September 30, 2021
By Rehan Piracha
A proposed draft bill against forced conversion remains deadlocked between the religious affairs ministry and minority lawmakers, thwarting hopes for a long-awaited legislation to stem such incidents in the country.
Federal Religious Affairs Minister Pir Noorul Haq Qadri clashed with two minority lawmakers including a party legislator, during a panel discussion over the proposed legislation on forced conversion in the Spotlight news show hosted by Munizae Jahangir on Tuesday.
Qadri said the proposed draft bill was unacceptable in its present shape while members of National Assembly Ramesh Kumar Vankwani from the ruling Pakistan Tehrik Insaf and Kesoo Mal Kheal Das from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz said minority lawmakers from all parties supported the legislation.
Minorities in Pakistan have been calling for legislation to stem incidents of forced conversions for several years while clerics and religious scholars have opposed any legislation claiming that any conversion to Islam is voluntary.
In response to an outcry over incidents of reported forced conversions from minority legislators, a 22-member parliamentary committee was constituted on 21st November 2019.
The Federal Human Rights Ministry prepared a proposed draft bill based on the parliamentary committee’s recommendations after a year and a half of deliberations. However, the committee asked the religious affairs ministry to review the proposed draft after Qadri raised objections that the matter of forced conversion pertained to his ministry which dealt with affairs of the minorities in the country.
On 23rd September, Qadri has said his ministry has raised objections to conditions of 18 years, appearance before a judge and 90-day waiting period for persons converting to another religion listed in the draft bill. “The religious affairs ministry returned the bill to the human rights ministry with objections after consultation with religious scholars and a review by the Islamic Ideology Council,” Qadri told Munizae Jahangir in the show.
Responding to Qadri’s assertion, Vankwani said the ministry had not called a single representative from the minorities to the review meetings on the bill.
The PTI lawmaker said he had previously tried to incorporate a clause to prevent forced conversion in the Hindu Marriage bill but failed to do so.
“I moved a bill on forced conversion in the standing committee on religious affairs committee in the present government’s tenure after discussion with Prime Minister Imran Khan,” he said
However, Vankwani said he withdrew his bill after he found the committee not very receptive of the conditions listed in his proposed legislation. “In my view, any legislation on forced conversion should set an age of 18 years as the life of a person is at stake following his conversion,” he explained. Secondly, he said a person wishing to convert to another religion must record his decision before a judge alone and not before any others.
Following his discussions, Vankwani said, the prime minister agreed to constitute a parliamentary committee to propose legislation to protect minorities from forced conversion. However, Vankwani said there was no need to send the proposed bill for a review to the religious affairs ministry after the parliamentary committee had approved the draft bill. “The committee had already taken inputs of the religious affairs ministry and the CII,” he said, adding that the reconstitution of the parliamentary committee was unnecessary too.
The PML-N legislator pointed out that the religious affairs minister had supported the constitution of the parliamentary in wake of incidents of forced conversion and also admitted this in his statement on the rejection of the proposed bill. Das said the proposed bill was being made controversial as was the case in the construction of a Hindu temple in Islamabad.
“The government is miring the bill in controversy by making fiery speeches outside the forum of the parliamentary committee,” Das said. He said they were in favour of resolving the objections to the proposed bill amicably instead of widening the gulf between the stakeholders.
The PML-N legislator said the minorities were ready to shelve the proposed legislation but it should be clarified who would provide them protection in case of any injustice, adding that protection to citizens are provided through legislation.
Qadri said it is the responsibility of the State to provide protection to minorities, adding that the government admitted to the issue of forced conversion in the country. However, he said the reported figures on forced conversion incidents were inflated saying the committee in its findings stated that there were no forced conversion incidents in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Balitistan and Azad Kashmir. “There is no forced conversion in Islam and no condition of age for conversion,” he said.
The religious affairs minister also disputed Vankwani’s claim that the forced conversion bill was based on personal law. “In our view, forced conversion does not fall into the definition of personal law and the proposed bill will not resolve the issue,” he said.
Vankwani and Das said the parliamentary committee would take up the religious affairs ministry objections to the proposed bill in the meeting on 13th October. In his view, Vankwani said he would propose to the committee that the objections should be dealt with in the National Assembly when the human rights ministry tables it.
Asked about whether the proposed bill would make it to the National Assembly, all the three panelists could not give a tentative date of the tabling of the bill. Vankwani said a meeting of all minority lawmakers in the country is being called to build up consensus and draw an action plan over the proposed legislation.