Naeem Asgher Tarar
On 24th November, Sindh assembly outmaneuvered all other provinces by passing a law which is for protecting the minorities of the province from the evil of forced conversions. It is about time that a bill like this should have been brought, signed into law and implemented throughout the province, but even now it is felicitous and a big sigh of relief for the people of different minorities, who were being molested and threatened.
I do believe that laws like this should be made and implemented in other provinces of Pakistan too, but in Sindh, the need was more dire and desperate. According to ECP records, Hindu community constitutes the largest minority, which is registered in Sindh, along with Christians and Parsis. In Karachi alone, 81,589 of the registered voters are non-Muslims.
Now, not just these digits mentioned above were convincing enough to embark on the risky task of presenting this bill, but the plight of minorities and the tormenting conditions faced by them at the hands of local fanatics is also germane.
Blasphemy law may have been or is serving its purpose justly, but then, if we follow details and case study of some previous relevant events, we would come across a reality, that more than serving the purpose, it has engendered misuse of it. People more often than not have used it to settle some whilom score. In Sindh, especially in interior Sindh, Mullahs to ensure their portion of abode on welkin have been trying to forcefully convert Hindus and Christians to Islam, and if the victim resists, no worrying at all, just conveniently arraign him with heresy. In 2012 an annual report was given by United States commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which clearly stated that Pakistan is not doing anything noticeable to prevent continuous violations of freedom of religion. The report further argues that especially in Punjab, and also in other parts of the country, Blasphemy laws are being used to target minorities. These miscreant mullahs have a very strong following not just among local people but among personals of different departments too, this thing boosts their notorious ambitions even more and they more vehemently try to deprive minorities of their basic right; to worship as they please.
Religion is a very personal thing and should be left alone or at least at the disposal of every person, as said by Voltaire, ‘Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.’
A person may follow a spiritual path, which suits him the best and heals him. The most imperative purpose of following any religion is to be a good human being, in the end. If a Hindu is a better person in his day to day dealings and is more concerned in the deliverance of rights of individuals, by every aspect he is definitely a better person than any Muslim who acts opposite. The problem, as I see it, arises at this very point. Fundos, as the great Khushwant Singh would call them, fall prey to religious narcissism. They start believing that they are the best out there, they will be resurrected neat and clean even if they have lived a life vice-versa.
The Pakistan we took from the British Raj was destined to be an ideal state for anyone, brushing aside the religious and ideological differences. Farahnaz Ispahani, an ex-parliamentarian, talks in her book Purifying the land of the pure: Pakistan’s religious minorities, that how religious extremist lobby has hijacked Jinnah’s Pakistan, which was envisioned as a peaceful, modern and secular country. There should not be any problem arising with respect to the differences of beliefs and religion, but this once sidelined lobby, now dominant, has spread this venom to such an extent that now only a very specific lot is left, who actually believe in harmony and essence of living and let living peacefully.
History furnishes ample proof that such people who are minatory to the minorities, never gave up their habit of being so, unless a strict law is there to remind them of their limits. Let it be this way then, if you are not ready to give up your hateful and abominable tactics against minorities, then let the law take care of this, and of course in a much better way.
According to this new law, one can only convert to other religion from his own once he or she attains maturity, and that is eighteen years of age. Even after the age of maturity, if it is found that the conversion is forceful and against the will of the subject, punishment for this ranges to 3-5 years with fine or without fine. During the trial of any such case, the government will provide a safe shelter to the person and if someone tries to disclose the location of the victim, he too will be charged with the Contempt of Court Act, 1976.
The preamble of this draft maintains that the purpose of establishing a commission is to address the grievances and complaints of the religious minorities. Sindh Government shall make a commission, going by the name, Sindh Minorities Rights Commission. Talking of this commission, it embodies some very convincing regulations, which give hope that it will work par excellence while executing its duties. The chairperson who will head the commission should be from the minority community and must have at least experience of 15 years regarding the work he is being employed for. There will be 11 other members who must have more than adequate knowledge of regarding matters of minorities or better, 07 years of experience in this field. In commission 33 percent representation will be of woman members, one representative will be from some youth organization, one lawyer and there will two activists from civil society.
To make the commission more authoritative and effective, powers of a civil court trying a suit under the code of civil procedure, 1908 (Act v of 1908), have been given, which will make the trial speedy and immensely productive. The commission will be able to summon and enforce the attendance of witnesses, discovery and production of documents, requisition of any public record etc.
Not to forget that in politics of Sindh, minorities play a very important role, now maybe this step is just to placate them for getting votes in next general elections or rather it is done out of genuine concern, in the long run, and in the end, the win-win situation stays with the minorities. As of now onwards, they will live under more protection and freedom to practice their own religion without the hazard of any possible looming threat.
Many if not all, have praised and encouraged this step of Sindh Government but at the same time there are people out there, who clearly look irked. Since the passing of this bill many religious parties have voiced their concerns by arguing that this bill is against the values of Islam. I just want to ask, do these parties know that forcing someone to convert to another religion forcefully is also against the values of Islam? The hue and cry made by them are senseless, as the bill clearly states that once the person reaches the age of eighteen years, he or she will be free to adopt any religion, if wishes.
The initiative taken by Sindh government is indeed laudable but there is a great risk attached with the passing and working of this bill. Sindh is prone to violence and target killing since long. Members of committee and any other person who will be working with the cases in any capacity will be naked to the peril of targeted killing by some religious extremist outfit. These religious extremists don’t allow Polio vaccines and this bill, if compared to the former situation, will be more threatening to their ideology. Sindh government has to make sure the safety of everyone who will be working with this bill.
Writer is a law graduate, student of philosophy, news junkie and a bibliophile.