Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Bring Back Our Girls: Pakistan’s Hindus Struggle Against Forced Conversions
Reporting on the abduction and forced conversion to Islam of young Hindu girls in Pakistan’s Sindh province has never been easy. After hearing the heart-rending stories told by parents of daughters as young as 12 snatched away married off in dargahs to adult men within hours, you see the same pattern repeat itself in case after case – a triumphant clergy, a lax or complicit police force, ineffective courts, an often passive civil society and largely an uncritical mainstream media.
For those who try to track the cases, even worse than the slurs and accusations – we are called “kafirs” (infidels), accused of tarnishing the country’s name abroad or making up ‘fake news’ – is the reality of a girl just disappearing from view in a burqa, even when the legal proceedings have gone all the way to the Supreme Court. Handed over to her new ‘household’, she turns into – who knows? – a sex slave, a glorified domestic worker, a compliant wife cut off forever from her roots and her maternal home. I have often tried to meet young women who were once called Rinkle Kumari, Asha Kumari or Anjali Kumari Meghwar, but with no success.
It is not as if one anti-conversion law would have vanquished overnight the criminal-clergy nexus that powers many of these abductions and ensures they prevail despite legal challenges. But there is no doubt the Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Act 2015, passed by the Sindh assembly on November 24 last year, was a progressive law that would have emboldened the minorities, whether Hindu or Christian, and liberals fighting for minority rights, not just in Sindh, Pakistan’s most diverse province, but countrywide.
The act made forcible conversion a criminal offence punishable with a minimum of five years in jail and maximum of life imprisonment. Importantly, in the context of the abduction of many minor girls especially in rural Sindh, it prohibited anyone under 18 from converting to another religion and said such a conversion would not be accepted as having taken place. Despite the likelihood of this provision being attacked by religious groups – on the argument that there is no restriction on the age of conversion in Islam – all the major parties assented to the private bill proposed in 2015 by Nand Kumar Goklani, a Hindu member of the provincial assembly of Sindh belonging to the Pakistan Muslim League-Functional party. It then only required the Sindh governor’s signature to become law.
However, it took the Sindh government just three weeks to backtrack from an Act that was three years in the making. Given that it was the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in Sindh that had formed a committee of legal and other experts way back in 2013 to begin work on a forced conversion bill, it is truly ironical that former president and PPP leader Asif Zardari has played a leading role in the new Act being undermined. It is well-known that Zardari has acceded to the demand of the religious right – specifically, the head of the Jamaat e Islami party, Sirajul Haq – that the Act be struck down, in order to ensure a smooth re-entry for himself into the political arena after a period of self-imposed exile from Pakistan. It seems that if the Act does now become law, it will be without the clause prohibiting conversion of minors.
In both practical and symbolic terms, this will cripple the law. One of the most appalling ways in which abduction-conversion cases play out is that even when the girls are found to be minors, and their marriages are therefore illegal under the child marriage law, they are not allowed to go back to their Hindu families because they are seen as converts to Islam. The claims of clerics that these young girls came to them of their own free will to embrace Islam go unchallenged, when they should really invite great scepticism. Moreover, the girls’ statements that they don’t want to return to their families are taken at face value, even when their expressions and their silences tell another story – of fear of actions against them and their families by abductors and their religious patrons, who can be seen swarming the court, sometimes with arms, and shouting religious slogans. (I have personally seen such scenes unfold in the Sindh high court.) Then after languishing in government shelters without access to their families, the girls finally bow to the inevitable and accept their new religion and homes.
In the typical case of Anjali Kumari Meghwar, who, by her Hindu family’s account, was abducted from the courtyard of her home and forcibly converted to Islam in 2014 at the age of 12 at the Bharchundi Shareef shrine in upper Sindh (infamous for conducting such conversions) and married to her abductor, Riaz Siyal, the Sindh high court did not accept her marriage. This was not because the court accepted the birth certificate provided by her parents, but because government doctors estimated her age to be about 14-15 years, making her a minor. She was first kept in a government shelter and is now finally with Siyal, on court orders issued last month, even while there are big question marks over her true age.
Clearly, a law that bans conversion of minors would help to prevent such nightmare scenarios from unfolding – at the very least, it would strengthen the families and human rights activists trying to get the police to register cases and mount legal challenges. On the other hand, a weakened anti-conversion law will only reinforce the sense that it is the writ of the religious right that runs in matters of abduction and conversion. One fears a situation where it may be as hard to politically challenge the religious right on this issue as it is on the blasphemy law.
The role of religious extremism in the increased incidence of conversions in upper or northern Sindh, especially since 2012, has been significant. While there have been abductions and conversions for decades in Sindh (where 97% of Pakistan’s 2.5 million or so Hindus live) the really notorious areas were in southern Sindh – such as Mirpur Khas and Tharparkar – where the Hindus are largely poor and at the margins of society. In 2012, the case of Rinkle Kumari, in particular, brought home the fact that this trend was manifest in upper Sindh too, where Hindus are not lacking in economic clout, and was linked to spreading ‘Talibanisation’. It is no accident that the abductions were preceded by an incident in 2011 in which four Hindu doctors in Shikarpur in upper Sindh were gunned down, and there were also attacks on Hindu temples and on Shias.
