By Qaswar Abbas in Karachi and Peshawar
In March, Poonam, a 13-year-old Hindu girl kidnapped last year, was forced to convert in the Lyari area of Karachi in Pakistan’s Sindh province. Her parents were stunned by the influence the maulvis (Islamic scholars) had over their daughter. "She was very scared. She told us that she was now going to live with them as a Muslim," Poonam’s uncle, Bhanwroo, 61, told India Today. Poonam is now Mariam.
No one protested against Poonam’s conversion because almost every Hindu family in Lyari has endured religious persecution for years. Kidnapping is routine in Pakistan. But what has shaken the 2.7 million-strong Hindu community in a nation of 168 million Muslims are recent forced conversions of young girls. Many see the incidents as a conspiracy to drive Hindus out of Pakistan.
"We are very worried. We have started sending our young children either to India or to other countries. We are also planning to migrate soon," says 46-year-old Sanao Menghwar from Nawab Shah in Sindh province. He has reason to panic. Research done by local agencies says that on average 25 Hindu girls are kidnapped and converted every month in Pakistan.
Following the riots after Babri Masjid’s demolition in India, attacks on Hindus have only increased; Hindus in Pakistan are routinely affected by communal incidents in India and violent developments in Kashmir. A 2005 report by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a non-profit organisation in Pakistan, found that Pakistan Studies textbooks have been used to inculcate hatred towards Hindus. "Vituperative animosities legitimise military and autocratic rule, nurturing a siege mentality. Pakistan Studies textbooks are an active site to represent India as a hostile neighbour," the report stated. "The story of Pakistan’s past is intentionally written to be distinct from, and often in direct contrast with, interpretations of history found in India. From these government-issued textbooks, students are taught that Hindus are backward and superstitious," the report stated.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, 61, a prominent Pakistani scholar, says the "Islamisation" of Pakistan’s schools began in 1976 when an Act of Parliament required all government and private schools (except those teaching the British O-levels from Grade 9) to follow a curriculum for the Grade 5 social studies class that includes topics such as: "Acknowledge and identify forces that may be working against Pakistan", "Make speeches on jihad" and "India’s evil designs against Pakistan".
"In Karachi alone, Hindu girls are kidnapped on a routine basis," Amarnath Motumal, an activist and council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told India Today. "People are scared. The kidnappings and conversions are done by influential people of the region. The victims prefer to remain silent to save their lives."
Agrees Bherulal Balani, a former member of the provincial assembly. He says Hindu girls mostly belong to the lower castes. Officials say the attacks have increased in interior Sindh during the last three months. At least nine incidents, ranging from forced conversions to rape and murder, have been reported from the region.
In one incident, a 17-year-old girl was gangraped in Nagarparker area while in another incident, a 15-year-old girl was allegedly abducted from Aaklee village and forced to convert. The Aaklee incident prompted an instant migration of about 71 Hindu families to Rajasthan. Members of the Hindu community in Kotri town in Sindh province recently protested against the kidnapping of four teenagers, Anita, Kishni, Ajay and Sagar.
The plight of Hindus in Pakistan came to light in January this year when Lakki Chand Garji, 82, a Hindu spiritual leader and an official of the Kala Mata temple in Kalat district of Baluchistan province, was kidnapped by unidentified gunmen from his home. He was released in April after a ransom of Rs 50 crore was paid, but the case remains unresolved till date.
Years of keeping a low profile have affected the sense of identity of the Hindus. "They have become a people without a true identity," says Memon, adding "if there is no awareness and concern for the Hindus of Pakistan, they will remain a voiceless people and eventually cease to exist."
In Peshawar, 62-year-old Jagdish Bhatti’s long stint in the army was no insurance against discrimination. His sons Ramesh and Lal had to adopt Muslim names for jobs. Ramesh (now Ahmed Chohan) works in a private multinational bank and Lal (Nadeem Chohan) is a supervisor in a food warehouse owned by the municipal authority in Peshawar district.
"Throughout our educational career, we enjoyed a good relationship with our Muslim teachers and classmates. However, we were shocked when we were told to adopt Muslim names to get jobs," Ramesh Bhatti told india today.
