Rights of Minorities: Successes and Failures

Farhatullah Babar believes not enough progress has been made since the landmark ruling by the Supreme Court in 2014

Rights of Minorities: Successes and Failures
June 19 marked the fifth anniversary of the landmark 2014 Supreme Court (SC) verdict on the rights of non-Muslim minorities in the country. It is an appropriate occasion to examine whether we have moved towards, or strayed away from, the principles laid down in that historic judgment.

The SC verdict enhanced the scope of freedom of religion so as to include freedom of conscience, thought, expression, belief and faith in it. It held that each citizen is free to exercise the right to profess, practice and or propagate his or her religious views. Declaring that the international human rights standards serve as moral checks, it called for efforts to be continually made to incorporate these rights into domestic laws. Indeed the court interpreted constitutional provisions relating to freedom of religion in light of these standards.

Specific directions were also issued to the federal government. These included constitution of a task force to develop a strategy for religious tolerance and developing appropriate school and college curricula to promote a culture of religious and social tolerance.
The SC verdict enhanced the scope of freedom of religion so as to include freedom of conscience, thought, expression, belief and faith in it. It held that each citizen is free to exercise the right to profess, practice and or propagate his or her religious views

The court also directed that a national commission for rights of minorities be constituted to monitor the practical realisation of the rights and safeguards provided to them under the Constitution and the law. A special professionally trained police force was also to be established to protect places of worship of minority communities. In all cases of violation of any of the rights of minorities, or desecration of their places of worship, law enforcement agencies should promptly register cases and take action, the court said.

Sadly, none of these directives have been implemented so far. As a matter of fact, the state and society has been moving away from the standards laid down in the verdict.

For instance, the separate electorate system was abolished in 2002 and the original joint electorate was restored but in a weird manner. The order said that members of the assemblies shall continue to be elected on the basis of a joint electorate but the “status of Ahmadis will remain unchanged.” A particular minority community was singled out for discrimination.

After the June 2014 SC verdict, it was hoped that this will change. However it was not to be, and the new Election Act 2017 has also retained this provision.

Early last year, a judge of the Islamabad High Court ruled that Pakistan’s citizens must now declare their religion when applying for identity documents, for government jobs or for voting. Applicants who disguise their true religion defy the Constitution and betray the state, it said, adding that their true religion must now also be visible on birth certificates, ID cards, voters’ lists and passports.

Rights activists were worried about the discriminatory nature of the verdict and also for its potential to incite violence against a particular community. The high court verdict clearly was straying far from the ideals set in the 2014 SC verdict.

During the 2018 general election, a number of radical religious and sectarian groups resurrected under new names and fielded candidates. Negating the spirit of the 2014 verdict, radical parties promised to enforce religion-based laws more vigorously, while the Election Commission of Pakistan looked the other way.

An amendment to the law on Prevention of Electronic Crimes (PECA 2016) was moved about a year ago. The amendment made remarks considered derogatory about religious leaders and shrines punishable with a three-year jail term. Although the fate of this proposed amendment is not known, the mere fact that it was seriously considered is deeply worrying for its potential of misuse, its trajectory clearly being in a direction opposite to that of the June 2014 SC verdict.

Minority members of the parliament on reserved seats are chosen by political parties, and not by members of their communities. Non-Muslims continue to be barred from holding offices of president and prime minister. Minority members are still required to take the same oath administered to Muslims MPs. A Hindu Marriage Bill has been passed but rules and regulations have not yet been framed.

The Human Rights Ministry reportedly has finalised draft rules and sent them to Chief Commission in Islamabad, but they are not yet notified. A bill to prevent forced conversions, passed by Sindh Assembly and sent to the governor, was withdrawn in view of protests by hardliners.

The June 2014 verdict has not yet resulted in any meaningful dialogue and action on any of these issues.

The narrative of the state itself continues to be extremist, and no action seems to have been taken on the report that 139 UN designated terrorist individuals and organisations are located in Pakistan.

No action on the SC verdict during the last five years confirms that the fight for minorities’ rights is a long-drawn battle, not amenable to quick fixes. We need to set up parliamentary caucus in assemblies on minorities’ issues. Parliamentary Committees of the Whole, in which the entire parliament is converted into a committee, should be used to initiate meaningful discussions on these issues.

The parliament should also hold public hearings and its committee on human rights be engaged as force multipliers. The National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), a watch dog of minorities’ rights, has ceased to exist since last month because of the expiry of the four-year term of its chairman and members. The commission should be allowed to continue functioning till the selection of a new chairman and members is finalised.

A government ambassador on freedom of religion and belief should be appointed without delay. The March 2018 report by the Senate Human Rights Committee on preventing misuse of blasphemy law needs to be implemented in letter and spirit.

The formula for lasting peace between people of various religious traditions must necessarily be a spiritual one. It must also be based on the recognition that no one has sole monopoly of the truth. It must be based on a realisation of unity of all living entities as being children of God, and a recognition that all human beings are equal regardless of religion, caste or creed. This calls for building an intellectual infrastructure in an environment where freed expression, dissent and debate is possible.

The writer is a former senator