(Nov. 15, 2019) On October 8, 2019, the Provincial Assembly of Sindh Province rejected a bill criminalizing forced religious conversions. This was the second attempt at enacting an anti-conversion law in the province—in December 2016 the Provincial Assembly passed a similar bill, but on the insistence of the provincial government, the governor did not assent to it.
Background on the Bill
The bill’s rejection comes at a time when there has been a recent surge in reported cases of Hindu and Christian girls and young women who have been kidnapped and forcibly married in Pakistan. On July 16, 2019, the issue of abducting and forcefully converting Hindu girls in various districts of Sindh province was taken up in the Sindh Assembly, where a resolution was debated and unanimously passed after it was modified over objections of certain lawmakers that it should not be restricted to Hindu girls because “girls irrespective of their faiths should be protected from being kidnapped and forcibly converted in Sindh.”
Shortly after the 2016 Bill was passed, a news report stated that religious parties and the Council of Islamic Ideology had conveyed their opposition to the leadership of the governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). According to the report of the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion,
[t]he bill was effectively blocked by the mobilisation of the Islamist groups and parties. A group of Ulema, including the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) met with Dr. Abdul Qayyum Soomro, the chief minister’s special assistant on religious affairs, on 5 December 2016, and termed the bill against the basic principles of Islam. Religious parties in Karachi launched a campaign against the bill in order to pressurise the Sindh government into repealing it. The Jamaat-[i]-Islami (JI) argued that there could be no age limit on people converting to Islam. Religious Parties threatened to lay siege to the Sindh Assembly if the legislature did not repeal the bill.
According to a news report, soon after the bill was passed, the leadership of the PPP “conveyed a message through the chief minister (CM) to the then Sindh governor, Justice (Retd) Saeeduzaman Siddiqui, asking him not to ratify the bill.” The governor reportedly returned the bill to the assembly, asking them to “revisit” it. He had “primarily raised objections over the clause that denounced the conversion of minor girls and [that] said … the practice should be stopped, stating, “[w]hen Hazrat Ali [the fourth caliph and successor to Prophet Muhammad] can convert to Islam at a young age, why can’t Hindu girls?” The governor’s criticisms refer to chapter III of the bill, entitled “Age of Conversion,” which prohibits children from converting to a different religion while they are minors. Section 4(1) states, “No person shall be deemed to have changed their religion until they attain the age of majority,” which is 18 years of age. Also, section 4(2) stipulates that “[a]ny minor who claims to have changed their religion before attaining majority shall not be deemed to have changed their religion and no action shall be taken against him or for any such claim or action made by the minor.” Islamic political groups also objected to section 11 of the 2016 Bill, which allowed “a 21-day period for the alleged adult victim to independently consider whether or not their decision to convert to another religion was forced, before it initiates a forced conversion case.”
In early April 2019, a new version of the Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill that had been revised in accordance with the governor’s objections was submitted by the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) Provincial Assembly member Nand Kumar Goklani. The 2019 bill appears to omit the section 4 prohibition against child conversion and instead allows a judicial magistrate to issue an injunction to prohibit a child conversion or marriage and “upon final decision of conviction of accused the conversion and marriage of child (if any) shall stand nullified.”
Assembly speaker Agha Siraj Durrani and Sindh local government minister Nasir Hussain Shah insisted that the bill be sent to the provincial cabinet for review. The speaker warned that “[i]f you will not agree to refer the bill [to the cabinet], I will then put it to voting in house, after which you will not be able to move it again.” Following this, members of the assembly voted on the bill. The bill was rejected, with a majority from the treasury benches (government ministers) voting against it.
Reactions to the Bill’s Rejection
When the bill failed to pass, Goklani criticized the PPP government, reportedly declaring that “I will suggest that they stop staging a drama, celebrating Diwali, Holi and other festivals of the Hindu community. They should stop proclaiming themselves as the champions of minorities’ rights.” Goklani also expressed disappointment over the silence of PPP Provincial Assembly members who belonged to minority communities: “Our girls are being kidnapped and converted and I have been struggling for the past few years to pass a law against the menace but today the Sindh government has proved that it is unwilling to address the issue.” Shah, on the other hand, told the media that the PPP was not opposed to the law but could not “bypass the rules.” “We will pass the law against forced conversions soon, but with the consultation of all the stakeholders,” said Shah.