Hope for Minorities inc. Hindus: Making and breaking of family laws

LAHORE: He has no way of getting out of a marriage he no longer wants to stay in. He and his wife are separated since five years but cannot get a divorce and get remarried. They are stuck in a rut for one reason alone – they are Christians. The Church does not allow them to seek a divorce, and the Christian family laws in Pakistan make it impossible as well.

“The only way he can get a divorce is by proving that she committed adultery which she didn’t. This is something this man will not stoop to,” said Advocate Yasin Badar, talking to TheExpress Tribune and citing the example of an academic in Lahore who is his client. Badar added that several Christians seriously consider converting to Islam in order to get a divorce divorcing, but this client of his refused to do so.

Absence of satisfactory family laws for minority communities of Pakistan has long posed problems for Pakistan’s non-Muslim population. But things seem to be looking up, albeit slowly.

Punjab is poised to become the first province in Pakistan that will acknowledge and appoint a separate marriage registrar for Hindu couples. The Women’s Parliamentary Caucus Punjab has plans of tabling the Punjab Registration of Hindu Marriage Bill 2014 in the provincial assembly. This will give legal recognition to Hindu marriages in the province, and the long standing demand of the Hindus of Pakistan of having their own marriage law will hopefully be met.

According to federal law secretary Barrister Zafarullah Khan, this matter is very sensitive and they are trying to develop consensus among the stakeholders through holding consultative meetings where representatives of minority communities, parliament, civil societies and legal experts are being invited. He said the government does not want to offend anyone by making some laws which are not suitable for that community. “The legislation relating to Hindus is almost final; however, the legislation relating to the Christians is facing some complications.”

On the federal level, as explained by MNA Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, the Hindu MarriageBill has been finalised by the law committee of the ministry of law, and has been presented before the parliamentary standing committee on religious affairs for consent. Vankwani was hopeful that once the bill is approved by the committee, it will be presented before the parliament.

Presently, as Vankwani explained, all the Hindus get is a certificate from the Pakistan Hindu Council as a proof of their marriage. He claimed that there are 8 million Hindus in Pakistan and as a result of non-availability of a proper law, forced conversions happen.

Giving salient features of the Hindu Marriage Bill 2013, Vankwani said that under this bill theminimum age of marriage for girls is 18 and for boys is 21. According the bill, in light of Hindu traditions, marriage cannot take place between spinda (blood) relatives, and both spouses must be sane.

Vankwani explained that there is no provision for separation in traditional Hinduism. However, a relaxation in the proposed bill is that if due to certain reasons a separation is desired, a petition would have to be filed and a decision would be given by the court by the 12th month of filing the petition, so that the couple be given enough time for reconciliation.

As 42 per cent of Pakistan’s minority population, the Christian community stands at over two million in number. For the Christian community, the bigger problem lies in the laws pertaining to divorce.

Mainly, Christians from the Catholic sect cannot get a divorce easily. The conditions for divorce are determined by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church after appropriate investigations are carried out by the local clergymen. Considerations include adultery, impotence and inability to bear a child among others.

Those who defy these regulations are usually ex-communicated from the Church. Catholics desperate to remarry often change their denomination. For the Church of Pakistan, which is an amalgamation of more than three mainstream ‘Protestant’ denominations, divorce is permitted. The Church represents more than 50 per cent of the country’s Christian population.

The real issue for Christians is the lack of proper documentation of marriages for smaller, lesser known denominations. The headache for mainstream churches (bother Protestant and Catholic) is determining whether a person is married or not in another denomination, and how to prove the same.

MNA Aasia Nasir, who is working on bringing feasible amendments in the Christian divorce act, told The Express Tribune that so far there is a deadlock among the bishops of differentschools of thought over amendments in the laws. She said a meeting in this regard was organised by Ministry of Law, but to no avail.

According to law expert Riffat Butt, the legislations pertaining to Christians have more hurdles than family laws for Hindus, as the Marriage Act of 1872 and Divorce Act 1868 have become redundant.

The Sikh community is faced with its own set of problems in this regard. Gopal Singh Gopi, head of Sikh Sangat, told The Express Tribune that Pakistani Sikhs have tried to convince the government for their marriage and divorce acts but in vain. A draft of the Sikh Marriage Bill 2007 had been given to the then-law minister Justice (retd) Afzal Haider who had promised to make it a law but to no avail, shared Professor Kalian Singh.

The Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act 1936 is presently applicable. For a valid marriage, both spouses should be Parsi and the parties should not be related in the degree of consanguinity or affinity. A Parsi marriage is solemnised by a priest. Divorce in the Parsi community is difficult to obtain and strong grounds need to be presented.

Source: Tribune