LAW: CONSCIENCE OR CONVENIENCE?

Published October 10, 2021
There has been consistent reporting on forced conversions in recent years, but a response from the government has been missing
There has been consistent reporting on forced conversions in recent years, but a response from the government has been missing

On September 24, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony rejected the draft bill, ‘Prohibition of Forced Conversion Act, 2021’ prepared by its own government’s Ministry of Human Rights. The federal religious affairs minister, Pir Noorul Qadri, stated that his ministry was opposed to the conditions setting a minimum age limit of 18 years for persons converting to another religion, mandating testimony before a judge and a 90-day contemplation period before conversions can be effected.

The bill had been prepared in light of the recommendations of the parliamentary committee constituted in 2019 to protect minorities from forced conversions. It was shared with the Ministry of Religious Affairs in July 2021 and the ministry had already given its input to the committee. The finalised recommendations were sent to the human rights ministry. Hence, the objections by the religious affairs ministry and the need to review the bill again has raised questions.

While in opposition, PM Imran Khan had categorically condemned the forced conversion of girls belonging to religious minorities in his speech in 2016 in Umerkot, Sindh. Frustrated with the latest turn of events, Lal Chand Malhi, a member of the review committee from the ruling party tweeted: “After a discussion with the notorious Mian Mithoo, Council of Islamic Ideology and Ministry of Religious Affairs object over a bill to stop forced conversions.”

Mian Abdul Haq aka Mian Mithoo, a cleric from Ghotki in Sindh, of course basks in the popularity brought on by the conversion and marriages of minor Hindu girls arranged through him. Earlier, PTI sympathisers claimed that their chairman had not allowed Mian Mithoo to join the party owing to his involvement in these matters.

Nevertheless, no religious minority representation was deemed necessary in the review by the committee of the religious affairs ministry; members of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) and its chairperson, Chela Ram, were also ignored. However, a Muslim member of the NCM, Mufti Gulzar Naeemi, known for his stringent views, was invited to the consultations.

By opposing its own bill against forced conversions, the government is shirking its responsibility towards minorities and international rights

The Ministry of Religious Affairs has raised concerns to the following provisions in the draft bill: a) that any non-Muslim, who is not a child, and is able and willing to convert to another religion, will apply for a conversion certificate from an additional sessions judge of the area; b) that the additional sessions judge would set a date for interview within seven days of receipt of an application and, on the date, the judge would ensure that the conversion is not under any duress and not due to any deceit or fraudulent misrepresentation; and c) that the judge may award a time period of 90 days to the non-Muslim to undertake a comparative study of religions, and that the judge would offer the certificate for change of religion only after satisfaction that the conditions had been met. The ministry’s objections on these safeguards reflect antipathy for minorities.

Concerns regarding forced conversions are not a new phenomenon for this region. The All India Muslim League adopted a resolution in December 1927, in Calcutta, which addressed the issue of forced conversions. Historian Ghulam Ali Allana’s book Pakistan Movement: Historic Documents describes the League’s demand as follows: “Every individual or group is at liberty to convert or re-convert another by argument or persuasion, but that no individual or group shall attempt to do so or prevent its being done by force, fraud or other unfair means, such as the offering of material inducement. Persons under 18 years of age should not be converted unless it be along with their parents or guardians.”

So, almost a century ago, the League had chalked out the rules for conversion. The committee should consult history in addressing the objections of the Religious Affairs Ministry.

The Constitution of Pakistan (Article 20) guarantees the right to profess, practise and propagate religion to all citizens, including the minority religious denominations. However, the major concern in the debate above is the conversion and marriage of minors.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to freedom of religion. It includes the right to change one’s religion, but without compulsion. Article 18(4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights instructs that the choice of religion for a child is restricted by the parents’ rights to determine religion up to an age when the child attains maturity. Pakistan is also party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child where a child’s consent is considered uninformed consent under Article 14(2).

The objections by the religious affairs ministry and the need to review the bill again has raised questions.

Therefore, the draft bill is only suggesting the attainment of maturity (sui juris), a solemn verification by a judicial forum adhering to international norms. According to the draft bill, a child can convert to another religion only when the parents or guardian of the child decide to change the religion of the family.

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2017 (IV) (Section 498-B, PPC) prohibits forced marriages, making the marriage of minors and non-Muslim women an offence punishable with no less than five years of imprisonment. This legal safeguard remains largely unimplemented, however, primarily because the government has failed to take ownership of the law.

Efforts to introduce a dedicated law on curtailing the tide of forced conversions faced resistance in the past as well. Two bills, tabled in 2016 and then 2019, were shot down by the same actors which have resurfaced recently. Last year, the Standing Committee on Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony had rejected the Protection of Rights of Minorities Bill, 2020, which also covered the subject of forced conversion. The bill recommended an age limit of 18 years upon conversions, enabling greater due process and a jail term for anyone guilty of coercion in faith conversion.

Emphasising the recent controversy within the government, Peter Jacob, executive director of Centre for Social Justice laments that, once again, the bill for protective measures against forced conversions has become a contesting ground between two federal ministries.

There has been consistent reporting on forced conversions in recent years, but a response from the government has been missing, visibly owing to a lack of consensus among the ministries, and with the excessive involvement of the clergy and religious groups. Data shows that forced conversions are accompanied by a range of other criminal offences, including abduction, forced/ child marriage, rape, forced prostitution and the use of violence.

The relative ease and impunity with which minority women are abducted, forcibly converted and unlawfully married to Muslim men, can be attributed to a number of systemic factors. The neglectful, complicit and even hostile attitude of the police and judicial officers put the aggrieved parties at a disadvantaged position. It is a ground reality that victims and their families remain too scared to report cases. Conversions, coupled with discriminatory laws and societal prejudices, make life miserable for religious minorities in the country.

Forced conversion is a violation of fundamental human rights and religious freedom. Ironically, each time a case of forced conversion is reported, the government reiterates its promise of enacting laws on such conversions. But the federal and provincial governments have been shirking their responsibility.

Now that the Ministry of Human Rights has drafted a good piece of legislation to stop this ugly practice, it should receive necessary support from all parties. The government and the opposition parties should fulfil their duty to protect minorities by legislating and enforcing a powerful law to stop forced conversion.

The writer is a human rights activist and columnist. She tweets @NabilaFBhatti and can be reached at nabilaferoz@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 10th, 2021

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