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Pakistan: Unwelcome conversions

by I A Rehman, 25 March 2012

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Dawn

22nd March, 2012

The Hindu community, particularly in Sindh, has been in the grip of strong feelings of grief, anger and insecurity for several weeks. Unless its grievances are speedily addressed Pakistan stands to suffer incalculable harm in both material and moral terms.

The issue of Hindu girls’ conversion to Islam and marriage to Muslim men, both transitions alleged to be forced and often after abduction, is not new. Indeed, it has always been high on the Hindu citizens’ list of complaints. What is new is the scale and intensity of their reaction and the large number of their appeals for justice. It seems three recent cases involving Rinkal Kumari, Lata Kumari and Aasha Kumari have unleashed the Hindu community’s long-brewing fears of loss of its religious and cultural identities.

The three cases are not identical in detail. Dr Murli Lal Karira, who belonged to Jacobabad and practised medicine at Suhbatpur, in Jafarabad district, was reported to have been abducted while travelling homeward. Some days later, his niece, Aasha Kumari Karira, who was taking lessons at a Jacobabad beauty parlour, did not return home after her work hours, and was believed to have been abducted. Her whereabouts are unknown.

Dr Lata Kumari, the 29-year old daughter of a medical practitioner from Jacobabad and employed at one of Karachi’s premier medical institutions, was reported to have married a young Muslim man after converting to Islam. Her father alleged that her conversion and marriage took place under coercion after abduction and he moved the high court for redress. The lady denies these allegations. She came to the court when her husband applied for bail before arrest.

The brother of Rinkal Kumari (18) says she was abducted by unknown persons, allegedly backed by an influential MNA. Her family had difficulty in filing an FIR. The next day she and the young man she was said to have married after conversion to Islam were presented in a court at Mirpur Mathelo, while her family had been told to go to a court in Ghotki. The family was not allowed to see her. It is said that she told the magistrate she wanted to go with her family but the latter reportedly expressed his inability to allow a Muslim girl to go to a non-Muslim house and sent her to a Darul Aman. Subsequently she is said to have modified her statement.

One suspects that these cases have provoked an unusual wave of protest because unlike the poor and voiceless victims in earlier cases of forced conversion-marriage affairs, the women now involved come of socially noteworthy families who have some access to electronic means of communication.

Several non-Muslim citizens have argued that these women have been, or are being, forced to accept conversion and marriage under threats of dire consequences to their families if they refuse to surrender.

The state of the common Hindu citizens’ mind is reflected in the e-mail Rinkal Kumari’s brother addressed to the chief justice of Pakistan (copied to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan). He says that Rinkal’s abductors have told her that “if she wants to save her parents’ life she should choose to convert [change] her religion and marry [an] unknown guy…. And yesterday [the] judge ordered that [the] girl wants to change her religion and want[s] to marry …Naveed…. [The] judge even didn’t allow [the] girl to meet … her parents or anybody from her family. There were 500-700 people in [the] courtroom all with guns and there was nobody from [the] girl’s family…. Now hundred[s] of people will take advantage of [the] 18-year-old girl and after that they will sell her to somebody”. Nobody with a reasonably sound heart will fail to be moved by the feelings of anguish and despair oozing from these words.

These cases raise several questions of a fundamental nature.

First of all, change of religion is a fundamental right but Islamic authorities do not accept a Muslim’s right to convert to another faith, though the laws of the country are silent on the point. Non-Muslims sometimes demand a bar to any conversion, something no legal authority or human rights activist will agree to.

However, non-Muslims are on solid ground when they protest against organisations and groups of professional proselytisers who apparently make a living by inducing, if not forcing, non-Muslim Pakistanis to convert and who enjoy support in the majority community, in the police force and even in the judiciary (at least its subordinate part).

The proselytisers and matchmakers are facilitated in their task by a social environment in which a non-Muslim can be persuaded to escape from all-round discrimination and move from the ranks of second-class citizens into a privileged community by changing his religion. To make matters worse, the non-Muslims have to read reports of the exploits of a family that boasts of three or four daughters-in-law who have been converted from Hinduism or the plight of a Hindu family that has lost three girls in a row.

The complaint of foul play acquires additional strength when a non-Muslim woman is abducted and the state machinery shows little interest in recovering her until her marriage to a Muslim has been consummated. At that point another factor begins to worry these women. Some of them may be genuinely apprehensive of being killed by their families if restored to them and some others might consider themselves too impure to rejoin their parents. Further, the problems in registration of cross-faith marriages force parties to such unions to prefer secret compacts to open contracts.

This environment prevents most non-Muslim Pakistanis to accept the possibility that one of their girls could voluntarily and of her free will opt for cross-faith matrimony. They do not want to follow the majority community’s practice of accepting a Muslim woman’s decision to take a non-Muslim as her spouse if he becomes a Muslim in name only.

Thus, the real issues are, firstly, the growth of discrimination against non-Muslim citizens, especially their womenfolk, that makes them vulnerable to force and susceptible to temptation and make-believe about escape from misery and, secondly, the rise of intolerance and hypocrisy in the ranks of the majority community. These matters cannot be resolved so long as the state allows itself to remain hostage to orthodox forces.

Quite obviously, Pakistan’s accession to a sane and tolerant society in which all its sons and daughters are equal before the law and by social standards is going to be a long haul. The process may be started with action against organised abduction-conversion marriage rackets, offering guarantees of prompt and effective police action on complaints of abduction, and firm assurances of even-handed treatment by the courts of all parties regardless of belief, gender or social status.

All this is necessary to stop the loss of talent and skills that a spurt in non-Muslim migration to foreign lands is causing and to prevent the majority community from degenerating into a horde of morons capable of neither reason nor compassion. Above all, the distress caused to a minority community must be accepted as a serious national calamity.

P.S.

The above article from Dawn is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use

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