By Karamatullah K Ghori
14th April 2019
With saner voices in both India and Pakistan pleading for cooler heads to hog the narrative there was, instead, another dose of fury was injected in their eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.
The scene for this round of war of nerves was set by the forced conversion of two Hindu girls last week in Ghotki, a town in Pakistan’s Sindh, neighbouring India’s Rajasthan. The father of the girls reported to the police that his girls, both minors, aged 14 and 16, were abducted by some men in his town, forcibly converted to Islam and then married off to Muslim men.
According to Sindh’s Child Marriages Restraint Act, the minimum age for girls to marry is 18.
But the plot thickened and became more complicated when the girls appeared before a magistrate and asserted that they had converted to Islam of their own free will and married men of their liking.
However, before anyone could attempt to sort things out and sift chaff from the grain, the vigilantes of Pakistan’s vibrant social media had waded into the scandal, kicking off a furious debate in defence of the girls as well as their alleged abductors.
PM Imran Khan, too, got a foot in the snowballing media duel and asked Sindh’s governor and its chief minister to get to the bottom of the scandal. Imran had also come down hard on Sindh government earlier, in February, when there was an arson attack on a Hindu temple in Khairpur, in which copies of the Bhagavad Gita and the Guru Grant Sahib were burnt to ashes.
Sindh has the largest number of Hindus in Pakistan, and their representatives also sit in the National Assembly. The districts of Umarkot and Tharparkar have the heaviest concentration of Hindus, with the latter having as many as 50 per cent of them in its population.
However, these Hindu-heavy areas of Sindh have also long been in the sights of religious fanatics and zealots sworn to converting Pakistan’s minorities to Islam by fair or foul means. These freaks think it’s their ordained mission to bring the ‘blighted and ignorant’ non-Muslims under the light of Islam.
But in their paranoid frenzy to spread the blessings of Islam, these hotheads forget that the Prophet of Islam had strictly forbidden forced conversion of people of other faiths. In one of his earliest acts after migrating to Medina from his native Mecca, the Prophet had issued a written guarantee to the minorities—Christians and Jews alike—living under his remit that their religious rights, as well as their places of worship, would be inviolate and off-limits to Muslims. His written assurance, in original, can still be seen in the archives of St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, Egypt.
But the fanatic brigades of Sindh have clearly no respect for the word of their own Prophet and seem hell-bent on inflicting their archaic sense of religion and faith on the Hindu minority. The abduction of Hindu girls, even minors as in this case, their conversion under duress and marriage to whoever has been a favoured modus operandi with them.
They are powerful and well-heeled, so much so that the Sindh government seems pitiful and powerless against their antics. In November 2016, the Sindh Assembly had overwhelmingly passed a Bill against forced conversion. But that legislation invited a swift backlash from the zealot brigade; it remains mothballed and hasn’t, to date, been signed into law.
The choice of Umarkot as a bountiful hunting ground for the fanatical proselytisers has a historic irony. The greatest of Mughals, Akbar the Great, whose secular credentials were impeccable, was born in Umarkot, while his father, Emperor Humayun, was in flight from the challenge of Sher Shah Suri. Akbar, an epitome of a ruler wedded to religious and social harmony, spent the early years of his childhood at Umarkot. He must be turning in his grave at such wanton plunder and rape of his shining legacy of peaceful and harmonious coexistence among all faiths.
The Imran government, conscious of the past and persistent failures of the Sindh administration to safeguard the religious and fundamental rights of the minorities under its watch, has shifted the case of the two minor girls to Islamabad. The Islamabad High Court has remanded the two girls to a sanctuary for women and constituted a medical board to determine the ages of the two girls. The case remains sub-judice.
That Imran Khan took early notice of the violation of the girls’ fundamental rights gives a clue to his concern not to let fanatics and zealots dominate the social narrative in his ‘New Pakistan.’ The Pakistani Constitution obligates the government to guarantee the safety and security of all minorities and their places of worship.
Common sense says there should be no ambiguity in either India or Pakistan that protection of minorities is a universal obligation of governance. But the barbs traded between India’s external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, and Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry on the heels of the scandal did nothing to fortify their basic obligation to their respective minorities.
Politicians on either side ought to understand that silence on issues of such sensitivity as faith is more than golden. It’s a virtue not to be trifled with.