Over a year has passed since the former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, in a suo motu notice of the Peshawar Church attack, issued a landmark judgment on 19th June 2014 regarding the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan. In the 32-page judgement, the court directed the government to take measures for protection of minority rights which include; establishing national council to safeguard and protect minority rights; constituting task force to develop strategy of religious tolerance; setting up special police force to protect minority settlements and worship places from mob attacks; registering criminal cases against desecrators of worship places; developing religiously unbiased curriculum promoting religious tolerance; curbing hate speech; and enforcing 5% minority job quota. The judgment also bounds a 3-member bench of Supreme Court to continuously pursue the implementation of the judgment and entertain complaints and petitions regarding violation of minority rights.
This landmark judgement is amongst the rare actions by a state institution due to fear of violent reaction from extremist groups, which attempts to address and undo the wrongs previously being done to minority communities living in Pakistan. The judgement also instructs the government to put in place immediate measures for registering criminal cases, whenever constitutional rights of minorities are violated or their worship places are desecrated. The judgement provides motivation for a political, legal and administrative impetus to deal with the enormous challenges of our times.
Constituting National Commissions to promote and protect rights and interest of marginalized groups is a common practice in several countries including; Pakistan. The successive governments in Pakistan have constituted special commissions such as; National Commission of Human Rights (NCHR) and National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), while National Commission on the Rights of the Child (NCRC) is about to establish in Pakistan once a bill already tabled in the parliament gets approved. The Commissions namely; NCHR and NCSW are legally protected through legislation passed by the parliament in 2012, and the bill to establish NCRC has been tabled in the parliament, which is likely to be passed within 2015.
In pursuance of the apex court’s verdict, the government has notified to reconstitute the National Commission for Minorities without having consulted with minority groups. The government has finalized the number and names of its members and appointed Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, Sardar Muhammad Yousaf, as its chairman. It is shocking that National Commission for Minorities has been reconstituted through a notification rather than passage of legislation from the parliament, which gives the impression that government is not sincere to address the plight of minority groups in Pakistan. In spite of clear directives by the Apex court, the government has not developed appropriate and religiously unbiased educational curricula at school and college levels to promote a culture of religious and social tolerance, and discourage hate material ridiculing religious beliefs. The government of Pakistan seems indifferent in addressing the issues of minorities, therefore neither special police force with professional training to take pro-active stance to protect minority settlements and worship places from mob attacks, nor task force to develop a strategy of religious tolerance, has been constituted, which is non-compliance of the Supreme Court judgement on part of the government.
It seems that the government has formed National Commission for Minority to merely promote interfaith harmony and promote the soft image of Pakistan towards minority groups. But the commission will not be able to contribute towards improving the state of minority rights and addressing the grievances of minority communities unless it is legally protected through a legislation rather than a notification, and approved by the parliament.
This is not the first time that a dysfunctional minority commission has been established in Pakistan. Several attempts to establish minority commission in the country have been made by different governments from Liaquat Ali Khan regime to Mian Nawaz Sharif regime. The first attempt was made 65 years ago, when Liaquat Ali Khan, first Prime Minister of Pakistan, and Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India, signed Liaquat-Nehru Pact On 8th April 1950, at New Dehli to prevent communal strife and riots built up after partition of India and Pakistan. Through this agreement, the governments of Pakistan and India agreed to guarantee fundamental human rights of the minorities such as; security of person, right to freedom of religion, movement, speech, occupation, and right to participation in public life; and constitute National Minority Commission with a mandate to promote and protect the rights of minorities in their respective states, and affirmed the commitment to ensure that nobody is violating the terms and conditions of the pact.
The Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) constituted National Minority Commission in 1973 under the chairmanship of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (late), then Prime Minister of Pakistan. The Former President General Pervaiz Musharraf also established National Minority Commission in 2004 under the chairmanship of Ijaz-ul-Haq, then Federal Minister for religious affairs and minorities. The commission did nothing significant except introducing National Cultural Award Scheme for Minorities. It failed to prepare and present any recommendations to the government for safeguarding minority rights. The Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) also constituted National Commission for Minorities under the joint chairmanship of Former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yousaf Raza Gillani and Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Clement Bhatti (late), which failed to bring some comfort to the miseries of minority groups, and redress persecution faced by religious minorities in Pakistan.
Minority groups in Pakistan have always expressed their reservations on such commissions formed to fool the minorities, and have always demanded an independent, powerful and autonomous National Minority Commission for the practical realization of the right to freedom of thought, belief and religion.
The national and provincial governments have a responsibility to create statutory bodies to duly monitor the status of ethnic and religious minorities in Pakistan along with cases of violence and discrimination against them. The statutory body with terms of reference must have the mandate to hold regular meetings, receive complaints, investigate them, frame policy recommendations for devising mechanism to resolve unaddressed issues of minorities, and review laws, executive instructions and procedural practices of the government and state bodies reported to be discriminatory to the minorities; and conduct studies and analysis on various minority issues, and present its report to the parliament annually.
The implementation of this judgment has been poor to non-existent since June 2014, therefore, the government of Pakistan must implement last year’s landmark judgement of the apex Court that had outlined a strategy on how to protect minority rights, and show its sincerity about establishing an autonomous and financially independent commission for minorities in line with the verdict of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to resolve the minorities’ issue for good which can only be done, through a consultative process with key stakeholders about its mandate and working, and selection of its members on merit, and appointment of its chairperson. No one else except the former Chief justice of Supreme Court, Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, who authored the minority judgement in 2014, can be the best candidate to hold the office of the chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities.
Making genuine efforts for the mainstreaming of minority groups, and protection of minority rights has always been a tough decision to make by a ruling party independently despite being on every party’s manifesto, therefore the government must call the All Parties Conference (APC) to analyze the vulnerability of minority groups, and formulation and approval of policies and minority commissions both at federal and provincial level for the promotion and protection of minority rights.
(The writer is a human rights activist in Pakistan, and working as Executive Director with Peace and Human Development (PHD) Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)