Minorities get a toothless commission

May 17, 2020

Federal government's reconstitution of the national minorities commission draws flak

The federal government has reconstituted its National Commission for Minorities.

According to a notification issued by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony on May 11, the body will be headed by Chela Ram Kewlani. It will formulate “national policy to promote peace and interfaith harmony”.

However, several minority groups and human rights bodies have expressed reservations regarding the composition and powers of the commission.

Critics say the 16-member commission has been notified without legislation and lacks independence.

When it comes to minorities, Pakistan has a checkered record. Over the years, minorities have suffered persecution in various forms, including terrorist attacks, target killings, destruction of worship places and repressive laws. Successive governments have tried to change that, at least on paper.

According to rights activists, the latest development is a cosmetic move.

In September 2013, a gruesome attack against a church in Peshawar prompted the then chief justice of Pakistan to take suo motu notice of the matter. During the proceedings, the CJP asked what steps the state had taken to protect minorities.

Following consecutive hearings, the court delivered a detailed judgment urging the state/government to take serious measures to protect religious minorities’ rights and form a body through parliamentary legislation to safeguard their rights.

However, the judgment, considered as a milestone in the history of minority rights, was not fully implemented. The apex court later formed an implementation bench to oversee the actions taken by the government.

In 2019, the SC also formed a one-member commission to ensure the implementation of the SC judgment. Retired civil servant Dr Shoaib Suddle heads the implementation commission.

In its latest report submitted two weeks ago, Suddle stated that the commission was facing non-cooperation from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony.

In its 2014 judgment, the SC had stated: “A National Council for Minorities’ Rights be constituted. The function of the said Council should inter alia be to monitor the practical realization of the rights and safeguards provided to the minorities under the Constitution and law. The Council should also be mandated to frame policy recommendations for safeguarding and protecting minorities’ rights by the Provincial and Federal Government(s).”

Will the commission safeguard rights of the minorities?

So, the government had set up a National Commission for Minorities in 2014 in compliance with the SC judgment.

However, the commission was not in line with the SC ruling. It was in this backdrop that the current government decided to reconstitute the body.

Now, Shoaib Suddle has moved the apex court against this reconstitution of the commission, saying it is in violation of the spirit of the apex court’s 2014 judgment.

“This constitution of the commission is contradictory to the SC judgment. Such a commission must be a legislated statuary body on the lines of existing statutory bodies like National Human Rights Commission, National Commission on Status of Women and recently set up commission to safeguard the rights of children,” he says.

“The commission is not for the welfare of minorities and it does not have a veto over major decisions. It is merely a forum to promote interfaith harmony and healthy discussion.”

— Qibla Ayaz, CII chairman

Meanwhile, several human rights bodies and minority groups have strongly objected to the inclusion of six ex-officio members and two Muslim scholars in the commission.

One of the Muslim scholars is the government-appointed khateeb of the Badshahi Masjid. The other member is from a pro-government seminary.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has expressed strong reservations concerning the formation of a national minorities’ commission through a cabinet decision based on a summary moved by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony. “We urge the government to set up the long demanded national council or commission for minorities up through effective legislation in the spirit of the 2014 judgment,” Haris Khalique of the HRCP says.

The Women Action Forum has also rejected the commission, stating that “such unilateral decisions undermine the parliamentary process and weaken democratic consensus without serving the purpose of protecting minorities and amounts to contempt of court by violating a judgment based on the national and international principles.” The forum warns that “such dangerous games of identity politics are what encourage extremism in Pakistan and have led to murderous results… It is a travesty that nearly half the members of this commission for minorities are from the majority Muslim community.”

“The government of Pakistan has been running the religious minorities’ affairs through ad-hocism and toothless bodies,” Peter Jacob, who heads Centre for Social Justice, says.

“We think there is nothing new and the recent formation of the Minorities Commission is a rehash of old practices and merely an administrative action.”

He says it is quite obvious that the government is not interested in solving the issue. “In fact, its composition puts a big question mark on its performance. It is a mere eyewash.”

Interestingly, rather than focusing on safeguarding the rights of minorities, the commissions’ Terms of Reference state that “it will formulate proposals for amending laws/policies which are reported to be discriminatory towards religious minorities, recommend steps to ensure maximum and effective participation by the members of minority communities in all aspects of national life, ensure effective participation and association of minority communities with their religious and cultural festivals and celebrations. The commission will also look into the grievances and representations made by members of any minority community”.

Most of the matters that the commission is going to address are already in purview of existing official bodies.

For example, matters pertaining to Hindu community and their worship places are controlled by the Evacuee Trust Property Board.

Similarly, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) takes up complaints of minority rights violations.

The parliament too has recently formed a joint special committee of National Assembly and Senate members to discuss the issue of forced conversions.

“I think there is a wide misunderstanding about this recently set-up Minorities Commission,” says Qibla Ayaz, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) chairman, who is also an ex-officio member of the new commission.

“The commission is not for the welfare of minorities and has no veto over government decisions. It is merely a forum to promote interfaith harmony and healthy discussion.”

He says there is a lot of international pressure on Pakistan to safeguard minority rights. “The annual reports on religious freedom also have negative references regarding Pakistan. This also leads to imposition of conditions by various international bodies like FATF (Financial Action task Force). The commission is an official effort to control such damage and fulfill international obligations and show the world that Pakistan is making progress in such matters,” he says.

The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at vaqargillani@gmail.com

Pakistani Minorities get a toothless commission