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November 28, 2019

Formation of parliamentary committee against forced conversions lauded


November 28, 2019

While the Pakistan Peoples Party had once again turned down a bill against forced conversions in the Sindh Assembly last month, the Senate chairman and the National Assembly speaker took an initiative this week to form a parliamentary committee for protection from forced conversions – a move that is being greatly appreciated by civil society and rights groups belonging to minorities.

According to a notification issued by the Senate Secretariat on November 21, the Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions was formed after consultations with National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser, Leader of the House in the Senate Shibli Faraz and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Raja Zafarul Haq.

Several civil society and minority rights bodies have welcomed the move and termed it an “encouraging development”. Peter Jacob, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a civil society organisation, said on Wednesday minority girls in their adolescence had been facing harassment and violence, kidnap and rape under the pretext of conversion.

“We hope that the committee will come up with meaningful recommendations, including the proposals for impending legislation to curb coercive, forced and unethical faith conversions, coinciding with equally detestable marriage of minority women against their will,” Jacob said. “Minority girls in their adolescence have been facing harassment and violence, kidnap and rape under the pretext of conversion to Islam.”

The Peoples Commission for Minorities’ Rights and the CSJ compiled the data of 159 incidents of forced conversions which took place during 2013-2019. The data can be helpful in analyzing the issue. Additionally, 16 girls have approached the Sindh High Court, seeking relief from forced marriages, which are yet another source to look at for solutions.

Jacob said that in Pakistan in general and in Sindh in particular, women and girls belonging to minority groups, particularly Hindu and Christian communities, have faced gender and faith-based criminal manipulation. “The names of perpetrators running the enterprise of forced conversions have been reported by the media. Therefore the law must immediately take its course.”

Krishan Sharma, a minority rights leader associated with Reat Network, also welcomed the formation of the committee and said the parliament was the only and right forum where the issue of forced conversions would be taken up to resolve it through legal means and proper legislation.

“The good thing in the committee is that representation of every political party, province and faith has been ensured,” Sharma told The News. He also criticised the Pakistan Peoples Party for sidelining the bill criminalising forced religious conversions and subsequent forced marriages under the pressure of religious parties.

In November 2016, the Sindh Assembly had unanimously passed the Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill 2015 in a bid to prevent and criminalise forced religious conversions and subsequent forced marriages. The bill was moved by Pakistan Muslim League-Functional MPA Nand Kumar Goklani.

Soon after, the PPP leadership succumbed to threats from religious parties, which pressured it to withdraw the bill before it could be ratified by the governor.

Golkani, whose party is now part of the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), an alliance comprising opposition parties, tabled the bill again in the Sindh Assembly in October this year. However, the PPP, which enjoyed the majority in the provincial assembly, had given a lukewarm response to a bill condemning forced conversions.

“Golkani has made an amendment in forced conversion bill, but the PPP did not support the bill,” said Sharma, who had led several protests against incidents of forced conversions and for pressuring the Sindh government to resurrect and pass the bill again.

“The party which claims to be the champion of minorities’ rights should stop staging dramas, such as celebrating Hindu festivals, when it is not able to protect minorities from being kidnapped and converted to Islam,” he said.

Pakistan Sikh Council chief Sardar Ramesh Singh also appreciated the joint move of the Senate chairman and the National Assembly speaker to take the issue of forced conversions seriously and constitute a parliamentary committee in this regard.

“It shows the government’s seriousness towards resolving minorities’ issues and minority groups are ready to provide their assistance to the committee,” Singh said.