KARACHI: In the wake of strident protests by various groups, Sindh Governor Justice (retd) Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui has refused to ratify the Sindh Assembly’s forced conversion bill, officially known as Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill.
“Please reconsider the legislation,” said Siddiqui in his message to the Sindh Assembly Secretariat.
In his observations, the governor referred to the letters written by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), MQM parliamentary leader Sardar Ahmed, as well as the protest by religious parties, which either called for the bill’s withdrawal or proposed amendments to it.
“Today, we have received the bill with the governor’s message. The governor’s plea for reconsideration means he has asked for the bill’s withdrawal and for the introduction of a new law,” said Sindh Assembly Secretary GM Umer Farooq while talking to The Express Tribune. With the governor’s message appended to it, he said, the bill will be presented at the upcoming session of the Sindh Assembly. “However, it is the house’s prerogative to accept it or not,” he said.
The private bill – jointly moved by the ruling PPP and the PML-F lawmakers and unanimously passed by the assembly on November 24 –recommended that change of religion not be recognised until a person becomes 18 years old.
It also prescribed severe penalties for forced conversion of religion and said, “Any person who forcibly converts another person shall be liable to imprisonment for a minimum of five years and maximum of life imprisonment and a fine to be paid to the victim.”
Following the passage of this proposed law, the PPP leadership, civil society members and minorities had celebrated the development and called it a ‘landmark’ achievement in the history of the assembly, which became the first legislative forum to adopt such a law in the country.
However, religious parties rallied against the proposed legislation, calling it against the spirit of Islam and threatening street agitation over it.
According to a source, the PPP government has apparently succumbed to the pressure and has agreed to make amendments to it.
“After Jamaat-e-Islami chief Sirajul Haq’s phoned PPP Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, the latter asked the Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah to withdraw the law and introduce a fresh bill,” an official source said.
Some sources even claimed that the governor objected to the bill on the advice of the Sindh CM.
However, Nand Kumar, the bill’s architect, insisted it was a genuine issue because forced conversions continue to pose a threat to the Hindu community. “Minor girls are compelled to change their religion and get married to Muslim men in Sindh,” he said, terming the government decision to withdraw the law a ‘cowardly act’
“No one objects to changing their faith out of their free-will. But it is a criminal practice to forcibly convert anybody,” he added. “I don’t know where the PPP stands after this decision. The party claims to have taken the mantle for the rights of minorities, yet it has surrendered that role,” he said.
PPP’s parliamentary leader in the Sindh Assembly, Nisar Ahmed Khuhro, justified his party and government policy. “We still own this bill, but since some parties have expressed reservations, so we have to redress the same,” he said. “The government will not withdraw the bill, but will make amendments to it,” he added.
However, sources privy to the development told The Express Tribune that the bill will again be sent to a standing committee for the point of view of religious parties to be incorporated in it. “I don’t know what will be the fate of this law, but it may hang in the balance,” a senior bureaucrat in Sindh Assembly said.
The PML-N’s MNA Ramesh Kumar Vakwani, who also heads the Pakistan Hindu Council, said: “It will be a big tragedy for non-Muslims, if the bill is withdrawn. After this decision the extremist elements will become confident and minorities will feel insecure.”
Published in The Express Tribune, January 7th, 2017.