Pakistan’s draft Hindu marriage law crosses first hurdle

Pakistan's draft Hindu marriage law crosses first hurdle
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After decades of filibustering, a parliamentary committee has finally approved a draft law on Hindu marriages in Pakistan, paving the way for registering marriages in the minuscule religious minority.

Five Hindu members of the National Assembly, the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament, were specially invited to the deliberations of the Standing Committee on Law and Justice on the Hindu Marriage Bill, 2015.

Though delaying tactics continued almost to the last, the committee adopted the bill unanimously after making two amendments to fix the minimum age of the marrying male and female at 18, and making the law applicable to whole country, instead of just the federal territory.

Committee chairman Chaudhry Mahmood Bashir Virk regretted the long-drawn tactical delay in framing the family law for the Hindu community.

“It was unbecoming of us Muslims in general and the political leaders in particular. We were required to facilitate the legislation, not obstruct it,” he said. “If we 99% of the population are afraid of 1%, we need to look deep inside what we claim to be and what we are.”

A Hindu marriage law has remained elusive in Pakistan more than 68 years since the country was created. 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, visa counters and all governance windows that require official identity cards. Some institutions have put in place stopgap arrangements, but these are not always effective.

Wrangles till the last

Virk and National Assembly member Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani had been pushing for bill’s approval, but members of other parliamentary parties who claim to be more liberal persisted with raising objections.

Even on Monday, Shagufta Jumani of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party and Ali Mohammad Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf raised many queries about minimum age of a Hindu girl to be married, and the status of marriage if either of the partners converted to Islam.

“The age issue has nothing to do with us – the Hindus are marrying their daughters after attaining the age of 18. Why do you object to it?” asked Chaudhary Virk.

Khan responded: “How will you or anybody determine that the girl is not underage?”

Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz told him that people start following the law gradually.

“Under the banner of Pakistan Hindu Council, I arrange mass marriage of around a hundred girls every year and we clearly deny marriage of even an orphan who is under 18. Now people know it and they do not insist on marrying girls or boys below 18 years,” Dr Vankwani said.

He also wanted to drop a clause in the bill that provides for the marriage to be nullified if any of the partners converts to Islam. It was inserted by the Council of Islamic Ideology when the bill was sent for “sharia vetting” about six months ago.

“Why a Hindu and a Muslim or Christian cannot live together as happily married couple?” asked Dr Vankwani.

However, his suggestion to drop the clause met stern resistance from Shagufta Jumani and Ali Mohammad. It was this point that the Committee chairman stopped the discussion to avoid “total collapse” of the meeting.

Dr Vankwani later told Dawn that open-mindedness was wanting in society. “If Hindu boys and girls elsewhere can marry into other religions, why this cannot be a reality here?” he wondered.

After the 18th Amendment, the issues of religious minorities and their family matters became provincial subjects, but the Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies passed resolutions allowing the federation to legislate Hindu marriage law.

A similar resolution is pending in the Punjab Assembly while not much has been done in this regard by Sindh Assembly.