Since Prime Minister Imran Khan’s rise to power, Pakistan has seen the religious might being forced into all levels of governance. Prime Minister Khan has employed Islamic revivalism to sustain his power and this has led him to make compromises which relinquish state power to the religious might. As apparent from the handling of the anti-forced conversion bill, the government has restrained its resistance to religious hardliners.
Article 20 of the Constitution gives all citizens the fundamental right to the freedom of religion. In a landmark judgment (PLD 2014 SC 669), the Supreme Court elaborated: “Neither the majority religious denominations or sect nor the minority religious denomination or sect can impose its religious will on any citizen and that the freedom of religion is granted to practice both privately and publicly one’s religion, not restricted only to the majority faith but all communities including religious minorities.” This allows all citizens protection of freedom of religion against their own and other religious communities.
In addition, Pakistan’s international obligations require that no violation of human rights occurs under the disguise of faith conversion. These international obligations mainly included the qualification for the European Union’s Generalised Scheme of Preference status and possible sanctions due to Pakistan being designated as “Country of Particular Concern” by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom since 2018.
Given the rising cases of religious persecution, there is mounting international pressure to ensure constitutional freedoms. All the while, the religious might is also strengthening its hold over government. To navigate through the two, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has turned to trickery as the last resort.
The PTI’s modus operandi is to create smokescreens.
Earlier, PTI Government established an ad-hoc National Commission for Minorities by the act of Cabinet. Apart from its legal discrepancies, the Commission has no independent powers, institutional autonomy or resources to function as a competent authority, and it has been reduced to becoming a rubberstamp to validate Government’s spin on minority issues.
Similarly, to dilute the pressure around growing demand to legislate on forced conversion, a special Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions was constituted in 2019 on the directives of the Prime Minister. This committee also turned out to be nothing but a distraction. It had token representation from non-Muslim legislators who had to deliberate with Muslim legislators about a bill mainly concerning the non-Muslims.
Two PTI ministers played a significant role in delaying and ultimately blocking the legislation. One was the Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs. He termed the bill as “anti-Islam” and said he would not let the bill through the Parliament. The other was the Minister of Religious Affairs. He termed the environment “unfriendly” for the passage of the bill.
Both ministers have a history of opposing progressive legislation. It was the same men who opposed Senator Sherry Rehman’s bill to amend the minimum marriageable age to 18 years. They also dominated the parliamentary committee to send the minimum marriageable age bill to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII).
CII is not a supra-constitutional body that should be able to override the Parliament, nor is a parliamentary committee chairman mandated to refer bills to CII. According to Article 229 of the Constitution: “The President or the Governor of a Province may, or if two-fifths of its total membership so requires, a House or a Provincial Assembly shall, refer to the Islamic Council for advice any question as to whether a proposed law is or is not repugnant to the Injunctions of Islam.” However, since the CII had already submitted comments on the bill before the Special Committee, this step was also unnecessary.
What the CII’s involvement did was to validate the extremist forces behind the crime of forced conversion. Mian Mithoo — the public face of forced conversions, who was not invited to the parliamentary committee’s meetings due to opposition from some members, was included as stakeholder by CII. Additionally, the CII did not include any non-Muslim stakeholders.
CII’s controversial and ever-growing role in human rights issues validates the concerns that the council is being used to appease religious hardliners and facilitate their will.
Moreover, Qibla Ayaz, the current CII chairman who led the vetting process of the bill on forced conversion was recently quoted saying: “There are almost zero incidents of forced conversion in Pakistan. The conversions are willful because upon inquiring by the CII, it was found that the young girls and boys, especially Hindus, do not approve of having cow dung and urine in breakfast and hence prefer a better style of living by converting.” The unashamed bigotry here is extreme.
The bill was also referred to the Ministry of Religious Affairs. During the last federal government of the Pakistan Peoples Party, a separate ministry for non-Muslims had been created, which was reverted later by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Now this ministry is in-charge for all the religious communities residing in the country. But in its conduct, under Khan’s government, the ministry has been anything but inclusive. It has not been representative of the aspirations of the non-Muslim communities. No non-Muslim representative was involved in the vetting process there either.
The bill was abruptly rejected and scrapped without voting in the committee, as the chairman termed it as against “public interest”. Astonishingly, all this was in consonance with Khan’s reported “assurances” to the clerics that no legislation against forced conversion would be enacted under his rule. This begs the question that why the Committee was created in the first place, if the prime minister lad to give assurances against the very purpose of the committee.
Moreover, the overindulgent influence of Islamic hardliners on what was supposed to be a minority personal law is also unwarranted. This is because the application of Shariah law, the foremost excuse to halt the respective legislation with respect to the age clause, is outlawed in the Constitution. Article 227(3) clarifies that the legislation made in conformity with the injunctions of Islam will not apply on the non-Muslim citizens or their status as citizens.
It is not about a piece of legislation alone, so much more has been jeopardized in order to allow religious dominance. The whole exercise sends a disturbing message that the government at the centre is enabling the marginalization of non-Muslims, and this marginalization is being conducted at the expense of the supremacy of the parliament and the Constitution.
The religious far right, whose religiosity revolves around forcibly converting minor girls, has created a distinguished identity based on these conversions. From love-traps to underage marriages, influencing investigations and judicial verdicts, these hardliners are already controlling fate of the non-Muslim girls and their families.
According to the personal accounts of many cases I have dealt with, the unchallenged power of clergymen is used to intimidating families, and sheltering the culprits, and influencing courts hearings by bringing hordes of people on to the streets to protect the men marrying the converts. By providing these men with constitutional platforms to overpower human rights shatters the pretense that the government protects vulnerable people.
The rejection of the bill on forced conversion, followed by the fear of exclusion, the extension of impunity to the viciousness of zealots, the alienation assisted by the federal government, has weakened the already thin hope of getting basic rights. The non-Muslims have been denied protections mostly because certain factions do not approve of them, and it is this disapproval that keeps their power lit and politics alive.
The Prime Minister should revisit his double standards in seeking an international debate on Islamophobia while suppressing the debate on religious rights at home. He must realize that government’s writ receding before the mighty few, as happened in the recent capitulation to the Tehreeke-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), comes as irreversible concessions on the rule of law. His government’s short-term decisions in the form of submission will transgress his short-lived rule.