Who will protect the minorities?
While I recognise that the state of Pakistan is inundated by a number of issues, with terrorism topping the list, I feel that it is incumbent upon me to bring to the notice of our rulers — especially the prime minister — the dilemmas faced by the minorities of Pakistan and the failure of successive governments to protect their legitimate and constitutional rights. Since the inception of Pakistan, minorities, though having played a vital role in the progress of the country, have never been treated as its true components. Numerous issues regarding their rights have been discussed many a time on the floor of parliament but to no avail. Tangible actions must be taken for the minorities so as to officially acknowledge them as citizens of the country — equal to any other and as secure.
On August 11,1947, in the Constituent Assembly, the Quaid had famously declared: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” A month earlier on July 13, 1947, he had given a solemn promise to minorities while addressing a press conference at his house: “The minorities to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, or their faith or their belief will be protected in every way possible. Their life and property will be secure. There will be no interference of any kind with their freedom of worship. They will have their protection with regard to their religion, their faith, their life, their property, their culture. They will be in all respects citizens of Pakistan without any distinction of caste or colour, religion or creed.”
The minorities of Pakistan are not asking for the moon. They just want the words of the Quaid to be put to practice and consequent provisions made for them in the Constitution under Articles 20 (freedom to profess religion and manage religious institutes), 21 (safeguarding against taxation for purposes of any particular religion), 22 (equal rights to educational institutions in respect of religion, etc), 25 (equality of citizens), 26 (no discrimination in respect to access to public places), 27 (safeguarding against discrimination in services), 28 (preservation of language, script and culture) and most importantly, Article 36 (protection of minorities), to be fulfilled.
For a moment, let us forget the Quaid’s pledge and focus on the ruling PML-N’s manifesto, which promised minorities the following: 1) all steps will be taken to avoid the misuse of blasphemy law and those proven to have made false accusation shall be punishable under the law; 2) necessary steps will be taken to stop forced conversions lawfully; 3) minorities protection bill will be introduced to solve their matrimonial and other issues; 4) hate material in syllabus of schools, colleges and universities will be abolished so that there is no discrimination between Muslims and other religious minorities; 5) interfaith harmony in educational institutions will be introduced; 6) five per cent job quota for minorities will be ensured; 7) non-Muslims will be given an opportunity to contest the election on general seats; and 8) a non-Muslim chairman of the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) will be appointed.
To the best of my knowledge, not a single promise made by the PML-N has been met. In addition, the Supreme Court judgment of June 19, 2014 didn’t bear fruit either. The three-member bench headed by then chief justice Tassaduq Hussain Jilani stated the following: 1) the federal government should constitute a task force tasked with developing a strategy of fostering religious tolerance; 2) appropriate curricula should be developed at school and college levels to promote a culture of religious and social tolerance; 3) the federal government should take appropriate steps to ensure that hate speech on social media is discouraged and delinquents are brought to justice under the law; 4) a national council for minorities’ rights should be constituted and the function of the said council should inter alia be to monitor the practical realisation of the rights and safeguards provided to minorities under the Constitution; 5) a special police force should be established with professional training to protect places of worship of minorities; 6) the federal and provincial governments should ensure the enforcement of the relevant policy directives regarding reservation of quota for minorities in all services; 7) in all cases of violation of any of the rights guaranteed under the law or desecration of places of worship of minorities, the concerned law-enforcement agencies should promptly take action, including the registration of criminal cases against delinquents.
I question that if the Quaid, the Supreme Court and all major political parties appear to be on the same page over the issue of minority rights, then what has stopped successive governments from improving their socioeconomic condition? The recent most agonising issue for minorities, particularly for those living in Sindh, is of forced conversions. In the absence of religion conversion laws in the country, some sections of the clergy are handing over ‘certificates’ of conversion to alleged kidnappers. Reportedly, 1,000 girls are forcibly converted every year in the country. The number may, in fact, be more if unreported cases of lower caste girls working at farmlands of feudal lords were to be included. From Rinkle Kumari to Anjali Menghwar, the issue of forced conversions has created a ripple effect, especially within the Hindu community, forcing many of its members to migrate from Pakistan. If the aforesaid provisions of the Constitution guarantee equality, then how can anyone be forced to change his or her religion?
It is time for the government to take serious measures to mitigate the pain of minorities. The National Action Plan also carries a provision regarding the protection of minorities. Therefore, it is only fair that the PML-N announces immediate implementation of its manifesto. For starters, as a gesture of good will, the government can announce the handing over of the historic temple and gurdwara situated at Saidpur village, Islamabad to the Hindu and Sikh communities respectively. The fact that there is not a single functional temple in the capital and the Ram Temple at Saidpur village is not being given due reverence, the act of handing over of places of worship to their own respective communities will create a soft image of Pakistan. And yes, Mr Prime Minister, you can appoint the chairman ETPB from within the minority community, just by affixing a signature.