Pakistan’s Prime Minister has said “the day is not far off when Pakistan will internationally be known as a minority-friendly country”.
Meanwhile, a Senate Committee has been set up to debate how “to prevent the country’s blasphemy laws being applied unfairly, despite opposition from religious conservatives”. It has unearthed a 24-year-old report, which contains proposals for modifications, and Senator Farhat Ullah Babar says this would be the first time ever that a parliamentary body is to consider a formal proposal on how to prevent the misuse of the blasphemy laws.
Despite this, the Finance Minister on 28 Jan re-iterated that the blasphemy law could never be changed, saying: “Pakistan was the only country whose foundation was laid on Islam.”
And the same party that announced the new committee – the Pakistan People’s Party – has at the last minute withdrawn its Minority Protection Bill, due to come into force in the south-eastern province of Sindh, which borders India and so has many Hindus.
The bill, which prohibited forced religious conversions or even wilful conversions for those under the age of 18, had been passed in November, but was followed by protests by Islamic political parties. Police protection had to be provided for the parliamentarians who worked on the bill.
In October, the National Assembly had adopted a resolution, presented by Hindu parliamentarian Lal Chand Malhi, “urging the government to take necessary steps to stop forced religious conversions and marriages of women belonging to minorities”.
Hindus in Sindh have long decried many of their young girls being forcibly converted to Islam. (The abduction of Hindu girl Rinkle Kumari in 2012 became international news, though the apex court of Pakistan ruled that she had not been forced to convert).
After the PPP backtracked on its own bill, Hindu parliamentarian Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, of the ruling PML-N party, told World Watch Monitor that the PPP President had “caved in to religious elements” after meeting with the head of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamic political party.
“The Hindu community has been further made vulnerable by this move and its consequences will be devastating,” he added. The bill had passed unanimously and needed only ceremonial approval by the governor.
Christians in Pakistan are closely watching developments in Sindh for the implications for them in Punjab and elsewhere. That’s because the Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, has recently said that any belief that religious minorities in Pakistan are suffering because of the blasphemy laws is unfounded. He explained to the Senate House that data from the Sindh proved that, of 129 cases of blasphemy registered in total, 99 cases were registered against Muslims. This meant that 76% of the total convictions were against Muslims.
In response to a question by PPP parliamentarian Beelum Hasnain, Mr. Khan said: “The facts and figures reveal that, in most blasphemy cases, the accused were Muslims. They point towards the fact that religious minorities are not being embroiled in blasphemy cases more than Muslims.”
However, his statement does not take into account the fact that religious minorities are disproportionately accused of blasphemy: some say 15% are Christians, when they only form around 2% of the population, and more Christians live in Punjab than any other province.
And in Punjab, 49 of those accused of blasphemy since 1990 have so far been killed outside the judicial process, according to the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.
External analysts are cautious about the realistic prospects of the blasphemy law being reviewed. Thomas Muller, an analyst for World Watch Research, notes: “There have been countless efforts to amend Pakistan’s blasphemy laws or at least to limit their devastating consequences, which particularly affect the country’s religious minorities. But until now, radical groups have always proved stronger – at times even killing politicians they deemed too outspoken. It remains to be seen whether these commendable political initiatives will survive the opposition – most likely violent – which can be expected from the ranks of the radical Islamic groups in the country.”
In June 2014, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, passed a landmark judgment, demanding that the government take seven measures to protect religious minorities:
1. Constitute a task force at a federal level to develop a strategy for promoting religious tolerance.
2. Develop appropriate curricula for primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education that promote religious harmony and tolerance.
3. Curb hate speech in social media.
4. Constitute a national council for minorities.
5. Establish a special police force to protect the worship places of minorities.
6. Enforce the 5 per cent minority quota in government jobs.
7. Prompt action, including registration of a criminal case, whenever constitutional rights of religious minorities are violated or their worship places are desecrated.
Dr. Sabir Michael, who teaches sociology at the University of Sindh, told World Watch Monitor that none of the seven steps have been followed.
Meanwhile, a Christian parliamentarian, Shahzad Munshi, has lodged a Minority Protection Bill in the Punjab Assembly, but the disappointing conclusion in the Sindh Assembly will dampen expectations. The other provinces have yet to even form Commissions for the rights of religious minorities.
Separately, the government shows no willingness to offer religious minorities fair representation in assemblies. There are two types of seats in the National Assembly and provincial assemblies: general seats filled through direct, and “reserved” seats filled in proportion to the seats each party wins in a general election. The “reserved” seats are for women and religious minorities.
National Assembly member Aasiya Nasir told World Watch Monitor that the total number of National Assembly seats was increased from 207 to 342 in 2002.
“There were only 12 seats for women until 2002, which were increased to 60 – but seats for religious minorities remained at 10, as decided in 1985,” Nasir said.
She added that several minority Members had filed bills to increase the number of seats for minorities, but that their bills had been rejected.
“If the number is increased, then we will be better able to represent religious minorities in the [national and regional] assemblies,” she said. “The National Assembly has accepted my bill to enhance the number of seats … and referred it to the Electoral Reform Committee. But my other bill for the increase of seats in provincial assemblies has been rejected. The main opposition has come from the ruling party, PML-N, and the PPP, which rules in Sindh province.”
Pakistan’s constitution separates its citizens on religious grounds as either “Muslim” or “non-Muslim”; only Muslims can be elected into the roles of President or Prime Minister.
The problems for religious minorities in Pakistan date back to its formation. When the British left the Indian subcontinent, it was divided between Pakistan and India. Partition led to millions crossing borders: Muslims to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs crossing over to India. Hence, over time, India became thought of as a Hindu country and Pakistan as Muslim.
It is in this context that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent comments should be viewed. In October 2015, Mr. Sharif raised eyebrows when he participated in the Hindu festival of Diwali and wished the audience a “happy Diwali”. And his comment about Pakistan becoming a minority-friendly country was made during his visit to a Hindu temple this month.
However, the backlash against the Sindh’s Minority Protection Bill suggests there is some way to go before religious minorities in Pakistan will truly be able to feel at ease. Pakistan has risen to the 4th most dangerous country in which to live as a Christian on the 2017 World Watch List.
Learn more: Historic roots of discrimination against Pakistan’s religious minorities