View from Pakistan

Why a Hindu marriage law remains elusive in Pakistan

Hindu women in Pakistan are still unable to produce a legal document to prove their relationship with their spouse.

About six months ago, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Law, Justice and Human Rights in Pakistan deferred for a week its proceedings on a Hindu marriage bill. There has been no news since then about the fate of the law that the Hindu minority community has been waiting on for the past 68 years.

The deferment came six months after the Supreme Court had ordered the government to enact this law in two weeks. The order was a follow-up of a landmark Supreme Court judgement on the rights of religious minorities that was made even further back in June 2014.

The matter had earlier drawn national attention in 2012, when the then chief justice had issued instructions to the country's national population registration body to amend the rules to register Hindu marriages. A year before that, the fourth National Commission on the Status of Women had presented the Hindu Marriage Bill, 2011, to the government for discussion and adoption.

One can keep going further back at least up to the 1970s, when the issue was first considered at the parliamentary level, but despite reaching such an advanced stage so many times, the elusive law has yet to see the light of day.

Major obstacle

There is no doubt that personal laws are a sensitive matter for the states to deal with as they are about encoding intimate and complex human relations. More importantly, they require the state to negotiate its role in these affairs with religious establishments. But there is also no denying that modern states have not shirked this responsibility and have found innovative ways to handle the intricacies involved.

It assumes additional importance when these laws are for a religious minority in a state that professes the religion of its majority community. In that sense, Pakistan’s failure to provide a legal umbrella to the basic social institution (family) of its Hindu citizens casts a negative light on its Islamic republic credentials. Is this how "a modern Islamic state" is supposed to tend to the needs of its non-Muslim citizens?

The absence of the law is the bane of Hindu families, especially Hindu women. They are unable to produce a legal document to substantiate their relationship with their spouse in police stations and courts, at kiosks of the National Database Registration Authority, visa counters and all governance windows that require Computerized National Identity Cards. Some institutions have put in place stopgap arrangements, but these mostly remain effective as long as good sense prevails in that particular office.

Caste factor

Forced conversions also operate within this legal gap. It has made Hindu families vulnerable to the mischief of those who interfere for petty monetary gains or are compelled by "larger ideological" motives.

The resultant social insecurity has distorted intra-family relations as well. It has tilted the power equation further in favour of male heads, making them more conservative and possessive of their women.

The nature and intensity of these problems varies from class to class within the Hindu community. A better term here would be "from caste to caste" but Pakistan lost the distinction between the two when it lost its large Hindu population in the wake of the secession of East Pakistan. General Zia-ul-Haq then forced this overly simplistic view into the Constitution as under his separate electorate system, the Hindu Jati and Scheduled Castes were clubbed together. This converted the poor Scheduled Caste haris into voters, and the rich upper-caste Jati Hindus into their leaders.

Jati Hindus who are a minuscule part of the Pakistani "Hindu" community (which itself is a little less than 2% of the country’s total population) are a world apart from the Scheduled Castes, not only in terms of class interests but also in matters of personal laws. For example, the former consider divorce and marriage between cousins completely against their faith, while both these practices are common within the Scheduled Castes communities.

Jati Hindus, however, are better positioned to find listening ears within Pakistan’s power corridors, but besides community matters they also have their economic interests to take care of and whenever they are pushed, by external or caste factors, to choose one of these, their choice is obvious.

Blaming the victims

This, however, does not absolve the state of its prime responsibility of providing social security to its minority communities. Pakistan’s defence of its failure has been shoddy. The typical approach is to blame the victims with the oft-repeated counter-argument that the Hindu community itself is not unanimous on various aspects of personal laws. But can’t the same be said about the majority community in Pakistan? Has then the state opted to use this as an excuse to not serve personal laws to its Muslim citizens?

The marriage bill currently under consideration is quite comprehensive. Even though it is not considered ideal by some critics, it can definitely bring the subject under a legal-judicial framework. But it is stuck again.

Many minority community leaders offer interesting conspiracy theories about the "mysterious factors" that have scuttled the enactment of the Hindu marriage law many times in the past, which is no surprise in Pakistan's political culture. There are, however, less exciting but seemingly more plausible stories available about the problems being faced.

Under the 18th Amendment, the subject of minorities has been devolved to the provinces; therefore, the law currently under consideration in the National Assembly will be applicable to Islamabad only, unless the provincial assemblies pass resolutions extending the jurisdiction of the federal law to their respective provinces. According to reports, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have passed the required resolution while Punjab is still mulling over it. Sindh, where almost the entire Pakistani Hindu population lives, however, seems defiant.

The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party in Sindh considers Hindus as their vote bank and is apprehensive that the success of a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz initiative on such an important matter will be detrimental to its politics. In an attempt to outdo PML-N, it is working on a broader non-Muslims’ marriage bill for the province.

There is no harm in welcoming both initiatives, the federal and Sindh, unless in this political tussle the marriage law itself becomes a casualty once again.

This article was originally published on Dawn.com.

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