Hidden in the mortar smoke and drowned in the roar of artillery across the India-Pakistan border is a humanitarian crisis plaguing Pakistan’s Hindu teenage girls. Written about extensively in the international media, raised in Pakistan’s legislature and the courts but encouraged by hardline clerics who cite religious redefinition an Islamic right, the kidnapping, forced conversion and marriage under duress of these helpless victims has become a cause célebre in pre-election India and post-election Naya Pakistan.
After the Balakot air strikes, the two mortal enemies went to war again—this time on Twitter. Last week, two Hindu sisters in Dahrki in Sindh’s Ghotki district, both minors, were kidnapped, converted to Islam and forced into a shotgun wedding. A group of ‘influential’ men took 13-year-old Raveena and 15-year-old Reena Meghwar from their home while they were playing Holi.
Subsequently, a video surfaced showing an imam solemnising their Nikah. This was followed by another video in which the sisters declared that they became Muslims and married their abductors of their own free will. This time, the Narendra Modi government decided to act, following its muscular Pakistan policy. India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj asked the High Commissioner in Islamabad to send a report on the incident. Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry tweeted in response, “Maam it’s Pakistan’s internal issue and (be) rest assured it’s not Modi’s India where minorities are subjugated, it’s Imran Khan’s Naya Pak where white colour of our flag is equally dearer to us. I hope you’ll act with same diligence when it comes to rights of Indian minorities.”
The attack on a Muslim family in Bhondsi, Gurgaon, early last week by goons who ordered them to “go to Pakistan” has given the Islamic Republic a handle to justify its view that minorities are an endangered species in India. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, ordered a probe into the kidnapping of the Meghwar girls. And the Haryana Police lost no time in arresting the Bhondsi miscreants. In both cases, smartphones and social media saved the day: the Gurgaon horror was filmed by a young Muslim girl in spite of the danger she was in.
SOCIAL MEDIA POWER
Both incidents have a parallel spin: Imran is seeking democratic legitimacy in his military-controlled country with the inclusive slogan of Naya Pakistan. The BJP has put New India on its public agenda. By freeing Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman who was shot down last month by the Pakistan Air Force planes, Imran plugged his new narrative. Acting on his orders, Ghotki police arrested at least seven people, including a marriage officiator suspected of involvement in the abductions of the Meghwars and conducted raids to nab the rest. Along with the kidnapping of the Meghwar girls, another Hindu girl was reported abducted from Mirpurkhas district the same day. The power of the social media family was visible in Pakistan, too.
The Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act prohibits child marriage. The family of the girls registered an FIR on March 20, stating that they were minors. On March 21, the Sindh police justified the abduction by tweeting that the girls did not act under duress. Then came another viral video of their father protesting in front of the local police station “You can kill me. I will never tolerate this. My daughters have been abducted—I had patience,” he is seen shouting. Pakistan Muslim League-Functional MPA Nand Kumar Goklani said, “The fact that the two girls were underage confirmed that the abduction was a crime and they couldn't exhibit any free will after getting married or being converted to Islam.” The girls were converted at the Dargah Barchundi Sharif and afterwards moved to Rahim Yar Khan in Punjab following their wedding.
THE LAW AND REALITY
In 2015, Goklani had moved a bill against forced conversions. It is yet to be passed. Hafiz Saeed, head of the outlawed Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) promptly warned against the bill becoming law. In 2017, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-ruled Sindh government brought a similar bill, which was passed by the provincial assembly.
Severe protests from conservative clerics forced Sindh governor Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui to veto the bill. Sources said right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami boss Sirajul Haq phoned the PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari and pressured him. Says Farahnaz Ispahani, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC, “Government after government, military and civilians have caved in to pressure from the extremists.” Ispahani specialises in Pakistan’s minorities. “It is imperative for the government to stand by the people it represents. The bill to stop enforced conversion must be passed unaltered,” she added. After Raveena and Reena’s abduction, Goklani has asked the Imran government to get the bill passed without delay.
