It can be argued that the binary construction, inherently divisive and discriminatory, of ‘self’ and ‘other’ is an outcome of the conditioned and egoic state of humanity. It reminds one of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida who said that ‘self’ and ‘other’ are different, but mutually constitute each other. Indeed, majority-minority group identities are constituted in a way where ‘majority self’, excludes ‘minority other’.
Therefore, the protection of the national cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities is a prerequisite for the establishment of a just, democratic and harmonious state and society. This was recognized by the founding father of Pakistan Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah when he said “You are free! You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state,”. This set the framework for future national outlook and legislation with respect to the rights of minorities in Pakistan. Indeed, the establishment of such a framework for minority rights was based on the recognition that minorities are in a vulnerable situation in comparison to majority groups in society, and aims to protect members of a minority group from discrimination, assimilation, prosecution, hostility or violence, as a consequence of their status.
Notwithstanding its commitments to ensure minority rights in accordance with national and international laws and need for the preservation of the pluralistic social composition, Pakistan like any other country has faced challenges in the past. The deleterious effects of instrumentalizing religion and Islam during the Afghan Jihad against Soviet occupation in 1979 and later the US-led war against terrorism is well recognized and efforts are made to undone the damage. It is reassuring and commendable to see Pakistan achieving great strides in promoting and protecting minority rights. However, in this age of information warfare, Pakistan’s laudable efforts have not been duly appreciated as Indian propaganda machinery is in full swing to discredit and malign Pakistan’s global image. By presenting factually wrong statements and statics on the issue of minority rights in Pakistan, India has been trying hard, albeit unsuccessfully, to portray itself as the ‘safe heave’ for minorities and deflect international attention from its own worst record of suppressing minorities.
So, let’s consider if ‘forced’ conversions are indeed forced conversions or its more a hyperbole to malign Pakistan. The facts on the issue will help make an unbiased opinion. Consider this, since 2019 a total of 1169 cases of conversions occurred. The percentage of these conversions with respect to different groups are follows: Hindus (88%), Christians (9%), Sikh (less than 1%) and Qadianis (2%). Interestingly, of the 1169 conversions, individual conversions are only 17%, while 83% are family/ collective conversions. Less than only 1% are forced conversion cases in which girls are sent back to parent’s custody. Pakistan has enacted the Hindu Marriage Act 2017 to address the issue which extends to the whole of Pakistan except Sindh as Sindh government has passed the Sindh Hindu marriage Act 2016 (amended in 2018), to facilitate the Hindu community to solemnize their marriages in accordance with the Sindh Hindu marriage Rules, 2019.
To dispel the negative projection of conversion issue, Pakistan Hindu Council and Ulema reached an agreement according to which any Hindu approaching Ulema for conversion will be reported to local Hindu Community leader and his/ her meeting with parents will be arranged (in absence of Ulema). When it comes to the protection of minority rights, the response of the state has been swift and uncompromising. For instance, 117 suspected including 7 main instigators who set ablaze the Hindu Temple were arrested within 2/3 days of event. 12 police officials were dismissed and 92 police officials suspended for negligence in duties to protect mob on Hindu temple in Teri. In such cases the government also releases funds for the reconstruction purposes. Another case at hand is the state’s swift response for Protection of Minorities on Old Qilla Rawalpindi. On 27 Mar 2021, 15 religious motived individuals attacked and tried to damage under renovated temple at Purana Qilla Rawalpindi. FIR was registered against individuals and they were arrested. Unsurprisingly, over 6000 Pakistani Hindus launched a protest campaign against India for its smear campaign against Pakistan on the issue of minorities and 133 Hindus returned in last one year from India amidst improving conditions for minorities.
The response on Blasphemy Laws/ Cases is indiscriminate and since 2005, 56 individuals were convicted on blasphemy offense. 45 Muslims, 7 Christians, 2 Hindus, and 2 Qadianis (Muslims 80%, minorities 20%). Minorities convicted on blasphemy are given fair trial and rights of appeal in higher Judiciary. Acquittal of 5 Christians including Asia Bibi and Shagufta Kausar, Shafqat Emaneul etc by higher Judiciary are cases in point.
