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Pakistan's controversial commission for minorities

The government body is akin to taking one step forward and two steps back

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Pakistan's controversial commission for minorities

Pakistani civil rights activists protest the killings of Ahmadis outside a community mosque in Lahore on May 30, 2010. Ahmadis remain unrepresented in most government institutions. (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP)

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When Pakistan finally approved the establishment of the National Commission for Minorities last week, there were more boos than cheers.

Surprisingly, most of the criticism came from civil society activists who sensitize the public on the rights of minorities and campaign against the issue of forced conversions as well as persecution under blasphemy laws while struggling for freedom of religion in the Islamic republic.

#NoToPowerlessMinoritiesCommission has become a trending topic on social media. Almost all retweets mention media persons, parliamentarians and influencers. “Minorities term new commission toothless,” a headline stated.

A number of rights groups, lawyers and academics at a press conference last week described the approval of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) by the federal cabinet on May 5 as contempt of court.

“This is just an ad-hoc committee under the Ministry of Religious Affairs with no statutory powers. It was supposed to be constituted as an act of parliament. Without any statutory powers, they won’t be able to solve minority issues,” said Peter Jacob, the Catholic director of the Centre for Social Justice.

“What were the selection criteria? Some people are not [on the committee] on merit. Adding dignitaries to a fake commission is an insult to the members themselves. It is as if the government had a checklist of simply adding minority members.”

Hindu Sudhar Sabha (welfare society) also slammed the NCM for not including scheduled castes, who constitute 82 percent of their community.

Rocky start

The government landed in trouble when conflicting reports claimed that Ahmadis had been given representation on the commission.

Rabwah Times, an independent digital media publication covering minorities, first reported that Prime Minister Imran Khan had given his consent to include Ahmadis. This was unprecedented as Ahmadis, who are considered heretical for not believing that Muhammad was the last prophet, remain unrepresented in most government institutions.

No, wait. Multiple trends appeared on Twitter condemning the government for including them. A few of Khan’s supporters tried to explain his genius behind adding self-proclaimed Muslims in a minorities commission, but the minister of religious affairs finally denied that the government was considering allowing Ahmadis on the NCM. No cabinet members objected to excluding the most persecuted community in Pakistan.

But with all the shuffle, it seems the NCM has once again fallen through the cracks. This poor commission. Dr. Shoaib Suddle’s one-member minorities commission has now challenged the reconstitution of the NCM in the Supreme Court, complaining that the Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Ministry did not cooperate with the commission on the constitution of the NCM.

Suddle’s commission was established by the apex court in January 2019 to implement the 2014 verdict for the protection of minorities’ rights. The landmark judgment had very wisely suggested a framework for the protection of minorities' rights and drawn up something of a minorities' charter.

A key recommendation was the creation of a national council “to monitor the practical realization of the rights and safeguards provided to minorities under the constitution and law.” The judgment came a year after the suicide bombing of a church in Peshawar, capital of the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, that killed over 100 people.

As if it was destined for doom, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also expressed its reservations on the commission.

“The proposed composition smacks of partisanship and, above all, as a non-statutory body, the commission is no substitute for the national council for minorities’ rights envisioned by the Supreme Court’s historic Tasadduq Jillani judgement of 2014,” it stated in a press release.

“In the current composition, the number of serving bureaucrats and representatives of the majority community undermine minority representation. Besides, to deny the Ahmadiyya community even the option of being represented is to wilfully ignore a long and sorry history of faith-based persecution.”

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom also shared its concerns regarding the conditions under which this governmental body was formed.

Let's call a spade a spade; this won't be the first NCM in Pakistan's troubled history. The first one was constituted under a resolution of the federal cabinet in 1990. Since then it has been constituted several times with changing governments. Catholic and Protestant bishops kept sharing their concerns and recommendations about these commissions in applications submitted to former prime ministers.   

Church of Pakistan Bishop Irfan Jamil of Lahore was part of the previous NCM. He was recommended by Archbishop Sebastian Shaw, who is among three Christian members of the new body.

“It is not only about human rights. There are other issues like church property disputes and denationalization of our schools. The present government has raised a slogan for minorities and we believe things will move forward,” the Lahore archbishop told me.

“Personally, I do not object to the addition of NGO representatives to the NCM, but they usually follow their own agenda.”  

Archbishop Joseph Arshad, chairperson of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, appealed to the prime minister and members of the federal cabinet to review this decision. “The religious minority communities were not consulted while forming this commission,” he said.

Perhaps the latest NCM can win back hearts by meeting more than once every year to dispel the impression of occasional social meetings. Another objection is the inclusion of two Muslim members on the NCM. 

To be fair, minority members in government bodies cannot afford “secret” meetings. It will only result in uproar and further distrust. Diplomacy is the name of the game.

The latest NCM is akin to taking one step forward and two steps back. Sadly, laws these days are formulated through a presidential ordinance and then passed without any meaningful/thorough debate in the National Assembly or political consensus. Minority representatives seem determined for a change by working within existing structures.

The ongoing controversy has further exposed the widening gap between church and human rights groups as well as differences of opinion among the ecclesial hierarchy. And that's not a good sign for persecuted minorities. It's just politics, nothing personal.

Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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