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Forced conversions

Updated March 26, 2019

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THE alleged abduction of two young Hindu sisters, Reena and Raveena, from their home in Daharki last week is one of only a handful of the many claims of forced conversions in Sindh that actually gain public attention.

Too often, officials casually lean into the suggestion that such incidents are simply a matter of women deciding to convert and marry of their own free will, a ‘family dispute’ that should be resolved privately, ignoring the power dynamics that make this so suspect.

The fact is that the majority of new converts in Sindh are young women or minor girls from socioeconomically vulnerable Hindu families.

The nexus of power — politically influential families, clerics and seminaries — behind this phenomenon are also well known to all, while religious minorities have repeatedly pointed to a lack of appropriate concern displayed by police and judicial officers.

In this case, too, despite the fact that an FIR was registered under the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act, 2013, the police seemingly attempted to minimise the allegations by pointing to a video of the two girls claiming they had chosen their fate voluntarily.

The truth about what has happened to Reena and Raveena can only emerge after a thorough and impartial probe, and it is hoped that the investigation will be swift now that the prime minister has taken notice of this case. But, beyond that, there is a need to address the systemic failures that enable such forms of religious persecution to flourish.

A move by the Sindh legislature to criminalise forced religious conversions and forced marriages was torpedoed in early 2017 when the then governor refused to ratify it.

The government was forced to capitulate to pressure exerted by the religious right that conflates safeguards against coercion with ‘obstacles’ in the path of those who wish to convert. Human rights groups have now called on the provincial government to resurrect the bill.

Indeed, such laws are needed across the country, for the guarantee of life and liberty of Pakistan’s religious minorities must be wholeheartedly embraced by all our citizens.

India’s Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj’s needless intervention into what is an internal matter for Pakistan was clearly politically motivated, yet Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry should not have taken the bait.

The state has a responsibility to preserve and protect the right to freedom of religion, guaranteed under Article 20 of our Constitution. But it is impossible to deny the fact that religious minorities are, in many ways, more vulnerable than safe in Pakistan.

National discourse on minority rights, particularly of Pakistani Hindus, should not be framed in opposition to India’s own abysmal track record regarding religious minorities, but of its own accord, in unqualified commitment to affirmatively upholding their fundamental rights.

In a country that takes pride in the white in its flag, even a single violation of minority rights should not be tolerated.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2019