A parliamentary dilemma

October 24, 2021

The proceedings of the parliamentary committee to protect minorities from forced conversions have raised several complicated questions

A parliamentary dilemma

The 12th meeting of the parliamentary committee to protect minorities from forced conversions on October 13, ended in a chaotic manner in Committee Room 1 in the Senate of Pakistan. The meeting came to a muddled close after Senator Liaqat Khan Tarakai, the chairman, unilaterally announced that the draft on The Prohibition of Forced Conversions Act 2021 (the Bill) was “dismissed” in toto.

In support of the so-called dismissal, Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Noor Ul Haq Qadri, argued that limiting the age for faith conversions was against Islamic shariah. Another minister, Ali Muhammad Khan, strangely advocated the dismissal on the ground of likely adverse effects on the minorities themselves and a certain (unexplained) backlash. Senator Mushtaq Ahmed of Jamaat-i-Islami went on to criticise the name and the terms of reference of the committee.

After failing to convince the chairman to discuss the Bill in the meeting of the committee, the minority members from the Treasury as well as the Opposition parties agitated the matter before the media. Lal Chand Malhi, the parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Human Rights, lamented the abrupt rejection of the draft stating that it defied the commitment made to the minorities before the 2018 elections by Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The argument of the agitating minority parliamentarians was based on the recurring abuse of questionable and compromised conversions, and an opposition to the view of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) pushed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Ramesh Kumar, a member of the National Assembly, challenged the jurisdiction of the council stating that “the outcome of the Bill was compromised the day it was handed over to the CII for a comment.”

Jurists Saqib Jillani, an advocate of the Supreme Court, has opined that the CII is not a supra-constitutional body enjoying any jurisdiction in matters related to protective legislation for religious minorities and other marginalised sections of the society under Article 14 (Inviolability of man), Article 20 (Freedom to profess religion), and Articles 35 (Protection of family), 36 (Protection of Minorities) and 37 (Promotion of Social Justice). Moreover, the Constitution lays a specific criterion for any advice to be sought from the CII. Article 230 (1) (b) states “to advise a House, a Provincial Assembly, the President or a Governor on any question referred to the Council as to whether a proposed law is or is not repugnant to the Injunctions of Islam…”.

Speaking to The News on Sunday (TNS), Jillani further said: “Therefore, in light of the above proviso, the manner in which the CII was approached by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and the CII’s consultation with non-state actors on the issue, is ultra vires of the Constitution. The CII is a constitutional body which is supposed to give advice or recommendations to specified officials.”

He said it was unfortunate that an unnecessary controversy on this important piece of legislation had been created, which was primarily introduced to curb the shameful practice of forced conversion and marriage of tender age girls and boys in various parts of Pakistan.

The proceedings of the committee (or its failure?) have left the nation with several complicated questions to deal with: whether the draft Bill is dead or alive? what will be the political and relational fallout of the proceedings of the committee in the Senate? what will be the consequences for the PTI with regards to its minority electorate? and lastly, how will this decision impact the issue of forced conversions of minority women?

“What happened in the last meeting of the committee cannot be termed a dismissal but a non-consideration of the Bill. Hence, technically, it can be taken up for consideration by the same committee or any other parliamentary forum for initiation of the legislative process.” — Justice Nasira Iqbal.

Justice Nasira Iqbal (retired) is of the view that the Bill, drafted by a ministry after a lengthy parliamentary process, is not dead. “What happened in the last meeting of the committee cannot be termed a dismissal; it was a non-consideration of the Bill. Hence, technically, it can be taken up for consideration by the same committee or another parliamentary forum for initiation of the legislative process.”

Chaudhry Shafique, the chief executive of the Parliamentary Commission for Human Rights, told TNS, “The chairman and the dissenting members of the committee took a hasty… and narrow view of the matter rather than a holistic one. They should have at least allowed a discussion on the draft Bill.”

Zafar Ullah Khan, the former director of the Pakistan Institute of Parliamentary Studies, voiced another concern. “The draft was not proposed according to the procedures in the parliament. Hence, its value remains that of an agenda point or parliamentary conversation. However, this can be taken up by the concerned ministry en route cabinet or as a private member’s bill. However, it leaves us with a question about the rationale of the Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities From Forced Conversions. If it has made no progress on the issue in two years, what is the use of having such committees?”

A further push from either the minority representatives or the opponents of the draft is likely to result in polarisation between the members of the committee, and members of the federal cabinet. Public opinion is perplexed by the grave injustices highlighted by mainstream and social media on one hand, and the outright denial peddled mainly by the perpetrators and their sympathisers on the other.

This situation requires an intervention by the prime minister. It would be advisable to include the point of views of genuine rights-based civil society. The clerical classes who happen to be beneficiaries of the state patronage are part of structural and systemic injustices against religious minorities. They will likely fail the government in its efforts to stop abuse of religion and law.

It is important to bear in mind that according to the monitoring carried out by the Centre for Social Justice, the reported cases of forced, questionable and compromised conversions spiked by 200 percent during 2021 (till October compared to last year). Besides an urgent need to address the issue, there is no substitute to legal remedies and fair investigation of the human rights violations as purported by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which otherwise is supposed to shoulder the responsibility for interfaith harmony by the book.

Pakistan cannot be living in isolation. On October 13, Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar, the Punjab governor, was about to end his four-day visit to the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels. According to reports, during his visit, he met 33 members of parliament, including vice presidents of the European Parliament, heads of most important committees, vice chairmen of committees, and chairperson of the Delegation to Afghanistan. The visit supposedly was about using his influence to ensure continuation of the GSP+ preferential status, to challenge India’s claims on Basmati rice rights, and Pakistan’s position on Afghanistan.

The decision taken by the parliamentary committee on October 13 failed the visit on home ground. One hopes that acting together the government and the opposition will be able to undo the damage.

The writer is a researcher, freelance journalist and a human rights activist. He can be reached at jacobpete@gmail.com

A parliamentary dilemma