PAKISTAN: Minorities hoodwinked yet again

Shortly before the end of his seven month term and following the Peshawar Church bombing last year which left more than 100 people dead, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Tassadduq Hussain Jillani, in a case suo motu (  of his own accord) on the 19th of June 2014 , issued a landmark judgment concerning the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan. In the 32-page judgment, Justice Jillani takes a tough stand against “hate speech and abuses perpetrated on citizens, based on their faith”. The Supreme Court judgement ordered the government to establish a National Council for the Rights of Minorities and set up a special “Task Force” to protect the places of worships of religious minorities. The judgement also instructs the government to put in place immediate measures for registering criminal cases against desecrators of places of worship and prepare appropriate and religiously unbiased curricula used in schools and colleges across the country.

The importance of the verdict is the formation of the National Council to safeguard the rights of minorities, which should be an independent state body that will duly monitor the status of ethnic and religious minorities in Pakistan along with cases of violence and discrimination against them.

In pursuance to the Supreme Court verdict, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has commenced a process to establish the National Council on Minorities’ rights. The government and the opposition have reached a consensus on the framework including the number and names of its members. The National Council will consist of 10-members with four Muslim members, and is to be announced shortly.  However to the amusement of many, the government has finalized the entire process without having consulted key stakeholders being neither the representatives nor the minority groups themselves.  Religious minority groups have termed such a move as undemocratic on the part of the Sharif government as well as the opposition. The religious minorities, particularly Christians and Hindus have deep reservations regarding the entire process of the formation of the National Council on the minorities. Their apprehensions are based upon similar such Commissions and councils set up on several previous occasions by several successive regimes in Pakistan.

Minority groups in Pakistan have always expressed reservations on such commissions; the likes of the Commission established by the then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and which he chaired in 1973; yet another  one was headed by Ijazul Haq (son of the former military dictator Zia ul Haq); and the one set up by the previous government of Pakistan People’s Party under joint chairmanship of Prime Minster Yousaf Raza Gillani and Federal Minister on minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti who was later assassinated by the Muslim militants.

The main objective of the above-mentioned Commissions was to promote the soft image of Islam and Pakistan – which objective proved futile in the efforts of protecting the rights of the minority groups in Pakistan. Further,  all such previous commissions established since 1973 were against the principles enumerated in the Liaquat-Nehru Pact signed in 1950 – a  treaty to guarantee the rights of minorities in both countries after the partition of India. The Pact was meant to constitute Commissions headed by Supreme Court Judges. Following the pact, India, immediately formed a Minority Commission under Chairmanship of the Supreme Court and Muslim leaders made presentation before the Commission to safeguard their personal laws, religious freedoms and requested an equal share in the resources of the states. Pakistan on the contrary, never constituted a Minority Commission nor provided any chance for minorities’ leaders to make any representations nor demands for their rights.

Minorities in Pakistan fear that the  latest initiative by the government following the Supreme Court judgement in this regard, from the Prime Minister Sharif’s government seems to be a similar such futile effort, to hoodwink the minority in the name of minorities’ protection. Therefore, the main objective of the Council being established this time around, is merely to promote interfaith, harmony and promoting the soft image of Pakistan , which is a complete disregard to the and averts the deeper objectives enumerated in the judgement which is to safeguard the rights of the minorities in Pakistan.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) cautions the government of Pakistan, for the National Council being established not be another attempt,  to continue the persecution of minority groups of religious minorities – hence such a council will neither be able to protect minorities and nor will help improve their rights situation. The process of formation of the National Council has yet to consider holding consultations with religious minority groups such as the Hindu communities, Christians, Ahmadia Muslims groups and other such ethnic groups.

The AHRC therefore urges the government to put into effect a mechanism, for the National Council to monitor the practical realization of the rights and safeguards of the religious and other minority groups in Pakistan as specifically provided for in the Constitution of Pakistan.

The Council must be based on the philosophy behind the speech of Mohammad Ali Jinnah – founder of Pakistan who on August 11, 1947, categorically said;

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State. Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State”.

The newly formed Council must also have the mandate to frame policy recommendations for safeguarding and protecting minority rights by all the provincial and federal governments.

The government of Pakistan must show its sincerity about establishing an independent and autonomous council in line with the verdict of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to resolve the minorities’ issue for good which can only be done, through a meaningful and a consultative process of all stakeholders in the establishment and in the working of this National Council.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-139-2014
Countries : Pakistan,
Issues : Arbitrary arrest & detention, Extrajudicial killings, Freedom of assembly, Freedom of religion, Impunity, Military,