On the other side of the Thar, Hindus, especially girls, are forced into Islam. Let me confess at the outset: I’m travelling in interior Sindh to verify specifically the reported widespread menace of abduction of Hindu girls, their forcible conversion to Islam and betrothal to Muslim men. My first port of call is the district court of Mirpur Khas. I promptly mingle among the crowd waiting for the court’s decision on a kidnap-and-conversion case. Different voices narrate contradictory stories. I am befuddled for the moment.
Soon, a frisson of excitement sweeps through the throng, as a police van drives through the gate. Inside it is Mariam. She’s 13 years old—and married! Mariam was Mashu, and Hindu, till the night of December 22, 2005. I pick my way through the jostling crowd. Mariam is in a red burqa, her gold nose ring sparkles. She tells me, “I’m happy. I don’t want to return to my parents or brother.” What’s the fuss about, I wonder.
It’s quite another story under the pipal tree of the court compound. Huddled under it are the villagers of Jhaluree, 20 km from Mirpur Khas. Among them is Mashu’s father, Malo Sanafravo. He says that at 11 pm, December 22, four armed men barged into their room. One of them was Malo’s neighbour, Akbar. They picked up Mashu, bundled her into the waiting car. “She was taken to Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi’s village in Somarho tehsil.” There Mashu became Mariam and was married to Akbar.
Not true, insists husband Akbar. “Mariam has been always in my heart,” he gushes, saying, at 11 pm, December 22, it was she who had come over to his house. But it’s true that the Pir converted her and married them—it was his idea that they issue statements in the court. “Mariam was sent to Darul Aman in Hyderabad, in judicial custody,” Akbar declares.
A 13-year-old choosing to convert and marry? A 13-year-old testifying in the court, without her family by her side? Suspicious, I walk over to the SHO, caught in the middle of a heated exchange between two groups. Someone suggests he should allow the girl to meet her relatives. Before the conversion yes, not now. She has now become Muslim, says the SHO. He argues, “There’s a huge crowd here. If Mariam breaks down after seeing her father, there will be a communal riot here in the compound.”
A little later, there are celebrations as the word spreads: the court has allowed the couple to live together. Standing next to me is Kanjee Rano Bheel. He works for an NGO in the education sector; volunteers for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) as well. “In just two hours Mashu was converted and married,” Kanjee says incredulously. Disappointment and helpless rage fleet across his face. “In Darul Aman the girls are kept away from parents and pressured into issuing statements favourable to the abductors. They tame stubborn girls through death threats.”
So, was Mashu abducted and forcibly converted?
In Mirpur Khas, truth resembles the mirage of the surrounding Thar desert, teasing and tormenting me as I drive from Karachi into interior Sindh.
It tests your credulity, it challenges your journalistic skills. Wherever I go, and whoever I meet, in disconsolate voices the Hindus talk about ‘missing girls’; their stories resemble Mashu’s—the theme of abduction, conversion, often followed by marriage, is common to most narrations. The girls then appear in courts to issue statements declaring their conversion was voluntary. All links to the natal family and the community are severed; they are lost to the family forever. On January 4, 2005, Marvi, 18, and Hemi, 16, were kidnapped from Kunri village in Umerkot district; three months later, on March 3, 14-year-old Raji was abducted from Aslam Town Jhuddo, Mirpur Khas.
The script in their cases was similar to Mashu’s. “Only 10 per cent of all conversions involving girls are voluntary; because of romance,” says Kanjee. Ten per cent of what? No official figures are available. The DIG in Mirpur Khas, Saleemullah, says, “If there’s need I’ll collect these figures. Minorities are the safest in Pakistan.”
Saleemullah, perhaps, should tap the HRCP for statistics. Its director in Lahore, I.A. Rehman, is an honourable man. Rehman told Outlook that the HRCP has, between Jan 2000 to Dec 2005, documented 50 cases involving conversion of Hindu girls to Islam. Its investigations too endorse what I had found in interior Sindh.
