Forced Conversions and Marriage

Non-Muslims in Pakistan face tremendous pressure, both implicit and explicit, to convert to Sunni Islam, the majority sect of Islam in the country and also the one understood as the most “pure”. Sometimes this pressure manifests as willful conversion to escape second-grade citizenship as in the case of a Hindu family reported in a NYT report. More frequently it takes the form of forced conversions of young girls. According to a report by Movement for Solidarity and Peace as many as a thousand girls, three hundred Hindu, and seven hundred Christian are reported to be forcefully converted, some of whom are as little as 12 years old.

A vast majority of these cases are noted to take place in Sindh where according to the Asian Human Rights Commission between 20 to 25 girls are forcibly converted to Islam each month.  To combat this issue the Sindh government unanimously passed the Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) in 2016 but due to opposition from religious parties and the Council of Islamic Ideology, it was returned to the assembly unratified by the Governor.

A revamped bill to criminalize forced conversions was again put forward in 2019 only to be shot down again by the provincial government. Pir Mian Abdul Khaliq of the Bharchundi Sharif Shrine in Sindh, who allegedly converted more than a hundred Hindu girls over a three-year period, arranged a sit-in protest. His group, among other religious groups who oppose legislation against forced conversion claim that the girls are not forced but instead fall in love with local Muslim men and convert willingly in order to fulfil Muslim marriage requirements. While this may be true for some girls, it is far from the truth for many others like Rinkle Kumari in 2012, Reena and Raveena Kumari in 2019, and Arzoo Raja as recently as 2020, who are abducted, converted and kept apart from their families through various forms of intimidation. What is especially concerning is that while Islam requires the consent of a parent or guardian for a marriage to hold its legality, there is no concept of consent whatsoever in cases of forced marriages.

As a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Pakistan is grossly violating international law each time a case of forced conversion is wrongly judged due to various political pressures. It goes on to show how this practice of forced conversion and marriage targets the most vulnerable community in Pakistan – non-Muslim women.

Land Grabbing

The issue of land grabbing has been salient from the very beginning of Pakistan’s creation when partition forced Hindus and Sikhs to abandon their properties and religious heritage sites in favour of a relatively untroubled life in India. All responsibility of leaving behind non-Muslim heritage was delegated to the ETPB (Evacuee Trust Property Board). Instead of protecting the few remaining members of minority communities, the setting up of this organization in 1960 made them even more vulnerable. According to a Human Rights Commission Pakistan report in 2014, out of some 350 temples and gurudwaras located in the city of Hyderabad, only one was currently being managed by the board, around 5-10 were being privately managed and the rest were all either occupied or sold. That there are claims of the existence of almost 2000 such sites all over the country puts this into perspective and showcases the gravity of the matter.

In 2019 the current Prime minister, Imran Khan, took notice of some 400 temples that were in a dilapidated state and promised restoration work on two temples per year. As part of this promise, a 200-year-old Hindu temple in Zhob, Balochistan that was restored was finally handed over to the local Hindu community after being in dilapidation for over 70 years[1]. While this is a positive change in trajectory, it is only just the start of correcting the many wrongs in the seventy-plus years since the partition of the subcontinent.

The ETPB issue is even more harrowing considering that its jurisdiction exceeds that of just places of worship. Old Shamshan Ghats, Hindu crematorium grounds make a significant part of the portfolio especially considering that the areas they are built-in now are increasing in value because of their close proximity to prime real estate. One such site in Rawalpindi was worth as much as Rs.600 million in 2013.

The ETPB has been a major centre of corruption since 1977 when an act allowing the lease and rent of vacant ETPB properties were passed. One of the major criticisms of the organization that can be seen as contributing to increased corruption is the lack of minority representation on the board. A comparison is often made to the Indian counterpart of this organization that is headed by Muslims.

“With Apologies, Promise of Restoration, Pak Govt ‘Hands Over’ 200-Year-Old Temple to Hindus.” The Wire

Target Killings

While most religious violence subjected to non-Muslims comes in the form of mob attacks incite by allegations of blasphemy, violence against the country’s Muslim minorities takes the shape of target killings and bomb blasts. These attacks became more commonplace with the rise of Anti Shia militant groups in the country in the eighties, some of whom continue to operate in the country to date. Over three hundred Shias were killed between 1985-89 in sectarian violence in the Jhang district of South Punjab, the birthplace of sectarian violence in the country.

