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Religion and Regression in Pakistan

By Khaled Ahmed

January 7, 2017 12:00 am

Last month, PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari did something that no man with a conscience could have thought of doing: He gave his word to Amir Jamaat-e-Islami Siraj ul Haq that the Sindh Assembly will strike down a recently passed law meant to protect non-Muslim girls from being forcibly converted to Islam. Hindu and Christian girls have been forced to convert, so that Muslim men can take them as wives. The law would have addressed the abuse of Muslim law which forbids forcible conversion.

The Movement for Solidarity and Peace, which campaigns against religious violence in Pakistan, says, “100 Christian girls and at least 300 Hindu girls (in Sindh) suffer such conversions every year” and has presented its case at the US Congress too. The law passed by the Sindh Assembly laid down that “change of religion will not be recognised until the person reaches 18 years of age”; otherwise “perpetrators will get five years in jail”.

Secretary General of the Jamaat-e- Islami, Liaquat Baloch, attacked the law: “The provincial assembly passed the bill in haste to please foreign lobbies. We will not let it sail through and will challenge it in the Council for Islamic Ideology and the Federal Shariat Court.” The Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill, 2015 was tabled by minority members Nand Kumar and Khatumal Jeewan. They must feel cheated by the ruling party using the issue as a pawn in the political battle at the national level.

Hindutva may turn out to be less terminal in its destructive spread than Sharia, but the seduction of religion is there in South Asia. In the Sindh district of Ghotki, there is the Sant Satram Das temple from where Hindu girls have been picked up and “converted” before being forcibly married to Muslim men. Near the temple, there is also the infamous Bharchundi Sharif shrine whose patrons once became famous in India for converting non-Muslims. But the shrine is not without its blots today, its custodians backing conversions as divine inspiration. Every April, there is the death anniversary of Bhagat Kanwar Ram, a popular Sufi poet and singer, killed in the communal riots of 1939, allegedly by the then-custodians of the Bharchundi Sharif shrine.

In the past, this northern Sindh region generally abjured violence and treated Hindus well on the basis of their Sindhi identity. In southeast Sindh, in Tharparkar, Mirpurkhas, Umerkot and Sanghar, they suffer maltreatment. But in 2012, upper Sindh too experienced an anti-Hindu trend after madrasas from South Punjab spread their tentacles into Sindh. This trend was emphasised after Deobandi Islam’s Taliban affiliation gave it impunity.

In the past, Hindus were the dominant class — some of their dominance is still in evidence. One local observation goes like this: “In Ghotki, the cotton ginning factories are owned by Hindus. In Sukkur, half the trade in rice, grains and dates is conducted by Hindus. In Khairpur, Hindus have a big role in the date trade (which goes mostly to India). In Jacobabad and Kashmore, rice milling and trading are Hindu domains. In Larkana, Hindus have a big role in the rice trade. All of this makes them a target.”

Hindu girls are in fact the target and this persuaded the two Hindu members of the Sindh Assembly to table the bill about conversions. A member of the Sukkur Hindu Panchayat stated in a 2012 report by journalist Cyril Almeida: “Periodically kidnapping Hindus, entering our homes, picking up our children, it’s all meant to prevent the community from growing, to keep us under psychological pressure.” Like the Hindus of Bangladesh — whose constitution is “secular” — the Hindus of Sindh have tried to migrate to India. Now, if the upper Sindh leader Asif Ali Zardari decides to rescind the law that protects the Hindu community, Pakistan will sink further into chaos.

The police are lax. Converted Hindu girls are often raped or beaten and, when the family complains to the police, they let the case drop when the abductors report conversion. In Islam, inward conversion is welcomed, but outward conversion attracts the death penalty, so far not enshrined in law, but all known away-convertees have been killed. Religion is not turning South Asia into paradise. Anand Teltumbde wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly (January 3, 2015): “On 8 December, 57 families (nearly 350 persons) in Ved Nagar in Agra were converted to Hinduism by Dharma Jagran Samanvaya Vibhag and Bajrang Dal activists, both RSS outfits.”

Amarnath Motumal, the vice chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), reports: “About 1,000 non-Muslim girls are converted to Islam each year in Pakistan. Every month, an estimated 20 or more Hindu girls are abducted and converted, although exact figures are impossible to gather.”

Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek’ Pakistan