The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Pak Hindu girls forced to convert to Islam

By Hasan Mansoor

An alarming trend—that of Muslims kidnapping Pakistani Hindu girls and forcing them to convert to Islam—in Pakistan’s Sindh province is forcing the worried resident Hindu community to marry off their daughters as soon as they are of marriageable age or to migrate to India, Canada or other nations.

Recently, at least 19 such abduction cases have occurred in Karachi alone, while several others have been reported in the media.

Sanao Menghwar, a Hindu resident of Karachi’s Punjab Colony, is a traumatised man; all three of his daughters—Aishwarya, Reena and Reema— have been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.

In the police complaint that he filed at the behest of the Panchayat after two days of futile searching for his daughters, he stated that when he and his wife returned home from work, they discovered their daughters had gone missing.

The police arrested three Muslim youths in connection with the crime, who were later granted bail by a court because they’re minors. Menghwar’s daughters continue to remain missing.

“Kidnapping Hindu girls like this has become a normal practice. The girls are then forced to sign stamp papers stating that they’ve become Muslims,” says Laljee Menghwar, a member of the Hindu Panchayat in Karachi.

According to him, the Pakistani government needs to examine and put a stop to the social oppression of religious minorities in the country.

“Hindus here are too frightened to vent their anger—they fear victimisation. But we have now decided to go public with these cases and demand justice,” Laljee says. Their cause has found support in the Pakistani Christian community, who carried out a demonstration with them in Karachi, protesting against this crime.

“Kidnapping Hindu girls like this has become a normal practice. The girls are then forced to sign stamp papers stating that they’ve become Muslims,” says Laljee Menghwar, a member of the Hindu Panchayat in Karachi.

Similarly, startling incidents have occurred in several districts of Sindh and evoked identical responses. At least six Hindu girls met this fate a few months ago in Jacobabad (a tribal area heavily inhabited by Hindus) and Larkana districts.

Sapna, the daughter of one Seth Giyanchand, was recently taken to a shrine (Amrote in Shikarpur district) by Shamsuddin Dasti. Dasti, a Muslim friend of Sapna’s brother, is a married man and father of two.

Nevertheless, the custodian of the shrine, Maulvi Abdul Aziz lost no time in converting Sapna to Islam (her names was changed to ‘Mehek’) and marrying her to Dasti. The case came to light only when Sapna’s parents stated that their daughter hadn’t eloped but been abducted.

Human rights activists, such as Nuzhat Shirin who belongs to the Aurat Foundation, says that religious extremism is rapidly increasing in Jacobabad and other Sindh districts.

Extremists in turn encourage shrines that are involved with forced conversions. When a Hindu girl is converted to Islam, hundreds of extremists belonging to religious parties such as Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI), take to the streets and chant religious slogans.

In Sapna’s case, when she was presented in court with Dasti, extremists showered rose petals on them and loudly chanted religious slogans. The fanaticism was so daunting that Sapna was too frightened to even speak with her own parents who were also present in the courtroom. At that, Maulvi Aziz, who was also standing in the courtroom, was said to have remarked, “How can a Muslim girl live and maintain contact with kafirs (infidels)?”

Sapna’s story sparked widespread demonstrations by the Hindu community. Presidents and mukhis of Panchayats from various towns and districts met in Jacobabad to discuss this serious issue. Activists and leaders from educated segments of society strongly criticised the role of religious leaders, like Maulvi Aziz, in these forced conversion cases.

Still, the threat of victimisation by Muslims is palpable. Shirin says when forced conversion cases make it to court, lawyers themselves avoid taking them up, fearing a backlash from maulvis.

Giyanchand, meanwhile, has said that he has no other option but to migrate to India—it will be difficult for him to find grooms for his other daughters because of Sapna’s controversial conversion.

And forced conversions are not the only problem that the Hindu minority (there are 2.7 million Hindus in Pakistan; Pakistan’s total population is 140 million) is facing in the country. A powerful syndicate of bandits and patrons in the northern districts of Sindh regularly kidnap rich Hindus for ransom. They not only kill hostages if the ransom doesn’t arrive on time, they even kill some despite their ransom being paid.

Sadham Chand Chawla, the former president of the Hindu Panchayat, Jacobabad, was abducted and murdered. His killers remain at large despite enormous protests. Following his murder, his family had received several threats until they secretly migrated to India.

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