Shias have been and are still being killed with impunity in what is being termed by some as Pakistan’s slow genocide against the Shia community. Malik Ishaq, the chief of Lashkar e Jhangvi, one of the most violent sectarian outfits, had a way of escaping justice for “lack of evidence” even after admitting to having killed at least 102 people and being implicated in at least 40 different murder trials

It is this culture that has bred and harboured sectarianism in Pakistan which has spilled over to all groups not subscribing to the Sunni majoritarian sect. The 2017 attack on one of the most prominent shrines of Sufism, a mystical and ascetic movement in Islam, in Sehwan is a reminder of how entrenched one ideology has become and what the cost is in implementing it.

Neighbourhood Arsonry and Mob Attacks

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan have created a culture of religious vigilantism which has left many non-Muslim settlements in ashes. Major instances of these attacks have historically targeted the Christian community in Punjab where a mere accusation of blasphemy has galvanized whole mobs into arson.

In 1997, a mob of almost 30,000 Muslims descended on Shanti Nagar, a village in the province of Punjab where most of Pakistan’s Christian community resides. Almost 800 houses and 13 churches were destroyed. 2500 people were forced to flee because of a news report that alleged someone tore up pages from the Quran. A Human Rights Commission found this attack to be the most violent instance of religious violence after the Anti Ahmadi riots of 1989. Considering the havoc that this wreaked on the local Christian community, a call for compensation was raised, only to be never answered. In the end, it was support from local and international private groups that helped rebuild Shanti Nagar from the ground up.

A similar event took place in December 1992 when anti-Hindu sentiment was ripe all over Pakistan and Bangladesh, and mobs were mobilised in protest of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in India. Seeing local Hindus as proxies of India, a Muslim mob descended upon and burned the religiously diverse neighbourhood of Narayan Pura in Karachi.

Pakistan’s history is littered with such events. Perpetrators operate with a large degree of freedom. With few if any suspects in most cases, they are generally always acquitted as in the case of the 2013 Joseph Colony attacks in Lahore, where an anti-terrorism court acquitted more than 100 suspects.

In each of these cases, the state and its religious minorities are rendered helpless and continue to watch similar events unfold again and again albeit in different places.

Media Representation

Media plays a strong role in determining public opinion on the issue of minority rights. In Pakistan, the media continues to either stay silent on their issues or dispel narratives that effectively otherize the country’s minority groups. It is claimed that only 1.3% of the 20,000 journalists in the country belong to minority groups. As such, most traditional journalism regarding minorities is reactionary and event-based reporting with very little analysis and nuance. Though new, local companies are cropping up, international organizations continue to be among the best resources on critical reporting regarding the minorities

The situation in the social media landscape where minority activists have cultivated a decent following is a little different. Both professional and citizen journalists have found an empowering platform in social media from which to lead the fight of reclaiming their own narratives in a sea of alternate facts, top-down funded narratives, and campaigns that seek to erase entire communities and their contributions to the country. The fact that local Christian broadcast channels were banned shows the systemic erasure of minority communities in the present and the future

Regardless of how empowering social media can be, vocalizing a nontraditional opinion is increasingly becoming more difficult, not just because of online bullying but also due to the pervasive culture of surveillance and censorship. There was only so much that could be said and shown publicly within Pakistan before being found and labelled. The internet stopped being the safe space that it once was in 2017 when Taimoor Raza, a 30-year-old Shia became the first person to be sentenced to death for sharing blasphemous content online.

Blasphemy Law

Pakistan’s blasphemy law can be traced back to 1860 when it was first codified into the Indian Penal Code. It was expanded in 1927 when section 295A was added with the intention of preventing tension between Hindu and Muslim groups. This is the law that was by and large inherited by Pakistan on independence.

The next and major changes to come into this law were brought about by the then President Zia ul Haq over his 11 year regime. The first addition came in the form of section 298A in 1980

“Use of derogatory remarks, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, in respect of holy personages of Islam”

Anyone found guilty is liable to 3 years imprisonment, or a fine, or both.

The second addition, seeking to protect the Quran,  followed two years later in 1982 as clause 295B:

“Defiling, damaging or desecrating the Holy Qu’ran or of an extract therefrom”

Anyone found guilty of this clause is to be imprisoned for life.

