If there’s one thing the opposition Pakistan People’s Party gets right, it is rhetoric. Historically, it has been the party willing to stand up to the military, the party that has fielded Pakistan’s first and only female prime minister and the party of the poor and the secular. It embraces Pakistan’s eclectic and sometimes inconvenient pre- and extra-Islamic heritage.
The party has paid for its positions in the blood of its leaders, including that lone female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. Having made the loudest noises against the “Talibanisation” of Pakistan, its members were targeted by the Taliban in the 2013 election campaign. In speaking up for minorities, the party continues to invite both admiration and hostility from different parts of the country.
Continuing in that fashion, the PPP, which rules over the Sindh province, in November passed a bill that aims to curb forced conversions. The law aims to protect minority communities in the province, which is home to 90% of Pakistan’s Hindus.
In recent years there have been numerous instances incidents of Hindu girls being kidnapped, only to emerge days later under a burkha and announce that they have married their kidnapper and converted to Islam at his behest. As these girls are under the threat of the kidnappers, it is almost impossible to prove coercion.
“Forced conversion is an abhorrent and violent offence and an issue that has become prevalent across Sindh [that] must be eliminated by recognising the importance of tolerance, peace and respect for all religions and persons, irrespective of their religion,” the bill says.
The new bill introduces a mandatory 21-day waiting period for those who want to convert to consider their decision, it forbids minors from converting without parental consent – many of the girls kidnapped are just that, girls - and includes life imprisonment for those convicted of forcibly converting others.
The law is unequivocally welcome, especially in a country that has inexorably been moving towards theocracy for decades. As recently as four years ago, a Hindu man converted to Islam on live television as a segment of a Ramadan show, with audience cheering and suggesting new names. With frequent reports of vandalism and desecration of Hindu temples and the constant threat of the blasphemy laws, often used to target minorities, looming over them, any kind of protection, it is hoped, will help make the livelihoods and future of Hindus – particularly young women – more secure.
Unfortunately, the PPP’s record, as opposed to its rhetoric, is abject. Despite being full-throated in its opposition to the Taliban, the PPP struck a deal officially granting them control of the Swat Valley in 2009, the party’s Neville Chamberlain moment of appeasement.
The party’s record on corruption is also woeful, starting right at the top with former President and co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari – who has yet to shake off his moniker, Mr Ten Percent, a reference to the kickbacks he would receive – and goes all the way down to police constables and government clerks. The PPP also presided over an entirely manufactured humanitarian crisis in the Tharparker region of Sindh, when scores of children starved to death in 2014 as the provincial government failed to distribute food timely and efficiently in the drought- and famine-hit region. It is no mystery that the PPP government was defeated so comprehensively in the 2013 elections after five years in power – it emphatically failed to match its words into action.
There is a reasonable chance that this law will face a similar fate. Law enforcement has been a challenge for successive Pakistani governments, without the added communal nature of some of the legislation. That incidents of forcible conversions inherently carry sectarian and political dimensions will only make the police’s job more difficult. The PPP is already under pressure to dilute the provisions of the bill and unconfirmed reports indicate that it may backtrack on some of its provisions, showing that the law stands on shaky ground.
Call for action
But if there’s any time for the law to be passed it is now. The Punjab government has recently passed a domestic violence bill, much to the chagrin of the Islamist parties. The murder of social media star Qandeel Baloch by her own brother last year in a case of “honour killing” prompted the government to pass more laws to protect women, and this forced conversion law is a natural follow-up to this belated legislation.
With national elections coming up next year, the PPP needs to act on its promises to convince the wider electorate that it ought to be the party to lead the country. The best way to do that would be to give to the rest of the country the example of its work in Sindh. For the sake of the girls more than its own, I hope the party has something to show for its time there.