Despite a mass exodus that emptied one side of the most sensitive international border off its 4 million plus strong Hindu population, Hindus still make an integral part of Pakistan’s socio culture fabric. Yet Hindus, like all minorities, have had a perturbed relationship with the state’s ability to ‘naturalize’ them as equal and recognized citizens of the nation. That is, until now; in a historic move, Pakistan’s National Assembly passed a much-delayed bill to enable the country’s Hindu community to register marriages. While in the narration of political history this might seem an inconsequential feat, yet imagine the scores of people who were being deprived of their fundamental social and family rights simply because their marriages weren’t recognized by the government. In addition to the persecution they continue to experience, Hindus could not prove their marriages thereby barring property transfer, welfare payments, inheritance claims, marital rights, and divorce. But more importantly, the bill is the first of its kind that will not only safeguard minority rights, but will also provide minority status women a legitimate albeit feeble voice with which to champion causes affecting them; forced conversion, kidnapping, marital security, and divorce being a few.
The absence of a legal mechanism for registration and other marital aspects has created problems for the Hindu population living in Pakistan, especially women and marginalized lower caste in getting identity documents and being able to travel freely, for work and otherwise. In addition, without marital proof Hindu women are often abducted and made to forcefully convert and the state cannot legally criminalize this as an offense. Not only that, inheritance claims can become a predicament for widows, orphans, and offspring often leading to lengthy court cases. Without official proof, getting any kind of government documents becomes next to impossible for any citizen.
If the approved bill is fully implemented as a legal apparatus, it will not only introduce a much needed modern boost to the legal aspect of minority marriages but will also be a shining example of the state taking responsibility for the role it has to play in the lives of citizens. For starters, the legal minimum age for a Hindu girl to marry would be 18. Breaking the law regarding the minimum age will result in six months’ jail time and a fine of Rs 5, 000. The new law also legalizes remarriage for a Hindu widow six months after her husband’s death. While marriages will be registered within 15 days of a marriage by local government offices; it also grants Hindus the right to divorce- with women having the additional right to do so on grounds of negligence, bigamy, or having been married before 18. While orthodox Hinduism does not allow or remarriage of a widow, modern Hinduism has seen a host of reforms concerning family law and caste interaction. This kind of legalization has granted Hindu women, and in extension the Hindu community, a chance to not only forge laws concerning their lives but also to legitimately be part of the state’s sphere of influence. In a country like Pakistan, it is necessary to forge political networks that represent communal concerns adequately on a larger and more effective platform.
While Sindh has the largest Hindu population in Pakistan, it is only very recently that the Sindh Assembly passed its Hindu Marriage Act 2016, codifying marriage laws for millions of Hindus. But once the bill is approved by the National Assembly, it will then be sent to the provincial assemblies, especially Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, for the final approval as per the 18th amendment to the Pakistan constitution that gave the provinces more autonomy concerning communities living in their geographical location. Once it’s official, the national legislation will also be implemented in Sindh. Punjab lacks such a structure, but is expected to adopt the Assembly’s push for enacting the law.
Yet it is not the expediency of the bill that should worry skeptics, rather if the nature of the legal protection provided would serve to integrate an otherwise isolated community. For far too long the Hindu community, an impoverished and politically marginalized section has had to bear the brunt of the state’s discrimination. With no Hindu marriage law in the country for the past 66 years, the Hindu community has had less of a cultural impact let alone being able to define a unique Pakistani Hindu identity for themselves. But the move has been welcomed by not only all sections of society but also the international community. Extending a legal cover for isolated and marginalized communities is a way to safeguard their fundamental constitutional rights. Moreover, with Pakistan great step towards addressing its gender problem, the marriage bill is part of a series of political punitive actions that has finally given the country’s women a much needed voice. Being hailed by many as the ‘Decade of Pakistani Women’, it is essential that the seemingly neutral state be involved in catering to not only Muslim women, but also their Hindu, Sikh, Christian, and other denominational sisters too.
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