Rinkle’s own family is a business family, and, in contrast to many others, too economically weak to pursue such cases. It fought in the courts to challenge to what they maintained was an abduction and forced conversion, naming in particular Abdul Haq (aka Mian Mithu) a PPP parliamentarian (he was subsequently denied a ticket), and a disciple of the Bharchundi peer. Haq is notorious for promoting and facilitating conversions by young women to Islam. In the end, the case ended badly for Rinkle’s family, with the Supreme Court finally sending her off with the man her parents said had abducted her. For human rights activists and others who tracked the tortuous case on a daily basis (including this writer), there were enough tell-tale signs that rather than Rinkle exercising her “free will”, it was the will of the religious elite represented by Haq that had prevailed. The question of how Rinkle who had, at one point, said clearly in open court that she wanted to go with her mother, ended up in a shelter and then with Shah is deeply troubling.
While there is no reliable data on the volume of forced conversions, since many cases go unreported, 67 cases of kidnappings of Hindu girls were reported in the Sindhi press between 2012 and 2015. The South Asia Partnership-Pakistan (SAP-PK) released a report in collaboration with the Aurat Foundation in July 2015 stating that at least 1,000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan every year. The report defined a forced conversion as when a person or persons use any sort of pressure, force, duress or threat – whether physical, emotional or psychological – to make another person adopt another religion. In an alarming trend, Hindu families deeply rattled by the abductions have been fleeing from the region. In 2014, a Pakistan Muslim League (N) parliamentarian, Ramesh Kumar Vanwani, told the national assembly that around 5,000 Hindus were migrating from Pakistan to India every year.
This may well be factored into the sinister calculations behind abduction-conversions – abducting a family’s women is a potent way of making them deeply insecure and prone to flee. It is hard to forget what a man from a Hindu Meghwal family whose daughter had been abducted told me in 2013: “When our daughters are not safe, when they are kidnapped, converted, and never allowed to see their parents, what is the use of living in my land?”
One positive fallout of all the attention – in the media, social media and international media – garnered by Rinkle Kumari and other cases during, and after, 2012 was the impetus towards an anti-conversion law in Sindh. Hindu legislators, repeatedly asked by their constituents, what they were doing to protect their daughters, were a driving force behind this. However, the attention around such cases has also prompted the major shrines that are, in Sindh, the centre of such activities, to become more belligerent and led them to issue astonishing ‘conversion certificates’ that even contain statements like “Girl has converted to Islam and now it is our responsibility to save her from Kafirs”. The implication, as Vankwani points out, is that “Now, even her parents have become kafirs”.
Statistics are also being rolled out on conversions, such as the Jamia Binoria Madrassa in Karachi, which claims to have converted 152 Christians, 147 Hindus, one atheist, two Buddhists, five Ahmediyyas, one Ismaili and one Kalash. Housed in a plush bungalow, it has a public address system and CCTV cameras. Yet these trappings of modernity have not filtered down to the young women lodged there who don’t appear to have mobile phones. When I visited this madrassa in June 2016, I met three girls – two Sindhi Hindu and one Punjabi Christian – who had converted to Islam, and for whom marriages were apparently being arranged, I was struck by their stock answers when I sought the reasons for their conversion and they way they kept deferring to the female supervisor in charge of them.
While clerics regurgitate the pieties about Islam being a peaceful religion and giving freedom to both men and women, they tend to be hostile when confronted with probing questions about conversion. When I asked Shaikhullah Rabbani, who heads the conversion department at the madrassa, whether Muslim men and women were free to convert, in the way that those from other religions were converting to Islam, he was outraged. So too was Sahibzada Abul Khair Muhammad Zubair, a prominent religious scholar in Hyderabad, when I met him with a foreign journalist. Controlling his obvious distaste at my question, he tersely responded that that any Muslim girl wishing to convert would have to leave Pakistan. At the end of the interview, he asked, “Are you a Sindhi?” to which I replied that I was.
Clerics are vehement on the argument that there is no age bar against conversion, citing that Hazarat Ali himself accepted Islam as a child. In a conversation with me, Allam Domki of the Majlis Wahadat ul Muslimeen argued that a girl becomes mature at nine years of age, but when I asked whether a girl of that age is able to understand what conversion to Islam even means, he did not respond, yet insisted that an age bar on conversion was unacceptable.
And now, the sad spectacle of religious parties – which do not even have a single vote in the Sindh assembly – being able to overturn the decisions of elected representatives, and to dictate to them what they can or cannot do. Given the difficulties in enacting legislation for non-Muslims in Pakistan – witness the time taken to approve a law that provides Hindus with a legal mechanism to register their marriages – the anti-conversion law was a ray of hope, and hope will be the first casualty if this law is struck down or emasculated.