Published Jan. 26, 2017
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited a sacred Hindu temple on Jan. 11 and spoke out for the rights of religious minorities living in the Muslim-majority nation. "I am the prime minister of all Pakistanis, be it a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian or any other, you all are equal," Sharif told the multi-faith gathering in Punjab's Khanewal city, where he inaugurated a water filtration plant at the newly-refurbished Katas Raj Temple. Among the participants were Christian, Hindu and Sikh religious and political leaders. "Salam, Namaste, Satt Sri Akaal and good morning to all my brothers belonging to different religions," the prime minister greeted the audience amid cheerful applause. Sharif said humanity was the greatest religion of all and no one was permitted to discriminate on the basis of caste, color or creed.
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It was not the first time Sharif reached out to minorities during his third term in the office. On Nov. 11, 2015, he joined the Diwali celebrations in Karachi and made almost identical remarks. "Every community living in the country whether Hindu, Muslim or Parsi everyone belongs to me and I belong to them. I am the prime minister of all communities," Sharif said, adding it was his religious duty as the prime minister to protect rights of all communities and stand with them against oppression. All this talk sounds great, but the question arises here what has practically changed between Nov. 11, 2015 and Jan. 11, 2017? Not much, to say the least. Rhetoric will not save minorities facing persecution or improve their lives but meaningful legislation will. And there hasn't been much to be talked about on this front. We haven't seen any serious attempt to push for the reform of notorious blasphemy laws ever since Salmaan Taseer, the liberal governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, and Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic minister, were assassinated in early 2011. The two were the most vocal advocates for minorities, but they were silenced. In 2015, 22 people, including four Christians and three Ahmadis, were charged with blasphemy, according to a report released by the country's independent human right commission. Media reports suggest little improvement in 2016. The Sharif government must repeal or amend the blasphemy laws if it is serious about safeguarding minorities. The Supreme Court, hearing the appeal of Governor Taseer's assassin, Mumtaz Qadri in October 2015, ruled that criticism of the blasphemy laws doesn't amount to blasphemy itself. The verdict provided the sitting government a good opportunity to go for reforms but it faltered. In a rare achievement in November 2016, Sindh province adopted a bill to introduce harsh punishments, including life imprisonment, for forced religious conversions. The bill prohibits minors from converting to other religions of their free will and also mandates a 21-day period for adults to reconsider any decision to convert. The bill was welcomed by religious minorities who have long complained that their girls were being abducted and forced to marry and convert to Islam. An estimated 1,000 young Christian and Hindu girls, most of them underage and impoverished, are taken from their homes each year, converted to Islam and married, said a report by the South Asia Partnership and Aurat Foundation, a leading Pakistan rights group. However, the joy was short lasted as the provincial government, fearing a backlash from Islamist parties who were angry at the move, withdrew the bill for a review. Minorities have long demanded that their representatives allotted for reserved seats should be selected through secret ballots conducted among minority groups themselves and not from party lists drawn up through a proportional representation system. But the demand seems to have fallen on deaf ears despite the top Pakistani court backing minorities in their right to choose their own representatives. The court ruling followed a challenge by Julius Salik, founder of the World Minority Alliance Party and a former Christian minister, to constitutional amendments made in 2010 concerning seats reserved for minorities. They claimed minorities were not being properly represented through party lists. Lawmakers supposedly there to represent minorities were being picked by the major parties — the majority of whose members are Muslim — the complainants said. Religious minorities feel they have no ability to participate in elections, they told the court. The Supreme Court agreed, ruling that this method does not conform to any of the principles of democracy which would allow the minorities to choose their own representatives. "Additional seats for minorities are not a matter of grace and benevolence from political parties but are constitutional requirements so that the legitimate interests of the minorities are provided for," the court said. "It would be equally tragic if minorities come to regard themselves … as second-class citizens or the 'children of a lesser god,' forever to remain subservient to the majority's goodwill and unrepresented by their own chosen representatives," it added. Critics say Sharif's recent overture is more about appealing to urban and liberal voters rather than minorities. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party understands the power of social media forums with increasing urban population and a highly politicized youth. With one year to go before Pakistan goes to the general elections, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) has strong chances of returning to power again by reaching out to minorities and youth. But it will be a disservice to the nation if Sharif doesn't back his rhetoric with action.