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The Conversion Conundrum

Hindus in Sindh face threats of violence and harassment, all the while rightwing clerics target their daughters for conversion with seeming impunity

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo of a family of Pakistani Hindus living in India’s western state of Rajasthan. Chandan Khanna—AFP

In recent years, there has been an uptick in the violation of human rights in both Pakistan and India, with minorities increasingly targeted and slain by extremists.

India’s excesses are widely reported—from the notorious ‘cow protection’ squads to the ‘othering’ of minority Muslims. In Pakistan, too, minorities are under threat. Earlier this month, two traders of the Sikh community were killed in Peshawar, with the Islamic State’s Khorasan (ISKP) unit claiming responsibility through its Amaaq propaganda news service.

Around 30,000 Sikhs from 1,100 families reside in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. According to Sardar Ramesh Singh, patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Sikh Council, 12-14 Sikhs have been murdered in “the span of a few years” alone. Calls for probes into these killings have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Pakistan has another phenomenon in the form of “forced conversion” of Hindus to Islam. There are no precise figures on the number of minorities who convert to Islam annually in the predominantly Muslim state of Pakistan of 220 million people. But unconfirmed reports estimate that as many as 1,000 girls and young women of the Hindu community might be “converted” each year. According to the Gandhara Human Rights Report of April 2021, numerous high-profile cases are centered on the Dargah Bharchundi Sharif seminary, where shrine-controller Mian Mitha and his relatives insist that young Hindus embrace Islam of their own volition and without any pressure.

“We don’t force anyone to convert. But if someone comes to my Dargah to convert to Islam, it becomes my religious obligation to provide them all-out support,” the burly octogenarian told media, turning his gaze proudly toward a group of disciples gathered for a chance to kiss his hand and receive his blessing.

Willing or unwilling?

According to Radio Mashaal, the madrassa bears the hallmarks of a “conversion factory,” with girls and young women vanishing from their homes, marrying and converting virtually overnight, and kept away from their families—often by court order and with the backing of Mitha. In a report published on Sept. 16, 2019, daily Dawn said that Namrita Chandani, a Sindhi Hindu girl from Mirpur Mathelo in Ghotki, was found dead in her hostel room while completing her final year at Bibi Asifa Dental College, Larkana.

Police ruled the death as suicide, but her family claimed that she was murdered. Fingerprint samples and Chandani’s scarf were then sent to the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) for further investigation, but it yielded little and no conclusive cause of death could be determined. The post-mortem, however, discovered that she had been raped. A subsequent autopsy, commissioned by the Sindh High Court, found further evidence of murder and sexual assault, based on the presence of male DNA on her clothes and body. This report also showed that she had been asphyxiated to death by strangulation with a rope.

According to the 2017 Census, there are 4.18 million Hindus in Sindh constituting 8.73 percent of its population, including 83,000 Scheduled Caste Hindus. The province’s Umerkot district is the only Hindu majority district in Pakistan with 52.15 percent of the population identifying as Hindu.

Hindus are the largest single minority living in Pakistan. Despite their relatively few numbers, 1,287 Hindus, including 586 women, have reportedly committed suicide in Sindh over the past five years. Previously, data compiled by the Sindh police for a study about suicides in the province found that 681 Muslims and 606 Hindus had ended their life between 2014 and 2019. It said 702 of them had been aged between 21 and 40.

It is undeniable that life for minorities, particularly Hindus, is not easy in Pakistan. A report from Karachi in 2015 noted: “In Karachi’s Jogi Mor in Qayyumabad there are slums where human beings live in excrement. The slum is worse than ‘normal’ because the inhabitants are Hindus. It is home to 4,000 Marwari-Gujaratis for the last 60 years. They must have moved to Karachi from the desert, their original home. Their leader Krishan Bhandari says the locality has no water and no electricity for days: ‘Our children left school because they don’t have identity cards as Hindus, and problems of livelihood have escalated because not a single government team has visited us since 2008 when 10 percent of us were given ID cards’.”

According to the report, the community could not procure ID cards because they needed documentation that they never had. “[NADRA] asks them to bring their certified marriage certificates,” it says. “Any sane person would laugh at the demand; but Pakistan has gone insane with religion.”

The rape phenomenon

Another article published in Dawn, on Sept. 30, 2020, reported that a 17-year-old Hindu girl who had allegedly been raped a year earlier, had committed suicide in Sindh’s Tharparkar district after being reportedly blackmailed by the suspects accused of sexually assaulting her. The teenager took her own life by jumping into a deep, open well in village Dalan-Jo-Tarr near Chelhar town.

“The girl was raped by three men in mid-July in 2019 and the accused in the case are on bail,” the victim’s father and other relatives told reporters in Mithi. They alleged that the girl committed suicide after she was blackmailed and harassed by the “influential” suspects who had raped her.

