MPA Mangla Sharma is a member of Sindh Assembly in Pakistan from Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-Pakistan) party. She was elected in 2018 in Sindh Assembly elections and is active in social work and politics for more than 20 years. Currently, she is only Hindu female MPA in Sindh Assembly and second in history of Sindh Assembly.
In an online interview, I spoke to her about her journey into the field politics, Protection of Minorities Bill, interfaith marriages and minority issues in Pakistan. Excerpts:
Tell us something about yourself and your family.
MS: I was born in Hyderabad, Pakistan. My brothers and I were raised by a single mother, since my father passed away at an early age. After graduation, I married into a Sindhi Brahmin family; after which I post-graduated in international relations. I was a homemaker, but my husband encouraged me to contest local body elections in 2001 and work for the upliftment of my community as I was already active in community service. At first, I was sceptical but due to my husband’s support, I got the courage to contest elections and I ended up winning. Interestingly, the first vote I ever casted was for myself! Thus is my journey from the kitchen to council.
What were some difficulties you faced during your initial days?
MS: While my husband was supportive, my father-in-law was unrelenting as he didn’t approve of women working in politics. However, people accepted me as a Hindu and minority leader. The beginning was tough, and patriarchy did try to dishearten me as I was not well versed with the intricacies of the system. But I worked hard. My initial years helped me understand the problems of women and minority. Today, I am a member of the Sindh Assembly from MQM-Pakistan women’s seat and not minority seat, but I speak on minority rights anyway. In 2005, I won a national award for best community services, and earlier, in 2002, when Mr LK Advani visited Pakistan, I got to meet him too.
What made you join MQM-Pakistan?
MS: Prior to 2002, we had a separate electoral system which led to voting on the basis of religion and made us [Hindus] feel like second class citizens. After a long struggle, joint electoral system became a reality. Now, even minorities could contest general elections and were allotted seats according to the Assembly ratio. In 2005 when I decided to join politics, I chose MQM because it is a liberal and secular party, pro-minority, and close to us as they were immigrants and had connects with Hindus in United India. Honestly, it was a great decision to join MQM as they give opportunities on the basis of merit and not financial prowess. This is rare.
Pakistan is seeing increasing forced conversions. In 2016 and 2019, the Sindh Assembly introduced a draft for Protection of Minorities Bill which was never passed. Why?
MS: Sometime back, I asked to reintroduce the Protection of Minorities Bill the Sindh Assembly. We are raising our voices in various ways as this law is very important for minorities. In the last few years, we passed the Child Marriage Restraint Bill and Hindu Marriage Bill. Now our marriages are getting registered. The Protection of Minorities Bill is in process and I aim to get it passed in my tenure.
The Child Marriage Restraint Act has many loopholes; an underaged minority girl from Sindh can get legally married in another province outside Sindh or if she converts to Islam as Islam permits the marriage. Your take?
MS: Yes, that is correct. We live in a Muslim-majority nation and the problem is mostly related to age of marriage because the legal age for marriage differs across provinces. Further, Islamists believe that you can convert and then marry as young as 12 years considering the puberty of the girl while we believe that in the case of a minor this should be similar to rights of driving, voting etc. This is more of a social than a religious issue and this is bound to happen in interfaith marriages. There are many interfaith marriages in India, but they are an issue in Pakistan as there is no law for them.
“It is okay if an adult Hindu woman wishes to convert but when a minor is converted, it is completely wrong. This issue will proliferate as children increasingly use [digital] technology for interaction. What we need is a law like India.”
What are the chances that the Pakistan People Party (PPP) will pass the Protection of Minorities Bill without getting intimidated by the Islamists?
MS: The PPP is a secular and liberal party, but under immense pressure of extremists. Minorities are working towards getting the bill passed. Mian Mithu was a sitting MPA from the PPP when he was involved in the forced conversion of a girl named Rinkle Kumari in 2012. The PPP was pressured to suspend him, and no other political party took him up. This could happen mainly because Sindh has a large minority vote bank and many parties rely on us [Hindus].
And yet, forced conversions haven’t stopped. It seems that there is some tacit power behind him.
MS: The Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC) deals in these matters. I am an executive committee member of the PHC, and we have taken these issues to the Supreme Court. There is an agreement between PHC and people like Mian Mithu which gives us a chance to talk to the girls who want to convert. We connect her to her parents so that they can talk it out. In fact, in a similar case recently, Mian Mithu called us about a girl who came to them for conversion and marriage. Sometimes, we convince the girl, sometimes not. But this is not a permanent solution. We need a law that protects minorities.
Have you seen a case where the opposite has happened, a Muslim girl wanted to convert?
MS: Never. Theirs is a very strict religion; ours has no boundaries. There is no scope for conversion out of Islam. There could be people who want to convert but can’t. It is strictly a one-way street.
On this background, what do you aspire to achieve professionally and politically?
MS: I want to help Hindu women get more representation and want to be remembered for doing good to the society as a whole. Hindu women are becoming more politically aware. As Hindus, we are very comfortable here. Wherever I go, I wear a bindi, it is my identity. I start every speech in the Sindh Assembly with ‘Hari Om Shree Ganeshaye Namah’. No one has ever objected me, and I never felt like leaving my homeland. It is true that minorities have experienced development only in the last decade, but the future looks good. Unfortunately, these days, I also see a wave of religious extremism, which is causing great disturbances. But this is a global problem and needs to be dealt with an iron fist.
Mark Kinra is a corporate lawyer by profession and geopolitical analyst at heart. He primarily works on South Asia, specializing in Pakistan.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.