Haroun Rashid 

Cholistan: A Dalit woman is busy in her daily chores. Photo by author

The number of forced conversions of lower-caste Hindu or Dalit girls is on the rise in Muslim-dominated Pakistan. Activists and victim’s families say the young girls are suffering in the hands of a few criminal Islamist who fearlessly seduce or kidnap the girls for their lust and end up forcefully converting them to Islam.

“How can we tolerate that Dalits live with us?”, Sajid told PakVoices. He is a barber and a resident of Channi Goth in the Cholistan, and expressed sentiments similar to some other Muslim residents. He said that Muslims are converting charming Hindu girls and marrying them.

Cholistan is a drought-prone, largely infertile and abandoned piece of land bordering India on the east. Historians say the lower-caste Hindus have lived in the area for centuries. Similar to many Cholistanis, they are largely associated with poorly-paid occupations including herd grazing, farming, and home cleaning.

Though they are poorly paid in society, culturally they are rich, especially in music.

Although locals say the crime has been taking place for decades in rural Sindh and Punjab, the frequency of the crime has increased according to the Human Right Commission Pakistan’s 2012 annual report ‘Perils of Faith’ on minorities. The report blames this on the growing influence of Islamic hardliners in the country.

Hindu representative from Sindh province in National Assembly, Dr. Ramesh Vankwani while talking to PakVoices in Islamabad said, “Forced conversion is a burning issue. At least 50 to 60 cases are reported every year.”

However, Marvi Sirmed, a writer and human rights activist, claimed over 200 cases were reported in the press in 2012 alone, which means one conversion in less than every two days.
Radha Mai was one such victim.
Manga Ram’s family, dwellers of a small Cholistani village in suburbs of Liaqauatpur, had to give up their 14-year-old daughter Radha Mai when she became a victim of the crime in 2010.

“Persuaded by Nomi Shah, young Radha left home on the assurance that he will wed her,” Radha’s elder brother Prakash Ram explained. “However, his family did not accept Radha. In the meantime, Nomi converted Radha from Hinduism, but he had to bow before his parents’ perseverance. Later, Radha was moved to Darkhwasti Madrassa in Khanpur.”

Radha’s family, with the help of affluent locals, succeeded in holding a meeting with her in the Madrassa, however, clergy did not return her to guardians.

“She could not speak freely in the presence of the Madrassa captors because she was frightened. They simply declined to return Radha saying the religion does not permit it because once she is turned Muslim, she cannot be converted again to former religion,” narrated Prakash to PakVoices.

Cholistan: Preetam Das, a community activist, is performing Hindu ritual. Photo by author

In some cases, more than one member of a single family had been targeted through this religious hatred against nonbelievers.

Widower Asoon Mai, a resident of Jaindwali near Mianwali Qureshian in the Cholistan, lost two of her girls to unlawful conversions.

“Twenty-year-old Dheli had already married Ram Sukh 13 years back in Ahamdpur East. She was enticed by an affluent resident of Sardargarh, Mian Moeen Rahmani, who sexually exploited her without marrying her for six months. Dheli was entrusted in a protection house later,” Asoon Mai said in an interview with PakVoices.

In addition to the growing number of cases, the public is also paying more heed to the issue because of free media and awareness.

In 2011, the kidnapping of Rinkle Kumari was highlighted by the local media to such an extent that the Supreme Court was left with no other option but to open the Pakistani Hindu Council’s constitutional petition registered in 2007. This petition, submitted to the Supreme Court, was about the rising incidents of forced conversions of Hindu girls.

Rinkle was 19 when she was abducted by Naveed Shah who allegedly recruited the assistance of Mian Mithu, custodian of the spiritual center of Bharchundi Sharif and a former member of the National Assembly.

The alleged involvement of a high-profile figure compelled media to keep a close eye on the evolving situation.

During the course of the trial, Mithu publicly threatened to burn down Rinkle’s town, Mirpur Mathelo, if a verdict contrasting to his wish would come out. He was also reported as saying he would follow his own version of Shariah, no matter what the apex court decided.

On 18th April, 2012, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court headed by then-Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry ruled that the victim was old enough to take up any religion.

Civil society and liberal factions of the country who were expecting a fair judgment from the supreme judiciary were disappointed.

Rights activist Marvi during an interview with PakVoices termed the conduct of judiciary as a “big disappointment and disastrous” in Rinkle’s case.

“Where religious mafia threatens and blackmails lower judiciary, the superior courts have proven to be absolutely partisan. The Rinkle case is one classical example of how crimes against Hindu girls are given cover by all and sundry in Pakistan,” she said.

Though there are many contributing factors in forced conversions, typically girls are sexually exploited and upon discovery of the crime, it is turned into a religious issue, Marvi said.

“The perpetrators turn to religious funds who provide strong cover by making it a religious issue. More than religious intolerance, it is blind adherence to religious expansionism at the cost of human exploitation.”

But some religious leaders say forced conversions are not lawful.

Religious scholar and Managing Director of a Madrassa in Khanpur, Saeed-ur-Rahman Darkhwasti termed forced conversion as non-Islamic.

Referring to chapter 2, verse 256 of Holy Qura’an, he translated: “There shall be no compulsion in acceptance of the religion.”

“Culprits involved in such deeds are ignorant of Islamic teachings and are a source of earning a bad name for the religion,” Darkhwasti told PakVoices in a telephonic interview.

Darkhwasti confirmed that forced conversions are a reality, but nonetheless claimed that the Hindu girls primarily embraced Islam with their own free will.

The Executive Director of local NGO Jaag that works for minorities’ rights, Abdur Rab Farooqi, told PakVoices that some circumstances cause Dalit girls to escape from their current situations. For example, some girls are forced to marry other Dalits against their wishes, marry at a young age, or serve bonded labor contracts.

“Some of them change religion and others fall prey to lust,” he explained about the girls’ choices to flew away with Mulsim men. “But in both instances, a crime is committed against a minority.” He said hatred of the lower-caste Hindus in the Muslim-dominated society is fact, but ignoring other social issues only gives one side of the picture.

About Author: Haroun Rashid is a multimedia journalist, media trainer and a researcher based in Islamabad.