Guidelines to protect minorities
Though the entire nation is victim of the rising tide of religious extremism in Pakistan the worst sufferers are the minorities. Their places of worship are being ransacked; their men are being lynched on streets and their women converted and married. Not that there is not enough of law on the country’s statute book for their protection the problem is with enforcement of these laws. Under Article 20 of the Constitution of Pakistan every citizen, and this includes Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis, ‘shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion’ and ‘every religious denomination and every sect thereof shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions’. And no person, and this includes members of all communities including minorities, shall be required to receive religious instruction not related to his religion, says Article 22. As to who shall be held guilty of blasphemy, this includes members of all religions including Muslims under Section 252 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). So if desecration of mosques is blasphemy under the law so is the case if temples and churches are ransacked or burnt down. But not much is in evidence to suggest that the minorities in Pakistan receive equal protection granted by the law. In fact of late attacks on them and their places of worship have increased. In the last two months six incidents of desecration of temples took place in Sindh alone.
In Punjab churches are more frequent victims of sacrilege. And the authorities don’t go much beyond issuing condemnatory statements; the action part is conspicuously missing. How ironic it is that entire Pakistan was in ferment, blaming Indian government of connivance in the demolition of Babri Masjid but when as minorities’ places of worship have come under attack here there is a deafening silence. Things should change, deflating Narendra Modi’s welcome offer to ‘persecuted minorities’ in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
And things are about to change in the wake of telling observations made and directions given by Chief Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani as the three-member bench of the Supreme Court hears suo motu case relating to the bomb attack last year on All Saints Church in Peshawar in which about 80 lives were lost. ‘We believe that the Constitution has set goals, pledges and commitments that the nation has vowed to live by, and to achieve these dreams we may develop guidelines for the protection of rights of minorities’, he observed. For that the court envisages framing a set of guidelines for the law enforcement agencies whose performance in this respect has been quite disappointing. These guidelines will be indicated by a team of three legal experts – former attorney general Muneer A Malik, Khawaja Haris and Hassan Aurangzeb – who have been appointed as amici curiae by the court.
The court will also entertain relevant proposals and suggestions from representatives of minorities. Strangely, if not intentionally, the cases of attacks on minorities’ places of worship are registered under relevant legal provisions. For instance, when the court asked Sindh government law officer if cases of attacks on temples were registered under blasphemy laws he replied in negative insisting the incidents didn’t attract such laws – hearing the court’s comment he didn’t know what the law is. The Sindh police was asked to come back with report showing what action had been taken so far against the offenders and under what law. The court also asked the Punjab government law officer to report on the non-registration of Christian marriages. One may put up with the discomforting thought that given religious and sectarian extremism now rampant in Pakistan the minorities get the raw deal. That the authorities also become part of it as seems to be the case it’s unacceptable. Perhaps, the concerned officials are not fully conversant with relevant legal provisions. Whatever the reason or excuse for the lethargic application of law, which is there on the statute book to stop discriminatory treatment of minorities hopefully the envisaged guidelines are expected to be of great help.