By Nauman Asghar
Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah envisioned a modern, liberal and progressive state of Pakistan founded on the principles of equality, justice and fair play. He further envisaged equal treatment to all religious minorities. After sixty-seven years, however, the plight of minorities is beyond description. The guiding principles enunciated by the founder were thrown out the window soon after his demise and the religious zealots came to define the future course of the country.
Last month, a report published by London-based Minority Rights Group International and Sustainable Development Policy Institute revealed unpleasant and bitter facts about the state of discrimination faced by religious minorities in Pakistan. Among a host of other issues, the report has highlighted the difficulties faced by the Hindu, Sikh and Baha’i community because of the absence of laws for registration of their marriages.
According to the census of 1998, the Hindu and Christian population make up 1.2 and 1.9 percent of the total population, respectively, but independent studies suggest the figure is higher. A recent reliable report put the figure for Hindus at 4 million, with the overwhelming majority concentrated in the southern areas of Sindh and Punjab.
There is no doubt that the inability to get a marriage registered constitutes a denial of fundamental rights and is a facet of institutionalized discrimination. It effectually denies married couples their identity.
After the enactment of Eighteenth Amendment, registration of marriage has become a provincial subject but the provinces have shown no urgency to frame legislation in this regard. The Hindu Marriage Bill, introduced in the National Assembly, which will be operative for the Islamabad Capital Territory and other areas under direct federal jurisdiction, still awaits passage owing to a lack of legislative attention. The women’s caucus in the Punjab Assembly also tabled the Punjab Hindu Marriage Registration Bill 2014 but it has not been debated.
The absence of a marriage registration document leads to multifarious socioeconomic woes, especially for women. Because of want of proof of marriage, widows cannot claim their rights to the property of their deceased husband. Hindu women have often been victims of abduction, forcible conversion, and marriage – even married women have not been spared. But their relatives cannot get relief in courts of law, as they lack documentary proof of previous marriage. Their misery is compounded as most of them belong to the lower class (known as the scheduled caste), which has to face the double jeopardy of being minority and poor. In certain cases, if a husband refuses to acknowledge his child, the mother is left with no option to prove her marriage. To file a lawsuit for separation, divorce or maintenance becomes almost impossible without proof of marriage.
Lack of proof of marital status also becomes a legal hindrance for women in obtaining the computerized national identity card and later getting their names changed. This restricts their right to movement as they face difficulties in getting passports issued. Hindu couples living together in hotels have often been subjected to harassment by law enforcement personnel because they are unable to produce a marriage certificate providing evidence of their stated relationship. Thus, they live in an atmosphere of constant fear. In May last year, Dr. Rumesh Kumar, a PML-N MNA, told his colleagues in the National Assembly that five thousand Hindus are migrating to India every year because of the persecution and neglect of policymakers. Even this shocking revelation failed to prompt action. In the meantime, incidents involving the desecration of temples and forcible conversions are on the rise.
Christians at least have the Christian Marriage Act 1870, but it has its own flaws. For one thing, smaller Christian denominations face problems with proper documentation as, under the law, only major Churches are recognized. Two, the minimum age for marriage under the Christian Act is 13 years, which contradicts the provisions of the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929.
The prevailing state of affairs makes all constitutional guarantees and promises of protection for minorities meaningless and illusory. The principle of equality enshrined in Article 25 of the Constitution and the statement of Objectives Resolution are blatantly flouted every day in regard to minorities. Without protections for the rights of minorities, claims of democracy will ring hollow. The rising intolerance towards minorities in Pakistan must be arrested. It is time for legislators to start taking their legislative duties seriously and pass the Hindu Marriage Bill in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures.