A number of girls from the minority communities have been abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and married off, a trend that legal sanctions have failed to curb.
Karachi: 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