July Issue 2010
Interview: Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities
“The ministry plans to introduce legislation against hate literature”
– Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities
Q: The federal Ministry of Minorities is mandated with protecting the rights of minorities as envisaged under the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973. But after the recent incidents of violence against Ahmedis, Christians and Hindus, do you think the ministry is doing its job?
A: The ministry is taking steps to uplift and empower the minorities of Pakistan. We are committed to protecting their rights and are making efforts to establish a tolerant society where every citizen of Pakistan, regardless of colour, creed or religion, is treated equally.
The ministry has taken serious note of all incidents of violence against minorities in the past years and has provided timely assistance to the victims. The resolutions [against such incidents] were unanimously passed by the parliament and I, as a federal minister, even visited these places. I stayed in Gojra for over a week, and other government officials also visited Gojra to show solidarity with the victims of violence.
We have also been taking serious notice of incidents of land-grabbing, kidnapping, harassment and victimisation of all minorities.
We will protect the lives and properties of the minorities at any cost. Minorities have played a significant role in the creation and development of Pakistan. Their services and sacrifices in all fields, especially education, defence, medicine, social development and culture, are commendable.
Q: What is the annual budget of your ministry? How is it spent and who oversees the spending?
A: The annual budget of the ministry was Rs 75 million before 2008, but it was doubled in 2009. Now we have a 150-million-rupee development budget, which is being used for small development schemes and to provide financial assistance to the poor and the needy. Sixteen million rupees are set aside for scholarships for students from minority communities. The Ministry of Minorities was earlier part of the Ministry of Culture, Youth, Sports and Tourism, but in 2008 the PPP government upgraded the status of this ministry and appointed a full-fledged federal minister. The ministry’s funds are utilised under a proper government accounting procedure.
Q: How many people are employed at the ministry and what is the nature of work?
A: Presently 73 people are working in the ministry against 89 sanctioned posts. The staff is involved in various activities, like the disbursement of financial assistance to the needy among the minorities, initiating small development schemes, providing scholarships and celebrating religious festivals. Besides this, they monitor and respond to incidents of violence and victimisation. Additionally, the staff is also involved in policy-making and all legislation related to minorities.
Q: What steps has the ministry taken to put an end to land-grabbing and punish land-grabbers who target vulnerable communities like the Hindus and Sikhs?
A: A presidential ordinance was issued in 2002 to ban the sale of communal properties belonging to minorities without a NOC from the federal government. Also, the ministry has, through law enforcement agencies, taken action against those land-grabbers who have targeted minority communities.
Q: The Punjab government has placed ads for land auctions that ban Ahmedis from participating. Where does the federal government stand on this issue and what have they done to eradicate economic discrimination?
A: The federal government is providing equal opportunities to all minorities, including Ahmedis, for their economic empowerment. Through small development schemes, our ministry facilitates minorities to buy land for graveyards and other purposes.
Q: In an interview with AFP in February this year, you said that the government “has a commitment to repeal all discriminatory laws affecting the rights of minorities” including making revisions to the Blasphemy Law by the end of 2010. Has a bill been prepared in this regard?
A: We are striving for human equality, religious freedom, social justice, interfaith harmony and equal rights for minorities in Pakistan. All those laws that were inactive in the Pakistan Penal Court or were part of the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan during dictatorship rule in the past are being reviewed. These discriminatory laws are against the vision of the founding father and the spirit of democracy. We are making such changes and amendments in these laws so that they cannot be misused and used to create insecurity among minorities. We are in the process of consultation, and after consulting with all the stakeholders — political parties, Islamic religious scholars, Ulema and representatives of minorities — we will table a bill in parliament.
Q: But why is the PPP government pushing for revisions only? Doesn’t the government of Prime Minister Gilani support an immediate repeal of the Blasphemy Law given that is so blatantly misused?
A: We are well aware of the misuse of the Blasphemy Law. Many innocent people of Pakistan, belonging to both Muslim and non-Muslim communities, are falsely implicated under the pretext of the Blasphemy Law. Mostly this law is used to settle personal scores and no one commits blasphemy due to political or religious enmity. It is important to promote tolerance in our society so that people of different faiths can live in unity and harmony.
Q: How is the Ministry for Minorities working with other ministries to curb hate propaganda in the form of books, video and internet content?
A: The ministry has launched a national campaign to promote interfaith harmony and national unity and we have held consultative meetings, seminars and workshops to promote understanding, cooperation, tolerance and respect among the followers of different faiths. District Interfaith Harmony Committees are being formed by the ministry to promote harmony and tolerance and to curb the trends of extremism and hate. The ministry also plans to introduce legislation against hate literature and hate speeches.
Q: What is your ministry doing to push education reform so that tolerance and inter-faith harmony become key components of school curricula?
A: Our ministry has proposed that the Ministry of Education introduce Interfaith Harmony or Comparative religion as a subject in the curriculum.
Q: Do minority MNAs and MPAs play any role in alleviating the problems of their respective communities or are they merely token representatives?
A: It is part of my mission to serve the marginalised and down-trodden minorities of Pakistan. I have a commitment to serve the oppressed people of Pakistan till my last breath. Representatives of minorities in the national and provincial assemblies are also playing an effective role in solving the problems of minorities. So all of us are working unitedly for the same cause.
Q: What steps has your ministry taken in the last two years for the welfare and uplift of Pakistan’s minorities?
A: The federal government has taken several steps for the development and welfare of minorities. These are:
– A 5% job quota is allocated for them in all government jobs, including the CSS, in addition to their contesting for a job on open merit.
– Four seats in the Senate of Pakistan are reserved for them through the 18th Amendment.
– Religious festivals of all minorities are being celebrated officially at the national level and optional holidays are given to them on these festivals; remission in prison terms is given to all minority prisoners on these festivals.
– To highlight the vision of the founding father and recognise the contribution of minorities in nation-building, August 11 has been declared ‘Minority Day’.
– Prayer rooms are being set up for non-Muslim prisoners in all jails throughout the country.
– A 24-hour hotline is being established in our ministry to respond to emergencies and incidents of violence. Any person from the minority community can call the hotline in times of need and crisis. One extension of the hotline will also be in the President’s House.
– At interfaith complex will be established in Islamabad.
– The Minorities Protection Bill will be tabled in Parliament in the next three months.
– The ministry has launched a campaign to protect and preserve the artifacts and religious sites belonging to minorities.