By I. A. Rrhman –
How to begin addressing concerns
Every new day brings evidence that the members of the religious minorities are getting more and more desperate over their failure to get their grievances redressed. The reason is that, apart from their traditional complaints of discrimination in the various fields of life, the threats to their core rights – to life, liberty and security – have considerably increased.
For several months, the Hindu community in Sindh and Balochistan, where till recently they enjoyed respect and trust of the majority community, has been protesting against a spurt in instances of kidnapping for ransom. Those who can afford to migrate are doing so in increasing numbers. They include highly rated professionals and traders. Senior lawyers are quite sad that a well-known advocate of the Supreme Court from Quetta has left the country.
Then came a series of cases of non-Muslim girls’ taking Muslim men as spouses after reportedly converting to the latter’s faith. It is alleged that these marriages have been solemnized after the girls’ abduction and forcible conversion. This version is contested and some conservative Muslim groups have jumped into the fray – to defend the rights of those who have entered the Islamic fold. The matter is now before the Supreme Court and one can only hope for a settlement that could assuage the minority community’s feelings of hurt.
Meanwhile, the target killing of members of the Shia community, especially in Balochistan, has assumed alarming proportions. The Hazara Shias feel so insecure that they are adopting ever more dangerous ways to escape to foreign lands, such as attempts to reach Australia by boat via Indonesia. At the same time, the Ahmediya community is protesting against the killing of their members apparently for their belief.
Finally, a minority group staged a mock marriage show in Islamabad to press for a system of registration of Hindu marriages.
All these happenings need to be viewed in the context of religious minorities’ traditional grievances – and they are indeed a legion. They have never accepted their ineligibility for high offices on the ground of belief alone. Nor have they accepted as just the discriminatory provisions of certain laws. They have long-standing grievances against the scheme of reserving a couple of seats for them in educational institutions and denial of admission to their young ones on merit, against their exclusion from housing projects and non-provision of space for their prayer houses and funeral requirements in new housing colonies, et al.
These complaints are of a substantial nature. Yet the minorities have displayed a remarkable capacity for living with their deprivations and hardships. No member of a minority community abandoned his home in Pakistan on the ground that he could not hope to be elected as president or prime minister but quite a few did so on failing to land jobs for which they were qualified. And no one accused of blasphemy could afford to stay in Pakistan even after acquittal.
Thus, the present signs of despair among the minority communities demand immediate attention even though the more fundamental issues of discrimination against them cannot be resolved in the immediate future.
One of the principal causes of the minority communities’ distress is their belief that the mechanisms necessary for redress of their grievances either do not exist or whatever mechanisms were at any time created have become dysfunctional. The most common complaint is that those who wreak violence upon non-Muslim citizens almost always escape apprehension and punishment. They had high hopes of relief from the commission on minorities but this body had neither the powers nor the resources its task required. Indeed, it was hardly ever taken seriously by the government. At one stage, district committees were set up to deal with day-to-day problems of the minority communities but such bodies are now noticed only in moth-eaten files. The feeling of being neglected by the authority magnifies many times over the pain caused to the minorities by the denial of their due.
Unfortunately, this feeling of having been abandoned by the state and society both is getting stronger among all minority communities at a time when the government can claim to have done something for them. The replacement of the system of separate electorates by joint electorate in 2002 was a radical step forward but the delay in completing the process, and the exclusion of the Ahmadis from the beneficiaries, have prevented the minorities from enjoying, even appreciating, the fruits of reform. The creation of four seats for the minorities in the Senate is a ground-breaking move but these things do not enthuse ordinary citizens.
The minorities’ concerns about the poor performance of the Commission on Minorities should begin to be addressed when the National Commission on Human Rights starts functioning. There is every reason to believe that the commission will be required to attach due priority to minorities’ affairs. This will be a step in the direction of mainstreaming minorities’ issues.
At the same time, the other institutions and mechanisms created to deal with rights-related matters must also be used to address the minorities’ concerns. For instance, the offices of the federal and provincial ombudsmen, the ombudsperson for women’s rights and the commission on the status of women can be persuaded to pay special attention to minorities’ complaints. Experience of redress of grievances through non-communal institutions will send the non-Muslim citizens a message that they are not condemned to staying on the fringe of the majority community’s world.
Before any worthwhile attempt at resolving minorities’ issues of a chronic nature can be made, it is necessary to revive their confidence in the state’s ability to do justice to them. For this kind of confidence-building the authorities could take note of the recommendations made recently by a human rights working group. Some of these are:
Raising one’s voice for the rights of non-Muslims has become increasingly dangerous. Failure to punish killers of members of minority communities or those calling for their rights and to proceed against promoters of hate speech and instigators of violence has emboldened extremist elements and contributed to scaring those advocating religious minorities’ rights into silence.
The government must ensure security of life and property of all citizens, irrespective of their religious belief, and must give them real opportunities to practise their religion. There is an urgent need for the state to not only take effective measures for bringing religious minorities into the national mainstream and promote tolerance but also to reassure the minority communities that their concerns would be addressed. It has become increasingly apparent that religious minorities lack effective representation in parliament. The method of electing their representatives must be made transparent so that the parliamentarians are accountable and answerable to the electorate and not merely to a political party’s head.
Religious minorities’ concerns that their population is under-counted must be redressed on priority basis before the next census.
Despite government promises in the recent past, nothing has been done to revise or repeal laws used by radical elements to victimise and persecute minorities. The government must not remain oblivious to the abuse of these laws to target religious minorities.
Official efforts for promoting tolerance and mainstreaming the minorities so far have not worked. The authorities must do everything within their power to persuade all citizens that the basis of equal treatment for all in the country is citizenship alone and not a person’s religious belief. Efforts to tackle faith-based hatred must begin with making changes in the curriculum and such reform must ensure that textbook do not portray the superiority of one community over another.
It is a matter of concern that the committee that formulated the 18th Constitutional Amendment could not benefit from the minorities’ counsel. All discriminatory laws, including the constitutional provisions barring non-Muslims from key government positions, remain intact. Despite reservations by the religious communities action has not been taken to ensure their effective representation in parliament. Parliamentarians from minority communities are nominated by political parties’ heads and are not accountable / answerable to the communities they are supposed to represent. These reservations must be addressed on priority. Allocation of four seats for minority communities in the Senate is a welcome step but the minority communities must have a say in determining how these seats are filled.
The authorities are yet to take measures to the satisfaction of the affected communities to ensure that there are no forced conversions and anyone coercing or pressurizing members of minority communities to change their religion is prosecuted according to the law.
The government must support the Hindu community’s efforts to formulate and disseminate a draft personal law and facilitate consultations with a view to reaching a consensus on the details and promulgating the law.
The writer is a former Chairman of the Human Rights Commision of Pakistan