Minority Rights and Constitutional Protections

Every citizen is guaranteed the freedom to “profess, practice and propagate his religion” under Article 20 of the Constitution. Minorities are afforded further constitutional protection under Article 36 of the Constitution, which mandates that the “[s]tate shall safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities.” Despite these constitutional guarantees, religious minorities in Pakistan experience multiple exclusions from access to justice, owing to discriminatory laws and practice. This was discussed at a roundtable organized by Jinnah Institute on 16th May 2019 that convened an eminent group of human rights defenders from KP and Punjab, moderated by Salman Zaidi and Syed Hassan Akbar. The participants, most of whom had extensive experience of working for minority rights discussed the challenges faced by religious minorities in ensuring protection for themselves and their communities, touching upon increasing security challenges and rising intolerance that hinders their political and public participation.

Calling on the federal and provincial governments, the participants highlighted that most curriculum textbooks taught in public schools were developed in the 1980’s and a major overhaul of curricula was required to meet the challenges faced by Pakistan in the 21st century. A number of instances in existing textbooks that violate Article 22 of the Constitution were discussed. They highlighted that following the SC verdict curriculum task forces were established to look at hate speech and biases in existing curricula, but implementation of the task force recommendations are subject to political delays.

Given the lack of movement in policy reform on curriculum through a top-down approach, the participants also narrated existing instances of bottom-up approaches to tackling biases against minority communities. They agreed that working on a rights based approach with citizens should go hand in hand with advocacy at the policy level to ensure that a more inclusive and equality based curricula is developed across all textbook boards to prepare our future generations for a more progressive, tolerant and empowered Pakistan.

Participants noted that blasphemy laws were commonly used to threaten, intimidate or attack religious minorities. Members of minority groups drew upon their experiences of law enforcement agencies denying them rightful protections through non-registration of FIRs or inaction in the face of imminent violence. The courts too have not prevented discrimination and persecution against religious minorities: no court has taken notice or refrained anti-Ahmadi gatherings and rallies. This resulted in reduced confidence in the rule of law and state institutions.

It was acknowledged that there has been a significant shift in the approach towards blasphemy law, with a renewed judicial focus on checking its abuse. In 2017, the Islamabad High Court proposed that the punishment for false accusations under the blasphemy law should be made stricter to prevent
the abuse of the law. It was noted that the parliament has also expressed a desire to take remedial measures to this end. More recently, the Supreme Court, while acquitting Asia Bibi of charges of blasphemy levelled against her, emphasized that false accusations should be dealt with seriously. Participants expressed some optimism as a result of this judgement.

Participants also discussed environmental rights. Although the Supreme Court recognized clean environment as a fundamental right of citizens, successive governments have paid negligible attention to this aspect over the decades. It was discussed that while other states and their civil societies are trying to co-create new aspects of citizenship that enable a fuller enjoyment of rights and entitlements, such as access to environmental rights, Pakistan is barely able to meet the implementation of its constitutional provisions. Participants stated that realizing environmental rights requires a merger of human rights and environment policy frameworks. This needs to be backed with a new set of indicators that connect environmental outcomes with human rights concerns.