By Amar Guriro –
A thorny issue, indeed
In Pakistan, not only the people, but walls too do the talking, especially on stormy issues. We saw that while driving from the small town of Daharki in the northern Ghotki district of Pakistan’s Sindh province. The wall chalking declared that all those seeking the return of the recently converted Hindu girl Rinkle Kumari , now known by her Muslim name, Faryal Shah, to her family were infidels and American agents.
On February 24, 2012, the family members of nineteen-year-old Rinkle Kumari found her missing from her house in the town of Mirpur Mathelo. Hours later, her father received a phone call from one Pir Mian Abdul Hayee alias Mian Shaman, an elder member of the Pirs of Bhurchandi Sharif shrine, of the same district, that his daughter was present at his house with a Muslim youth and wanted to convert to Islam. By a prior agreement between the local Hindu community and the Pirs of Bhurchandi Sharif the latter were duty-bound to inform the family and the Hindu elders of any such Hindu conversion.
The same day the girl’s family came to know that she had not only converted but also married a young Muslim, Naveed Shah, who lived in her neighborhood. The Hindus of the district refused to accept her conversion and marriage alleging that the Pirs had kidnapped her, forcibly converted her to Islam and coerced her into marrying Shah.
The local Hindus approached the police to lodge an FIR of kidnapping against the Pirs, otherwise they would be compelled to make a public protest in the matter. Although the Hindus dominated the business activities of the district, they could not match the personal and political clout of their antagonists and the savvy police insisted that the family produce the girl in court to get legal cover.
Two days later she was produced in the local court of Ghotki city where she maintained that she converted to Islam of her own will and married Shah as she loved him.
The news outraged the Hindus of her small town, where community leaders resented the fact that the Muslims were forcibly converting Hindu girls of marriageable age, and they gathered at the court where the supporters of the Pirs were indulging in aerial firing to celebrate Rinkle’s conversion. They also alleged that a local powerful politician and PPP MNA Mian Mitho had brought armed men to harass them. They refused to accept the girl’s statement and held that she had been forced into making it in the court. They also challenged it in the Sindh High Court and later the case reached the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
The case was widely reported by the local and as well as the national media and the battle was joined on the social media and Facebook carried varied opinions one way or the other. The court in Karachi sent her to a shelter home to enable her to ponder the matter and decide where she wished to go. The case became so high-profile that President Asif Ali Zardari reportedly privately intervened to have Ms. Kumari taken into protective custody. Later, the president’s sister, Dr. Azra Fazal Pechuho delivered an impassioned speech in support of the Hindu community.
Later, the chancellor of a religious seminary, the Jamia Binoria Aalmia, Mufti Muhammad Naeem issued a statement criticizing the High Court decision of sending her to a shelter home. Then the sole superpower also entered the picture and requested the Pakistani government to help the Hindus.US Congressman Brad Sherman also wrote a letter to President Asif Ali Zardari, asking him to take all necessary steps to bring an end to the harassment of Hindus in Sindh.
To ascertain what exactly happened in the case, this reporter traveled to Mirpur Mathelo,where the local Hindus were so afraid that they preferred not to talk on the issue at all.
After visiting Mirpur Mathelo and Daharki towns, we went to Bhurchandi Sharif. The white dome of the shrine could be seen from far away. Around 2000 devotees of the shrine welcomed us to tell us that the Hindus were lying and that the girl had converted of her own will.
Bhurchandi Sharif shrine was built in 1890 at the grave of Hafiz Muhammad Siddique, a religious leader who educated many big names and also converted the famous hero of the independence movement, Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi, a Sikh, to Islam. Just beside the shrine is a mosque, every inch of which is made of indigo tiles and a carved wooden roof that was constructed in 1930.
Unlike the other Sufi shrines of Sindh which a pilgrim of any gender, religion or sect can freely visit, at Bhurchandi Sharif only male Muslims can enter and there is a small window from where women just peep in. But on February 27, when Rinkle became Faryal after recording her statement in Ghotki court, she was brought amidst aerial firing and free distribution of sweets to this shrine for the first time ever in its history to recite verses from the Holy Book. “As she converted to Islam so she has a higher place in Islam as compared to all Muslims, she is even more important than a Syed, so we brought her inside,” said cleric Mian Shaman to this scribe during an interview. But though his family had a long history of converting non-Muslims for more than a century and half of them were women, none had been allowed within the shrine.
