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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Will National Minorities Commission of Pakistan actually help Hindu minorities?

Shameti Meghwar, a Hindu girl belonging to Umerkot, a district in Sindh province of Pakistan, went missing 18 months ago. After her recent recovery, her testimony revealed chilling details of her ordeal – after being abducted she was forcefully converted to Islam and ‘married’ before later being forced into prostitution. After providing the affidavit of her statements, Shameti Meghwar was handed over to her parents.

The two accused in the case, Mian Mithoo, the brother of Gaddi Nasheen of Dargah Bharchondi in Dharki District of Sindh and Pir Ayub Sirhindi, another Gaddi Nasheen from Umerkot,  have also been accused of forcefully converting Hindu girls in the past but both have denied any involvement in any forced conversion and claim that the girl in question was already a convert and they have solemnised the girl’s marriage as per her own will.

Shameti Meghwar’s case is not the first case in Pakistan where the abducted girl and her parents have accused forced conversion and worse. Hindus in Sindh, Christians in Punjab and Kalash community in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been reporting of forced conversion for years now.

Protests against Forced Conversions

Recently during the pandemic lockdown in the nation, Pakistan’s Federal Commission established National Minority Commission (NMC) on 5 May, 2020. The establishment of such an institution was ordered by the Supreme Court in 2014 but it took six long years to merely set up the commission. Moreover, in the very beginning there are apprehensions that the scope of the commission is insufficient to bring any justice to religious minorities.

The primary objective of the commission is to secure religious freedom of minorities and to take actions in order to integrate the minorities in the national mainstream. Apart from Hindu community, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis and Kalash communities are also represented in the commission. Strangely, two Muslim members are also included in the commission, one being the chairman of Islamic Ideological Council.

According to a Human Rights Commission report of 2018 on Freedom of Religion or Belief, about 1000 forced conversions of girls from minority communities happen every year and majority of these girls who face forced conversions, are minors under the age of 18 years.

In one such incident in April, the brother of Pir Faisal Shah Jeelani, member of National Assembly from Sindh province, had kidnapped two minor Hindu girls. The victim’s family later made a video through which they demanded justice. In the video, a member of victim’s family says that Hindus have always been persecuted in Sindh. He said that the family fears that the girls will be converted to Islam which always happens with abducted Hindu girls in Pakistan.

The Hindu family is being allegedly threatened by the politically influential abductors. The police authorities have also turned hostile towards the whole incident and are favoring the abductors by not taking any action. Innumerable such incidents have been reported from Sindh province and other parts of Pakistan where Muslims have kidnapped & converted Hindu minor girls to Islam for marriage.

Demand of legislation for protection of minorities

Propping up a pliable Hindu face for Islamist propaganda

The biggest problem for religious minorities in Pakistan is considered to be forced conversions. Members of the National Assembly Lal Chand Malhi and Ramesh Vankwani have also expressed this issue many a times in their speeches. On the contrary, the head of the recently formed National Minorities Commission, Chila Ram Kewalani has termed the issue of forced conversions as ‘publicity stunt’ of the international press and the neighbouring countries.

Chila Ram is a well known businessman of Pakistan and has recently resigned as Vice President of PTI Sindh before joining his new responsibility as head of NMC. Along with Chila Ram as the head, Dr. Jaipal Chabbaria and Raja Qawi are the nominated members of the commission. Dr Jaipal belongs to PTI while Raja Qawi has retired from senior post of FBR. No member represents the Hindu Scheduled Caste or Dalit community in the commission.

As per the data of Election Commission of Pakistan, the number of Hindu voters is more than 1.7 Million, the majority of whom live in Sindh province. Thar and Umerkot districts of Sindh alone are believed to have 40% Hindu population. These two districts also have majority of Hindu Dalit community. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Dalit MPA Sriniwasa Vilasai said that Dalits constitute half of the Hindu minority population and absence of any representation from Dalits in the newly formed NMC is a biased act. The government should also have included some intellectual people from minority community instead of making the commission an organizational unit of PTI.

In his defense, Chila Ram Kewalani, the Chairman of the commission says that no one should consider himself a Scheduled Caste. The goal of all the NMC members is to solve the problems faced by all minorities. The previous Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government had also proposed a law in Sindh assembly against forced conversions. The governor of Sindh later suggested a few amendments but it is yet to be brought back in the assembly.

