With a unanimous approval by the Sindh Assembly’s Standing Committee on Minority Affairs of a legislation criminalising religious conversion of any person below 18 years, only a majority vote stands in the way of the bills enactment into law to provide a much-needed legal framework for dealing with cases of coerced conversions.
The standing committee — comprising MPA Poonjo Bheel as chairman, and MPAs Mahesh Kumar, Lal Chand Ukrani, Shamim Mumtaz, Waqar Hussain Shah, Shazia Javed, Dewan Chand Chawla and Arif Masih Bhatti as members — gave its unanimous approval to “Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities Act)” in its meeting held on Wednesday.
According to a copy available with The News, the bill stipulates: “No person shall be deemed to have changed their religion until they attain the age of majority [a person who has attained the age of 18],” and “Any minor who claims to have changed their religion before attaining majority shall not be deemed to have changed their religion and no action shall be taken against him or her for any such claim or action made by the minor.”
However, unlike the much-hailed women protection bill recently enacted by the Punjab Assembly that ironically falls short of criminalising domestic violence, the protection of minorities act proposes a minimum jail term of five years, that can be extended to life imprisonment, for people who may coerce anyone into changing their religion
“Any person who forcefully converts another person under duress, or by force, or directs threat against a member of the victim's family, loved one, community or property, shall be liable to imprisonment for a minimum of five years and maximum of life imprisonment, besides a fine to be paid to the victim,” states the proposed bill.
In fact, the bill also takes into its ambit anyone who might facilitate the forced conversion of religion by stating that “Whoever performs, conducts, directs, brings about, or in any way or facilitates a marriage having knowledge that either or both parties are victims of forced conversion, shall be liable for imprisonment for a minimum of three years time and a fine to be paid to the victim.”
This punishment also extends to anyone who has provided logistical support and any other essential services to enable the marriage ceremony after forced conversion of any girl or a boy.
It states that “any person who is an abettor to a conversion shall be liable for imprisonment.”
The bill had been moved by the parliamentary leader of Pakistan Muslim League-Functional Nand Kumar Goklani last year. Talking to The News over its unanimous approval by the Sindh Assembly’s Standing Committee on Minority Affairs, he expressed his utmost gratitude to the committee members who included MPAs from Pakistan People’s Party and Mutthadia Qaumi Movement for what he described was “reaching a consensus on an existential issue of minorities living in Sindh”.
“I am certain that the bill would also be passed unanimously by the provincial assembly,” he remarked. “This is a proud moment for Sindh. The mainstream political parties have been able to put aside policy differences and take lead over other parts of the country by legislating on an issue that plays a key role in preserving the secular and liberal fabric of Sindh.”
A former lawmaker and minority leader of the ruling party in the province, Pitamdar Shewani, told The News he fully supported the bill as a politician which was in accordance to the vision of his party chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.
Members of the civil society also praised the effort. “This law is a basic prerequisite against socio-cultural ills such as forced conversion,” remarked former chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women and women’s right activist, Anis Haroon. “Such acts are indeed like a breath of fresh air since raising awareness about an issue only works if it is backed by strong laws.”
According to a human rights activist, Dr Sonu Khangharani, “there is a rising insecurity among the Hindu population in the province, especially those belonging to Dalit and other scheduled casts,” he said. “It would not be an exaggeration to state that the minorities are being socially handicapped due to the pressure they face from religious groups, who are reportedly abducting their girls and later forcing them to convert. Indeed there was a dire need for the state to look into this matter.”
With the hard-hitting ‘legislation-in-making’ expected to be enacted soon by the Sindh Assembly, it appears that political entities of the province have finally decided to take the bull by its horns. But whether the act enables bewildered parents to seek legal recourse and given them the confidence of approaching the authorities with their problems, is something that remains to be seen.
1 PETITION A victim, aggrieved person or any person authorised by the victim or an informer may present a petition to the court
2 DATE The court shall fix the first date of hearing, which shall not exceed seven days from the date of the receipt of the petition
3 COURT NOTICE The court shall also with or without issuing an interim order, issue a notice to the accused calling upon him/her to show cause within seven days of receiving the notice
CHILD MARRAIGES Upon being satisfied that the victim is a child, place the child in the custody of the parents or guardian of the child, unless the court has reason to believe that this may not be in the best interests of the child
Ensure that the custody of the child shall not be given to the alleged spouse, his or her family or any person connected therewith, recognising that child marriages are a criminal offence as per Sindh Child Marraige Restraint Act 2013
4DURATION OF TRIAL Any case of forced conversion shall be disposed off within a period of 90 days and any adjournment in hearings shall be granted for reasons to be recorded in writing by the court
5CUSTODY A police officer receiving information of a case may take into custody the victim and produce him/her in court within 24 hours. If the victim or accused cannot be taken to court, the victim shall be directly taken to the nearest shelter home or child protection institute, and the accused shall be moved to the nearest police station
6 NON-BAILABLE OFFENCE An offence punishable under this Act shall be cognisable, non-bailable and non-compoundable