During an international judicial conference hosted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Chief Justice Jillani stated that 2014 should be declared the year of religious tolerance. The Chief Justice eloquently explained that, “[T]he judiciary, through its verdicts, can … promote the values of trust, [and] tolerance, [while] protecting minorities and the weaker sections of the society.” However, to move beyond speeches on the integral issue of religious minorities, institutionalised action needs to take place in all branches of the government.
At the outset, one must recognise the heterogeneous composition of Pakistan’s persecuted minorities: one can be mistreated due to their political, ethnic or religious affiliation — the focus of this article being on the last group. The Fundamental Rights section of Pakistan’s Constitution stakes out several protections for religious minorities. These include a ban on discrimination in governmental services, the right to profess one’s religion and the right to equality before the law.
Yet, if one looks to the basic needs of Pakistan’s Christians or Hindus, like housing and employment, these constitutional provisions have not protected them from daily discrimination. It does not help that many of these religious minorities live together in low-income neighbourhoods, which leaves them open to greater abuse like the potential demolition of their homes and worship houses.
In order to deliver a ‘year of tolerance’, the apex court will need to allow itself more time to focus on addressing minority concerns. As outlined in the Islamabad Declaration, this will require limitations on the use of suo motu.
Moving beyond the judiciary, there are several concurrent actions that need to be taken by the nation’s ministers. Other countries have put in place affirmative action programmes for governmental employment as a means to uplift socially alienated communities. For Pakistan, while there are reserved seats for minorities in colleges and the legislative houses, there are few employment programmes that utilise affirmative action policies. As such, when the government seeks candidates to fill positions in its system, some preference could be given to candidates from minority groups or if a government contract is being opened for bidding, preference could be granted to minority-owned businesses as a policy.
Moreover, the prime minister and provincial governors must consider creating special protection and investigation units assigned exclusively to dealing with threats against minorities. Currently, there does not seem to be much of an institutional process that minorities can rely upon; rather, any assistance they receive is ad-hoc and based on the judgment of the police or other ‘important government officials’. By creating a specially designated unit to protect minorities which fosters an open and public relationship with the community they serve, minorities could begin feeling safe in their country.
On the provincial level, little can be accomplished for minority protection without the amelioration of schools’ curriculum and textbooks.
The third force must come from the legislative houses, as legislators need to complement the work of the executive and judiciary in creating enforceable protections for minorities. There are many issues that have persisted over the years which parliamentarians have not confronted. Hate speech and hate crime laws need to be revisited and updated to match the hostile environment religious minorities face today. Lastly, on a constitutional level, there are some troubling provisions that may require further examination in light of the preamble which reads “adequate provision shall be made to safeguard the legitimate interests of minorities”, as well as Articles 20 and 25 of the Constitution.
The Gentlemanly Judge, as some refer to CJ Jillani, should be commended for coming out so bravely against religious and cultural intolerance and discrimination. Yet, if this is to be the ‘year of tolerance’, all three wheels of governance will need to move in the same direction to provide institutionalised remedies for the constant mistreatment minorities suffer.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 2nd, 2014.
Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.
Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
For more information, please see our Comments FAQ