In fact, minorities in Pakistan are free to practice religion. There are 2652 Churches (1 church per 664 Christians), 732 Temples (1 Temple per 2734 Hindus) and 167 Gurdwaras (1 Gurdwara per 55 Sikhs) exist. If we draw a comparison in UK there is only one mosque for 2249 Muslims. Pakistan is committed to mainstream and empower the minorities. They are provided with equal rights to education, jobs and business opportunities (Reserve seats in Parliament, minorities on senior positions in bureaucracy, army etc). There are four reserved seats in the Senate and ten in National Assembly of Pakistan for minorities besides the proportional reserved seats in all Provincial Assemblies. The proportional reserved seats for minorities across the four provinces include Balochistan (3), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (3), Punjab (8) and Sind (9).
In pursuit of preserving the pluralistic composition and ensuring equal rights to minorities, Pakistan re-constituted The National Commission for Minorities (NCM) and increased membership of minority communities, who are new in the majority. Moreover, Mr. Chela Ram Kewlani, a member of the minority community, has been appointed as Chairman of the Commission. In terms of quota for Minorities in Services, Pakistan has allocated 5% Job Quota for minorities in all Federal Govt Services, in addition to open merit. On the directions of National Commission for Minorities, implementation of the job quota is being strictly observed by Provincial Governments, Federal Ministries/ Divisions, FPSC, Islamabad, however, Pakistan needs to address any shortcomings in realizing this by addressing the lack of education and awareness.
The Single National Curriculum introduced in consultation with faith scholars at primary level in educational institutions of Pakistan for seven non-Muslim communities (Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Kalash, Bahai, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism) is praiseworthy. Besides that, different welfare measures are being taken, including the creation of Endowment Fund in line with the bill passed by KP on December 8, 2022, increase in scholarships for minority students with effect from March 2014, and provision of free vocational education for Hindus and Sikhs approved by Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) on 15 January 2021.
Apart from the Interfaith Harmony Policy at the Federal level, the Ministry of Religious Affairs has taken a number of initiatives to promote interfaith harmony. These include Declaration/ Celebration of Minorities Day, Public holidays for minorities on their festivals of (Christmas and Easter for Christians, Holi and Diwali for Hindus, Biasakhi and Birthday of Guru Nanak for Sikhs, Nauroze of Zoroastrian, Eid-e-Ridvan for Bahai’s, Festival of Lights for Buddhist community and Chelum Jhust for Kalash people) at official level. The government has also established “District interfaith Harmony Committees” throughout the country and is holding “Interfaith Harmony Conferences” to promote interfaith culture, throughout the county. To mainstream Minorities, Minorities Welfare Fund was established, under which “Small Development Schemes” are carried out for the repair/ maintenance of the religious/ worship places of minorities. Also, Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (PSGPC) established on 16.04.2019 facilitates the Sikh Yatrees from India and across the word on their religious festivals in Pakistan.
Also, the Ministry of Human Rights introduced Hindu Marriage Act, 2017 which extends all over Pakistan except Sindh. This Act is the personal law and contains various provisions specially to protect Hindu women against abused in marriages. Ministry of Human Rights in consultation with Christian Minorities has also prepared a Christian Marriage and Divorce Act. However, certain factions of Christian communities want further deliberation over this draft bill. Once the bill is finalized it will be introduced in Parliament without any delay.
Pakistan has also taken incredible steps to promote Religious Tourism by opening historical Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib Corridor and its operationalization for Sikh community, holding of 550th birthday celebration of Baba Guru Nanak, initiation of Baba Guru Nanak Scholarship for deserving talented student form Hindu & Sikh community, hosting of more than 60,000/- yatrees form across the word, opening of Shewala Teja Mandir and Gurdawara Choa Sahib, Jehlum, filling up of Amer Kund (Holy Water) at Katas Raj, printing and distribution of Books and other promotional material on Sikh & Hindu Heritage. The security of minorities, especially during religious festivals is being strictly ensured. A grievance cell has been set up to resolve complaints of non-Muslims to ensure their democratic and fundamental right to practice their religion without any fear.
In the nutshell, if history is any guide, the protection of national minorities is essential to stability, democratic security and peace. Pluralist and genuinely democratic society should not only respect the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity of each person belonging to a national minority, but also create appropriate conditions enabling them to express, preserve and develop this identity. The various measures adopted by Pakistan reflects its unwavering resolve to realize the dream of its founding father and to preserve the pluralistic composition of society.
Nisar Ahmed Khan is a Freelance Columnist and researcher based in Islamabad; he can be reached at @KnowNisar