ISLAMABAD: Amid the ongoing controversy over the alleged kidnapping of two Hindu girls and their forced conversion to Islam, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) lawmaker Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani on Tuesday submitted two bills in the National Assembly secretariat seeking enhancement of the punishment for those involved in such crimes and for making child marriage a cognisable offence.
Besides the two bills titled Child Marriage Restraint Act (Amendment) Bill 2019 and the Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Act 2019, Dr Vankwani also submitted to the NA Secretariat a resolution with the support of minority lawmakers from all major political parties condemning such incidents.
The five-point resolution called for immediate passage of the bill against forced conversions, which had been unanimously passed by the Sindh Assembly in 2016 and then reverted due to pressure of extremist elements, from all the legislatures.
One of the bills proposes five years to life imprisonment for a person who forcibly converts another person
Besides Dr Vankwani, PTI legislators Lal Malhi and Shunila Ruth, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz lawmaker Dr Darshan and Pakistan Peoples Party’s Ramesh Lal signed the resolution.
Through the resolution, the lawmakers demanded strict action against the culprits including controversial religious figures such as “Mian Mithu Bharchoondi and Pir Ayub Jan Sirhindi” for their alleged role in forced conversions. “All those who are preaching hate under the cover of religion must be handled like banned religious organisations,” the resolution said.
Talking to the media outside Parliament House, Dr Vankwani, who is also patron-in-chief of Pakistan Hindu Council, said unfortunately the practice of child marriage was common in all parts of Pakistan, particularly in poverty-hit areas. He said the bills were intended to serve as a deterrent and to remove the existing gender disparity in age.
He said he had moved the bills in line with a PHC resolution that condemned the recent alleged kidnapping and forced conversion of two Hindu sisters, Reena and Raveena, and kidnapping of another Hindu girl, Shania, from Mirpurkhas. The resolution said: “The Senate functional committee on human rights has already unanimously approved the draft bill to amend the Child Marriage Restraint Act, raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 years and also by Sindh Assembly. The bill must be passed in National Assembly on an urgent basis, and implemented throughout the country in letter and spirit.”
One of the two bills seeking protection of minorities called for sensitisation of government officials, police officials and members of judicial service on the issue. It also suggested setting up of specific courts to hear cases of forced conversions and shelter homes for victims.
The bill stated: “Any minor who claims to have changed their religion before attaining maturity shall not be deemed to have changed their religion and no action shall be taken against him or her for any such claim or action made by the minor.”
The bill proposed imprisonment of either description for a minimum of five years and maximum of life imprisonment and a fine to be paid to the victim by a person who forcibly converts another person. “This shall include any persons who have provided the logistical support and any other essential services etc for the marriage ceremony,” it explained.
“Any person who is an abettor to a forced conversion shall be liable to imprisonment of either description for a minimum of five years and a fine to be paid to the victim,” it suggested.
Also proposing a mechanism for addressing such complaints, the bill stated: “The court shall fix the first date of hearing, which shall not exceed seven days from the date of the receipt of the petition by the court.” It added that any case of forced conversion before the court should be disposed off within a period of 90 days and any adjournment given during the hearing of the petition be granted for reasons to be recorded in writing by the court. It also suggested in-camera trial of the cases.
The other bill titled “the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act, 2019” suggested that those involved in child marriage cases be given “rigorous” imprisonment instead of “simple imprisonment”.
It suggested enhancement of the punishment from one month to three years, besides an increase in the fine from Rs1,000 to Rs200,000.
The statement of objects and reasons attached to the bills described “poverty and illiteracy” as the factors for the prevalence of child marriages. It stated that a child, according to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, is any person under the age of 18. “Unfortunately, the practice of child marriage is common in all parts of Pakistan, particularly in the poor areas but the act of solemnising child marriage is not cognisable and the police cannot take action against the offenders.”
Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2019