In many cases where it was claimed the girls had eloped with their Muslim partners, the HRCP found that most were, in fact, abducted, forcibly married to Muslim men or sold to them. There have been cases of Hindu girls, usually from economically better off families, eloping with their Muslim boyfriends. Rehman says in most cases such marriages didn’t last long. With links to their families cut off, the girls were subsequently forced to marry another Muslim or sucked into marriage rackets.
Nuzzhat Shirin, who works for the Lahore-based ngp Aurat Foundation, understands why the girls don’t reveal their plight at the time they are presented in court. “When a Hindu is forced to become Muslim, such a ruckus is made that if the young kidnapped girl appears in court, the fanatics yell, scream, throw rose petals in the air and follow the youth into the building so that she’s intimidated and can’t speak,” Shirin explains. Social stigma arising from the loss of virginity, and the consequent difficulty of finding a groom, prompt these women to accept their misfortune—and hope for the best.
Fifty incidents in five years represents just a percentage of the total number of cases, says Kanjee, pointing out that a majority of such crimes go unreported. “There have been 50 such incidents last year,” insists Krishen Bheel, who is a Hindu member of the National Assembly (MNA), the Pakistani equivalent of the Lok Sabha. He begins to rattle out the cases he remembers: two months back Sapna was kidnapped and converted in upper Sindh; seven months earlier it was 17-year-old Lakshmi in Nawkot, and then…. “The trend is increasing,” he says. “If these conversions are voluntary, then how come boys rarely ever convert?”
Only once did the popular resentment against abduction spill out in the streets of Mirpur Khas. It was in the ’80s: a girl named Sita had been kidnapped. Some 70,000 Hindus turned up to protest the kidnapping. The police opened fire, killing several. “Sita was never returned,” Krishen laments. “She had even told Justice Dhorab Patel, who later joined the HRCP, that she had been forcibly converted. We have now stopped agitating.”
Instead, the Hindus take the support of civil rights groups and the media to publicise abduction cases, hoping public scrutiny would goad the state into action. On Dec 30, the day after the Mariam case was disposed, the Supreme Court took cognisance of the complaint Qosheela’s parents from Ghotki, Sindh, had filed. They claimed their 13-year-old girl had been kidnapped, converted, given the name of Hajra and married to a Muslim man. The girl, as in most other cases, had said she had converted of her own free will. A three-member bench, headed by Chief Justice Iftiqar Muhammad Chaudhry, ordered the medical examination of the girl to determine whether she had attained puberty (Islam permits marriage at that age).
Should it be proved otherwise, the husband could be tried for rape. Even cities are not immune to the menace. Last year, Sammo Amra and Champa in Karachi received a letter from their three missing daughters—Reena (21), Reema (17) and Usha (19)—informing that they had converted to Islam and were ordained under the dictates of their new religion not to live with infidels, including their Hindu parents. The letter bore the address of Madrassa Taleemul Islam, Karachi. It prompted Supreme Court Bar Association president Malik Mohammad Qayyum to petition the Supreme Court in the first week of December. He accused the religious seminary’s administrator of using coercive methods to convert the three girls. On December 16, the court ordered the police to shift the girls to the Edhi Welfare Centre and provide protection to them until the time it was ascertained they had been indeed compelled to convert to Islam. Sensitive Muslim citizens feel the way to counter the menace is to reinterpret and widen the scope of law.
Major (retd) Kamran Shafi, an absentee landlord from Sindh, cites the case of 17-year-old Kochlia, who was kidnapped and gangraped in Jacobabad, Sindh, in Sept 2005. Four men were arrested for the crime. They were subsequently released because Kochlia stated in the court she had converted and was married to one of them. Shafi asks, “Isn’t something very, very wrong here? Suppose the poor girl was forced into changing her religion and marrying one of the assailants so that they get off the hook? Can’t the state prosecute the four on its own, for their original crime of rape?”
