Forced Conversions: a Crisis for the State; a Nightmare for the Hindus

Muhammad Suleman Khan – April 05, 2019

Pakistan’s constitution guarantees fundamental rights to all of its citizens. The Article 20 of the constitution ensures the freedom of religion and religious practices. Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah clearly chalked out the nature of the relationship between the state and the citizens in his address to the country’s first constituent assembly on August 11, 1947. He said,

You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in the State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State … We are starting with this fundamental principle: that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State. Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not so in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state”.

While Jinnah’s speech clearly reflects his desire for a pluralistic society where faith was to be a personal matter of the citizens rather than a business of the state, his immediate successors and later generation of political leaders took the country to a direction that ran opposite to what Jinnah had envisioned. Today’s Pakistan is bruised by the very problems Jinnah sought to avoid, as is evident in his above speech. Of all the issues, the most burning is the growing religious extremism in the society. Extremism is spreading its tentacles, and the space for the non-Muslim minorities is shrinking. At the time of Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the non-Muslims constituted 23% of the population which has been reduced to roughly 4% today. Pakistan’s Hindus have been hit hard lately as their female members are subjected to abductions and forced conversions to Islam.

According to the Pakistan Hindu Council chief Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, “about 1000 Hindu and Christian girls are abducted in Pakistan every year. They are converted through the use of forced marriages.”

The country’s legal system has many laws that are supposed to protect the religious minorities against persecution and crimes such as forced marriages. They include the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013, prevention of forced marriage under Section 498-B of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, prevention of rape under Sections 375 and 376 of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, wrongful confinement and restraint under XVI-A of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, abducting or inducing a woman to compel for marriage under Section 365-B of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, kidnapping or abducting from lawful guardianship under Section 361 of the Pakistan Penal Code, kidnapping or abducting a person under the age of fourteen under Section 364-A of the Pakistan Penal Code etc. However, despite these legal safeguards, the Hindus continue to suffer forced conversions at an alarming rate.

According to the Pakistan Hindu Council chief Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, “about 1000 Hindu and Christian girls are abducted in Pakistan every year. They are converted through the use of forced marriages.” Most of the cases of alleged forced conversions are reported from the provinces of Sindh and Punjab. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) says dozens of cases of forced marriages are registered every month which is really worrying. Majority of the victims (girls and women) come from impoverished families. Muslim persons belonging to influential and feudal families have been reported to be involved in converting Hindu girls to Islam.

In 2010, a 17-year old Hindu girl Kasturi from the Kohli community was kidnapped by a Muslim man. Few days later, the abductor’s family confessed to having the girl kidnapped. The police refused to file a ‘first information report’ (FIR) due to pressure from the abductors. Likewise, the public hospital also refused to write the medical report of the victim girl. Finally, it took the Sindh High Court to order the registration of an FIR and submission of the girl’s medical report. At the end, the criminal went escort-free as the victim’s family agreed to a financial settlement with the abductors.

In another case, a married Hindu woman Chandavati Bagri was taken along with here three-year old daughter from their home. The family went to the authorities only to face a police that was as usual reluctant to register their complaint. Two months later, the police informed the husband that his wife had converted to Islam and married a Muslim man. Six months later, she reappeared and took shelter at her uncle’s home. Finally, the family had to take the matter to the court.

However, the most highlighted case of the alleged forced conversion was that of Rinkle Kumari. Aged 19, Kumari went missing from her home in Ghotki in 2012. Her family accused Mian Mitho, an influential cleric and lawmaker of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), of effecting the conversion of their daughter to Islam. Mitho denied the allegation, claiming the girl had gone to him willingly for conversion. The case proceeded to the civil court where Kumari revealed that she had been forced to adopt the new religion. She was given to the police custody during the hearing of the case, and later the court ordered her to be allowed to live with her husband as, according to the court, she had converted at her own will. Unwavering, the girl’s family went to the higher courts in pursuit of justice. Ultimately, the girl sought to live with her husband, which disappointed her family and shocked the human rights groups.

