Though the constitution of Pakistan recognises Hindus as equal citizens, it does not recognise their unions in marriage.
Even after 65 years, there are no provisions in the constitution that recognise the marriages or divorces of the Hindu community.
The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1962 provides detailed family laws for Muslims and the Christian Marriage Act 1872 gives an outdated legal cover to the marriages of Christians. But the Hindus in Pakistan have lived without any legal umbrella of family laws for the past six decades.
“There is no legal document for Hindus to prove their marriages,” said Dr Ramesh Vankwani, patron of the Pakistan Hindu Council and a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) MNA. “Members of our community, especially women, face a lot of problems when trying to obtain computerised national identity cards, passports, inheritance or dissolution of marriage,” he added.
Dr Vankwani and another PML-N MNA Dr Darshan introduced the Hindu Marriage Bill 2014 in the National Assembly early last year but it was deferred to a standing committee for review. A similar bill remains pending before the religious affairs ministry.
The bill introduced by Dr Vankwani and Dr Darshan also has provisions for the registration of marriages and separation of couples.
“In Hindu religion there is no concept of divorce. If a man decides to leave his wife, to attain a separation, she doesn’t have any legal grounds to separate from her husband and can’t remarry,” explained Dr Vankwani.
“So as we can’t have divorce, the concept and procedure for separation was introduced in the bill.”
However, the Hindu community as a whole remains deeply divided over the issue of divorce, according to a report of the Community World Service titled “Religious Minorities and Marriage Laws in Pakistan”. It states that divorce provisions have been highly contentious in all the Hindu marriage bills tabled so far.
“In the absence of codified laws, the courts have deliberated upon issues of marriage and divorce of Hindu citizens by resorting to their personal laws. They have endorsed the usage of personal laws in their deliberation on matrimonial issues including customs and statutory laws. Between customs and texts, custom outweighs the written text of law,” it is written in the report.
“Even if Justice Rana Bhagwandas is asked to prove his marriage and the legitimacy of his six children in court, he can’t!” exclaimed Jay Prakash, a senior journalist when asked about the matter. “Now people can’t roam around with their wedding videos on mobiles as proof.” He pointed out that though an outdated law existed for Christian marriages, it too did not have any laws for separation.
Without codified personal laws, with the exception of the Special Marriage Act 1872 that provides sketchy guidelines for registration of marriages of all minority religions, members of the Hindu community have three options to have their marriages registered – the local panchayat, the Pakistan Hindu Council and the local union council.
“Many Hindus, mostly belonging to the lower-caste Hindus Bheel and Meghwar communities, come to us for help regarding their marriage certificates,” said Barrister Ali Palh, who practices in Hyderabad. “We then get them to sign an affidavit in front of an oath commissioner.”
Recently, the National Database Registration Authority (Nadra) also began registration of marriages.
Registration with the local panchayat and Pakistan Hindu Council may be easy enough, but when it comes to Nadra and the union councils, the process hits several snags.
The Supreme Court had directed Nadra to register the marriages of the Hindu community and facilitate the issuance of national identity cards. But the certificate itself is full of mistakes, said Dr Vankwani. “The terms used are nikah instead of shadi, nikahkhwan instead of maharaj or pundit and there are other such errors,” he added.
Registration with local pundits and panchayats do not have any legal grounds to prove the marriage. The issue has been further compounded with the devolution of religious and minority affairs to the provinces.
The provinces now will have to separately enact personal laws for minority communities to provide legal cover to marriages and separations.
Dr Vankwani hopes that after the bill is approved by the National Assembly, the provinces will follow suit.
The draft of the Hindu marriage bill introduced last year calls for computerised registration certificates issued by Nadra. To obtain this, the couples will have to produce copies of computerised national identity cards of the groom, the bride and their parents.
They will also have to submit a copy of the marriage certificate issued by a pundit or the Pakistan Hindu Council with a copy of the identity card of the pundit who performed the ceremony.
According to the Community World Service report, there are around 2.9 million Hindus in the country - around 2.6 million of them in Sindh.
However, the Pakistan Hindu Council puts the population of Hindus across the country at 7.8 million and a little more than 6.8 million in Sindh.
The minimum age of marriage in Sindh under the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013 is 18 years.
But Dr Vankwani said the child marriage law had no provisions for annulling an underage marriage, thus failing to serve the objective of stopping child marriages.
He hopes that the Hindu Marriage Bill 2014 will also prevent forced conversion of Hindu women by enabling them to prove their marriages in court.
“Married women are carted off by feudal lords and they don’t have any documentation to prove their earlier marriage,” said the minority lawmaker.
He added that the minimum age of 18 years had been included in the conditions for marriage in the bill pending in the parliament.
It has also been suggested that a Muslim will be unable to marry a Hindu girl within three and a half years of separation from her husband. “Once it is enacted, it will provide documentary evidence for Hindu marriages and also prevent forced conversion and marriages of Hindu girls,” said Dr Vankwani.