By Raniya Khan
Among big-ticket issues of individual and national security, fundamental rights for minorities in Pakistan are often overlooked. The list of their deprivations are long, and media attention focuses on them when they are brutalized by law or persecuted in pogroms. But the fundamentals of their status as legal citizens always remain precarious, and often too contingent even in daily entitlements under the law. It can be as simple as registering a marriage: In Pakistan, for instance, registering a marriage between a Hindu woman and a Hindu man is just not possible. For any religious minorities, the inability to register their marriages and to enforce or contest the legality of their marriage certificates, amounts to denying them a fundamental human right. Yet, for religious minorities in Pakistan, legalizing their marriages has just not featured as a state priority.
Apart from the nikkah naama for Muslim marriages and the certificate of marriage for Christian marriages, there is no process for registering marriages of other religious groups. Recently, the government did order NADRA (National Database Registration Authority) to accept the Sikh marriage certificate known as annand karraj as legally binding, after a meeting between Sikh officials and NADRA’s deputy chairman, Tariq Malik, but other groups still face problems. Hindus, Parsis and Baahi communities cannot produce any proof of marriage, which can cause a multiplicity of obstacles to obtaining state entitlements, including the right to vote. Sangeeta Devi said, “On not being able to produce marriage registration certificates, we are not entitled to get a CNIC, which in turn denies us the right to vote as well”.
Like all exclusions, this issue can hit women especially hard. As, Shami Mai, a poor Hindu woman from Rahim Yar Khan explained, “In case of separation or domestic violence, a Hindu woman cannot register a complaint in government departments because she does not have any legal document to establish the perpetrator as her husband”. And in cases where the husband dies, the widow does not have access to his property or resources as she has no proof of their marriage. The Hindu community has been urging the government to pass a marriage act to legalize their marriages. Despite the Supreme Court’s suo moto ruling on November 23, 2010 and the Prime Minister’s acknowledgement that marriage rights for Hindus must be reformed, there has been no legal decision to date.
The Supreme Court has asked for the issuance of a CNIC (identity card) for Hindu community members so that they can show some identification to avoid distress at the hands of the authorities. However, the continued absence of a marriage registration process is a cause of major concern as it "otherizes" the Hindu community by isolating them as non-citizens in their daily lives, leaving them wide open to official abuse. Naina Bai said, “If we travel or stay in a hotel, policemen and hotel administrations mistreat us. They become suspicious of our relation to each other”.
Shanktala Devi, a housewife, also complained of issues arising due to the absence of marriage registration. She reiterated the problems faced by women in particular, and expressed concern over divorced and widowed Hindu women who were not given any legal rights over the property of their husbands. She urged the government to address this pressing issue of the legality of registering their marriages in order for them to safeguard their rights.
The Hindu population in Pakistan currently stands at over four million, making them the largest minority in the country. Continuing to deny them basic marriage rights is clearly unacceptable, and the Supreme Court should press the government to enforce its ruling on the registration of their marriages before more members of the minority Hindu community are forced to migrate across the border due to oppression in Pakistan.
In a moving testimony to such a litany of quiet exclusions, a journalist Kapil Dev said, “Our community members are migrating to other countries because they think that no one accepts them in Pakistani society”. He was right. A clear example of the discrimination against minorities and the growing need to address their issues arose recently when a Hindu MPA from Singh migrated to India. Several members of parliament, from the Pakistan People’s Party in fact, were critical of their own government in the national assembly, expressing legitimate worry over the growing number of minorities fleeing from the country.
At present, with the security situation as precarious as it is, minority issues meet a dead end even with citizen's groups seeking to defend their rights in a climate when bigots become heroes overnight, and vigilante mobs often dictate the agenda in small communities. In this backdrop, it is difficult to say when the question of the registration of minority marriages will be resolved. Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti’s murders show that minorities and their advocates, at least for now, are not safe in a country like Pakistan where religious identity continues to be conflated with citizenship. This is the fault line where Jinnah's vision for Pakistan is contested in daily battles for rights and entitlements in ordinary people's lives, with no access to justice or the state's resources. This is where advocacy must speak truth to power.