The majority of Hindus in Pakistan, its largest minority community lives in Sindh—around 97 percent of the total. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council and member of the National Assembly has urged the government to bring a law similar to the National Action Plan to stop conversions of minor Hindu girls to Islam; the Plan bans terror organisations. There is indeed a law in place that prohibits abduction weddings.
The Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Act 2015 passed by the Sindh Assembly on November 24, 2018 deems forcible conversion a criminal offence attracting a minimum jail term of five years and maximum of life imprisonment. It also prohibits anyone under 18 from converting to another religion and rejects the validity of the conversion. Going by the track record of Bharchundi Shareef shrine in upper Sindh, this Act is a joke. “The problem of religious conversions in Pakistan is real,” according to parliamentarian Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, a member of the Pakistan Hindu Council, “We are not against the conversion of religion as a result of research or preaching. But why are only underage Hindu girls in Sindh changing religion?”
According to Pakistan media reports, most religious conversions of girls from minority communities occur in Sarhandi shrine in Umerkot and Barchundi Sharif in Mirpurkhas which claim to have converted thousands of Hindu girls and young women from Pakistan’s Scheduled Castes such as Bheels, Meghwars, Bhaagris and Kohlis. Pir Waliullah Sarhandi at the Sarhandi shrine told a reporter, “When a young girl is brought before a qazi for conversion to Islam, the qazi must comply immediately, else he becomes kafir.” A bench of Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruling headed by Chief Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani ruled on June 19, 2014 that the government is complicitous in such acts of injustice. The government ignored the ruling.
THEY HAVE SINDH
Figures of conversions are hard to come by, especially recent ones. According to Karachi-based journalist and human rights activist Veengas who has reported extensively on forced conversions in Sindh, many such cases go unreported. She said 67 Hindu girls were abducted between 2012 and 2015. A report by South Asia Partnership-Pakistan (SAP-PK) in collaboration with the Aurat Foundation stated in 2015 stated that at least 1,000 girls from the minority communities are forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan every year—of which around 25 are conducted every month in Umerkot district in Sindh province alone. A large number of Hindu families in Sindh have fled the region; according to parliamentary statement in 2014, their number was around 5,000, which would have grown exponentially by now. “Muslims in Pakistan will never treat Hindus as their own,” Meera Bai, a Pakistani Hindu immigrant who had fled to New Delhi, says, “For them, we will always remain the ‘other’. We escaped religious and cultural persecution when we came to India. We are happy here. At least here we know that no one will steal our cattle or our daughters.” Often the courts in Pakistan are hobbled because the girls are afterwards forced by their husbands’ family and clerics to deny they were kidnapped. Even 12-year-old girls are not spared by the clergy-criminal nexus supported tacitly by local police and judges. The courts usually ignore the plaints of parents whose daughters have been abducted.
And when they do, the verdict usually favours the Muslim men. For example in 2016, the Sindh High Court deemed that the forced marriage of 16-year-old Shabana who was abducted and renamed is valid and that she converted to Islam on her own. Activists who work to expose the nexus face the brunt of their wrath, labeled as ‘kafirs’ and traitors. Asks Veengas, “This is the reality of a girl who just disappears 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.”
The Los Angeles Times reports that the script is the same in all conversions. “The victim, abducted by a young man related to or working for a feudal boss, is taken to a mosque where clerics, along with the prospective groom’s family, threaten to harm her and her relatives if she resists. Almost always, the girl complies, and not long afterward, she is brought to a local court, where a judge, usually a Muslim, rubber-stamps the conversion and marriage, according to Hindu community members who have attended such hearings. Often the young Muslim man is accompanied by backers armed with rifles. Few members of the girl’s family are allowed to appear, and the victim, seeing no way out, signs papers affirming her conversion and marriage.”
THE FEUDAL TRAP
The case of 17-year-old Anila Dhawan from Hyderabad, Sindh, is similar to the Meghwar girls. Her kidnapper-husband told her family that she was a runaway who became a Muslim in order to marry him. She was lucky because the court freed her. “Her life was threatened,” said her attorney, Ramesh Gupta, adding, “She wanted to return to her parents and her statement in court swung the decision in her favour.” The Meghwar girls, too, have approached the courts for protection. On June 7, 2017, another Meghwar, 16-year-old Ravita was abducted by men from the influential Syed community and forcibly converted by Pir Ayub Jan at the Sarhandi shrine in Samaro and forced to marry one of her kidnappers.
