Conversions by force

Once again the Pakistani state has bowed to pressure from unelected unrepresentative groups

Kamal Siddiqi January 08, 2017
The writer is the former editor of The Express Tribune. He tweets as @tribunian

For a Governor who has spent more time at an exclusive private hospital at state expense and very little time doing his official duties, his refusal to sign a bill passed by a unanimous majority in the Sindh provincial assembly comes as a surprise.

If a bill is passed unanimously in parliament, the democratic tradition is that the Governor, who is but a symbolic representative of the federation, comply with the wishes of the people’s representatives. One wonders where he summoned the strength to refer the bill back to the provincial assembly with the plea to “reconsider the legislation.”

The Sindh Assembly’s forced conversion bill, a private bill jointly moved by PPP and the PML-F lawmakers, was passed unanimously on November 24. It recommended that change of religion not be recognised until a person becomes 18 years old.

This bill was moved on the appeal of Sindh’s Hindu community, the largest religious minority in the province, which has long protested the abduction and forced conversion of women of its community.  These have become increasingly common in Sindh as Hindu girls are kidnapped and then converted to Islam. By the time the parents have registered a police case of kidnapping and the matter goes before a magistrate, it is already too late.

Under pressure from their captors and unable to go back to their homes for fear of social stigma, many of these girls then give statements to the effect that they ran away from their homes out of their own free will, giving the courts no option but to let go with their captors. Such court proceedings are a tense affair where hundreds of supporters of religious parties throng the court to put pressure on both the wronged family as well as the justice system.

The rise in such cases has forced the Hindu community, particularly in Upper Sindh where they are more in numbers and are part of the middle class, to stop sending their girls to school. For no fault of their own, hundreds of these girls are not allowed to go out of their homes because their parents are afraid they will be kidnapped at will in their own country while their own government looks the other way, and such responsible persons like the province’s governor is afraid of religious zealots.

Hindus in Sindh have been living in Sindh since time immemorial. This is their land. Most Hindus in Sindh did not leave the province after partition as they insisted that this province was their homeland and they would rather die. But after the 1965 war, many were forced to leave as riots were engineered by local politicians jealous of the wealth and standing of the community.

Since then, it has all been downhill.  Many who left for India in the 60s have done much better in that country. The exodus died down when the situation at home improved but now, over the past five years, the activities of religious extremists have once again put pressure on not just the Hindu community but religious minorities as a whole.

For those who want to leave the country now, India is rarely an option. In the words of one local journalist “In Pakistan we are seen as Indians. And in India, we are seen as Pakistanis.”

The architect of the bill, Nand Kumar, insists that the legislation is against forced conversion not conversion per se. No one can stop an adult converting from one religion to another of their own free will. In Pakistan, where conversion is one way, the Hindu community is afraid of the damage the forced conversions have caused in their community.

We are told that the chief of the Jamat-e-Islami, Maulana Siraj-ul Haq, phoned the co-chairperson of the PPP, Asif Zardari, to have the bill withdrawn.  Let the record state that it was during the tenure of popularly elected prime ministers like Liaqat Ali Khan, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif (and not that of military dictators) that some of the most regressive legislation and measures against our minorities have taken place.

Once again the Pakistani state has bowed to pressure from unelected unrepresentative groups which have made claims on the Islamic Republic and insist on challenging any move that they see going against their interpretation of this narrative. How long will this charade continue?

Published in The Express Tribune, January 9th, 2017.

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Raw is war | 7 years ago | Reply Blame it on Kashmir.
Salman | 7 years ago | Reply And the PPP is happy to withdraw the bill!! So much for liberalism!
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