Chila Ram, the Chairman of NMC, says that if such incidents of forced conversions of minorities come to its knowledge, the commission itself will formulate a policy against it. He further said that the incidents of conversions do happen in the province of Sindh but minorities are not the only community that is facing it. The conversions happen in Muslim community as well, he claimed. If Hindus are abducted, so are Muslims; but the media of the neighbouring countries and rest of the world overemphasizes it, he alleged.

The National Minorities Commission has held just one introductory meeting till date. Chila Ram Kewalani said, “It has been spread by the media that minorities are being persecuted in Pakistan. Minorities are subjected to tyranny all over the world.” He further said that the oppression in Pakistan is not as much as it is in other countries.

When asked about the priorities of the National Minority Commission, Chila Ram said that they are soon going to formulate a policy for minorities in Pakistan that will include a policy regarding the places of worship that are occupied by land mafia. In addition, strict adherence of a five percent quota in jobs, which is not being implemented in many institutions and a proposal of a national holiday on Holi and Diwali.

Sindh’s proposed law against forced conversions in deep freeze

This article explains the extreme reluctance of all mainstream players in Sindh (considered Pakistan’s most ‘liberal’ province) to pass a simple bill criminalising forced religious conversions, especially of minors –

“On October 8, 2019, the Provincial Assembly of Sindh Province rejected a bill criminalizing forced religious conversions. This was the second attempt at enacting an anti-conversion law in the province—in December 2016 the Provincial Assembly passed a similar bill, but on the insistence of the provincial government, the governor did not assent to it.

Shortly after the 2016 Bill was passed, a news report stated that religious parties and the Council of Islamic Ideology had conveyed their opposition to the leadership of the governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

According to a news report, soon after the bill was passed, the leadership of the PPP “conveyed a message through the chief minister (CM) to the then Sindh governor, Justice (Retd) Saeeduzaman Siddiqui, asking him not to ratify the bill.” The governor reportedly returned the bill to the assembly, asking them to “revisit” it. He had “primarily raised objections over the clause that denounced the conversion of minor girls and [that] said … the practice should be stopped, stating, “[w]hen Hazrat Ali [the fourth caliph and successor to Prophet Muhammad] can convert to Islam at a young age, why can’t Hindu girls?”

In early April 2019, a new version of the Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill that had been revised in accordance with the governor’s objections was submitted by the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) Provincial Assembly member Nand Kumar Goklani. The 2019 bill appears to omit the section 4 prohibition against child conversion and instead allows a judicial magistrate to issue an injunction to prohibit a child conversion or marriage and “upon final decision of conviction of accused the conversion and marriage of child (if any) shall stand nullified.”

Assembly speaker Agha Siraj Durrani and Sindh local government minister Nasir Hussain Shah insisted that the bill be sent to the provincial cabinet for review. The speaker warned that “[i]f you will not agree to refer the bill [to the cabinet], I will then put it to voting in house, after which you will not be able to move it again.” Following this, members of the assembly voted on the bill. The bill was rejected, with a majority from the treasury benches (government ministers) voting against it.

When the bill failed to pass, Goklani criticized the PPP government, reportedly declaring that “I will suggest that they stop staging a drama, celebrating Diwali, Holi and other festivals of the Hindu community. They should stop proclaiming themselves as the champions of minorities’ rights.” Goklani also expressed disappointment over the silence of PPP Provincial Assembly members who belonged to minority communities: “Our girls are being kidnapped and converted and I have been struggling for the past few years to pass a law against the menace but today the Sindh government has proved that it is unwilling to address the issue.” Shah, on the other hand, told the media that the PPP was not opposed to the law but could not “bypass the rules.” “We will pass the law against forced conversions soon, but with the consultation of all the stakeholders,” said Shah.”

The establishment of a National Minorities Commission six years after Pakistan’ Supreme Court’s order shows how serious Pakistan’s governance is when it comes to minorities.  Now finally, after its inception, Hindus and other minority communities of Pakistan can keep their fingers crossed, but only time will tell whether it will actually help the minority communities in Pakistan or is just another gimmick.

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