- Thousands of young girls and women have been victims of forced conversion in Umerkot and Tharparkar districts
- Forced conversions and Muslim men eloping with underage girls are frequent in the area
- Rising fundamentalism in the region has led to such a situation
July 26, 2017: Many believe that religious identity is one of the strongest identity to categorize an individual. It strongly reflects one’s background and growing up. Hence, it is an aspect of life that most people hold dear to them. But forced conversion, a violation of basic human rights, is changing the person’s identity at their very core.
In the Umerkot and Tharparkar districts of Sindh province, Pakistan, there have been multiple incidents of forced conversion. Young Hindu girls and women have been forcibly converted to Islam. Many young girls have to give in to the impositions of the older Muslim men.
Particularly those girls belong to scheduled castes have been the victims. Recently, Ravita Meghwar’s case has caused the issue to come under the spotlight. Ravita, a 16-year-old girl, was abducted by a group of men who belong to an influential Muslim community in Tharparkar district. Pir Ayub Jan forcibly converted Ravita and married her off to one of the kidnappers.
This was the story that Ravita’s parents narrated. However, Ravita herself denied any such claims by her parents and told the court that it was her decision to run off. She made her decision of staying with her husband clear to the court.
Such stories have been emerging time and again in the Umerkot and Tharparkar districts, where a large number of Hindus reside. In fact, Tharparkar district’s population is 50% Hindu.
Historically, things have drastically changed today. The Hindu and Muslim community in Umerkot and especially Tharparkar district co-existed peacefully. The marriage between a Muslim man and Hindu woman was very acceptable among the community. But now, Tharparkar is like any other part of Pakistan that has become divided along religious lines.
In November 2016, the Sindh Assembly had passed a bill against the practice of forced conversion. However, when some religious organizations threatened agitation and instability if the bill was to pass, the governor’s signature never made it to the proposed bill. Now with increasing cases of conversion, the urgency of the bill is in demand again. But to what extent it will be successfully passed remains to be seen.
Dawn reports that the Samaro tehsil’s Pir Ayub Jan Madrassah is responsible for the conversion of thousands of young girls and women. The Pir Ayub Jan’s younger brother proudly tells his tales of conversion but maintains that none of them have been forced.
Pir Ayub Jan is reportedly gathering support for a movement against the bill in Karachi. Simultaneously, reports have come to highlight the forced conversion of Hindus in the Southern Sindh region. The Sarhandi Shrine is a famous spot for mass conversions.
An activist, part of the local human rights organization, revealed to Dawn, “At least 25 conversions of young Hindu girls and women take place every month in Umerkot’s Kunri and Samaro talukas alone.”
Other activists have exposed that the deprived region is a miserable location for scheduled castes who “are powerless” in front of everyone. Many cases are often not even reported to the media. While mainstream media of the country reports that only 13 Hindus in Samaro district were converted from 2015-2016, the locals of the area say the numbers are much higher.
Dawn reported the story of Shiv Dhan and Mani. Men armed with guns abducted their daughters, Samjoo and Sonari, in the midnight of 15th January 2016. One of the men who went on to marry Sonari was the son of a rich landlord. In this case, too, Sonari claimed she willingly married the person while her parents refute such claims. They still haven’t got their daughter back. The parents also sat for protest but nothing was achieved. Their younger daughter, Samjoo, is back with them but they have not seen or spoken to Sonari since her abduction.
The other case of a Hindu man marrying a Muslim girl is very few. But that did not turn out well for the couple. The Hindu man, hailing from Umerkot district, worked in Karachi where he met a Pakhtun girl. The man changed his religion to Islam and brought the girl to his native place where they married. When the family of the girl found out, they paid a visit to the guy’s family and abducted the women of his family. The story ended with the women returning to their respective homes. The police managed to find the women and rescue them, and the Pakkhtun girl was returned to her family.
If we closely inspect the Sindh region, the demographic divide is a major factor to any socio-religious issue. The Northern Sindh and the Central Sindh is where most of the rich and upper-class Hindus reside. Here, they have intense protection from the police and politics.
But Southern Sindh is where most Hindus of the entire Pakistan reside. They are mostly employed in the agricultural sector. This is the region where education and employment are often lacking for the Hindu communities. The Hindu girls and women are constantly under threat from the Muslims.
Human rights activists and campaigners in the region have highlighted many incidents where old Muslim men promise a life of luxury and leisure for young Hindu women. Although convincing is not a crime, but when it is done to young and underage girls it becomes a heinous crime. Minors’ consent does not account for a legal marriage.
Patron in Chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council Dr. Ramesh Vankwani spoke to Dawn, “There is not even one case in which anyone has willingly converted. These men, who are often already married, kidnap the girls, keep them in their custody for 15 days, rape them, and through threats and intimidation, make the girls say they converted willingly”
These girls, once targetted, have little to no chance of escaping the situation. If she rejects the offer, she is at risk along with all her family members. Giving in to the offer means a forever goodbye to the family.
It has been strange that in a place where once two religions coexisted peacefully, such cases are on the rise. Dawn has remarkably identified the rising fundamentalism as a critical reason. Rising fundamentalism is leading to such rising cases.
Religious conversion is considered an important feature of religious fundamentalism. Mohammad Yaqoob, who is the head of Wafaqul Madaris Al-Arabia in Umerkot and Tharparkar districts, is also a head of the Madrassah that is trying to establish New Islamabad. He stated that families who come for the conversion are often given what they asked. Yaqoob also refused to speak against Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi. He also estimated that in the last 15 years, more than 9,000 conversions were carried out in the Madrassah.
Lastly, few Hindus actually choose conversion. But it is not because of their allegiance to Shariah or Islam, it is their survival strategy. Poor Hindus, when converting to Islam, become beneficiaries of the Madrassah’s welfare and charity.
The rise of fundamentalism in the region has become increasingly evident. While the government ‘lacks money’ for education and infrastructure, the establishment of new Madrassahs has been easily funded.
The solution to the problem is not that simple either. Hindus can be at under immense threat of a social conflict breaks out. But forced conversions, a major violation of the human right, deserves focus from international human rights groups.
– by Saksham Narula of NewsGram. Twitter: @Saksham2394