The irony of reporting on a new law to protect Hindu girls, or naris as they say in Sindhi, from forced conversions is that it is virtually impossible to ask any of them how they feel about it. The accolades may be pouring in for MPA Nand Kumar Goklani who pursued the legislation, but the Rinkle Kumaris of Sindh are silent. Perhaps one can only take comfort that the State has taken an important first step to protect its minorities. The law applies not just to Hindus, but to Christians and any other minority, indeed any form of forced religious conversion.
It took the Sindh government roughly three years to make the law. The Pakistan Muslim League-N, PML-Functional, Muttahida Qaumi Movement and Pakistan Peoples Party agreed to pass it. Indeed, the PPP had been working on a forced conversion bill for which it had formed a committee, including the late Justice (r) Rana Bhagwandas, Justice (r) Majida Rizvi and Special Assistant Dr Khatumal Jeewan, in 2013. Finally, though, the PML-F’s Nand Kumar tabled it on November 24, 2016 and it was passed. The Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Act 2015 now just awaits the governor’s signature.
A draft of the bill, which was acquired by The Friday Times and is not available online till it is officially an Act, starts off by saying that it recognises a person’s right to freely choose their religion and practice it and that forced conversions are “an abhorrent, violent offence”. It speaks of the freedom to choose who you wish to marry. It makes forced conversion a crime.
The law says that anyone who forcefully converts a person can be punished a minimum of five years and a maximum of life imprisonment. They have to pay the victim a fine. Offences under this law are cognizable, which means the police do not need a warrant to make an arrest. They are non-bailable and non-compoundable.
Significantly, the new law says that no one can be deemed to have changed their religion until they are 18 years of age (have reached the age of majority). It will not be accepted as having taken place if the person is a minor or under 18. “You need to be 18 to get an ID card, driving license and vote,” says Pakistan Hindu Council’s Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, a PML-N MNA. “It only made sense that you be that age if you decide to change your religion.” His reasoning is backed by Justice (r) Majida Rizvi. “When you have an age limitation for marriage, to vote and other things, then why not an age limitation on conversion?” she asks. “A mature mental process develops after 18 years of age.”
Having a minimum age bar also helps protect young girls from forced marriages, which needed to be tackled. “The age limitation of 18 years helps us save our young girls,” says Asad Iqbal Butt of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Minor Hindu girls have been abducted and converted to Islam and married off or raped or treated as unpaid domestic labour. “We are astonished why underaged or young girls convert to Islam—why do they not convert 80 year old ladies or elderly men?” he asks.
We are astonished why underaged or young girls convert to Islam-why do they not convert 80 year old ladies or elderly men, asks HRCP’s Asad Butt
Another salient feature of the new law is that it says that if a forced conversion is suspected, the court will give the person 21 days to make their final decision before pursuing a case. This has been mostly welcomed by Hindus but lawyer Kalpana Devi, who worked on a draft of the bill, feels it is still too short a time. She had recommended three months in government-funded safehouses under the supervision of a committee comprising members of civil society, the SHO or DC of the area. She argues that any parties to the conflict should be allowed to meet the person and later let them decide what religion they want to choose.
Prior to the law, it used to be that the victim’s family registered a police report or FIR, saying the girl has been abducted or raped. But then the abductor filed a counter FIR, on behalf of the girl, accusing the family of harassment. The girl would be brought to court and asked to testify—but herein lay the rub. If she was not separated from her ‘abductor’ it was impossible to rule out coercion or threats.
Thus, the new law is geared towards enforcing the principle of freedom to choose in all aspects of these cases. This is why shelters or child protection institutions play an important role in ensuring an independent decision is made and not one under duress. The law even says that if anyone discloses the location of a victim at a darul aman, they can be held in contempt of court and punished as it sees fit. It has empowered the victims by saying that they must give their consent in writing to be allowed to meet their parents, guardians, husband, intended bridegroom or in-laws if they are in a shelter.
Courts have to hear petitions by victims (or anyone they authorise to represent them) within a week. If anyone has been forced into marriage after a conversion, the court can fast-track their divorce with their consent and if the person they accuse is found guilty.
Forced conversions hit the headlines in 2012 with the cases of three Hindu girls—Rinkle Kumari, Asha Kumari and Lata Kumari. According to one side of the story, they were kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam and married Muslims. The matter went to the Supreme Court and the girls were told to decide their future themselves. They chose to stay with their husbands. This raised two uncomfortable debates: how widespread was the phenomenon and how could one tell if the girl had converted of her own free will or had been coerced?
