Parallelly, countries like Sri Lanka who are being reached out to by Pakistan are already aware and cautious in their engagements. It was just a few weeks ago that Colombo had expressed its angst to Islamabad over the destruction of Buddhist heritage in Pakistan.
A religion revered world over for Buddha’s teachings being used for selfish political ambitions is something that world needs to wake up to. And Sri Lanka, being at the forefront of this realization, needs to assume the role of a responsible power capable of leading the Buddhist world and promoting and protecting the religion of peace in a nation known for conflict and violence.