The Pakistani flag is made of two colours—green and white. The green represents the Muslim majority, whereas the white stripe represents religious minorities. The crescent on the flag denotes progress and the five-pointed stars indicate the five pillars of Islam. This shows that its founding fathers recognised the importance of minorities in the overall state of Pakistan. However, due to several reasons, religious minorities in Pakistan could not get what they were promised by theQuaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.In the absence of any effective mechanism/body, their genuine grievances remain unaddressed and sufferings continued unabated. Pakistan has a fairly long history of creating a minority commission to give a false impression of recognising rights of the minority communities. Various half-hearted attempts towards establishing a commission for the minorities either did not reach to the logical conclusion or ended up creating toothlessbodies which largely remained on paper. The recent attempt by the federal government to set up a National Commission for Minorities (NCM), through an executive order, actually aborts and pre-empts a Supreme Court led process that possibly could have created a more effective institution with a legal basis and charter. The deliberate act of keeping Ahmadis out of jurisdiction of the new body illustrates the vulnerability of all the minorities in the country.
A 2015 Jinnah Institute report State of Religious Freedom in Pakistan underlines that non-Muslims were not only excluded from the national mainstream, but were regularly targeted by extremists in the country.[i]With time, not only has their socio-economic condition deteriorated, their political rights and religious freedoms were squeezed too.Discrimination, violence, forced conversions in numerous cases, and attacks on their places of worship became quite common.It was in this backdrop that theHuman Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a non-government organisation, in 2010 established a working group to study and underline the plight of minorities and vulnerable communities. In 2012, this was transformed into a more focussed expert group that came out with a scathing report in December 2013. The report discussed the Peshawar Church attack on September 22, 2013of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and how in particular the government failed, after the attack, to address the needs of the affected families. It also took up the case of the digging up of BhuroBheel’s(a Hindu) body from its grave by a mob composed of Muslim youths. The report questioned both the government and media for their lacklustre approach on issues confronting religious minorities in the country.[ii]
Amid the growing criticism of the government, Dassaduq Hussain Jillani, the then Chief Justice of Supreme Court, took suo moto notice of the tragic attack on All Saint’s Anglican Church in Peshawar in 2013 and constituted a three-member bench to ensure safety and rights of minorities.[iii] The victims of the attack were Christian but as the case proceeded, issues of other minority communities including Hindus were taken up to broaden the scope of the case. After hearing the representatives of various minority organisations and the government, the court concluded that incidents against the minority communities violated the fundamental rights guaranteed to the citizens of Pakistan by the Constitution.[iv]On June 19, 2014 in a landmark judgement, the apex court gave an eight-point direction to the government which inter alia included developing curricula at school and college levels to promote “a culture of religious and social tolerance,” and constituting a national council for minorities’ rights.[v] It also directed to open a separate file placed before a three-member bench to ensure that the judgement was given effect to in letter and spirit.[vi]
The Curious History of Minority Commissions
The commission for minorities in Pakistan has a curious and complex history. It was not for the first time that the question of minority commission came to the fore. On various occasions, one has heard of the existence of a vague commission for minorities in the country, yet found it difficult to locate it. The history of the existence of a non-existent institution goes back to 1990. As the newspaper reports, a National Commission for Minorities (NCM) was established during Benazir Bhutto’s first tenure as Prime Minister in 1990 but its legal status always remained in question as the government did not frame any rules regarding its functioning. It came into the limelightagain in 2018 when the National Assembly took up three private member’s bills on minority commission for discussion.[vii]A sub-committee of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Religious Affairs was then informed about an existing commission.[viii]
Peter Jacob, a human rights activist and Executive Director of Centre for Social Justice, has recalled that he came to know about the existence of a non-existing National Commission on Minorities during the fact finding visit in 1995 of the United Nations special rapporteur Abdulfattah Amor.[ix]That means, if at all there was a commission, it existed only in name.
Soon after the Supreme Court judgement in June 2014, the federal government swung into action and through a notification in November 2014 announced the setting up of a National Commission for Religious Minoritiesthatwas tasked to review existing laws and prepare an inter-faith harmony policy.[x]The commission was purportedly to be headed by Sardar Muhammad Yousaf, the then Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Minister.[xi]This was testified by the government’s lawyer in the Supreme Court in December 2014. However, in yet another twist in February 2016, the government launched the National Action Plan for Human Rights and pledged to submit a bill for establishing a statutory National Commission on Minorities by December 2016.[xii] This makes it clear that there was no existing or functioning NCM duly backed by legislation in the country. In 2018, the Senate subcommittee decided to clubthe three private members’ bills, which were pending, with an official bill and renamed it as the National Commission for Non-Muslim Pakistanis’ Rights. However, it could not be done in the end.[xiii]Things changed drastically, as in the run up to the 2018 elections opposition political parties, especially PTI, openly defended the blasphemy laws and launched a derogatory campaign against the Ahmadi community.[xiv]Once in power, the PTI did not pay any attention to it.