Arti Kumari, a teacher, and 17-year-old Sikh girl Priya Kaur were kidnapped and married off after conversion to Islam. In January 2019, 16-year-old Anusha Kumari faced a similar fate. The Indian High Commission has taken up her case with the Imran government. India raised specific issues of intimidation of Sikhs, Hindus and the desecration of their places of worship with the Pakistan government in December 2017 and February 2019. According to Pakistan social activists, the girls are held captive for over two weeks, where they are raped and warned from contacting their families before conversion to Islam. Fearing the stigma of rape or pregnancy, they do not return home. Most of the kidnappers are rich, aged zamindaars who desire young women. The zamindaar’s families ostracise them and their children.
Pakistan’s feudal social structure, especially in the interiors, gives the kidnappers a feeling of immunity. The nightmare came to farm labourer Ameri Kashi Kohli’s home last summer where her 14-year-old daughter Jeevti Kohli lay asleep. She was taken away by strangers, converted to Islam and became the second wife of the landlord who said the girl was taken as compensation for a debt of $1,000. He produced an affidavit from her that stated she ran away, converted and married him of her free will. But Jeevti is not allowed to meet her family or friends. The police are indifferent. “Forget your daughter, she has converted,” a cop told the family. Jeevti is now Fatima.
The economic status of Hindus in Sindh determines the fate of the victims. The affluent Hindus in northern and central Sindh have moved to Karachi to avoid their daughters being abducted. But the Hindus in southern Sindh where Jeevti comes from are ‘Haris’ (from harijan)—low castes and bonded labourers working in farms owned by Muslim zamindaars. In a famous speech on August 11, 1947, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah told his country’s minorities, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan.” Now, in 2019, Ameri has accepted her daughter’s loss stoically—there is little choice left for an impoverished agricultural worker. She said the abduction is a sign of the uncertain future that Hindus face in Pakistan. “There (are) many Fatimas in this country,” she says. “But does this country have place for a Jeevti?”
—with additional reporting and research
The Other Notorious Case
On February 24, 2012, Rinkle Kumari was abducted. Her father received a call from Mian Aslam son of Mian Abdul Haq (aka Mian Mitho), who informed him that Rinkle had embraced Islam and had been married to Naveed Shah. Hindus protested and blocked the National Highway. Police showered heavy shelling. Rinkle was produced in court and she pleaded to let her go with her mother. The court ruled that Rinkle Kumari was Muslim and had married Naveed Shah.
On March 8, the Supreme Court of Pakistan re-opened the case. Rinkle asked to be sent with her mother. Despite this, the Chief Justice ordered to keep her in a shelter home. Naveed Shah and Mian Aslam allegedly met Rinkle several times. At the next hearing, as per Rinkle’s statement issued later by the Registrar’s office, she opted to go with her ‘husband’.
- January, 2019: 16-year-old Anusha Kumari abducted. Indian High Commission took up the matter but no action was taken.
- June, 2017: 16-year-old Ravita Meghwar abducted in Sindh
- April 29, 2017: 17-year-old Sikh girl Priya Kaur abducted in Buner district
- September 23, 2014: Joti Kumari, a student of Electrical Engineering, abducted from Larkana City, Sindh
- December 31, 2006: 17-year-old Deepa abducted from Tharparkar district in Sindh province
- August 2, 2006: 16-year-old Komal abducted from
- Hawks bay, Karachi
- July 23, 2006: 15-year-old Pooja abducted from Lyari town, Karachi. A judge ruled in her favour and she was release by her tormentors, only to be abducted again and missing ever since.
- March 3, 2005: 14-year-old Raji abducted from Aslam Town Jhuddo, Mirpurkhas
- December 22, 2005: 13-year-old Mashu kidnapped from Jhaluree village in Mirpur Khas
- January 4, 2005: 18-year-old Marvi and 16-year-old Hemi abducted from Kunri village in Umerkot district