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Minorities bill

The introduction of the Protection of Minorities bill in Punjab Assembly is a welcome step and it is hoped that legislators in the assembly will work towards its passage. The bill proposes to criminalise forced conversion with sentences varying from five years to life imprisonment for the perpetrator. While it remains to be seen as to what extent this ostensibly wide range of punishment remains unamended, but this law, like any other law, should be made precise so as to hold true to its spirit and not make it susceptible to abuse. Another point of importance in the bill is the provision that any conversion under the age of eighteen would not be recognised by law. This is a much needed step given how underage girls are forcefully converted and then made to marry a person of different faith. However, a much more pressing issue is to impress upon the Punjab Assembly the need to pass a minorities protection bill that is able to adequately protect the rights of minorities living in the province. This is because opposition to anything progressive is all the more virulent in Punjab given the influence of religious parties in the province. While they are not so much able to gain any considerable electoral strength, but they do have the means for effective organisation. And there is nothing that unites them more to come out on the streets that retrograde demands and opposition to anything progressive.The bill against forced conversion in Sindh elicited widespread opprobrium with the result being that the government was forced to put a halt on it. While the Sindh Assembly did pass the bill, it was the late governor, Saeeduz Zaman Siddiqui who asked the provincial assembly to reconsider the bill. Ever since then the fate of the bill is, at best, uncertain. The Punjab Assembly must not let the religious right dictate, or even pressurise, the debate on the minorities protection bill. Indeed, the Punjab Assembly has shown that it has the certitude to get progressive legislation passed in face of vitriolic pronouncements by the religious right of their supposedly ‘un-Islamic’ character.
The Punjab Protection of Violence Against Women Act is an example that once the initial reactionary responses are over, the government is left with a progressive legislation and a defeated religious right. In any case, when the forces of change are about to make leaders of the old order irrelevant, they make the greatest noise over it. It is true that Pakistan is still far from taking the space away from those who masquerade as guardians of morality and religiosity, but solace can be found in the fact that Pakistan is increasingly moving towards becoming an inclusionary state.
Once rights of minorities are guaranteed by laws at the top, then society would follow suit as it would be deprived of the license to perpetrate its intolerant actions with impunity. Amid all of this, it is pertinent to keep in mind that this must not be viewed as a debate of religion versus progress as the religious right wants the people to believe. After all, Islam protects the rights of women and minorities. Rather, it is a battle against those who have used religion to advance their own interests and in the process turned it into something that it is fundamentally not. And in this battle, it is critical to not capitulate to reactionary forces.



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