Editorial: Penalizing forced conversions

WEB DESK: At long last the cancerous curse of forced religious conversions is being eradicated.

The private member bill to make forced conversions a punishable offence was on the table in the Sindh Assembly for almost a year but it could not be legislated either because the house didn’t have the time for it or suffered from lack of will.

However, this past Thursday, it appeared to be the very idea whose time had come: it was passed unanimously even when its mover, Nand Kumar Goklani, sits on the opposition benches in the house. Of course, forced conversions through marriages are prohibited under the Constitution and some of the prevalent laws, but no law specifically identifies and criminalizes forced conversions as a specific criminal offence with corresponding punishments.

The newly-adopted law recommends a five-year minimum punishment for a person found guilty of forcing anyone to convert his or her religion as maximum punishment. The violator will also have to pay a fine to the person who had been forced to embrace other religion. As to what constitutes a ‘forced conversion’ according to the new law it is ‘forcing a person to adopt another religion under duress, force, coercion or threat’. Under the new law, ‘any person, who has not attained the age of 18, cannot change his or her religion’.

And for someone who despite being aware that one or both parties are victims of forced religious conversion facilitated the marriage the punishment would be a three-year imprisonment and a fine to be paid to the victims of his act. Under the law, specific courts will be notified to hear cases of forced conversions, but until such notification courts of competent jurisdictions will hear cases falling under this act. The first hearing of a complaint against forced conversion will be within seven days of receiving the petition, and the case would be decided within 90 days.

According to a report released by the Aurat Foundation last year, around 1,000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam every year in Pakistan. While in Sindh, the victims are mainly Hindu girls and in Punjab, they come from the Christian community. There was an increase in violence based on faith with forced conversions, murders, extortions, kidnappings and abuse of places of worship of minorities. However, of late, there are signs suggesting, perhaps, that is going to be history.

Only recently, the Sindh Assembly enacted establishment of Sindh Minorities Commission with a mandate to provide a platform to look into various grievances of minority communities. It would monitor and propose a mechanism for accelerating pace of socio-economic development and protect their religious identity. And as religious extremism tends to abate the minorities have begun feeling secure and forthcoming to obtain the right kind of ambience for peaceful and friendly coexistence.

It is no surprise then that the Christians of Pakistan have called upon Pope Francis to intervene for the release of Dr Aafia Siddiqui. Rightly then the law now passed by the Sindh Assembly is expected to greatly help restore the sense of security among two million Hindus in Sindh.

Source: Business Recorder