Later on he took us to a nearby Madrassah, the Khankah Aalia Qadria, which currently has more than 100 students on its rolls who get free boarding and lodging and other expenditures. The seminary has around 145 branches all over the country. While sitting inside the seminary, Mian Shaman showed me a pile of files carrying the tag “Nau or New Muslim File” each containing hundreds of certificates that he and his forefathers had issued to the newly converted Muslims in the last more than a century. “Alhamdulillah, we convert about 250 Hindus and Christians every year in this seminary,” said Shaman proudly.
Talking of the Rinkle Kumari case, he said she approached him at his house and requested him to convert her to Islam. “As a true Muslim, it’s my duty to convert someone if he or she approaches me; otherwise, I will no more remain a Muslim, and when Rinkle came, I contacted her family and other Hindu elders, but none of them came to talk to her, so after waiting for five hours, I converted her to Islam.” He rejected the allegations that she was forcibly converted. To justify his position, he showed me a large group of local Hindus brought in a rented bus to the seminary so that they could convey to me how safe they were. The majority of these Hindus were working as maid servants at the houses of different Pirs.
Pir Muhammad Shah, the SSP Ghotki, a well known police officer who was posted in the district in early 2011 after 29 persons were kidnapped and robberies were common, took on the challenge. He eliminated 19 bandits, losing several police officers in the process, and restored peace in the district so much so that the Hindus offered him a golden crown in a ceremony. He too supported the statement of Mian Shaman. “She was not kidnapped. She wanted to marry Naveed Shah as she knew Shah for a long time. She was also the classmate of Shah’s sister and both of them were conversing on the phone for months,” said Shah.
But Kumari’s father, Nand Lal, a government school teacher, who left the town after the incident and is living in Karachi with his brother-in-law, insisted she was kidnapped. “As we woke up early in the morning, she had disappeared and one of her shoes was lying on the stairs and later in the court she told us that four armed men entered the house on that night and silently took her away and she was forced to convert.”
“Mian Mitho is a terrorist and it is his business to kidnap Hindu girls and keep them in his home for sexual purposes and later sell them”, he said. When asked why they were being targetted, he remarked, “We are a peaceful community and do not have a tribal backing; therefore, we are considered to be soft targets.” The girl’s mother Sulachany Devi said that her daughter was a very shy girl and she couldn’t take such a big step. She also demanded her daughter’s return.
Although parts of Pakistan are suffering from sectarian bloodshed, Sindh province is a relative haven of religious tolerance and the majority of the country’s Hindus have a history of tranquil co-existence with Muslims, with both communities sharing a mutual culture and language, celebrating each other’s religious festivals, going into business together, and attending weddings and funerals of the other. In such circumstances, though several Sindhi liberal Muslim are supporting the Hindus, cases such as Rinkle’s have forced some Muslim to take an emotive pro-Muslim stance.
Like kidnapping for ransom, extortion from Hindu businessmen by powerful feudals and migration of Hindu citizens to India, the forced conversion of Hindu girls in Sindh is a major issue for the minority community. At the time of partition of India, a large number of Hindus from today’s Pakistan migrated to India, but a substantial number still remain in Pakistan as a minority. The Sindhi Hindus have been living in the province for the last several centuries. Before 1947, the province was a Hindu-majority area.
Despite all the problems faced by the community, the Hindu parliamentarians have not made sufficient efforts to protect their own community. In the national and provincial assemblies, there are a total of 18 Hindu members. The Pervez Musharraf-led government allowed religious minorities to cast dual votes – meaning they could vote for a Muslim as well as a candidate from the religious minorities at the same time. But this change had an adverse impact on the latter. Though they were given dual voting right, they could actually cast only one vote for a Muslim candidate in their constituency. The non-Muslim candidates were given reserved seats and they reached the assemblies without getting votes.
Thus, they stopped paying attention to their communities and started obeying the orders of the political parties’ high-ups, who had issued them party tickets and paved their way to the assemblies.
The government should therefore change the allocation of the assembly seats on an urgent basis. The reserved seats system for religious minorities needs to be discontinued immediately. All minority candidates must contest the elections and get into the assemblies only through direct vote, so that they are sensitive to the problems of their own communities. There are several issues, apart from forced conversions, including Family Law for Hindus and Marriage Act that need proper legislation, which only duly elected representatives can confront and resolve in a peaceful manner.
Amar Guriro, an IVLP Fellow and Karachi based print media journalist is attached with Pakistan Today. He can be reached on his personal email address: firstname.lastname@example.org