PPP lawmakers turn down bill against forced conversions

Karachi: Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which has always claimed to be the “champion” of minorities’ rights, once again turned down a bill against forced conversions, during the Sindh Assembly session on Tuesday.

The Criminal Law (protection of minorities) Bill was moved by Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) MPA Nand Kumar Goklani.

This was the second time that the PPP has given a lukewarm response to a bill condemning forced conversions.

Earlier, in November 2016, the Sindh Assembly had introduced a similar bill, following numerous complaints of women, especially minors, belonging to the Hindu community being forced to convert to Islam. The bill was passed unanimously amid praises for the provincial assembly for taking the lead in legislation over the issue. Various political parties including PPP and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) had appreciated and supported the move. However, much to the disappointment of many, PPP soon retracted from its stance following protests by religious parties who threatened to come out on the roads against the legislation.

“Soon after the bill was passed in 2016, Jamaat-e-Islami leader Sirajul Haq held a meeting with PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari and conveyed the grievances of religious parties and the Council of Islamic Ideology,” a senior official in the Sindh government, who was privy to the developments back then, told Pakistani newspaper The Express Tribune on condition of anonymity. “Soon after, the PPP leadership conveyed a message through the chief minister (CM) to the then Sindh Governor Justice (Retd) Saeeduzaman Siddiqui, asking him not to ratify the bill,” he revealed.

Eventually, the bill was returned by the governor who asked the assembly to “revisit” it. He had primarily raised objections over the clause that denounced the conversion of minor girls and said that the practice should be stopped. Challenging it, former Sindh governor Siddiqui had said, “When Hazrat Ali can convert to Islam at a young age, why can’t Hindu girls?”

His stance was strongly supported by religious parties.

However, a few days after the bill was returned to the assembly secretariat, Goklani, who had moved the bill back in 2016 too, attempted to redraft it after consulting law experts. He submitted a revised copy of the bill on Tuesday.

Presenting the bill, he said that he had tried to amend the bill in accordance with the objections raised by the former Sindh governor and requested the speaker to introduce it in the assembly.

“I have moved the revised bill and will appreciate it if you kindly introduce it and refer it to the standing committee for feedback,” he said, after Sindh Assembly Speaker Agha Siraj Durrani allowed him to read the private bill.

After the bill was presented, the speaker asked Sindh Local Government Minister Nasir Hussain Shah what was the government’s response to it.

“Do you support or oppose the law?” he asked.

To this, Shah replied that the Sindh cabinet will decide the fate of the bill and asked for it to be referred to the cabinet. In response, Goklani, along with other members of GDA requested Shah to at least introduce the bill in the assembly. Shah, however, dismissed their request and said that “the bill was already once passed in the house in 2016 but the governor had rejected it. Now we need the cabinet’s permission to introduce it again.” ­

Speaking in support of Shah, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) MPA Abdul Rashid quoted the earlier response of the Council of Islamic Ideology and said, “The council had expressed serious reservations [over the bill] and I will suggest that you refer the bill to it first so that a decision can be made in light of Islam.”

Opposing these views, GDA MPA Arif Mustafa Jatoi said that the governor’s objections over the bill have been redressed and there was no need to refer it to the cabinet. “These kinds of issues are supposed to be resolved on the assembly floor,” he said, suggesting that the bill be referred to the standing committee or a special committee be formed to review it.

However, rejecting his recommendation, the speaker insisted on referring the bill to the provincial cabinet.

“If 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,” the speaker warned.

Following this, members of the assembly voted on the bill. The bill was rejected with majority from the treasury benches voting against it.

Later, speaking to the media outside the assembly, Goklani said that the PPP-led Sindh government and its lawmakers have been exposed.

“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,” said Goklani, expressing dismay over the silence of PPP MPAs who belonged to the 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 personnel that PPP was not against the law but it cannot bypass the rules.

“We will pass the law against forced conversions soon, but with the consultation of all the stakeholders,” he said.