A proposed draft-law to stop forced conversions faces further delay due to serious differences among lawmakers
A bill by the federal government to stop forced conversion of religious minorities in Pakistan faces growing opposition by religious groups. The radical elements within and outside the government have started campaigning against the key points of the proposed draft of The Prohibition of Forced Conversion (of Religious Minorities) Bill 2021 which include fixing a minimum age (of 18), some legal conditionalities and the open willingness of the family of the to-be-converted person (which is most often a young girl in these cases) before a local court.
Radical clergymen and religious outfits have started a systematic campaign on social media against the much-delayed proposed draft by the Ministry of Human Rights. The draft of the proposed bill has been derived from a report of a Special Parliamentary Committee to Protect Religious Minorities from Forced Conversions, which was set up two years ago.
The report of the committee, which is officially being kept secret, was leaked to right-wing groups without permission of the relevant ministry before it was sent to the Ministry of Human Rights, which drafted this bill. Later, the Ministry of Religious Affairs differed with the HR Ministry on key points. The religious ministry not only held discussions with clergymen on the bill but also sent it to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), an advisory body of the government, without consent of the HR Ministry.
The clergymen and many members of the CII, who attended these meetings, have opposed the draft and expressed strong reservations against it. They want to eliminate the aforementioned points of the draft, stating that there is no limit of age in converting to Islam.
“The CII, in a recent report, has also rejected these points of the draft, which are meant to safeguard young girls belonging to minorities,” says an official of the CII.
The majority of the council members insist these clauses are inconsistent with Sharia law. The CII, recently, also held a brainstorming session on the subject that was addressed by Mian Abdul Haq alias Mian Mittho of Ghotki, Sindh – a politician and extremist cleric, allegedly also a central figure in the forced conversions of poor Hindu families and especially minor Hindu girls to Islam. He dubbed the issue of forced conversions to be a ploy to tarnish image of Pakistan, its majority Muslim society, and the state.
“This is just like trusting in a thief who has been caught red-handed,” says Lal Chand Malhi, a member of the special parliamentary committee to stop forced conversions from the ruling party. “This is strange to us – the religious minorities – why is it that mostly it is only young girls from our side who convert to Islam, and it is never anyone from the other side. Even in the cases where people are in an interfaith relationship, why is it important to change the religion of only the girl? And why is it only girls belonging to a religious minority and never the boys?” he laments.
He says that the clerics and CII did not have the right to infringe the religious rights of minority women. “We want Pakistan progressing in the light of the sayings of Jinnah ensuring equality and religious freedom,” he says, adding, “There have been voices against forced conversions in the past few years and it is now a recognised issue.”
He explains that the special committee consensually approved the report whose recommendations were incorporated in the draft; and that a sub-committee prepared the report after thorough research and visiting the particular areas, officials and clerics.
“We want to safeguard the religious rights of minority groups through such progressive legislation,” he says. He hopes that the draft will be sent back to the committee after discussions between the clerics. A meeting has also been scheduled in this regard early next month.
On the government side, the lack of cohesion is quite obvious. The draft, seemingly, is drawing a line between many conservative ruling party parliamentarians and those who have progressive views. The Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Religious Affairs seem to have different views.
Human rights and civil society organisations have repeatedly pointed out questionable conversions of Hindu and Christian girls in the country. In a report last year, the People’s Commission for Minorities’ Rights and the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) compiled the data pertaining to as many as 156 incidents of forced conversions that had taken place between 2013 and 2019. A vast majority of the girls were minors, with numerous cases of girls as young as 12 years old.
“Anti-forced conversion bill was drafted by MoHR on the request of the joint parliamentary committee. Then the religious affairs ministry took it over in the new committee,” Shirin Mazari, the Human Rights Minister tells The News on Sunday (TNS). However, Minister Noorul Haq Qadri says that there was never any age limit to convert to Islam, so there is no space for such a limit.
While in opposition, Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a 2016 speech in Umerkot Sindh, clearly condemned forced conversions of girls belonging to religious minority communities.
“It is shameful what we are doing with young girls of Hindus in Sindh. We are converting them to Islam forcibly. What kind of reward (sawab) are we getting this way? Do these people not know they are going against Holy Quran by forcibly converting these girls to Islam. Hindus have started resettling in India from Sindh,” Khan had said in the televised speech.
“We do not need any certificate to prove forced conversions after my leader openly condemned them,” says Malhi, as he quotes PM Khan.
Forced conversions and forced marriages are among the many methods through which religious minorities are persecuted in Pakistan. Under Pakistan’s Child Marriage Restraint Act, marrying a girl under 16 or a boy under 18 is an offense but the law is often ignored in the cases of forced conversions. Pakistan lacks official and objective data on forced as well as voluntary conversions. Human rights and civil society organisations have repeatedly pointed out questionable conversions of Hindu and Christian girls in the country. In a report last year, the People’s Commission for Minorities’ Rights and the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) compiled the data pertaining to as many as 156 incidents of forced conversions that had taken place between 2013 and 2019. A vast majority of the girls were minors, with numerous cases of girls as young as 12 years old.
“We define conversions as forced when the person marrying is underage; when they are stopped from meeting the parents; when the jurisdiction of concerned police and court is avoided; and when there is misrepresentation or manipulation of data regarding age and marriage,” says Peter Jacob, a religious minorities rights activist who runs the Centre for Social Justice, adding that these are indicators that show some coercion is involved. He views that the opposition to a certain age in freedom to choose a religion is basically the premise of Article 20 of Constitution of Pakistan.
“If someone thinks freedom hinges on marrying underage girls, I think the concept of religious freedom is misplaced in his/her mind. All freedoms having certain boundaries must adhere to international standards defined in international conventions on rights of child conventions to which Pakistan has been a party since 1990. It should be mandatory to attain maturity, a solemn verification by a judicial forum.”
Jacob also expresses concern over this delay in formulation of the bill on the subject. “This delay is costing us a lot of damage in the form of human rights violations committed against families, persons and hundreds of girls belonging to minorities. I think that the practice of kidnapping young girls is against the Constitution and should be treated as a crime. Be it the human rights ministry or parliamentary committee, one reason the government does not find the courage to acknowledge the problem is that because they do not investigate. Even the joint parliamentary committee failed to conduct any fair and open inquiry into the issue of forced conversions,” he says. He also urges the government to avoid further delay on this matter and to bring forth the facts regarding forced conversions.
Highlighting the divergent views within the government and the recent campaign against the draft, Jacob notes that once again, the bill for protective measures against forced conversions has become a contesting ground primarily between the two government ministries, showing lack of cohesion in government’s ranks.
“The Ministry of Religious Affairs is pushing the supremacist view of conservative and the government-sponsored clerics who wish to remove all safeguards against forced conversion of underage girls, making a stringent interpretation of shariah. On the other hand, the draft proposed by the Ministry of Human Rights, as reported in the media, is displaying a sensitivity to the massive abuse of religion in this issue, which minorities would like to have in place,” he says. It would be very unfortunate if the government fails to keep the safeguards against the forced conversions in the bill, he adds.
Pakistan does not have a law on countering forced religious conversions, mainly, because of pressure from religious groups. Pakistan also has to adhere to its international obligations relating to protecting women’s rights and religious freedoms. In 2016, the United Nations committee on human rights expressed concerns on the practice of forced conversion of non-Muslim women and forced marriages in Pakistan. In 2018, the 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.”
There have been efforts in the past to enact law for protection of minorities by the members in Sindh Assembly despite the hurdles: Protection of Minorities Bill 2015, for instance, failed to get support in the Senate and the National Assembly, and 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 forcibly marrying 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.
The writer is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]