The Pandemic of Forced Religious Conversions in Pakistan

The United Nations general assembly last month had astoundingly adopted a resolution, declaring an International Day to be commemorated every year on March 15 for discouraging rampant Islamophobia in the world. In 2019 on the very same day, a neo-Nazi of Australian descent mercilessly gunned down 52 people in two different mosques located at Christchurch in New Zealand. Pakistan along with member countries of OIC proposed this draft and after official approval by the UN, Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan praised the unity of the Muslim Ummah whose consolidated efforts led to this historic day.

There’s a stark contrast between what Pakistan preaches to the entire world about defending the human rights of those who follow Islam and its own ignominious track record that exposes the failure of a state to guarantee even basic rights to minorities back at home.

Pooja Kumari was one of the innumerable victims of forced religious conversions in Pakistan who was gruesomely murdered by a lunatic after she resisted marrying and changing her religion. In an ideologically bipolar world, profit and preference drive the disproportionate media coverage and it is evident by the fact that only a few of the prominent news outlets cared to cover this story.

Nonetheless, forced conversions are a major cause of concern for the safety of women belonging to minority religions in Pakistan. Hue and cry, placards and protests by rights groups have fallen on deaf ears of lawmakers and till now nothing substantial has been done to address the alarming crisis.

Center for Social Justice (CSJ), a Lahore based think tank in its research report titled ‘Justice Yet Afar’ has revealed that in 2021, at least seventy eight cases of conversation were reported, this compared to the previous year saw an upsurge of 80 percent in unethical conversion of Hindu, Sikh, and Christian women. Seventy-Six percent of the victims are found to be minors and a further 33 percent are under 14 years of age. Though, it is just the tip of the iceberg because there are hundreds of forced conversions cases that never make the headlines due to the fragile state of law and order in the country.

Last year the PTI government of Imran Khan outrightly rejected the demands of minority MNAs (Members of National Assembly) of his own party to consider a bill that proposed to fix a minimum age for marriage and advocated for stringent penal provisions to counter forced conversions. The Minister of Religious Affairs while defending his government’s action obnoxiously argued that “proposed law in this form conflicts with Islamic law and basic human and constitutional rights”.

In the second-largest province of Pakistan, Sindh, where the highest number of forced conversion cases have been reported, the provincial government of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has made few perfunctory attempts to tackle the menace of abduction. The Sindh Criminal law (Protection of Minorities) Bill 2015 was tabled on the floor of the house and after much deliberation, it was unanimously passed by the State Assembly in November 2016.

To minorities’ dismay, the Governor of Sindh refused to give his final approval, on the orders of Asif Ali Zardari (Chairman of PPP) who asked him to not sign the bill and revert it back to the assembly. The party in power succumbed to the pressure of radical Islamist groups and religious clerics. The government’s own constitutional advisory body, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) expressed serious reservations regarding the practicality of the bill. The group warned that any effort to pass this act may lead to enduring repercussions and in case their demands were not met, they would mobilize a massive protest and lay siege in the assembly.

The bill, if made into law, would be a stepping stone to securing the liberty of minority women. Previously no attempts were being made to properly define a forced conversion, it was the first time ever the term had been contextualized in a legal framework. Other provisions included the establishment of statutory institutions to ensure smooth redressal of cases, sensitization and awareness drive to train police personnel about how to confront such cases, sustainable judicial reforms, and appropriate punitive measures to set deterrence.

In 2019 for the second time, the diluted version of the previous bill was put for floor consideration after consulting the same religious clerics who earlier created the ruckus but nevertheless, it failed to receive the majority votes in the Assembly. Due to the fear of losing popular support, even the members of the progressive ruling party voted against the legislation as the false perception was propagated among the masses by ultra-religious groups that the bill is against the Sharia law and bypasses the sacrosanct values enshrined in the Holy Quran.

Despite having ratified the ILO convention on Forced labor in1957, a large percentage of Hindu women in Pakistan especially in Sindh province belonging to the Scheduled Caste are forced into bonded labor. Since only a handful of income sources are available and their exclusion from the country’s operational banking system makes it nearly impossible for them to utilize the formal sources of credit.

They toil under miserable working conditions on the agricultural fields owned by modern feudal landlords just to repay debt and sustain their family’s livelihood. These women from lower socio-economic backgrounds have largely no access to judicial remedies and because of the dismal political representation of Dalits in National or State legislature, they are most susceptible to religious conversions.

Pakistan must adopt a constitutionally guaranteed affirmative action plan that includes providing reservation and redistribution to ensure substantive equity in opportunities to persecuted communities in the field of employment, free quality education, distribution of government aid on a priority basis, and well-thought schemes to improve maternal health among other concrete approaches.

But foremost, it needs to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem and simultaneously work towards designing a comprehensive policy that can protect the rights of women from disadvantaged sections of society who easily fall prey to conversions and coercion due to a lack of proper safeguards put in place.

[Photo by Billy Halim / Pixabay]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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