Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

“We will never allow the government to have a divorce clause in the Hindu Marriage Act. We have no concept of divorce in our religion,” said Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani in 2011. He is the patron of the Pakistan Hindu Council and a member of the National Assembly. It is in the context of this statement that the recently introduced laws on Hindu marriages must be seen.

The enactment of a law on Hindu marriages has been a thorny issue for a long time, particularly because of a clause which provides grounds for divorce. As expected, this provision in the bill titled Hindu Marriage Act 2016 – recently approved by the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Law and Justice – has led to controversy. Many upper-caste Hindus do not want the option for divorce to be part of the bill because, as they say, there is no concept of divorce among Hindus.

And yet everyone in the Hindu community agrees, especially women and lower-caste marginalised groups, that the absence of a law for registration and other aspects of marriage (including divorce) has been creating a lot of problems in property transfer and in the procuring of travel and identity documents. It has become increasingly important in a globalised world where financial freedom and mobility are linked to such documents.

Sindh took the lead by passing a law on registration of Hindu marriages on February 15, 2016. The Sindh Assembly conveniently left the provision of divorce out of consideration, apparently due to pressure from or fear of the upper-caste Hindus, who control minority politics in the province.

The complete absence of women’s voices from the discourse in the media, local or national, is noticeable.

A provision allowing for divorce means one can get out of an unwanted relationship and be free to enter another with the state facilitating the process. It is this aspect which the patriarchs of Hindu community seem to dislike: they fear losing control over the minds and bodies of their women — the complete absence of women’s voices from the discourse in the media, local or national, is noticeable.

Apart from the upper-caste Hindus, there are others who do not like this clause, which makes conversion a possible ground for either of the two partners to approach the court in order to opt out of an unwanted relationship. Their fear is that Hindu women are likely to be taken away from their communities by Muslim men, who (by virtue of their higher social and economic status) are likely to influence, convert and marry them. Under Islamic law, Muslim men can marry Christian women who are ahl-e-kitab (‘people of the book’), for instance, but cannot marry Hindu women. For that to happen, they must convert the women. In a society where one religious group dominates in numerical terms and is often oppressive, with the state’s active help, conversion sometimes also offers an opportunity of upward mobility for Hindu women. The incentive to opt out of Hinduism, as well as a Hindu marriage, and enter the fold of Islam is strong. It is this social and cultural context that explains why such conversions are referred to as “forced conversions.”

Leap of faith

Not surprisingly, some Muslim members of parliament as well as some state institutions such as the Council of Islamic Ideology have been quite enthusiastic in their support for the inclusion of a clause on divorce, particularly on grounds of conversion. They see the growth of Islam in such laws.

Dr Vankwani has recently vowed to keep raising his voice in parliament and at all other forums to ensure the protection of the rights of all Hindus. Ironically, he, too, suggested an option for marriage termination “in the present context.” He states: “After a separation of two years, the marriage can be terminated and each individual can independently make decisions, including conversion.”

This was originally published in the Herald's March 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.