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Express Tribune Editorials – 10th February 2016

Marriage and minorities

Laws governing marriage, divorce and inheritance in the minority communities in some instances predate Partition, and have been the source of considerable inconvenience to minorities since Pakistan came into being. Attempts to redress their grievances by reforming legislation have, to say the very least, had mixed success. Some hope for the Hindu community has now appeared on the horizon in the form of the Hindu Marriage Bill 2015. The Standing Committee on Law and Justice, sitting with five Hindu MNAs who were specially invited, have adopted the Bill unanimously with the addition of two amendments fixing the age of marriage at 18 for both men and women and making the new law applicable to the entire country, not only the federal territory.

The Hindu minority is tiny, and shrinking as they come under pressure either to convert or to shift their businesses from ancestral locations. The difficulties of legalising marriage has the knock-on effect of creating other problems in making changes in the CNIC, and NADRA recognising Hindu marriages as legal. Why it has taken so long to produce a piece of legislation that affects such a small minority is something of a mystery, and there were members of the Standing Committee who until the very last were stonewalling the Bill.

Committee Chairman Chaudhry Mahmood Bashir Virk said that he regretted what he described as a “tactical delay” in the framing of a basic piece of legislation. He lamented, rightly, that it was unbecoming of Muslims in general and their political leaders in particular to deny the rights of minorities who presented no threat to the Muslim faith or the state itself. With Hindus being less than one per cent of the population, Mr Virk has a point. Peaceful and almost invisible for the most part, they are regularly marginalised and discriminated against, the vast majority being low-caste, poor and with little chance of advancement. It is to be hoped that the Bill will now be signed into law by the lower house and a wrong righted, though from the behaviour of some members of the Standing Committee, its progress may not be automatic.

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Managing the migrant stream

Events that started on December 10, 2010 in Tunisia have a direct causal linkage to the refugee crisis that is consuming the Middle East, Turkey, the Balkan states, Greece, all the countries of the Maghrib and the UK. Millions are on the move and the small kingdom of Jordan is close to being overwhelmed. Turkey has taken in two million and the European Union (EU) finds that its open-border policy enshrined in the Schengen Agreement is close to collapse such is the scale of the human crisis. People from Pakistan are in the mix of this vast stream, and not all of them are refugees, with many being economic migrants seeking their fortune and a better life in the EU.

What to do with illegal immigrants has become an issue within an issue. The EU needs to manage the flow as best as it can and has been deporting illegal immigrants to a range of countries and not only Pakistan. Pakistan has in the past protested that some of those it was asked to receive as deportees had not been verified as Pakistani citizens in the first place; and some that had been inappropriately described as having connections to terrorism had themselves been illegally deported by the EU itself. Now, the EU and Pakistan have agreed a set of protocols that satisfy the demands of Pakistan in terms of deportations, a development that has received an endorsement from Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar. This is not the first time that ‘agreement’ over this matter is said to have been reached, and it is to be hoped that the latest agreement is both durable and workable to the satisfaction of all sides because this is a problem that has the potential to get worse rather than better. The EU has now agreed to the verification process proposed by the Interior Ministry in line with the Readmission Accord. It now remains to be seen whether all sides are able to effectively implement what are complex procedures in a timely manner, and a diplomatic ‘incident’ with deportees shuttling to-and-fro, avoided.

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Implementing RTI laws

Contrary to popular perception, when it comes to protecting the rights of citizens, Pakistan has some exemplary laws. The 18th Amendment decrees that access to information held by government bodies is a right of every citizen. The provincial governments of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) have gone further by introducing their own Right to Information (RTI) legislation and have been lauded for their comprehensive transparency laws. Unfortunately, it appears that this is where the good news ends. A report titled “The State of Proactive Disclosure of Information in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab Public Bodies” has reviewed several websites of Punjab and K-P government departments and found them woefully slow in adopting RTI laws. Large gaps exist between what the law states must be made public and what government bodies are actually willing to disclose.

Broken links, lack of contact information and changed web addresses are just some of the problems highlighted in the report. Some websites only provide postal addresses and no online means of requesting information. It seems that the internet, despite its global power and outreach, remains something of a mystery to our government bodies. There is a general state of reluctance when it comes to adopting the web as a quick and easy means of sharing information. Its usefulness is misunderstood and underestimated. This is compounded by the fossilised mindset of keeping the public at arm’s length and making the provision of information an onerous task. The RTI laws in Punjab and K-P can be of little use if they are not followed up by widespread and effective implementation. Rather than making individuals dig through mounds of broken links and unhelpful web pages, there must be proactive implementation of these laws. The websites and information offices must be fully functional, easily accessible and actually able to provide the information required. Our government bodies need to start considering public welfare a priority as well as realise that the internet is increasingly becoming the primary source of information for the public.

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