It’s no exaggeration to say that Akram Masih Gill does not have an easy job. In fact, some could call it downright dangerous.
In recent months, the spotlight had gone to the treatment of minorities in Pakistan, when a large group of Pakistani Hindus arrived in India on pilgrimage visa, and told awaiting media that they were not ready to go back.
These had been after a series of attacks on Hindus in Sindh province, were highlighted in the media, ranging from the kidnapping and conversion of Rinkle Kumari to the televised conversion of a Hindu boy.
Recently, a minor, mentally-challenged Christian girl was accused of blasphemy on allegation of desecrating the Holy Quran. It was later found that local cleric had himself burned the pages and stuffed it in Rimsha’s bag.
Forty-one-year-old Gill, who is the minister of state for interfaith harmony, has an uphill task as he grapples with the issue of forced conversions of minorities has been difficult issue to grapple in the religiously-charged society.
As per Pakistan government statistics, about 4 per cent of the population is minorities, with Hindus accounting for 1.6 per cent and Christians at 1.59 per cent.
Speaking to express, Gill said that he had no problem with conversion to Islam, if it was motivated by genuine spiritual change. “If you remember, (cricketer) Yusuf Youhana had become a muslim… We didn’t mind it,” he said.
But, the conversion of minority girls, he admits, is different. “This (forced conversion of girls) is driven by sexual lust. Tell me, why are only females getting converted?” said Gill, who is a member of Pakistan Muslim League (Q).
In response to the incidents, new legislation has been proposed by Pakistan’s National Commission for Minorities. “We have proposed that unmarried women should have a period of trial of one month or 15 days at the time of conversion,” said Gill.
This proposal is currently before the Council of Islamic Ideology for consideration. “This is an Islamic state, so we can’t make any legislation which is contrary to the religion... I am sure that they will be positive. But, it requires support from all parties as it will have to be a constitutional amendment”.
At the same time, he trots a familiar reason, at least to Indian ears, for Islamabad not being able to prevent some cases – federalism. “Frankly, in a lot of cases, the local machinery, including the police, have not performed as they should. The blame lies with the provinces as law and order falls under their purview,” said the Pakistani minister.
In fact, according to the 18th amendment passed in 2010, welfare of minorities had been devolved down to the provinces and the government had disbanded the minorities welfare ministry at the centre.
But after protests, the Yousuf Raza Gilani government had formed the new ministry for national harmony.
The high-profile cases of forced conversions have created a lot of heat in India, with questions raised in parliament and Indian government forced to give a protest note to Islamabad.
Gill, however, does not seem keen to have India officially raise the matter. “We are Christians, but we don’t expect US to help us,” he said. Rather, he gave the example of US-based non-voluntary groups working with minorities in Pakistan as an example of what India could emulate. “Civil society can always help…. US does not interfere directly,” he said.
On the migration issue, he says that it was not a “simple case of Hindus going to India after being discriminated here”. “After all, Christians are facing equal problems, why have they not travelled to India… They (Hindus) have family, places for pilgrimage in India. I hope they will come back.”
Gill chooses his words carefully, knowing that even he could share the fate of Shahbaz Bhatti, who was minority affairs minister from 2008 till his assassination in March 2011 for his support to Asia Bibi, sentenced to death under the Blasphemy law.
When asked if he is scared of consequences, he preferred to remain silent—an eloquent testimony to the climate of fear in the country.
- Sunday Standard