Reliable or centralised government or independent data is scant on forced conversions making it hard to understand the volume of cases. At one end of the spectrum it is said to be such a menace in Sindh’s countryside that families have left the country to protect their children. In 2012, Ravi Shankar, writing in The Indian Express, said that, according to Delhi’s Foreigners Regional Registration Office, until mid-2011, “around 10 families would migrate to India in a month. In 2012, the figure is 400”. In 2014, PML-N MNA Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani told the National Assembly that around 5,000 Hindus are migrating from Pakistan to India every year.
In Sindh, where 97% of Pakistan’s Hindus live, some major shrines and madrassas are the centre of this activity. For example, Jamia Binoria Madrassa in S.I.T.E., Karachi is believed to have set up a department for new Muslims (conversions) after the Rinkle Kumari case because it was inundated by questions from the media. Jamia Binoria’s data says that from April 2010 to June 2016 it oversaw the conversions of the following people: 152 Christians, 147 Hindus, one atheist, two Buddhists, five Ahmadis, one Ismaili and one Kalaash person. The data on conversions of Christians, in particular, shows that many girls were from Punjab. The Movement for Solidarity and Peace puts the number at 1,000 Christian and Hindu women every year. From 2012 to 2015, 67 Hindu girl kidnapping cases were reported in Sindhi newspapers. “Many cases are not reported in the media,” says Dr Khatumal Jeewan. None of this data could be independently verified.
The media has been divided. One section, of mostly Muslim reporters, claim that the numbers are exaggerated. The other insists that the phenomenon is underreported. In 2012, The Express Tribune interviewed a Deen Mohammad Shaikh in Matli who claims he has converted 108,000 people to Islam since 1989, the year he left his birth religion of Hinduism behind. Madrassa Baitul Islam, a Deobandi seminary in Matli, maintains a log of conversions, the same newspaper reported. Its first entry is dated November 1, 2009 and by the end of 2011, it went up to the 428th Hindu converted to Islam.
A Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf MNA, Lal Chand Malhi, says his area, Umerkot, is plagued by these forced conversions. He feels vindicated by the new law and points out that it admits the conversions were long ignored. “Today it is accepted that yes, our society has a problem.” It has been a long time coming, for many Hindus. “We [non-Muslims] have been demanding legislation to protect us,” adds M. Parkash Mahtani, an activist on minority rights. Activist Jai Parkash Moorani says that they have been demanding this legislation since the time of former dictator Zia ul Haq, when religious extremism reared its head. In fact, it is only this year that Hindus even got a law that allowed them to register their marriages. With the success of the passage of the bill in Sindh, the clamour has grown for legislation in other provinces. “A bill against forced conversions must be passed by the federal government and then across the country,” says activist Anjum James Paul, from Punjab. “It would be great if the Punjab Assembly brings this bill because the Sindh Assembly does not have hardliners like it does.” Pakistan Hindu Council’s Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, a PML-N MNA, is committed to pursuing this law in the National Assembly.
When the noise dies down, the real question will be implementation of the law. Lawyer Kalpana Devi understands that only a robust judiciary and police force can keep an eye on these cases and enforce the implementation of the law in letter and spirit. But the reality is that faith in the system is weak. “Muslim men cannot marry a second time unless their wife allows them,” she says by way of argument. “Tell me, how many women have registered FIRs against their husbands [for marrying a second time]? The reason is that our citizens have lost faith in the system and that they will get justice. The bill is a good step but we need to act on it.”
It is already receiving opposition from the religious right. And to understand their viewpoint, PML-N MNA Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani highlights the language surrounding the issue. “Clerics who perform conversions to Islam call us ‘infidels’,” he says. “Take for instance Bharchundi Sharif Dargah which has a conversion certificate written in Sindhi that says, ‘Muslim nari khe kafiroon khaan bacharon aahe’ which means ‘Protect this new Muslim girl from kafirs’.”
The concept of infidel or kafir runs deep in this equation. For example, once girls are forced to convert, they are not allowed to go back to see their parents. The clerics give the reason that as the parents, who are Hindus, are ‘kafirs’, the girl has left that religion and life and cannot mingle with them any more. The problem is that then the convert’s parents have no idea where their child is. These girls almost disappear. For instance, no one knows where Rinkle Kumari, Asha Kumari, Sunita Meghwar, Manishar Kumari, Nanjo Bheel and Poonam are since they converted.
They have even been restricted from meeting family while they were at shelters.
At that difficult time when the authorities have been involved and the girls were sent to shelters, they were still not allowed to meet their parents in many cases. Dr. Khatumal Jeewan, the Special Assistant to the Chief Minister on Minority Affairs, gives the example of the Anjali Kumari case in 2014. She was sent to a shelter because she was a minor and the court did not accept her marriage. But they could not send back her to her parents as she had converted to Islam. “She was allowed to meet [Bharchundi Sharif dargah’s] Mian Mithoo’s men but she was not allowed to meet her parents,” he says. “Her father was refused and even our female minister was refused a meeting. Therefore, we are considering shelters by the Sindh Minority Ministry to provide a safe and free atmosphere to people who want to change their religion.” Hindu families are generally not keen on the shelter houses. Some said that their girl goes in with a simple dupatta over her head and emerges in a niqab or abaya, which for them is difficult to see and quite worrisome.