A study, Conflict Dynamics in Sindh, conducted for the United States Institute of Peace by Huma Yusuf and Syed Shoaib Hasan in 2005, records the plight of Hindus in Sindh amidst rising extremism. “The Hindu community in Sindh is a business community that has long been extorted and is vulnerable to kidnapping for ransom by criminal elements,” it quotes a Sindhi journalist as saying. “But that problem of criminality is now evolving into one of extremism.”

Hindus are regularly abducted. Up to 20 cases of kidnapping are reported each month to the Hindu Council in Karachi. In March 2012, then-member of the National Assembly Azra Pechuho, who is also the sister of former president Asif Zardari, acknowledged the scale of the problem, telling the Lower House that abducted Hindu girls were detained in madrassahs across Sindh and forced to marry Muslim men.

Her comments followed the high-profile case of Rinkle Kumari, whose parents claimed she was abducted and forcibly converted to Islam through marriage. Kumari’s case was heard by a three-member bench of the Supreme Court, headed by then-chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The court decided that Kumari and two other allegedly abducted Hindu girls should be allowed to choose whether to remain with their Muslim husbands or return to their families. All three chose to stay. Their families claim that this decision was guided by intense political pressure, especially the close involvement of Mian Abdul Haq, alias Mian Mitha, then a member of the National Assembly and the Pakistan Peoples Party.

Mian Mitha, the Great Converter

This brings us back to the Dargah Bharchundi Sharif madrassa, where Mian Mitha and his relatives insist that young Hindus embrace Islam of their own volition. Situated 8km from the Dharki railway station in Ghotki, the Bharchundi shrine is notorious for “converting” and has the tacit support and protection of the state and the ruling political parties.

Reportedly, many Hindu girls recite the “kalima” and convert to Islam, taking up a Muslim name, within hours of reaching the seminary. Mitha and his family then assume financial and legal responsibilities for them—severing their links to their families. This is often followed by their “nikah” to a local Muslim boy.

“We don’t force anyone to convert,” claims Mian Mitha. “But if someone comes to my Dargah to convert to Islam, it becomes my religious obligation to provide them all-out support.” Despite multiple accusations of Mitha’s forcible conversions, he continues to enjoy state patronage; his credentials were further strengthened when he met former prime minister Imran Khan in 2018, and tried to join the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. His membership was blocked, however, due to public pressure.

Blasphemy law

Hindus are also increasingly fearful of being falsely charged with blasphemy, which is punishable by death in Pakistan, or targeted in mob violence. Their fears are not misplaced: More than 200 people attacked a Hindu temple in Larkana city in March 2014 following allegations that a Hindu man had burned pages of the Quran in a dumpster. The alleged desecration also led to business closures and strikes in sub-districts across northern Sindh, as well as protests and related clashes with local police.

In a more macabre incident in October 2013, members of the Sunni hardline Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat dug up the grave of a Hindu man in Pangrio in Sindh’s Badin district to protest his burial in the same graveyard as Muslims. In light of such incidents, several Hindu families have opted to migrate from Sindh to India to escape persecution. “These things have shaken our community, and people feel forced to migrate,” said Khatau Mal, a leader of the Hindu community and former member of the National Assembly affiliated with the PPP. In September 2012, 171 Pakistani Hindus hailing from the tribal Bheel community arrived in India on pilgrim visas but announced that they would not return to Pakistan because they feared violence if they did.

“We are feeling insecure because of the alarming rise in Islamic extremism in Pakistan,” they told the BBC. “We would rather die here [in India] than go back to Pakistan,” they added.

Misusing religion

An article, On Religious Extremism in Sindh, by Nadeem Hussain and Imtiaz Ali in daily The News on March 6, 2022, revealed: “The religious extremism problem in Sindh is multi-pronged and highlights a lethal mix of political and socio-economic factors. Since 2001, Sindh has seen severe terrorist attacks including the high-profile kidnapping and killing of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl, attack on the U.S. consulate, the bomb attack against French naval engineers, the Karachi Airport and PNS Mehran Base attacks, the Safoora Goth bus carnage and suicide bomb attacks at Sufi shrines of Abdullah Shah Ghazi and Lal Shehbaz Qalander as well as the attack on a Shikarpur imambargah.

“The forced conversions of Hindu girls in northern Sindh has emerged as an issue of great concern in recent years. Circulating videos of young Hindu girls reciting the Kalima in front of influential clerics and pirs instigated fears and sense of insecurity in the largest minority of Pakistan. Recent examples show the complexity of the problem and how deeply violent extremism has been embedded in society—it seems that [everyone] from highly sophisticated and trained security officials, to students from elite and public academic institutions and madrassas are equally facing the brunt of the problem.”

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