Members of the Hindu community in Larkana in Sindh province recall the tragic tale of Sundri, an 18-year-old college student. One day in 2004, Sundri did not come back home after classes. After a long search, her family went to the police. Two weeks later, the police informed the family that Sundri had eloped with Kamal Khan, an employee of a local transport company, and converted to Islam. Sundri’s parents were also informed that their daughter would soon appear in court to declare her new faith. Escorted by the police and a few men sporting long beards, Sundri appeared in court to state: "I, Sundri, was born of Hindu parents. Now, as an adult, I have realised the religion I was born into is not the right one. Therefore, completely of my own accord, and without being coerced, I have decided to break away from my parents and religion, and have converted to Islam."
The judge accepted her conversion and Sundri was whisked away to an unknown location. She is learnt to have later married Khan but was divorced very soon. Subsequently, she married another Muslim from the neighbourhood. This marriage, too, ended in divorce and Sundri was married for the third time. Shortly after her third marriage, Sundri died under mysterious circumstances. Her parents believe she was murdered, while her third husband told the police that she had committed suicide. "Kidnapping Hindu girls like this has become routine. The girls are then forced to sign papers stating that they have become Muslims," says Laljee Menghwar, a member of the Hindu panchayat in Karachi.
Last year, 27-year-old Jagdesh Kumar, a factory worker, was killed in Karachi by Muslim colleagues on the charge of blasphemy. The police and factory management made no attempt to stop the attackers from killing Kumar, who was reportedly in love with a Muslim girl.
In September 2010, Ashok Kumar, 32, an income tax inspector in Hyderabad in Sindh , went to collect tax return forms from shopowners. Instead of complying, one of the shopkeepers alleged that Kumar had threatened to grab him by his beard. Within minutes, the shopkeepers took out a procession, demanding that Kumar be taught a lesson. This was followed by a two-day strike. Kumar was not only suspended from his job, he was also jailed after a case of "blasphemy" was registered against him. "Since then he and his family are missing," says a source.
In the same month, Dr Kanhaiya Lal, 52, an eye specialist, was kidnapped in Larkana. He was released following a ransom payment of Rs 5 lakh. Another Hindu, Darshan Lal, 50, was killed in Badah town in Larkana district when he resisted attempts to abduct him. At least 23 prominent Hindu men have been kidnapped from Sukkur in the past few years.
Police officials told India Today on condition of anonymity that many Hindus pay regular bhatta (protection money) to different groups of extortionists. Hindus in Pakistan contend that their insecurity is compounded by the apathy of the administration and the judiciary.
"From the first Indo-Pak war to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Hindus in Pakistan have been perceived as enemies and persecuted," says an Islamabad-based political analyst, requesting anonymity. He cites the recent incident of a Hindu businessman’s spat with a local editor after the former refused the editor’s demand for a car. The daily carried an editorial the next day, dubbing the businessman an Indian agent supplying arms to terrorists. Says a Hindu businessman in Kandhkot city of Sindh: "For 50 years, we have been addressed as ‘vaaniyo’ or ‘baniya’, which in these parts is a pejorative." Calling for an end to institutionalised discrimination, the Scheduled Caste Rights Movement of Pakistan (SCRM) has demanded passage of a law allowing Hindu marriage registration. A Pakistan Supreme Court ruling of November 23, 2010, ordered the government to prepare a law to legalise Hindu marriages. The scrm warned that inaction would force them to launch a nationwide signature campaign to highlight the issue.
Hindu women have routinely complained of discrimination regarding Computerised National Identity Cards (CNIC). "If we cannot produce marriage registration certificates, we are not entitled to get a CNIC which, in turn, denies us the right to vote. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in our favour, no measures have been taken," says Sangeeta Devi, 45, from Karachi. She has been at the forefront of the campaign demanding registration of Hindu marriages.
Says Shami Mai, 34, a Hindu woman who lives in Rahim Yar Khan in south Punjab: "In case of separation or domestic violence, a Hindu woman cannot complain because she does not have any document. If she is unable to tell the court who her husband is, why would the court react to her crisis?"
Something as basic as travel can pose problems for Hindu women. "If we stay at a hotel, policemen and hotel staff mistreat us. We end up spending nights on footpaths," complains Naina Bai, 37, from Islamabad.
If the hallmark of a nation is how it treats its minorities, perhaps Pakistan’s title as a failed state is well deserved.
Source: India Today
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