The name that keeps surfacing in these high-profile cases at least is that of the shrine at Daharki’s Bharchundi Sharif. Dawn reported in 2014 that its madressah has converted 150 men and women in the past three years. “The Bharchundi Sharif empire flourishes on the conversion of juvenile or teenage girls,” says Marvi Sirmed, who writes on human rights and followed the Rinkle Kumari case. “Those who have been visiting Bharchundi Sharif know that they are more focused on girls’ conversion than boys’. The concept behind it is almost similar to the ‘love jihad’ concept that has recently been chattered about in international media. They ‘target’ adolescent girls for this because the lack of exposure and dreams for a good future coupled with the preaching powers of clerics inspire many young girls.” Mian Mithoo and his religious group, who are associated with the Bharchundi Sharif dargah, took Rinkle Kumari and Naveed Shah in a car and drove around the small city Daharki chanting, “Islam ji fateh” or ‘victory for Islam’ which is the kind of thing that increases the fear among Hindus, says her uncle Raj Kumar. This just encourages extremists to kidnap young Hindu girls.
There are many reasons for these forced conversions. According to Sirmed, there have been cases in which the girls (especially from the downtrodden Hindu scheduled castes) were kidnapped and raped but when the perpetrator was caught, he started saying that he had converted her. “The girl is threatened with her family’s murder,” adds Sirmed. “In some cases, the girls were told their entire neighbourhood would be torched if they did not take it silently. She is then taken in as a new bride who is mostly used for domestic chores for free.”
In other cases, the girls just cave to incessant preaching. They are told that if they convert they will be making their lives better, their marriage prospects will improve and they will get better homes. “Most girls fall for it and discover only after the conversion that they have fallen into an abyss when they are not allowed to visit their parents on the pretext that a Muslim woman doesn’t meet with kafirs,” says Sirmed. This has been common in all forced conversion cases. “The girls ultimately have to go silent because they are told that if they go back to the life of kufr, the only consequence of that is death because that’s the punishment for those who show their back to Islam.”
Sirmed adds a third category of forced conversion which is showing up more in urban areas and in upper caste, richer Hindu families. In the course of pursuing their education or careers, they meet Muslim men and fall in love and convert to marry. “This kind of interfaith marriage is grossly unpopular not only among Muslims but among the Hindu Brahmins and other upper caste Hindus,” she says. But because they are a minority, they cannot take extreme steps or take the law into their own hands, as with karo kari cases. “The easiest way is to start making a noise about forced conversions. In most cases in this category, the girls do not complain of being harassed or threatened by Muslims. Rather, they feel unsafe with their parents. This is quite rare, but this category does exist.”
The religious right has reacted badly to the law even though Islam is against forced conversions. It seems to be lost on them that the law doesn’t ban conversions, but sets a minimum age bar, lawyer Naeem Asgher Tarar has pointed out in another newspaper. Maulana Samiul Haq, who is the head of Madrassa Haqqani, had interpreted the law as banning conversions, which it does not. Jama’at-i-Islami chief Sirajul Haq wanted the law taken back, saying that it went against the Shariah and Constitution. The Jamiat Ulema-e-islam said the same thing. Jamia Binoria’s Mufti Muhammad Naeem opposes having a minimum age as he felt it was against Shariah law. “If there is any kind of forced conversion then our system has its law,” he said. When asked what that law is, he only repeated that a system exists and they will never accept any age limitation on conversion.
Allam Domki of the Majlis Wahdat ul Muslimeen, Sindh said: “Our religion opposes any use of force. Indeed, I hate using the word minority. These [non-Muslims] are our equal brothers. Yes they are facing a problem and it should be solved.” He said he would be willing to talk about it with anyone but the government has set an age limitation which is against their religion because girls become mature at nine and boys at 15. Therefore how can we can accept it? When asked how a girl of nine could understand Islam, he had no answer. Then he added that they opposed any criminal act but as Muslims, they cannot accept the government’s age limit.
The Hindus were well aware that the law will be controversial and attract opposition. But as Dr Khatumal puts it, quite simple, we are living in a new world order. Surely the fundamental rights of the freedom to choose one’s faith and who one marries should be the bedrock of society justice. And in this day and age, is there really any argument that children should be protected from coercion and early marriage?
With writing by Mahim Maher
Veengas is a journalist based in Karachi