The three Hindu MNAs—Krishen Bheel, Gyan Chand and Ramesh Lal—raised the Kochlia case in the National Assembly. They claimed Kochlia’s statement was not tenable as under the local Hindu custom and law a girl can’t marry of her own will until the age of 20. Since Kochlia is a minor, her abductors should be tried for rape. Such an interpretation of existing laws could provide ample relief to Hindus.
Till then, though, the fear of kidnap stalks the Hindus of Pakistan. Krishen Bheel says Hindu girls are scared to go out; he has enrolled his own children into a Christian school. He points to Mirpur Khas’ strange predicament: there’s freedom to worship, there are 10 temples which bustle through the day with devotees; and yet Hindu girls here are kidnapped and converted—and the community humiliated.
Perhaps these abductions are part of the general scenario of crime against women in rural Pakistan (see box). Perhaps they are converted and married to criminals to enable the latter to escape the dragnet of the law. Yet, such arguments don’t comfort the Hindus. Sat Ram, of Shadi Bali village near Mirpur Khas, says Hindu girls are deprived of education because their parents are apprehensive of sending them to schools located at a distance. “They receive education only till the primary level. It isn’t safe to send them to school after that.” But the plight of Hindu women can’t be seen just through the prism of gender discrimination rampant in rural Sindh.
Reena Gul, of Sattar Nagar village, Mirpur Khas, says the boys too are converted but their numbers are very few. The community here feels it is the Islamist’s agenda to drive out non-Muslims from Pakistan. In fact, Krishen told the National Assembly that even Hindu businessmen are being kidnapped in Sindh for ransom. He said on the floor of the House, “Several religious parties are reportedly behind the move to convince the people that it is their responsibility to get rid of infidels from Pakistan, (that) taking ransom from non-Muslims is not a sin.” I now set out to meet Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi, whose name surfaces repeatedly in conversion stories.
The drive from Mirpur Khas to Sarhandi village, Somarho tehsil, is through a picturesque landscape. Peacocks dance in the field and gypsies pitch their tents for the night. Even the Pir appears tranquil, his white flowing beard and winsome disposition camouflaging his mission. Yet, when he begins to talk, he conceals nothing. Yes, the Pir declares, he has been converting the Hindus for the last 30 years. Perhaps his claims of converting a 1,000 families a year is a boast. “There’s a surah in the Quran which speaks specifically about conversion, especially about conversion of women,” he says to justify his mission. “Recently, three Hindu girls were brought to me. I named them Benazir, Sanam and Nusrat,” he reveals, with the righteous air of someone who had bestowed a favour. “These Hindu women are mistreated by their husbands who do nothing but watch TV.”
The Pir rubbishes the allegation that he converts abducted Hindu girls. The unwilling are sent back. Yet, he adds in the same breath, “In many cases Hindu girls are kidnapped and kept as keeps. But these keeps are not converted. But believe me, they are very happy.”
I express the desire to meet the women whom he had converted and found sanctuary with him. The Pir agrees, even allows us to photograph them, contrary to the local tradition. Into the room, the women walk. Rehana, 50, was earlier Nabee; she converted three years ago, after the death of her husband. “I had no one to turn to. If we do not convert we would not be helped by this family.” It was the same reason for 35-year-old Mariam, who came here seven years back. “Under the Pir’s protection, I earn at least Rs 200 a month.” Ruksana was earlier Chotee, and hails from Umerkot. Extreme poverty and a drug-addict husband persuaded her to take the extreme step. “I brought my four kids as well,” she declares.
As I talk to these women, I realise most of them are widows or wallowing in poverty. I mention this to the Pir. He says, “The government is responsible for all Hindus and non-Hindus. When the government doesn’t help them, they come to us.”
Forced or economically enticed, the Hindu converts do not symbolise Islam’s appeal. Rather they represent the state’s failure to provide succour to the poor and protect their religious rights. Perhaps it’s also symptomatic of the sickness afflicting the Pakistani state. As they say, the condition of the minorities is an indicator of a nation’s health.