December 15, 2020
By Rehan Piracha
A guardian court in Bahawalpur has rejected the application of a man seeking custody of a minor boy, whose Hindu parents have claimed that he was forcibly converted to Islam.
The court accepted the contention of the parents that the custody of any minor cannot be given to a stranger if the parents are alive.The case was brought to attention by Bachoo Ram, the father of the 13 year old boy, who has approached the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell (AGHS) for legal assistance in the case.
The boy is currently in the custody of the Punjab Child Protection Bureau in Bahawalpur. A man called Khalil, is said to have influenced the boy’s ‘conversion’, had filed an application with the guardian court in Yazman tehsil for the custody of the minor saying that the boy had converted to Islam and his life was in danger.
Intentionally, the application was filed “versus public” at large in order to circumvent the parents from contesting the application.Speaking to Voicepk.net from Bahawalpur, Advocate Rana Rizwan, the counsel engaged by AGHS for Bachoo Ram, said that the guardian court had dismissed Khalil’s petition in its order on November 27.
He said Bachoo Ram, his wife Machal Maiand and their daughter had joined proceedings as the real parents and sister of the minor boy and natural guardians against Khalil’s application for custody of their minor son and brother.
The court in its order has already stated that the custody of a minor cannot be given to an unrelated adult if parents are still alive under the law, Rizwan said.
A year of legal battles
On September 21, 2019, Bachoo Ram, a cobbler, had accused Asif Bhatti, an auto mechanic who worked next to his shop, of forcibly putting pressure on his young son to convert – the boy had been friends with Bhatti.However the mechanic claimed that the boy had converted to Islam ‘of his own free will’ and did not wish to live with his parents anymore, adding that the boy had also changed his name and had no ties with him any longer.
When Bachoo Ram approached the police for the recovery of his minor son, the police said the child has been sent to the Child Protection Bureau. He revealed to the police that he his son had been a victim of forced conversion and in fear of his life.
Then, Bachoo Ram approached the judicial magistrate for custody of his son. During the proceedings, Bacho Ram’s minor son appeared before the magistrate and told the court that he had converted and wished to go with the man called Khalil. The judicial magistrate dismissed Bachoo Ram’s application for custody and ordered that the child remain in the custody of the Child Protection Bureau in Bahawalpur.Longing to meet his son, Bachoo Ram then approached the Bahawalpur Bench of the Lahore High Court for the custody of his son from the Bureau.
Ram pleaded in his petition that his son, born on December 7, 2005, was a minor under the law. He prayed that the conversion of his minor son be declared illegal, unlawful, against Sharia, and against fundamental rights guaranteed to religious minorities under the Constitution. He sought custody of his son from the Child Protection Bureau.
The LHC bench disposed of his petition of custody saying that a guardian court was already hearing the case at the proper forum. Bachoo then applied to join the proceedings in the guardian court in Yazman. He also filed an application with the additional and sessions judge in Bahawalpur for a meeting with his son after the police barred them on the pretext that the boy’s life was in danger.The court directed the Child Protection Bureau to allow the minor’s meeting with his parents after the police said it had no objection to the meeting. Speaking to Voicepk.net, Bachoo Ram said that he along with other family members had met his son in the Child Protection Bureau about three weeks ago.
Bachoo Ram offered his son to come home saying he would have a separate room to live according to his wishes. However,the minor boy remained adamant about not reuniting with his family. Bacho Ram said the boy’s mother was distraught since the day he had gone from home, adding that his two other sons and three daughters also longed for their sibling.
Not losing hope in a year of legal battles, Bachoo Ram plans to approach the courts again for the custody of his minor son.
“There is no law to regulate conversion in Pakistan,” said Nida Aly, Executive Director of AGHS. “Conversion of minors is a matter of serious concern and is a grave violation of the rights of minorities in Pakistan. There is also no law to regulate the exploitation of children in the name of religion where minors are coerced into conversions,” she said.
In the absence of any legislation to regulate conversion in Pakistan, Aly pointed out that the matter is left to the discretion of the judiciary. “Underage girls are sent with their abductors who are much older than them after the production of Nikahnama, thus validating both underage marriages and conversions,” she added.
Such issues have been ignored for years, adding to the vulnerability of religious minorities as the government is hesitant to displease religious groups by tackling the issue of conversion of minors in the country.
Case not properly investigated
There have been 21 cases of conversions of mostly Hindu and Christian minor girls only in Bahawalpur in the past few years, says Peter Jacob, Executive Director of Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and Chairperson of the People’s Commission for Minority Rights (PCMR).
Jacob welcomed the guardian court’s verdict saying the decision may be a good start of the legal course ahead about ending the plight of the minor boy.
He said the boy’s family had faced immense suffering for over a year now. He said the boy’s case was the only incident where the alleged convert was a male minor. He said the application by a local person for acquiring the custody of this suspicious incident of a minor changing his religion and disowning his family should have been properly investigated by the police.
He added that legal and administrative action would be required to enable the boy’s reunion with his family and resume his studies.
“For now, the court’s verdict has eliminated the possibility of manipulation by the perpetrators,” he added.
According to a report by the Centre of Social Justice, 162 questionable conversions had been reported in the media between 2013 and 2020.According to CSJ data, around 52 percent of the incidents of alleged forced conversions had occurred in Punjab, 44 percent in Sindh, while 1.23 percent each were reported in the federal and KP areas. Only one case was reported from Balochistan.
The highest number of such cases — 21 — was reported in Bahawalpur during the past seven years roughly. Similarly, 14 cases were reported from Lahore, 12 from Karachi, 10 from Faisalabad, eight from Hyderabad, six each from Tharparkar, Ghotki and Kasur (Punjab), five in Badin, four each in Umarkot and Sialkot.
The figures show that 54.3 percent of the victims (girls and women) belonged to the Hindu community, 44.44 percent Christian while 0.62 percent belonged to the Sikh and Kalash communities.
Over 46.3 percent of the victims of forced conversion were clearly minors (some 32.7 pc of them aged between 11-15 years), while only 16.67 percent of the victims were above 18 years, though the claim was not always verified by the lower courts through record of the National Database and Registration Authority (NARA) and school.