Punjab tables forced conversion bill -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Punjab tables forced conversion bill

Pakistan Press Foundation

The Punjab Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Act of 2016 has been introduced, following the actions of the Sindh Assembly. This is a welcome step in that the Bill is set to be tabled. The aim now would be to garner support for the passing of this bill as Punjab is home to various minority groups including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais, Ahmadis and Parsis. Time and again, religio-political forces have mulled the voices of reason in our legislation. This was witnessed when Sindh introduced its Forced Conversion Bill last year and we thought it would make speedy headway. However, it has been put on hold and is under reconsideration due to friction on the part of religious parties. While it is promising that Punjab has followed the same suit in the way of tabling such a bill, and we hope that other provinces will also follow in its steps, the delay in Sindh reminds us that Punjab will probably face similar delays.

The Punjab Criminal Law of 2016 has set some strict parameters which would seemingly be effective in thwarting cases of forced conversion but some ambiguity still exists as to how such cases would be decided. For example, the draft states that incarceration can be from anywhere between five years and a lifetime but it is not as clear as to how a sentence would be determined from such a wide range of possibilities in terms of number of years. Offences violating the law would be non-bailable and non-compoundable, meaning it would not be open to negotiation; no compromise or dropping of charges would be permitted. This is agreeable; forced conversions are a grave violation of human rights and it is required that offenders are charged appropriately. If a society experiences such trampling of human rights and allows the criminal to be forgiven or acquitted of a trial, a terrible example is set for future offenders and the society risks the normalisation of such behaviour, which is somewhat the case in Pakistan already. Aurat Foundation reported in July 2015 that forced conversions in Pakistan are approximately 1,000 per year. This occurs through two ways: marriage and bonded labour. Another sensible measure explained in the bill, especially for the latter, is the rule that a person cannot officially change one’s religion until the age of 18. One must remember that child labour is still popular and children are subjected to bonded labour as well. Extrapolating further, if a minor even approaches the court for such documentation, the case should be investigated to ascertain one is not undergoing any kind of pressure or bullying from gangs, employers, or bullies seeking marriage.

There have been many forced conversion cases in Pakistan that have also made news internationally, such as the United States and Canada, countries that are generally more advanced in terms of tolerance for religious differences. One example was the case back in August 2016, in which members of the Hindu community and human rights activists in Pakistan and abroad protested against the alleged forced conversions by one individual. The day was named National Minorities Day.

To table the bill for too long would be unproductive. We must build support and if support does not work, pressure must be applied for the Punjab Assembly to pass the bill. Although Christmas and Diwali are over, celebrated not too long ago, the momentum to push for the rights of our minorities cannot be weakened. The fight is not only for minority groups; it is for everyone to push for the basic rights of everyone in their society to prove to the world that we are tolerant and accepting of others, unlike the evil forces that are present in the country that falsely act in the name of jihad. The minorities of Pakistan do not want confrontation; they simply want to live in peace and should be granted the basic freedom to practise their religions freely without coercion and pressure.

The Express Tribune

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