The third addition, passed into law in April 1984, specifically targeted the Ahmadi sect in the form of Section 298 B & C:

“Misuse, by Ahmadis, through words, either spoken or written, or through visible representation, of epithets, descriptions and titles reserved for certain holy personages or places of Islam”

“An Ahmadi, calling himself a Muslim, or preaching or propagating his faith, or outraging the religious feelings of Muslims, or posing himself as a Muslim”

The punishment for breaking these laws is a three year imprisonment or a fine, or both

The last and final change to this set of laws came in 1986, as section 295C:

“Use of derogatory remarks, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, in respect of the Holy Prophet Muhammad”

The punishment initially set for breaking this law was life imprisonment or fine or both but in 1990 the Federal Shariat Court (a parallel system of islamic courts also established by Zia Ul Haq in 1980) established that this was repugnant to the injunctions of Islam and the penalty contempt of the prophet is nothing less than death

This is the form the laws exist in till date, despite many suggestions and attempts at reformation. The clauses added in this period not only effectively islamicised the laws but also helped to further separate and single out the Ahmadi community that had already been declared non-muslim under the 2nd ammendment to the constitution passed by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1974.

Up until the Zia era, in the period from 1927-86, only 14 blasphemy cases were reported. However, this number has inflated to over 1500 between 1986 and 2017. Most of these cases target religious minorities especially after considering that non muslims make up 4 percent of the population yet about 50 percent of cases are reported against them. Data from the National Commission for Justice and Peace claims a total of 776 Muslims, 505 Ahmadis, 229 Christians and 30 Hindus have been accused under all the variations of the blasphemy law from 1987-2018.

Curiously enough no judicial death sentence has been carried out since the penalty was mandated in 1990 but 51 people have been murdered extra judicially before their trials were over. Countless others have also been killed due to mob attacks and other forms of religious vigilantism that this set of law creates the space for. It is because of this reason that the accused are immediately taken into incarceration and are often put in solitary confinement for their own protection. The matter is such that even in instances of acquittal the accused have to go in hiding or leave the country for their own safety.

The only law in existence that may be useful in countering the impact of the blasphemy law is section 153A in the Pakistan Penal Code that dictates whoever “by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or incites, or attempts to promote or incite, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities” shall be fined and punished with imprisonment for a term that may extend to five years.

Different governments have had divergent approaches to the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan. For example, the first PPP government that succeeded Zia Ul Haq in 1988 tried passing amendments only to evoke extreme opposition that would inevitably shoot down any attempts at reformation. Sherry Rehman, a member of the then ruling PPP, also tried introducing a bill that would allow for blasphemy cases only to be reported to a high-ranking police officer and for cases to be heard directly by the higher courts only for it to prove an exercise in futility. In contrast the current PTI government has acted to defend the Blasphemy Laws as proven in the recent fiasco regarding the appointment of Atif Mian.

Summary of Discriminatory Laws against minorities and punishment:

Section of legislation Crime Punishment
295 Injuring/harming place of worship with intention of hurting sentiments of any religion Up to two years imprisonment, or fine, or both
295A Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs Up to ten years imprisonment, or fine, or both
295B Defiling, damaging or desecrating the Holy Qu’ran or of an extract therefrom Imprisonment for life
295C Use of derogatory remarks, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, in respect of the Holy Prophet Muhammad Death penalty, imprisonment for life, or/and fine
296 Disturbing religious worship or religious ceremonies Up to one year imprisonment, or fine, or both
297 Trespassing on places of worship or burial places with intent to insult the religion of any person Up to one year imprisonment, or fine, or both
298 Uttering any word, making any sound, making any gesture, or placing any object in the sight of any person with the intent to wound the religious feelings of that person Up to one year imprisonment, or fine, or both
298A Use of derogatory remarks, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, in respect of holy personages of Islam Three years imprisonment, or fine, or both
298B Misuse, by Ahmadis, through words, either spoken or written, or through visible representation, of epithets, descriptions and titles reserved for certain holy personages or places of Islam Three years imprisonment or/and fine
298C An Ahmadi, calling himself a Muslim, or preaching or propagating his faith, or outraging the religious feelings of Muslims, or posing himself as a Muslim Three years imprisonment or/and fine