By Benazir Jatoi
According to a May 11, 2020, Ministry of Religious Affairs notification, a national minorities commission was to be reconstituted. The composition consists of six members, representatives of different federal ministries, along with the secretary of Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony. The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) is also a member. There are 12 non-official members from the minority community and two Muslim members. The present composition, and its governance, results in no commission at all. Such a commission is a bureaucratic eyewash, a ‘tick box’ and a disingenuous exercise.
Through this notification, the federal government has shown contempt for a 2014 apex court judgment, of Justice Tassaduq Jilani: a minorities commission should be set up “to monitor the practical realisation of the rights and safeguards provided to the minorities under the Constitution and law” and “have the ability “to frame policy recommendations for safeguarding and protecting minorities’ rights by the Provincial and Federal Governments”. It further violates recommendations of the Suddle Commission formed out of a 2016 apex court judgment.
In addition to contempt, there are two important points to note. The first fundamental issue with this new attempted commission is that it lacks independence. It is an executive-led body that does not have the ability to self-critic nor to identify its own blind spots. It has no sting, no spine nor does it have its own thought. It will carry out functions of the executive, which will both go against the 2014 Jilani court judgment as well as the essential principle of independence much needed to address the stark discrimination faced by religious minorities. Secondly, this commission is not an inter-faith harmony commission — every time we discuss minority rights, we do not have to look at it from the point of view of appeasing the Muslim majority. If we look at it unflinchingly from a human rights’ perspective, with dignity, non-discrimination and security as its focus, we would not need religious members to be part of the commission, just as we don’t have such members on the National Human Rights Commission, nor in the Status of Women Commission.
Between private member bills tabled by members of the National Assembly (Lal Chang Malhi, Begum Hussain and Sanjay Perwani) regarding a commission was shut down by the Ministry of Religious Affairs on the pretext that the ministry is consolidating the draft bills into one comprehensive bill. We have not heard nor have we seen that bill to date. This is also a way for the ministry to control the issue from a religious perspective only.
The reality is: minorities in Pakistan are not safe. Their social and economic status is precarious. Their security is subject to the arbitrary whim of the unempathetic Muslim majority and the writ of the state has all but withered in the face of a violent extremist ideology. Forced conversions of young minority girls, false charges of blasphemy and violent attacks of places of worship and private homes are some of the obvious results of years of negligence and mere lip service to the country’s minorities.
What this new composition does is reiterate that the government does not wish to ruffle the feathers of the orthodox religious lobby it relies so heavily on as part of its voter base. This voter base holds the dangerous and misplaced belief that religious minorities do not have inalienable rights as equal citizens. The misconception that the Muslim majority whimsically and arbitrarily gives (and takes) rights is unconstitutional, illegal and immoral. The composition of this commission reiterates this misconception. Previous governments have made this same mistake — the forming of a commission linked to politicians, the federal cabinet and bureaucracy. Ironically, the urgent need for this government to want to do everything different from previous governments does not seem to apply to this commission. They have used the same unimaginative way of looking at a commission for minorities’ rights as have previous governments.
Apart from Jinnah’s words for an inclusive country and constitutional guarantees of equality, Pakistan has no concrete state policy on minority rights, translating the founder’s vision. There is no policy nor a legislative initiative that specifically speaks to and for minorities; no roadmap on how to build a counter-narrative to religious extremism (the National Action Plan has almost abandoned); and little, if any, political commitment. If any political will exists, it is fragmented, afraid and lacks a clear determination to tackle the issue. This new reconstitution by the religious affairs ministry is far from addressing these gaps.
What we seek and require is a watchdog that is formed through legislation, similar to the national women’s commission (the National Commission on the Status of Women Act 2012) and human rights commission (the National Commission on Human Rights Act 2012); and for provincial commissions to follow suit that coordinate and collaborate with the national commission closely; a commission that has at its core independence, including financial independence, with an advisory and recommendary role to help identify gaps and recommend policy changes to the government of the day; and a commission that has at the forefront the security, identity and dignity of non-Muslim citizens. We seek a commission that fulfills the apex court’s 2014 judgment and is empowered enough to convert the 2016 Suddle Commission’s recommendations, and many more, into action. An executive body cannot fulfil such a role. Only an independent institution, with a legislative mandate can do so — outliving governments to ensure Pakistan fulfils constitutional guarantees and international commitments to change the lives of disadvantaged, fearful citizens. We must re-enforce the principle that human rights and human dignity must always be blind to religion, status, caste or gender.
So, the question still stands: where is our much needed legislatively mandated, independent, national commission for non-Muslim Pakistanis? After all, the demanding, enforcing and ensuring of inalienable rights for all is a necessity, not a privilege.
* The writer is a barrister and UK solicitor who works with Aurat Foundation on law and governance issues
Published in The Express Tribune, April 6th, 2021.
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