The New NCM (2020)
No substantial development took place until the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and the Cecil and Iris Chaudhury Foundation (CICF) filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in January 2018 in the apex court for the implementation of its 2014 judgement. This resulted in the Supreme Court creating a one-man commission in January 2019 to present a compliance report.[xv]The commission to oversee the efforts to implement the June 2014 judgement,was headed by a retired police officer Dr Shoaib Suddle. The commission prepared a preliminary draft that wasshared with a number of stakeholders including the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony and civil society organisations. Instead of getting back to Dr Shoaib Suddle, the federal cabinet in May 2020established a National Commission for Minorities (NCM).
The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony on May 11, 2020 thereafter issued a detailed notification including the terms of reference for the commission. The PTI leader from Sindh and former President of the Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC) Chela Ram Kewlani has been made the chairman with a three-year tenure.[xvi]As per the notification, the commission will have a total of 18 members including the chairman. Out of these 18, there will be six official and 12 non-official members. Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Human Rights, Federal Education and Professional Training will have one representation as official members. The other two official members are the chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) and secretary of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. As far as the unofficial members are concerned, there will be three Hindus, three Christians, two Sikhs, two Muslims, and one Parsi and one Kalash.
Besides the chairman, JaipalChhabria, a social activist, and Vishno Raja Qavi, a retired bureaucrat, are the two other members from the Hindu community. Christians are represented by Prof. Sarah Safda, former minister from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Archbishop of a Catholic Church in Lahore Sebastian Francis Shaw, and chairman of Pakistan United Christians Movement Albert David. Sikh members include Saroop Singh, a KP government official, and Mimpal Singh from King Edward Medical University, Lahore. Former senator Roshan KhurshedBharucha represents the Parsi (Zoroastrian) community, whereas social activist Dawood Shah represents the Kalash community.
Controversy over the Qadiani Question
The setting up of the NCM in May 2020 has become controversial particularly on two counts; firstly, it failed to include representatives from the persecuted Ahmadi community; secondly, it is not in line with the June 2014 Supreme Court judgement.It was on April 15, 2020 when the federal cabinet approved the proposal titled “Re-Constitution of National Commission for Minorities” submitted by the Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony Division and in principle agreed to constitute the commission. The cabinet directed the Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony Division to move a formal note for approval. The direction inter alia stated that themajority of the members would be from minority communities including the chairman.[xvii] It also mentioned having representatives from the Ahmadi community, as they were part of the minority in accordance to the constitution.[xviii]
As the news of the inclusion of the Ahmadi community in the proposed minority commission surfaced, there were strong reactions from some sections followed by a hate campaign against Ahmadis in social media which termed Ahmadis (Qadianis) as traitors and infidels. Ali Muhammad Khan, the minister of state for parliamentary affairs, termed it a conspiracy against Islam and tweeted that “Beheading is the only punishment for those who mock Prophet Mohammad.” Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, leader of Pakistan’s Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), which is a coalition partner of ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), too joined him in criticising the government. He stated that the government was opening a Pandora’s box by including Ahmadis in the NCM as Qadianis consider themselves Muslim.[xix]
The government came under severe pressure and within hours the Religious Affairs Minister NoorulHaqQadri denied that Ahmadiswere being included in the scope of the commission since they (the Ahmadis) considered themselves as Muslim. Thus, the decision to include Ahmadis (Qadianis) in the NCM was withdrawn.[xx]Roughly 4 million Ahmadis live in Pakistan and are among the most persecuted communities in Pakistan. Their exclusion cannot be justified on any ground whatsoever since in terms of present Pakistan law they are not Muslims. It is important to note that legally, Ahmadis were considered to be a sect within Islam prior to the second amendment of the Constitution in 1974 which declared them to be non-Muslim. Irrespective of what Ahmadis think of themselves, as per the Constitutional provisions they are a religious minority community. In brief the controversy showed that like other parties, the PTI too cannot handle the pressures from the religious right.
A Toothless Body?
