Given the fact that his speech or action on the floor of the house as a parliamentarian could potentially irk the far right, Nand Kumar Goklani was initially a bit hesitant to take the lead on the issue of forced conversions of minor Hindu girls in rural Sindh.
The assassination in 2011 of Shahbaz Bhatti, the former federal minister for minority affairs, by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), had established a de facto red line for legislators from minority communities — a clear crossing of the line could bring serious repercussions.
“But something had to be done,” says Goklani, the Pakistan Muslim League-Functional lawmaker, who decided to take the bull by its horns. “For years, the Hindu community has raised its voice over forced conversion cases, demanding legal protection for their girls. My conscience does not allow me to be silent on this issue. There is no point of perks and privileges when I can’t stand for the community.”
But after seven years of hustle and bustle, the bill Goklani introduced remains at its starting point. “There has been no progress at all,” he says. The intricacies of his bill have not yet been reviewed or debated, let alone being voted on. The minority lawmaker blames the governing Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) in Sindh for hindering his ‘pro-minority bill.’
The Census 2017 results show that the Hindu population in Sindh is close to seven percent of the total population of the province — although Hindu activists challenge the number, alleging that they have been undercounted. But it appears that, more than factual representation, the forced conversions of minor girls remain the biggest issue of the Hindu community of Sindh.
Pressured by right wing political groups, the Sindh government is reluctant to review, debate or vote on a bill that seeks to outlaw the forced conversions of minorities
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has reported as many as 31 cases of forced conversions countrywide in 2020.
“Forced conversion is an elephant in the room for Sindh,” says Qazi Khizar, the vice chairperson HRCP Sindh. “All glossy words of solidarity by provincial authorities hold little or no value until and unless strict laws and actions aren’t made against influential religious figures involved in this planned scheme of converting underage Hindu girls.”
As a parliamentarian, Goklani enjoyed brief success when his bill Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities), Act, 2015 was unanimously passed from the Sindh Assembly in November 2016. But in the face of growing pressure from religious parties over a clause of the bill that denounced the religious conversion of minors, the ruling PPP asked the-then governor Justice (retd) Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui not to ratify it. In light of the objection, Goklani drafted another bill under the same name and submitted it before the assembly in 2019.
The amended bill has omitted the section which called for a blanket prohibition against minor conversion, and instead called for the application of the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2013, which prohibits marriages of individuals under 18 years of age. However, it has not reached the Sindh assembly for discussion yet.
“A judicial magistrate to issue an injunction to prohibit a child conversion or marriage and, upon final decision of conviction of accused, the conversion and marriage of child (if any) shall stand nullified,” the new bill states. “A police officer or any person given such authority under the law, upon receiving information of a case of forced conversion, may upon investigation take into custody the victim and produce him/her before the court within twenty-four hours. The court shall pass order to take the victim to the nearest shelter home/ child protection institute.”
The bill further adds that, in case of an alleged forced conversion of an adult, the court shall allow as many as 21 days to the individual for independent decision making. During this period, they may stay at a shelter home.
A section of civil society representatives question the effectiveness of clubbing the Sindh Child Marriage Act (SCMA) with the new bill. They point out that the SCMA didn’t bring down forced conversion cases in the past. However, they feel this particular legislation is still a step in right direction.
“A substantive number of Hindu families have either migrated to India or have moved to the urban centres to avoid unforeseen circumstances,” says Kapil Dev, an Islamabad-based civil society activist. “An effective new law and its implementation in its true letter and spirit is the need of the hour. Unfortunately, political will appears to be missing and, sadly, the government is shying away [from passing the bill] to avoid pressure from the far right.”
Earlier, in a meeting in October 2020, Barrister Murtaza Wahab, the Sindh government’s law and environment adviser on the Senate’s Special Committee on forced conversions, had reiterated that the provincial government planned to present the forced conversion bill in the assembly again — but only after consultations with religious parties and clerics. But no further developments have been announced on this issue since then.
“The Sindh government has done its part to curb forced conversions by passing the marriage restraint bill, hence the onus now lies with federal and other provincial governments to legislate on this issue, as minor girls are being taken out of the province for marriages because of no legal prohibitions there,” says Hari Ram Kishori Lal, provincial minister for minority affairs. “We are in dialogue with those who raised objections on Goklani’s bill and we hope that the matter would be resolved.”
He did not mention who the government is holding a dialogue with.
Goklani does not buy it. “Currently, the bill rests with the cabinet,” says Goklani. “It can only come in the house after cabinet approval. I have been assured by the government that it will put the bill in the assembly for debate, but it has been over a year. Instead of my bill, frivolous bills, such 18-above marriage bill has come in the assembly for vote, so you can probably gauge their seriousness.
“Now I have moved a resolution in the house calling for the passage of my bill,” Goklani adds. “It is getting pushed off the agenda from sessions but eventually it will be on the floor. If my resolution for the bill is passed, then, as per rules of the assembly, the government is bound to move the bill in session within 30 days. If it refuses to support it, at least we will know that the liberal posturing is all optics and nothing else.”
Hunain Ameen, a Karachi-based journalist who has been closely following political developments in relation to minorities, believes that, with the presence of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan and Jamaat-i-Islami in the current provincial assembly, supporting the bill will not be smooth sailing for the Sindh government. Perhaps that explains its reluctance.
“The PPP is in a dilemma,” says Goklani, expressing his last hope. “On the one hand, they enjoy support from the minority community of rural Sindh. But, on the other, with an election year coming soon, I don’t think that any party would take the risk of antagonising the conservative vote base. Nevertheless, eventually they have to take a stand and choose a side.”
The author is a graduate of Politics and International Relations from Royal Holloway University of London.
He tweets @ebadahmed
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 4th, 2021LAW