Members of minority communities and rights activists in Karachi have demanded an end to religiously-motivated crimes, including abductions, harassment, forced marriages, and rape of women and girls of religious minorities, apart from the protection of communal and worship places of minority communities.
These demands were raised during a 'Minority Rights March' in the city on Friday. A large number of people belonging to different walks of life, schools of thought, and religions gathered at Ferere Hall to observe National Minorities Day - held annually to mark the speech given by Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the Constituent Assembly on this day in 1947, days before the creation of the country.
Pastor Ghazala Kalpana Devi, Sheema Kermani, Bhevish Maheshwari, and others led the march. There was stringent security with walk-through gates installed.
Participants of the march expressed solidarity with the country's religious minorities. They carried placards which were inscribed with slogans highlighting fundamental rights as well as demands to end forced conversions, protection of worship places, creation of minority protection cells and the deployment of a specialised police force in all major towns and districts of the province apart from granting equal representation to minorities in every sector of government. Participants also chanted slogans against religious discrimination and dual-standard towards minority communities.
Further, they demanded concrete actions to stop the abuse and misuse of blasphemy laws, discouraging people from taking the law into their hands and recurring false accusations of blasphemy — particularly against members of minority communities.
The marchers demanded repealing all discriminatory clauses and articles in the Constitution of Pakistan 1973, and amend Articles 41(2) and 91(3) to make the offices of the President and Prime Minister equally obtainable for all citizens on merit, increasing quota of reserved seats for minorities in Provincial Assemblies, National Assembly, Senate of Pakistan and District Councils and other elected bodies with specially reserved seats for women from minority communities, restructure the quota model for reserved seats of minorities in all provincial and federal agencies and create a special minority women quota as affirmative action.
Demands were made to eliminate all sorts of hate speech and discriminatory material against religious minorities in the curriculum, make the August 11 speech of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah part of the curriculum at all educational levels in public and private institutions, take strict action against discrimination faced by religious minorities during humanitarian crises, communal properties belonging to religious minorities under illegal encroachment or unlawfully sold/leased to third parties be returned to the concerned community, and no place of worship of any minority be sold.
Faqir Shawa Kachhi, the chairman of the Sindh Darawar Alliance, stated that they had previously staged a sit-in outside the provincial assembly and presented 14 points to lawmakers. Since they were not implemented, they marched to reiterate those demands.
Listing their demands, Kachhi said that they wanted to halt the forced conversion of minority girls and to introduce relevant legislation against it; besides, the encroachment of our lands and graveyards should be ended.
He emphasised that religious minorities also face serious threats such as extortion, hooliganism, and abduction, but so far, no action has been taken by the government against the culprits. We are seeking protection for religious minorities, who must be given equal rights per the Constitution.
Kachhi lamented that the Darwar tribes, belonging to the scheduled castes, are not considered human beings and suffer from great economic distress, with unemployment rampant.
He further said that the Kachhi, Bheel, Kolhi, Meghwar, Baghri, Jogi, and Rebari tribes have a significant minority vote bank in Sindh, yet their representation in the provincial and national assemblies, as well as the senate, is relatively insignificant.
"We demand political representation in the provincial and national assemblies on the basis of our population," he demanded.
Kachhi further demanded that the Thar Express, which used to take Pakistanis across the Thar desert into India via Khokhrapar and allowed those from the lower social strata and Dalit community to undertake a pilgrimage to India, should be resumed.
Lawyer and social activist Kalpana Devi said they want to be provided the same protection that the majority (Muslims) get.
"Even the majority is not safe here, but we want our places of worship and holy places to get equal protection," Devi demanded.
Moreover, Devi demanded that the government implement the forced conversion and Child Marriage Acts in letter and spirit.
She hoped that whichever government is elected into power next should reflect on these demands and seek to address them.
Devi expressed serious concerns about forced conversions of Hindus living in Sindh.
"We want that whoever comes into government must address our concern because we are also equal citizens."
Asif Bhurt, the Central organiser of Jeay Sindh Students' Federation (JSSF) - a nationalist organisation that follows the ideology of GM Sayed, highlighted how the secular essence of the province was disappearing.
"We believe that the people of all religions living in Sindh are the inhabitants of this land," suggesting that they are not simply minorities.
Bhurt stressed they (minorities) have as much right on this land as any Muslim resident does, so the state should reconsider how it deals with religious minorities.
Professor KS Nagpal, a teacher who has authored more than 11 books, pointed to the threat faced by Sindh's spirit of interfaith harmony.
"I can show how a mosque and a temple are built side by side in Sindh and coexist in religious harmony and tolerance, but each and everything is being destroyed here," he lamented.
Nagpal hoped that "human rights are protected, not just rights of minorities."
"We want to teach tolerance, humanism, and diversity to our youth. Unfortunately, today's generation is not taught ethics, literature, culture, and integrity."
He demanded each citizen is considered a human with equal rights as enshrined in law and that issues such as forced conversions, abductions, and violence against minorities are stopped.
Sharan Kumar Panjwani, a young student carrying a placard with the slogan "Protect our daughters", told The Friday Times: "This land (Sindh) has been a host to a diverse set of polity for centuries where people of different religious beliefs live together peacefully."
Panjwani lamented that in recent decades, a few communities have been targeted or discriminated against because of their religion.
He noted that people are suffering because some people exploit differences in religion to enrich themselves rather than ensure society's betterment.
Panjwani criticised politicians for not raising the issues of marginalised and minority communities.
With the left-leaning Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) running the government for nearly a decade and a half, Panjwani said that even though some bills have been passed for minorities, much of what has been done for minorities of the province is only on paper and there is no manifestation of it on the ground.
Panjwani also criticised restrictions on celebrating events of minority religions in educational institutions. He said that educational institutions and curriculums serve a core role in creating harmony, love and tolerance in a diverse society; however, what is seen is that students who celebrate events of other religions are suspended from studies.
"To protect the diversity and rights of diverse communities, we have opted to march on the streets and amplify our voices so that politicians and the beneficiaries of religious extremism can hear us."