It is the month of October in the year 2015. Located in the suburbs of the Lahore city, the old debilitated Krishna Temple is dimly lit on Diwali, the "festival of lights." The festive mood is somehow lacking, without any flashing fairy lights, candles and earthen oil lamps. The dark skies seem barren, devoid of a spectacular display of fireworks; so do the murky streets surrounding the temple.
A marquee erected outside the temple accommodates more than a hundred people including men, women and children. The crowd, seated in chairs arranged in two rows before a decorated stage, waits impatiently for celebrations to begin. A banner hung on the opposite wall bears a message that wishes, "Happy Diwali to the Hindu Community of Lahore from Evacuee Trust Property Board of Pakistan (ETPB)".
There's very little freedom given to the minorities to perform their rituals without state interference.
For the uninitiated, the ETPB is a government body which administers properties evacuated by Hindus and Sikhs who migrated from Pakistan to India after the partition.
Women of all age groups are dressed in vibrant ethnic clothing. The men, on the other hand, are either wearing kurta pajama (long tunics) or casual attire.
Inside the scattered temple space, dazzling decorations adorn the white marble walls. Idols of Goddess Laxmi, Lord Ganesha and Lord Krishna are kept on a timbered altar. A table inside the prayer area stores the puja samagri and other items. Garlands made of fresh flowers adorn the deities. A group of devotees is seated on the floor singing bhajans and devotional songs while others patiently wait in queue for their turn for the darshan. The pandit recites mantras and performs special pujas to mark the occasion.
Suddenly, the bhajans are ordered to be called off and the puja is interrupted as the chairman of the ETPB, Siddiqul Farooq, arrives guarded by his security personnel. The focus of the function deviates from Diwali celebrations to the very common practice of VIP protocol and preferential treatment given to the political elites. The pandit Kashi Ram and the temple caretaker Manohar Chand advance to greet him as he takes to the stage. A group of men and women hailing from different religious backgrounds, including Muslim, Christian and Sikh, step up and get seated on the stage with him.
The Diwali celebrations are disrupted to allow for some valuable speeches by the ETPB officials. The host makes an announcement saying that the entire minority community should be thankful to the government for making this event possible and for providing them with sufficient security to celebrate their festival. The host then requests the Hindu community to stand up for the national anthem.
One may wonder why the national anthem is required for a Diwali celebration. People coming from all religious backgrounds in Pakistan are Pakistani citizens then why is it important to impose nationalism in a gathering of non-Muslims to reinsure their patriotism?
After the national anthem is performed, representatives of different religious communities come forward to give their speeches. The speeches begin with a recitation from the Quran followed by shlokas from the Guru Granth Sahib; some passages are read out from the Bible and Ramayana.
The vulnerable Hindu community celebrates the festival of lights at Krishna Temple without lighting diyas, bursting firecrackers or drawing rangolis.
The speeches mention the 11th August speech of Mohammad Ali Jinnah in which presiding over the new constituent assembly for Pakistan at Karachi he had said: "You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan."
However, the irony is that the Hindu community is not even free to celebrate their festival within the premises of one of the two remaining temples in Lahore.
All the speeches portray Pakistan as a safe haven for minorities. Marked with the same blatant lies, fabrications and distortion of history taught to our school children, tall claims and false promises are made to fight together the injustice against religious communities.
The small Hindu community of Lahore somehow seems happy with the very little they have. They clap cheerfully while nodding their heads in appreciation and agreement to whatever the ETPB officials say.
Someone from the Hindu community who chooses to remain anonymous asserts, "The majority of Hindu people in Lahore choose to celebrate Diwali privately in their homes as it leaves them with more freedom to perform rituals according to their wishes." Talking about Diwali he says that it signifies renewal of life. Homes are decorated with diyas, prayers are offered and sweets are distributed.
The ETPB organizes a Diwali function at Krishna Mandir every year, but it's actually a peace conference in disguise. There's very little freedom given to the minorities to perform their rituals without state interference. The vulnerable community of Hindus thus, celebrates the festival of lights at Krishna Temple without lighting diyas, bursting firecrackers or drawing rangolis.
The Arabic words that have been scribbled on top of the crossed out Hindi letters on a building at Laxmi Chowk are a more accurate testament to today's Lahore.
Deeply disappointed at how the Punjab government hijacks Diwali, I decided not to visit the Krishna Mandir on the festival again. Instead, this year I visited the Valmiki Temple located on the narrow Bheem Street in Anarkali, only to listen to the sad tales of the dejected, downtrodden Valmiki community of Lahore. While having a conversation with the temple caretakers Pandit Bhagat Laal and Faryad Khokhar, I am informed that half of their temple's space has been grabbed by the Evacuee Trust Property Board. The old priest's hands quiver as he shows me the receipts of the funds they collected from the public to organize their event. In his shaky voice he says, "The ETPB claims the property to be their own and seeks a monthly rent from us. However, our families have been residing here for the past 700 years. We own this temple and just wish that the ETPB relieves us from this pain of paying a monthly rent." He breaks down as he asks, "Whenever we talk about our troubles, we are asked to move to India. But why should we leave our ancestral home where our forefathers have been residing even before India was divided?"
Before the partition of India, various residential areas in Lahore had a huge Hindu population including Shah Alami, Krishan Nagar, Qila Gujjar Singh, Sant Nagar, Sham Nagar, Gowalmandi, Ram Gali, Nisbet Road, Dharam Pura, Purani Anarkali and Model Town.
Named after Lava—the son of Lord Ram—Lahore currently has just two remaining temples and a meagre Hindu population of about 150 families. Yet, even to this date, whenever one walks down the bustling streets of the old city, the traces of Lahore's Hindu past can't be escaped—the Hindi alphabets on a broken wooden door in Old Anarkali, the crumbling Hanuman statue near Lahore Railway Station, the deserted Lava temple inside Lahore Fort. The homes located in Krishan Nagar still bear the name plates of their former Hindu owners. Sir Ganga Ram, Gulab Devi and Janki Devi are still known to be Lahore's best working hospitals. Lala Lajpat Rai's haveli near Hindu muhalla in Lahore still has the foundation stone once inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi. The ringing temple bells of Krishna and Valmiki mandirs, still remind one of the essence of harmony and accord that Lahore once possessed. However, the Arabic words that have been scribbled on top of the crossed out Hindi letters on a building at Laxmi Chowk are a more accurate testament to today's Lahore.