Marriage and discrimination

Jinnah envisioned a modern, liberal and progressive state of Pakistan founded on the principles of equality, justice and fair play. He further envisaged equal treatment to all religious minorities but after sixty-seven years, the plight of minorities is beyond description. The guiding principles enunciated by the founder were thrown out of window soon after his demise and religious zealots came to define the future course of the country.
A couple of months ago, a report published by London-based Minority Rights Group International and Sustainable Development Policy Institute revealed unpleasant and bitter facts about the state of discrimination faced by religious minorities in Pakistan. Amongst a host of other issues, the report has highlighted the difficulties faced by the Hindu, Sikh and Baha’i community because of absence of laws for registration of their marriages.
According to the census of 1998, the Hindu and Christian population make up 1.2 and 1.9 percent of the total population respectively but the independent studies suggest a higher figure. A recent reliable report put the figure for Hindus at 4 million, with the overwhelming majority concentrated in southern parts of Sindh and Punjab.
There is no doubt that the inability to get the marriage registered constitutes a denial of fundamental rights to minorities and is a facet of institutionalized discrimination. It effectually leads to denial of identity to married couples.
After the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment, registration of marriage has become a provincial subject but the provinces have shown no urgency to frame legislation in this regard. The Hindu Marriage Bill, introduced in the National Assembly, which will be operative for the Islamabad Capital Territory and other areas under direct federal jurisdiction, still awaits passage owing to lack of attention of legislators. The women caucus in the Punjab Assembly also tabled the Punjab Hindu Marriage Registration Bill 2014 but it has not been debated.
The absence of marriage registration document brings about multifarious socio-economic woes, especially for women. Because of want of proof of marriage, the widows could not claim their right to property of their deceased husband. Hindu women have often been victims of abduction, forcible conversion and marriage and even married women have not been spared. But their relatives could not get relief in courts of law, as there had not been a documentary proof of previous marriage. Their miseries are further compounded as most of them belong to the lower class (known as scheduled caste), which has to face the double jeopardy of being minority and poor. And, in certain cases if a husband refuses to acknowledge the parentage of a child, the mother is left with no option to prove her marriage. To file a suit for separation, divorce or maintenance stipend becomes almost impossibility, without proof of marriage.
The lack of proof of marital status also becomes a legal hindrance in obtaining computerized national identity cards and later getting their names changed by women. This restricts their right to movement as they face difficulties in getting passports issued. The Hindu couples living together in hotels, have often been subjected to harassment by law enforcement personnel, on failure to produce a marriage certificate in evidence of their stated relationship. Thus they live in an atmosphere of constant fear. In May last year, Dr. Rumesh Kumar, a PML-N MNA, told his colleagues in the National Assembly that five thousand Hindus are migrating to India every year because of persecution and neglect of policy makers. But this shocking revelation failed to stir the conscience of MPs out of deep slumber and the incidents of desecration of temples and forcible conversions are on the rise.
The prevailing state of affairs makes all constitutional guarantees and promises of protection for minorities meaningless and illusory. The principle of equality enshrined in Article 25 of the Constitution and the statement of Objectives Resolution, also incorporated as the substantive part of the sacred document, are blatantly flouted every day with regards to minorities. Without the protection of rights of minorities, the claims of democratic credentials will remain a farce. The trend of increasing intolerance towards minorities in Pakistan must be arrested at the earliest.
It is high time the legislators started considering legislation serious business and the passage of Hindu Marriage Bill in National Assembly and all provincial legislatures must be hastened by all means. Though the Christian Marriage Act 1870 is in force it also needs various improvements on various counts. One, the smaller Christian denominations face problems of proper documentation as, under the law, only major Churches are recognized. Two, the minimum age for marriage under the Christian Act is 13 years which goes against the provisions of the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 in vogue in Pakistan.


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