KARACHI - Scholars and parliamentarians representing different countries of South Asia on Tuesday identified that there was a democracy deficit in the entire region that had caused weakening voice of minorities.

People merely have vote banks and the states are experiencing electoral violence and attacks on the rival groups.

These scholars and parliamentarians were speaking at the first of two-day South Asian conference on ‘Religious Minorities and Human Rights: Challenges and Opportunities’ organised by Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research at a local hotel.

The conference started with prayers recited by people representing all the religions existing in Pakistan.

IA Rehman of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who was presiding over the first session, said the entire South Asia was in the grip of fundamentalism. There are forces, whether it is military and religious states using religion for dividing the people.

Those who used to preach for peace now have become violent. For example, in Sri Lanka Buddhist monks who were preaching non-violence have become violent.

“We should have broader canvases to understand and deal with the situation, he said and called the scholars hailing from abroad that “If you want to learn the case of minority you should come and see how minorities in Pakistan are battling for their rights and survive.”

Senator Saeed Ghani of PPP said that the country needs to be transformed into a free society. He said PPP was facing pressure and atrocities since the decades. The party despite being in the government had never dared to come into confrontation with such extremists.

He disclosed that extremists have penetrated in all major political parties and they want to bring these people in the parliament. He warned that in case any party compromises and gave these elements opportunity to reach at parliament it could be destructive for the country in future.

Mayeenuddin Badal, a member of the Bangladesh parliament, said people were misinterpreting Islam for their political gains. He proposed to have an institute in South Asia to understand the religion. This can only be the way out to understand the religion and then can interpret it rightly.

He said Subcontinent had different nature, it had given the diversified culture, architecture and art to the world. Looking to this recognition of this subcontinent the people do not need such kind of hate-theories of the religion.

Irfan Ali Engineer, an Indian researcher speaking from Mumbai via Skype suggested that there should be a charter of minorities’ rights in South Asia and all the states in the region should adopt it so we face the problem together.

Sapna Pradhan Malla, former member of Constituent Assembly of Nepal said there are several minority groups in here country like Muslims, Christians and Hindus but some backward groups in her country are also called as minorities.

Clarifying marginalised segments, she said, “There are groups dominant in number but they do not have participation in the parliament and resources.” She said the Nepalese government respects all the religious groups equally.

She said there are more issues inter-related with each other. Therefore, there is need to initiate debate on the issues to make a point that what kind of equalization the people living in the region need. For example, some people demand right to self-determination while others oppose the demand, pleading as if this may cause division.

Mazhar Hussain from India in his presentation ‘Secularism versus Popular Discourse: Minorities in India’ suggested South Asian states should introduce regional agenda and ensure formation of South Asian coalition to protect the minorities.

Recalling the situation seven year back in India, when Abul Kalam was the president of India, Manmohan Singh was the prime minister, and all the people sitting at the key constitutional positions belonged to different minority religious groups, including Dalits, Parsi, Muslims and leader of the opposition being a Hindu. He said in India more opportunities are available for Muslims despite they are minority.

However, he said the situation in Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka was worst in terms of dealing with religious minorities as compared to Indian society was worse.

Community incidents impact other countries as well. He said minorities that were silent long ago were now conscious and demanding their rights.

He linked the situation of sectarian and ethnic violence in India and Pakistan with politics and electoral process. In India and Pakistan whenever elections come closer the religious conflicts rise.

“We have realized that promoting religious festivals could not promote peace or resolve the issues. There is need to change the approach.”

Suranjit Sengupta, Federal Minister from Bangladesh said prosperity in South Asia is lies bringing back backward people to mainstream. He said we should contribute to end discrimination in the entire region.”

Being a student of history, while sharing his experiences, the Bangladeshi legislator said, “I have seen independences three times in my life. Again I saw Bangladesh was introduced a new state on the world map.”

Dr Amena Mohsin from Bangladesh talking on ‘Extremism and Exclusion of Minorities in Bangladesh’ said in fact her country was facing crucial moments while certain people were demanding Islamisation of the state, calling for declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims and calling introduction of blasphemy laws. Bangladesh does not need to introduce such laws.

When you will promote one specific religion this will have direct impact on the other religions. This is aimed to Islamise the political system. She opposed the politicisation of the religion.

Earlier, Zeenat Hisam, who led a PILER study ‘Religious Minorities in Pakistan: Constitutional Rights and Access to Judicial System and Socio-Legal Constraints’ and shared its findings.

She said in fact Pakistan Constitution guarantees rights to minorities but there is weaker policing and judicial system, which is not sufficient to protect these marginalized people. As a result space for religious minorities in public and private domain is shrinking. They do not have representation in powerful institutions, like parliament, she said adding that this happens because there are different interpretations of the religion, which usually created hindrances.

Education system and curriculum carries hate material, which disturbs the children belonging to minority communities; hence this needs to be improved as per acceptance of other religious minorities.

Karamat Ali, Executive Director of PILER said there was similarity of the issues of religious minorities and conflicts in each state of South Asia. Between Nepal and Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar have also similar problems of minorities.

Naeem Shakir advocate said right to education was deeply related to right to life. It is also guaranteed as fundamental right after the 18th amendment in which the state has assured free education to all the children. Dr Rubina Saigol talking on the theme ‘State, Religion and identity: The case of Pakistan’ said Pakistan has religious nationalism.

“When we brought religious nationalism then how can we build democracy and promote liberalism and secularism. Whenever the political parties’ leaders wanted they took shelter of religious nationalism. Basic structure has been challenged and a result the minorities are put vulnerable to face extreme dislike.”

Ruling class used religion and we are seeing how we are facing extremism in all the provinces. Even Shias sect people are facing the same kind of extremism because of different versions of Islam. The minority people living in Punjab are at high risk because of growing extremism.