By Sanchita Bhattacharya*
After decades of delay and inaction, the much-debated Hindu Marriage Bill 2016 that seeks to give a legal structure to the marriages in minority community, has finally been tabled in Pakistan’s National Assembly. The report of the Standing Committee on Law and Justice on the Hindu Marriage Bill 2016 was presented in the National Assembly on August 17 and is just one step away from being approved as the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party is supporting it.
Earlier on February 8, 2016, the Committee passed the final draft of Hindu Marriage Bill 2015 to which five Hindu lawmakers were specially invited. Though the delaying tactics continued almost to the last, the Committee adopted the bill unanimously after making two amendments to fix the minimum age of the marrying male and female at 18 and making the law applicable to the entire country.
Member of the National Assembly (MNA) Ramesh Lal, one of the bill’s movers, said it took around 10 months for the committee to clear the bill and another six months for its report to be presented in the house. “The delay was possibly because of extraordinary debates and discussion around the bill, but at least now the government should consider tabling it in the house in the next session”, Mr. Lal stated.
The Bill is supposed to address two grievous concerns of the minority Hindu community of Pakistan. First is abduction of girls and second forced marriage. Chairman of the Standing Committee on Law and Justice, Chaudhry Mahmood Bashir Virk stated, “There are penalties for violating the provisions of this act and anyone who kidnaps a married Hindu woman will be liable to punishments after this law is approved, because the victim’s family will be able to show proof of marriage”. The bill is also projected to curtail forced conversions because it will allow the registration of Hindu marriages in the relevant government departments, the report has said.
However, some members of the Hindu community have expressed qualms regarding some of the bill’s contents including clause 12 on the ‘Termination of Hindu marriage’ and clause 15 on the ‘Termination of Hindu marriage by mutual consent’. The draft bill allows separated individuals to remarry, and clause 17 states that a Hindu widow is entitled to remarry and shall have the right to do so, of her own will and consent, after a period of six months since the death of her husband.
Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan have consented to the federal government formulating a Hindu marriage law that they would then adopt, while Sindh had formulated its own Hindu marriage registration law.
Abduction of women is one of the heinous crimes prevalent in Pakistani society, where women are often traded for settling tribal feuds and inter-clan disputes. In addition, the plight of Hindu women is more dreadful, as they are often abducted from home and neighbourhood and forced into conversion and marriage.
According to a statement made by Amarnath Motumal, council member of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) way back in 2010, “As many as 20 to 25 girls from the Hindu community are abducted every month and converted forcibly…There is no official record to support this statement, but according to estimates..The families of the victims are scared to register cases against the influential perpetrators as death threats are issued to them in case they raise their voice. So, the victims choose to remain silent to save their lives”.
Currently, Pakistan is home to about two million Hindus, most of who live in the southern province of Sindh and belong to lower castes, including Sochi. While upper-caste Hindus complain of their traders being kidnapped for ransom, lower-caste Hindus say their daughters are being targeted. There have been a number of incidents involving kidnappings of Hindu traders and businessmen for ransom.
“Our community can bear looting and the kidnapping of our men, but the abduction of our daughters and burning of holy books are too painful”, Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani,, who holds a National Assembly seat, stated. According to another report from the Movement for Solidarity and Peace, about 1,000 non-Muslim girls are converted to Islam each year in Pakistan. According to this report, every month, an estimated 20 or more Hindu girls are abducted and converted, although exact figures are impossible to gather.
On April 24, 2016, Dr. Vankwani, criticised provincial governments of Sindh and KP for failing to protect the minorities. He said the establishment of Special Task Force for the Protection of Minorities on urgent basis is the need of time. He also said the Constitution of Pakistan guaranteed for the protection of minorities’ rights, while founder of the Nation Quad-e-Azam had also announced to provide religious freedom for those living in the newly-born Muslim state. Dr Ramesh said it was highly regrettable that both the provincial governments were not interested in implementing the detailed ruling of the Supreme Court dated June 19, 2014 for providing security to the minorities.
The problem cannot be dealt in isolation, as it is extremely complex in a country like Pakistan, infamous for religious fanaticism and atrocities on women. Even if the Bill is finally promulgated as an Act, there would be enough space for doubt regarding the actual implementation process.
*Dr. Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Post Doctoral Fellow, University Grants Commission, India and Visiting Scholar, Institute for Conflict Management. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]