The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), generally viewed as a centre-left party with a secular outlook, may buckle under pressure of the religious lobby, and retreat from its landmark legislation on forced conversions unanimously adopted by the Sindh Assembly on November 24.
A private bill, Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities), was tabled by the Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PML-F) lawmaker Nand Kumar a year ago. It was earlier referred to the Standing Committee for Minorities and Human Rights, and was subsequently adopted — honouring Sindh to be the first assembly in Pakistan to pass such a progressive law.
According to the bill, no person shall be deemed to have changed their religion until they attain the age of maturity, which is 18 years. Similarly, the decision of a minor to convert to another religion will not be recognised until they reach the age of maturity.
Defining the punishments for forced conversion, the bill states that any person who forcibly converts another person shall be liable to imprisonment ranging from five years to life and a fine will have to be paid to the victim. Whoever performs or facilitates a marriage while having knowledge that either one or both the parties are victims of forced conversion shall be liable to imprisonment for a minimum of three years or a fine to be paid to the victim or victims. This also included persons who may provide logistical support or any other essential service for the marriage ceremony. In a case of forced conversion, the accused shall also be liable for other offences, including kidnapping, abduction or compelling a woman for marriage.
Progressive circles of Sindh welcomed the bill. They showered accolades on the Sindh Assembly and the PPP, whose leader Bilawal Bhutto promised such a law several months ago. Addressing a public gathering to celebrate Holi in Umerkot in March 2016, Bilawal boasted that Sindh had taken the lead in progressive legislation like the Child Marriage Restraint Act, Women’s Protection Act and Hindu Marriage Act for the marginalised segments of the society. He announced that the PPP would soon make a law against forced conversions. He raised a fundamental question that if a Muslim could be made president in India why could someone from the minorities not be made president in Pakistan.
The adoption of the bill was euologised as a triumph of Bilwal’s vision in the party.
But, the religious lobby did not waste a moment to trash the law and berate the Sindh Assembly for adopting it. The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) adopted a resolution against the bill and termed it a law in contravention to the constitution. JUI’s Maulana Samiul Haq issued a scathing statement, and demanded the Election Commission to disqualify those members of the Sindh Assembly who had voted in favour of the bill. He called for the dismissal of the Sindh Assembly over the passage of the bill. The Maulana criticised the Sindh government for converting the province into ‘Kafiristan’ with such un-Islamic decisions.
The Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) also joined the chorus. It’s chief, Sirajul Haq, talked to the PPP co-chairman, Asif Ali Zardari, on phone to withdraw the bill. The special branch of Sindh police raised an ominous alarm of potential threats to the members of the standing committee that cleared the bill. It prompted an urgent request from the assembly secretariat to the provincial home department to ramp-up security measures to ensure protection of the vulnerable members.
It must be pointed out here that the bill did not come out of the blue. Incidents of forced conversions of Hindu girls in Sindh have reached abominable proportions in recent years. The Hindu community became a soft prey for criminal gangs and extremist groups especially in northern districts of Sindh, like Ghotki, Shikarpur, Kashmore, Larkana and Sukkur. Kidnapping for ransom, extortion, arson, target killings and abduction of young girls for involuntary conversions and marriages compelled hundreds of hapless Hindu families to migrate to India.
Civil society and progressive political parties of Sindh had been clamouring for providing legal safeguards to minority groups against forced conversions and marriages of their young girls. The issue came to limelight when three young Hindu girls, Rinkle Kumari, Dr Lata and Asha Kumari, disappeared in 2012, and were converted and married off under the custody of Mian Mitho aka Pir of Bahrchundi Sharif in district Ghotki.
During the court proceedings of the Rinkle Kumari case, dozens of armed men would roam around freely to intimidate the girl’s families. Although the girls conceded conversion as their willful act, the element of coercion was starkly obvious.
Sindh has an enviable tradition of communal harmony, where the Hindu and Muslim communities have been living together peacefully. There are instances of consensual conversion and marriage of Hindu girls. In August this year, Dr Gordhan Khatri of Hathungo town of district Sanghar allowed her daughter to change her religion and marry a Muslim boy Mohammad Bilal Qaimkhani. Dr Gordhan invited the boy’s family to his home in Mirpurkhas and the couple entered into a delightful wedlock. The whole Sindh welcomed this gesture of inter-religion harmony and the parents were praised for their sanity.
Islamisation of our society has always drawn ideological legitimacy from the state. The conversion of non-Muslims has been held as a religious obligation. Although forced conversion is unambiguously forbidden in Islam, the line between the forced and the consensual conversions has always remained blurry and demarcated at convenience. Edicts are used to justify heinous acts of mob lynching and torch sacred places of minority sects.
The Hindu community in Sindh has been questioning why only young girls are converted to Islam and not elderly women or boys. Against this backdrop, the law has come as a harbinger of hope for religious minorities in the province.
Infuriated by the widely welcomed law, a fractious religious lobby swung into action to forestall the legislation before the Sindh governor gives his assent. Religious outfits argued that while forced conversion is disallowed in Islam, right to voluntary conversion cannot be fettered by the age limit of 18 years. Others claimed that no case of forced conversion has so far been proved in any court so the law is not even required.
Nisar Khuhro, PPP provincial president, issued a statement to placate the enraged religious lobby. He retracted from the contents of the law by saying that his party prescribed 18 years age only to restrict underage marriages and not the voluntary conversion to Islam. The repenting minister reiterated his piety by saying that no Muslim could think of passing a law that was against the basic tenants of Islam. He did not hesitate to renounce the law by apologetically explaining that there was no restriction on the age of a person to change their religion, although the bill unequivocally stipulated the age limit of 18 years.
The PPP government’s balking at the unanimously adopted bill evokes memories of the Bhutto era, the founder of PPP. Z.A. Bhutto went all out to appease the religious lobby by pronouncing Ahmadis as non-Muslims, observing Friday as weekly holiday and banning alcohol, yet he drew little succor. The conglomerate of religious parties was instrumental in the toppling of his government and ultimately his execution.
At a time when the guardians of the state are making lofty claims of ending the patronisation of extremist elements, such a move is tantamount to a humiliating capitulation before the obscurantist forces in the country.
Sindh has suddenly become a cherished destination for the extremist elements. A web of seminaries is fanning out in all districts and proscribed outfits freely operate in the province.
A recent report of the Ministry of Interior has revealed that 62 banned outfits are active in the province. Chronic bad governance, ubiquitous corruption, collapse of social services, politicised police department and nauseating nepotism have afflicted polity in the province and made it a breeding ground for fanatic elements.