A toothless commission?

February 21, 2021

Several minority rights groups and human rights bodies have voiced concerns on the composition and the independence of the National Commission for Minorities

An extremist mob vandalises a Hindu temple in Karak.

It has been almost a year now since the National Commission for Minorities, a state-patronised body to oversee rights and freedom of religious minorities of Pakistan, has been under criticism for “lacking independence”.

An order by the chief justice of Pakistan, last week, in which the court directed the rebuilding of a Hindu temple in Karak, appears to have been a further endorsement of the impression about the NCM that it is a ‘cosmetic fix’ for a complex problem.

The temple in question, a pilgrimage site for Hindus, was vandalised and later set on fire by a large extremist mob on December 30. The temple had been non-functional for decades and was given back to the Hindu community and converted into a pilgrimage site on the orders of the apex court a few months ago.

The Supreme Court, while deciding the case ordered the government to immediately rebuild the temple and submit a timeline for its completion. It further directed the provincial government to recover money for the construction of the temple from those who had burnt it. In making its decision, the SC relied on the one-member Commission on Implementation of Minorities Rights, constituted by the court, rather than seeking assistance and a report from the NCM.

The federal government, through merely a notification, reconstituted its National Commission for Minorities in May last year to formulate a “national policy to promote peace and interfaith harmony”. Many minority rights groups and human rights bodies, however, have voiced concerns on the composition and task of the commission. The formulation of the commission, these groups point out, was not according to the directions of the SC in 2014 to set up an independent council to safeguard minority rights. The official body also lacks proper legislation by the parliament, a requirement reiterated by the SC as “mandatory”, while hearing a case regarding religious minorities’ rights.

The SC, after a terrorist attack on a church in Peshawar, had taken up the matter of safeguarding religious minorities and their constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms by urging the government to form a body through parliamentary legislation to protect minority rights. In 2019, the SC also formed a one-member commission to ensure the implementation of the SC judgment. A retired civil servant, Dr Shoaib Suddle heads the implementation commission.

Contrary to the SC’s directions, last year, the federal government notified a 16-member National Commission for Minorities with Chela Ram Kewalani from Hindu community and a senior loyalist of the ruling party as its head. A couple of Muslim clerics are also part of the commission, which sections of civil society believe amounts to making the problem a part of the solution.

Kewalani, the head of the NCM, however, defends the body and its working and considers it to be “a great step by the government to protect rights of religious minorities”.

“The commission also existed in the past, since 1990s, but nobody knew about it. And now that the government has taken this major step some elements are opposing it for political reasons,” he says.

“There is no objection and harm in taking up such matters before (international) media if they are not heard by the respective forums,” he views. He says legislation for the NCM is “under way and a draft bill has been prepared and will be sent to the federal cabinet soon”.

To the question on objections on the NCM for not taking up all serious violations independently and forcefully, the head of the NCM says the proper official forums to take up such matters of violations of rights of religious minorities are bodies like the NCM and judiciary rather media, especially, international media. He alleges that “some non-government organisations (NGOs) highlight incidents of religious minorities rights’ violations unnecessarily in international media” for “their vested interests” and to “secure foreign funding”.

“There is no objection and harm in taking up such matters before (international) media if they are not heard by the respective forums,” he views. He says legislation for the NCM is “under way and a draft bill has been prepared and will be sent to the federal cabinet soon”.

In an early meeting of the NCM, the commission had discussed and focused on issues and problems faced by religious minorities in neighbouring India. The commission urged New Delhi to “protect rights of minority groups, especially Muslims”, the biggest minority group in the neighbouring India and a majority religion in Pakistan.

Civil society groups, however, expect that the commission should seriously focus on the violations of rights of religious minorities in Pakistan where faith-based persecution of Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus, Sikhs and victimisation of minority Muslim sects like Shias is growing and governments remain quiet to please the majority Muslim vote bank.

Civil society groups and the one-member implementation commission, set up by SC, have also moved the apex court against the constitution of this allegedly toothless state-owned commission calling it “contradictory to the directions of the court”. The recent judgment by the SC, these groups hope, may lead the SC to give directions to process a consensus draft bill on the NCM to make it independent and a credible body to oversee religious minority rights.

The SC, in its 2014 judgment clearly stated that “A National Council for Minorities’ Rights be constituted. The function of the said Council should inter alia be to monitor the practical realisation 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).”

The official commission is also considered not up to the defined standards of the United Nations and Paris Principles which give a fair description of the formulation of such rights bodies with a view to financial, administrative autonomy, independent working and formulating its own policy and guidelines with a clear mandate and as a statuary body recognised by the government.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

National Commission for Minorities: A toothless commission?