Not an isolated event

January 12, 2020

The attention that the Nankana Sahib incident has gotten should lead to legislation safeguarding the rights of minority women

A view of Nankana.— Photo by Rahat Dar

On January 3, a charged mob gathered outside Gurdwara Nankana Sahib, the gurdwara built on what was believed to be the place where the founder of Sikhism, Baba Guru Nanak was born. The mob chanted anti-Sikh slogans, vowing to oust the minority Sikh community from the town named after their spiritual leader Baba Nanak: The mob was led by Muhammad Imran who also pledged to change the name of the town after ‘purifying’ it. Local police arrested Imran a day after his speech caused a huge unrest as it went viral on social media.

Many in the mob were related to the family of Muhammad Ehsan, who had allegedly forcibly converted 18-year-old Sikh girl Jagjit Kaur – daughter of a granthi (reciter of holy verse/priest) in the Gurdwara after kidnapping her. Muhammad Imran is Ehsan’s elder brother.

Ehsan’s family members were protesting outside the gurdwara against the arrest and the alleged pressure of local administration to return the girl to her family after divorcing her, a local who lives in the same street tells The News on Sunday.

“The two families live nearby. The boy and the girl had been in contact for several months,” he claims.

The Sikh community, however, claims that the boy abducted their girl and forcibly converted and married her. The matter is pending before a court. On August 28, 2019, Jagjit Kaur’s family lodged a first information report (FIR) against Ehsan and his family, accusing them of abducting and forcibly converting Kaur to Islam. The issue attached cross-border attention due to the strained Indo-Pak relations, India’s internal politics around its citizenship laws that are seen making Muslims in the country vulnerable, and the recent opening of Kartarpur Corridor for Sikhs by Pakistan.

Forced conversions are not new in the country, but this one comes at a particularly turbulent time. Data on such reported cases in the press, complied by Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a non-government organisation working on minority rights, shows as many as 160 cases of forced conversions over the past six years (2013-2019). In Sindh, in 16 cases, the girls sought judicial relief.

There has been a clear pattern, girls from religious minority communities are kidnapped and later converted to Islam in areas where said religious minorities comprise a sizable proportion of the population. In Sindh, such cases mostly take place in areas populated by Hindus like Umar Kot, Ghotki and Tharparkar districts. In the Punjab, similar incidents are reported in areas where the Christian community are in sizable numbers. According to a senior resident of Nankana Sahib, a few such cases within the Sikh community have also taken place in the past but remained under-reported in mainstream media. In most of the reported cases, the age of the converted girls is between 18 and 21 year and after alleged ‘elopement’, they convert to Islam and get certification from a religious seminary.

“Until and unless there are independent investigations in such cases, we cannot say that these are willful conversions and elopements,” says Peter Jacob, the executive director of CJS.

There is a growing awareness of this issue, but state institutions have moved very slowly, and there is a lack of serious legislation and independent investigations by the state administrative machinery.

“Analysis of these cases reveals the range of legal loopholes, procedural irregularities and socio-cultural factors contributing to impunity available to perpetrators,” says Peter Jacob, the executive director of CJS.

“Forced conversion remains an abuse of law which needs to be tackled”, he says, adding, “Until and unless there are independent investigations in such cases, we cannot say that these are willful conversions and elopements.”

Recently, a parliamentary committee has been formed on forced conversions. The committee comprises 14 members of the National Assembly and eight senators and is will be defining its terms soon.

MNA Kheeal Das Kohistani, a member of this committee, raises an important question. He says that in his experience, there has hardly been a case in which a boy from minority religious community has eloped with a Muslim girl and converted her to his faith.

“We do not ignore the possibility that there are some cases where a boy and girl develop feelings for each other in a society like ours; but mostly there appears to be a pattern of kidnapping, forced conversion and marriage. Strong Muslim personalities in the area protect the perpetrators,” he says.

He says that even after complaints are made by the aggrieved families, independent investigation does not take place in most cases due to public pressure. He also questions the need for changing the girl’s religion after marriage.

“There is a need for strong legislation on this issue. We want to suggest that such marriages and conversions should not be treated as isolated cases, there should be a mechanism, and laws to protect minority girls; and there should be an environment conducive to policy implementation,” adds Kohistani.

Article 20 of the constitution in clearly protects most of the internationally recognized fundamental rights including freedom to profess, practice and propagate any religion. However, there are implementation challenges and violation of rights of religious minorities is a continuing cause for concern.

There have been efforts in the past to enact law for protection of minorities by the members in Sindh Assembly: Protection of Minorities Bill 2015 failed to get support in the Senate and the National Assembly, the legislation on Criminal Law Amendment IV 2017 is yet to be initiated. In 2017, The National Assembly had passed a Criminal Law (Amendment) Act IV, to add Section 498B that made forced marriage with a non-Muslim woman an offense punishable with five to seven years of imprisonment and fine. However, the bill did not get approval from the Senate.

Pakistan also has international obligations relating to protecting women’s rights and religious freedoms. In 2016, the United Nations committee on human rights expressed concern on the practice of forced conversion of non-Muslim women and forced marriages in Pakistan. In 2018, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights wrote to the Pakistani foreign minister to “Guarantee freedom of religion or belief for all. Ensure the protection of religious minorities, including through repealing or amending blasphemy laws and anti- Ahmadi laws; and preventing forced marriages and conversion of religious minority women.”

In a positive move, however, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), which examines laws to ensure they are congruent with the spirit of Islam, last week, decided to include minority leaders in the consultation process on issue of forced conversion of religion. The body is of the view that Islam does not allow forced conversion.

“Minority girls in their adolescence have been facing harassment and violence, kidnap and rape under the pretext of conversion to Islam. But this move induces hope and shows that we have made some progress and there is an acknowledgment of the gravity of this issue,” says Jacob, hoping the newly-formed parliamentary committee will also discuss the proposals on impending legislation to curb coercive, forced and unethical faith conversions, coinciding with equally detestable marriage of the minority women against their will,” he says.

The writer is a staff member and can be reached at: [email protected]

Nankana Sahib incident and forced conversions: Not an isolated event