Besides the Ahmadi question, the NCM also came under severe criticism for being a toothless body as it is neither backed by a parliamentary act nor has the government clearly defined its powers and finances. It comes under the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony, which means that the body is not an independent one. With six ex-officiomembers and two Muslim members in the minority commission makes little sense and defeats its very purpose.It is for this reason that various minority rights groups have rejected the NCM as failing to meet the UN standard for a national human rights institution. The Paris principles mention that those holding any political office cannot become a member of a national human rights institution.[xxi] In this case, the federal cabinet has nominated political leaders like Dr Sarah Safda and Roshan Khurshed Bharuchaas members of the commission, which should not have been the case.[xxii]
Questions were also raised about the Commission being not in line with what the Supreme Court had desired. Dr Shoaib Suddle, the chairman of the one-man SC commission, challenged the government’s decision in the apex court and accused it of not consulting him in the setting up the NCM.[xxiii] In fact, he had prepared a draft bill and sent that to various stakeholders, including the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony.[xxiv] He went on to inform the apex court that the recently constituted NCM was not in line with the body envisaged by the top court in its historic 2014 judgement and thus was a violation of its order.[xxv]
The persecution of minorities in Pakistan has a sad and unfortunate history. Successive governments not only failed to protect their life, property, dignity, and places of worship but directly or indirectly aided and abetted the gross violation of their human rights. The claims by different governments onsteps to improve their situation have largely remained on paper. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan) had a chance to create history by implementing the June 2014 Supreme Court judgement in letter and spirit. Buthe too succumbed to the right-wing pressures and ended up creating a non-independent and a toothless body. The cosmetic movehas failed to assuage civil society in general and minority communities in particular.
*Dr. Ashish Shukla is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal.
[i] Jinnah Institute (2015), State of Religious Freedom in Pakistan, Islamabad: Jinnah Institute, p. 5.
[ii] HRCP (2013), When it rains: Religious Minorities & New Challenges, Islamabad: Humn Rights Commission of Pakistan, p.15.
[iii]Vankwani, Ramesh Kumar (2020), “Minorities under attack?,” The News, January 3, 2020.
[iv] Supreme Court (2014), Judgement in SMC No. 1/2014 etc, June 19, 2014, Islamabad: Supreme Court of Pakistan, pp. 30-32.
[vii] Ali, Kalbe (2018), “Status of commission for minorities still unclear, NA panel told,” The Dawn, April 3, 2018.
[ix] Jacob, Peter (2016), “The myth of minorities’ commission,” The Express Tribune, May 25, 2016.
[x] Jinnah Institute (2015), State of Religious Freedom in Pakistan, Islamabad: Jinnah Institute, p. 54.
[xii] Jacob, Peter (2016), “The myth of minorities’ commission,” The Express Tribune, May 25, 2016.
[xiii]Mustafa, Zubeida (2020), “Time to act,” The Dawn, January 17, 2020.
[xiv] USCIRF (2019), Annual Report 2019, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, retrieved from https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Tier1_PAKISTAN_2019.pdf
[xv] Rehman, I. A. (2019), “SC and minority rights,” The Dawn, April 11, 2019.
[xvi] Ali, Kalbe (2020), “Govt notifies reconstituted commission for minorities,” The Dawn, May 12, 2020.
[xvii] Abbasi, Ansar (2020), “Undoing decision to include Qadiani in NCM: Religious ministry seeks cabinet’s approval,” The News, May 2, 2020.
[xix] Inayat, Naila (2020), “In Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan, a minority commission without minority,” The Print, May 7, 2020, retrieved from https://theprint.in/opinion/letter-from-pakistan/in-imran-khans-naya-pakistan-a-minority-commission-without-minority/415976/
[xx] Daily Times (2020), “Federal Cabinet withdraws inclusion of Qadianis in NCM,” Daily Times, May 6, 2020.
[xxi] HRW (2020), “Pakistan: Ahmadis Kept Off Minorities Commission, New Rights Body Should be Inclusive, Independent, Empowered,” Human Rights Watch, May 8, 2020, retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/08/pakistan-ahmadis-kept-minorities-commission
[xxii]Dr Sarah Safda earlier served as a minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, whereas Roshan Khurshed Bharucha is an ex-senator who also served in the caretaker set-ups in Balochistan and federal cabinets.
[xxiii] Saeed, Nasir (2020), “The challenge of forming a minority rights commission in Pakistan,” Daily Times, May 20, 2020.
[xxiv] Malik, Hasnaat (2020), “Minority body approved by cabinet ‘violates’ SC order,” The Express Tribune, May 8, 2020.