Up till now, the attempts to bar forced conversions through specific laws have fallen flat. The proposed bill against forced conversions was tabled in November 2016 in the Sindh Assembly. However, the bill got stalled due to strong objections from certain religious hardliners, and has not been ratified
Jinnah’s August 11 speech has been quoted time and again to assert state responsibility towards minorities’ protection. Despite this and constitutional protection to minorities, they face many types of persecution. Hindus are estimated to be around 2 percent of the Pakistan’s population. However, it is feared that the Hindu population is dwindling at an alarming rate. According to the Pakistan Hindu Council, religious persecution, especially forced conversions remain the foremost reason for migration of Hindus from Pakistan.
Pakistani Hindus are losing daughters to forced marriages. These forced marriages are hidden behind sham conversions to Islam. Religious institutions are pivotal in promoting this practice and supporting the conversions of minor Hindu girls. Consent remains the foremost requirement for conversion and marriage. However, under the tenets of Islam as well as Pakistan’s law, minors cannot give informed consent and consent under coercion is void. Girls are often minors and legally lack informed consent even if they are coerced through the promise of marriage.
Religious institutions like Bharchundi Sharif and Sarhandi Pir support forced conversions and are known to have support and protection of ruling political parties of Sindh. So much so, Mian Abdul Haq alias Mian Mitha, a former legislator of Pakistan People’s Party was found involved in the case of Rinkle Kumari’s forced conversion and marriage in 2012.
Recently, abduction of a school teacher, Ameeta Kumari in Gambat by an influential feudal made rounds on social media. Also in 2017, 16 years old, Rvaita Meghwar was abducted near Nagar Parkar in southeastern Sindh Province and married off to a Muslim man twice her age. These incidents are preceded by a consistent stream of conversions of lowers caste minor Hindu girls for the past many years. According to the National Commission of Justice and Peace and the Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC) around 1000 Christian and Hindu minority women are converted to Islam and then forcibly married off to their abductors or rapists. This practice is being reported increasingly in the Districts of Tharparkar, Umerkot and Mirpur Khas in Sindh.
An accountability mechanism must be established to ensure religious institutions do not become party to forced conversions. Protection should also be provided to the victims, their families, and judges presiding over the cases. Penalties should also be imposed on law enforcement agencies that align with powerful feudal and political interests
Hindus form a major minority in lower Sindh. They have co-existed peacefully with Muslims for centuries. This has changed in the wake of extremism that engulfed Pakistan since the 1980s. Apart from being vulnerable to the Blasphemy law, Hindu communities are becoming highly vulnerable due to abductions of women and their forced conversion to Islam. Since violent extremism particularly strikes the lower classes who aren’t able to defend themselves, the upper-class Hindus are apparently safe from this onslaught.
According to a submission to UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, by the World Sindhi Congress (WSC), Pakistani Hindus face two kinds of forced conversions. One is bonded labour and the other is forced marriage. Both are affecting the lower caste Hindus wherein forced conversions specifically target Hindu girls.
Up till now, the attempts to bar forced conversions through specific laws have fallen flat. The proposed bill against forced conversion was tabled in November 2016 in the Sindh Assembly. The bill recommends a five-year punishment for perpetrators, three years for facilitators of forceful religious conversions, and also makes it a punishable offence to forcibly convert a minor. The bill got stalled due to strong objections by certain religious hardliners and has not been ratified.
However, there is a remedy in other laws. There are laws enacted that protect minors and are invoked in the case of marriages to cover forced conversion. These laws include Section 365-B of the Pakistan Penal Code which delegitimises a marriage under duress or force, the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, 2013 act against child marriage in Sindh, and certain sections of the Pakistan penal code against forced marriage, kidnapping, abducting or force into marriage.
Unfortunately, in the case of forced conversions of lower caste Hindu girls, the feudal and extremist pressures hamper implementation of the laws. Forced conversion cases pertain mostly to lower caste poor Hindu families who mostly do not report and seldom pursue cases. Therefore, the reported number of forced conversions is greater than what it actually is.
There has been intense reporting of forced conversion cases throughout the media in recent times. However, policy processes lack provisions for concrete actions. Most importantly, the government of Pakistan should immediately ratify and implement the Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Act 2016 against forced conversions. An accountability mechanism must be established to ensure religious institutions do not become party to forced conversions. Protection should also be provided to the victims, their families, and judges presiding over the cases. Penalties should also be devised and imposed on law enforcement agencies that align with powerful feudal and political interests.
These arrangements should augment Article 36 — Protection of minorities — of the Constitution of Pakistan. It should weave into the larger framework of minority protection and equal opportunities as an equal citizen of Pakistan.
The writer is a policy practitioner, an Oxford public policy alumnus and Oxford Global leadership initiative fellow
Published in Daily Times, September 19th 2017.