The issue of forced conversions refuses to die down. The Hindus continue to live under the shadow of forced conversions. The latest case surfaced just last month when two sisters Reena Meghwar and Raveena Meghwar were kidnapped from their home in the notorious Ghotki district of Sindh on March 20, 2019. The issue captured the attention of the media and government only after an amateur video of the girls’ father emerged on the social media. The video shows the father weeping and beating his head outside a police station in protest against the abduction of his daughters. Another similar video shows the girls’ post-conversion marriage with Muslim men. In this case, as in almost every other case of alleged forced conversion, the police had been unresponsive to the victim family. As usual, after the media jolted the authorities into action, the girls were produced before the Islamabad High Court where the girls stated that they had converted to Islam of their own free will. It is noteworthy that the complaint registered with the local police by the girls’ family clearly mentioned that the girls were underage. The Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act clearly prohibits child marriage which means the police should have acted promptly to prevent the marriage. But, they didn’t. In fact, the police relied only on the girls’ statements.

The perception is that the police delayed any action deliberately in order to allow the abductors to transport the girls out of their home province of Sindh to Rahim Yar Khan in Punjab. Only after the girls were converted and married off, the police woke up to make some arrests. The HRCP has condemned the alleged abduction and forced conversion of the girls, and demanded of the PPP-led Sindh government to pass the bill for the prevention of forced conversion which is pending since 2016 due to opposition from religious parties.

Pakistan’s ruling party ‘Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf’ (PTI) had vowed to protect the rights of the minorities and prevent the forced marriages as part of its election promises in 2018. Prime Minister Imran Khan had pledged to prevent the forced marriages and safeguard the rights of the Hindu girls. However, despite being in power for nine months, there is no reform in sight regarding the prevention of forced conversions and marriages of Hindu girls. And the predators, mostly backed by influential feudal lords or extremist clerics, continue to prey on vulnerable and helpless Hindu girls. Experts believe the crisis is deeper and more serious than the obvious as many cases of forced conversions go unreported across the country. Threats and intimidation by the abductors and sometimes feeling of shame prevent many families from seeking justice.

Sindh with the largest Hindu population in the country has become the ground zero of the forced conversions and marriages. In 2016, the Sindh provincial assembly passed a bill ‘the Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) 2015’ in an attempt to curb the extremist onslaught against the Hindu community and protect the Hindu girls from forced conversions and marriages. Chapter III of the bill prohibits children/minors from converting to a different religion. Likewise, the Section 4(1) states that no person shall be deemed to have changed their religion until they attain the age of majority which is 18 years. The punishment it prescribes for forced conversion is minimum 5 years in prison, and maximum a life term, plus a fine to be paid to the victim. Persons who perform, conduct, direct, or bring about or facilitate a marriage, knowing that either or both parties are victims of forced conversion, or who are abettors to a forced conversion, are also liable to imprisonment and a fine” along with other clauses.

As the bill was passed by the assembly and sent to the governor for ratification, the religious parties began protesting against the bill. They termed the proposed law as un-Islamic and demanded its withdrawal. Under pressure, the governor returned the bill to the house for a review. And the bill continues to be on hold even today. It is unclear if the ruling PPP would ever take up the bill again at the cost of taking the Islamists head on in the province. The Islamist parties are known for their formidable, and often violent, street power. The PPP is likely unnerved by the idea of Islamists taking to the streets.

As the media react to individual cases of alleged forced conversions and political leaders keep issuing statements of sympathy and solidarity with the victim families, the Hindus continue to live through the nightmare of losing their daughters, sisters, wives to forced conversions. Simply having young daughters at home might be keeping many Hindu parents awake at nights because nobody really knows where the predators would strike next. For religious minorities like Hindus, this is clearly not the Pakistan Jinnah had promised them back in 1947.

 

– Image credit: Brookings.edu