August 11, 2021
By Xari Jalil
Several members of the minority communities, and civil society organizations came together on August 10, to attend an event that has been traditionally celebrated by the Center for Social Justice (CSJ) since the past five years, since former Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gillani announced August 11 as National Minorities’ Day.
The chief guest of the event, Punjab Minister for Human Rights and Minority Affairs (HR&MA) Ejaz Alam Augustine, told the audience about the department’s various efforts to mainstream minorties. He said that apart from putting aside a 2% quota on education, he had also seen to thousands of scholarships being distributed to deserving students from minorities. Most importantly, he said, the Punjab Department of Human Rights has prepared a draft on the Bill on Forced Conversions which was currently in the Law Department for vetting. “But even if we make a law for forced conversions, the community may not benefit fully,” he warned. “There are many other things that need to be done – judicial reform is immensely important.
This is the same judiciary that in lower courts seeks to hang a person who has been accsused of committing blasphemy. And even though though Sindh has a law against child marriages, there are still 12 year old girls who are getting married.”
On the Single National Curriculum he said, “For the first time interfaith subjects are being introduced including Bible, Guru Granth, and Gita and hate material has been removed from 188 books.”
Augustine added that he had led a campaign about removing Islamic content from books other than Islamiyat. “But after that there was campaigning against me and the others,” he said. “But I owned my perspective even though I was advised to keep a low profile. I said there was nothing wrong in what I had said. When there is lawmaking to be done, some of our Muslim friends who are excellent at speeches and rhetoric suddenly develop a different attitude.”
Referring to the 2% job quota he said that previously the 5% job quota was not being implemented as there were no suitable candidates available. “Around 70% of our seats were going empty. We thought that if we don’t bring our kids into higher education we would not be able to avail the quota. It is in fact a mystery to me where our seats that were being carried forward, were actually going.”
He said that 22 blasphemy cases that had been acquitted by courts, mostly because of the Asiya Bibi case. More cases were being better investigated and ruled, and the reason was that this government had taken a stand to have Asiya Bibi released.
“Before this govt no one used to listen to these cases but after the Asiya case, under this govt, some parameters have been decided,” he said. “This shows that civil society organizations and individuals and government can work together to produce better results.”
The White in the Flag
Executive Director of CSJ, Peter Jacob spoke about the importance of August 11 in Pakistan’s history. He said that Pakistani flag had also been unveiled on August 11: a broad white stripe was introduced in the Muslim League flag and some rules were made: one of these was that even more would be given to the minorities in this new land, than was promised under the legal framework.
“This can be seen in the flag as well,” explained Jacob. “While minorities made about 26% of the population, the Pakistani flag shows 30% of white – representing the space for minorities in the country; this white strip is neither above, nor below, but it is next to the green part – showing that minorities were always meant to be equal citizens even if they were fewer.”
While the day is celebratory, CSJ also brought to the forefront important issues that affected the religious minority communities. A film called ‘Humsaya’, directed by Dawood Akhtar Murad was premiered, where the issue of forced conversions was discussed.
“To observe August 11 does not mean that we have forgotten our problems,” said Jacob. “That is not the reason we celebrate the day. Forced conversions continue to plague our community across the country. Some people believe that these are marriages that are done out of the free will, that it is restricted to one province, or that it is just a temporary issue, not a systemic problem – but that is not true. This kind of mindset is what has delayed the legislation on forced conversions.”
Jacob said that in his 14 points, Muhammad Ali Jinnah had stated that if any piece of legislation was not endorsed by minorities it could not become a law. He added that while everyone could not indulge in politics, it was nevertheless politics that helped resolve such issues.
Peter Jacob said that when Jinnah’s August 11 speech was mentioned back in 1997 by Bishop John Joseph, Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, and Cecil Chaudhry Senior – a veteran fighter pilot – they had a complaint registered against them and had orders for arrest. The Quaid’s speech had stated that all citizens were free to practice their religion.
The Challenge of Equality of Rights
Dr Rubina Feroze Bhatti, the Punjab member of the National Commission for the Rights of the Child (NCRC) spoke about the challenges of equality of rights.
She said once these challenges were examined, the way forward would be more defined. “We have ‘technical challenges’ – those that are directly related to the state, in its constitution, its international obligations, international human rights instruments, mechanisms, etc.; and ‘adaptive challenges’ – those that are directly related to the society and the attitude of the people.”
She said there was still confusion about the term ‘minority’. In Article 36 of the Constitution, the word ‘minority is used concerning the protection of rights. But in Article 260, the word used is ‘non-Muslim’. Dr Rubina said that there was a need to deeply define the term minority and not to limit it to religion or statistics.
“Recently, the UN rapporteur for minorities said that the term is not just a statistical term, based on the number of people, but it is an identifying factor,” she explained. “It is measured according to many indicators including discrimination (for instance with women) – who are not closely involved with the power and leadership structures and so become a ‘minority. There are several other minorities apart from religious minorities.”
A Serious Adaptive Challenge
Dr Rubina said that sometimes when the State did try to bring a change, but society did not accept it, that then was an ‘adaptive challenge’. “When there are complaints against children in the NCRC, such as a minor girl being married to a 40-year-old man (both Christian), this was not made into an issue, because of adaptive challenges. When it’s about forced conversions, the issue becomes news. But when a Christian minor girl is being married to an older Christian man, this is not taken as something legitimized – although the State should examine these issues.” She added that it is also up to society to look into these challenges.
She also added that in Pakistan, there were four commissions – but only the Minority Rights Commission was made through an undemocratic notification, without consultation in parliament, which could give it legal power. The notification was passed by none other than the Religious Affairs Ministry. “Why when the others have been made through an Act this one has been made through a notification resulting in it being toothless?”
Dr Kalyan Singh Kalyan, Assistant Professor GCU alsospoke about equality of rights.
“We should know what our problems are. Today we should all sit together and we are seeing how forced conversions are happening especially in Sindh,” he said. “While the State doesn’t want us to use this word I have a question as to why the State has not been able to stop those who are involved in this criminal practice? As for our other issues that have not been resolved to date – why does it take more than 74 years to discuss them?”
PTI Senator Waleed Iqbal and the son of Justice Nasira Iqbal and late Justice Javed Iqbal also joined in saying, “The concept of rights of minorities is not a new one rather it dates back to the time when the concept of Pakistan that was established by Allama Iqbal, where all communities will live without any discrimination, unlike the conditions pre-partition.”
Mian Munir from Pakistan Muslim League (Q) on the occasion said, “We appreciate and support the efforts of CSJ and hope they keep helping improve the conditions for human rights in Pakistan.”
Munir Ahmed, Punjab Secretary General of MQM said, “There must be federal legislation fixing the legal age for marriage to 18 years of age. This will allow the state to protect the rights of minorities on forced conversions.”
A film was also shown in tribute to late veteran journalist and human rights defender, Mr I.A Rehman, showing features of his life and struggle.
Mian Muneer, the Vice President of PML-Q spoke about the tenure of Chaudhry Parvez Elahi as Chief Minister Punjab and said that several steps were taken for the benefit of minorities – FC College was denationalized, churches were repaired, etc. He said that there should be no discrimination amongst humans?
Meanwhile Muneer Ahmed, Secy General MQM Punjab, said that everyone should think of themselves as one and equal.