History suggests that Sindh had set marvelous examples of interfaith harmony during the pre-independence era when Hindus and Muslims lived together in almost all cities and villages of Sindh sharing joys and sorrows.
Things have never been so amicable in Sindh since independence as the issue of forced conversion of Hindu girls is considered one of the most highlighted issues of Sindh in the current era.
This report, jointly submitted by the World Sindhi Congress (WSC) and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) on the occasion of the 28th Session of the Universal Periodic Review during which the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is under consideration, draws attention to the blatant violation of human rights occurring almost every day in this country, especially about the forced conversions in the Sindh province.
The report opens with a brief overview of current issues in the region. Then, it focuses on forced conversions, outlining the core causes of the problem and the most vulnerable areas, in light of a brief analysis of Pakistani Law relating to forced conversions. Finally, the report presents a series of recommendations aimed to facilitate constructive discussions during the 28th Session of the UPR in 2017.
This was submitted after a thorough study of different news articles and a survey conducted by various social organizations of the country in Sindh.
The issues of forced conversion and child marriage are interconnected in Sindh with no practical measures taken by the government machinery and law enforcement agencies to curtail this ever-growing menace. The Sindh assembly enacted the Sindh Child marriage restraint act 2013 aiming at the prevention of child marriage in the province but it could not bring fruition owing to a low literacy ratio and lack of awareness. In 2014, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) declared laws related to having a minimum age of marriage “un-Islamic”.
Individuals of any age could get married if they had attained puberty, the council had said. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) which has been in power in Sindh since 2008 had expressed grave concerns about this ruling.
Five years later, the Sindh Assembly passed the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill, 2018, which set the minimum age of marriage at 18 years, and imposed imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of at least 100,000 rupees, or both, for an underage marriage. In other parts of the country, the minimum age is set at 16 years.
A bill was also presented in the Sindh Assembly for deterring forced conversion but could not become law following undue pressure from religious groups who probably misread the intention of the legislature.
The issue of forced conversion takes multiple shapes and forms. Arguably, the practice continues, relatively unchecked, because the abductors are from the majority population and enjoy easier access to power.
This allows them to easily muzzle the voices of the girls’ families, who belong to religious minorities. The flawed method of “forced conversion” is rather a political agenda as Islam strictly prohibits any sort of coercion as to religious matters of an individual.
Forced conversions of kidnapped Hindu girls and subsequent marriages to Muslim men — in most cases to abductors — are routine in southern Sindh province, hosting about 90 percent of the minority community.
Hindus make up 2 percent and Christians are less than 1.5 percent of Pakistan’s estimated population of 220 million. There are certain religious groups in the Tharparkar, Umerkot, Sanghar, Thatta, Ghotki, and Sukkur districts of Sindh that have the patronage of highly influential political circles of the province. As many as 100 Hindus in Sindh converted to Islam in June 2020 to escape discrimination and economic pressures.
Islamic charities and clerics offer incentives of jobs or land to subjugated classes of Hindu minorities on the condition that they forgo their religion. New York Times summarized the view of Hindu groups that these seemingly voluntary conversions “take place under such economic duress that they are tantamount to a forced conversion anyway.”
After the flash floods of 2010 and 2015, several Hindu families converted to Islam to gain financial boons announced by the PPP government and religious groups. When we talk about key factors behind the predicament of forced conversions in Sindh it leads us to multiple factors. Mainly religious Institutions play a central role in maintaining the status quo, avoiding the creation of a specific legal framework for forced conversions, and constraining the action of police officers and judges involved once a case is reported.
Well-known religious institutions which support forced conversions of young Hindu girls in Sindh are all reportedly backed by the ruling party. Other factors that lead to forced conversion in Sindh include social and economic vulnerability, such as poverty and social alienation. Minorities lack proper space in education, jobs, and community life.
Furthermore, conservative Muslim groups influence local power structures to perpetuate and institutionalize discriminatory practices against non-Muslim communities, while misogyny and rigid patriarchy affect women from minorities even further than others, hindering their access to education and participation in the job market.
Reported cases of Hindu girls who became victims of forced conversion include the case of Pooja Kumar from Sukkur who was gunned down after she refused to marry last year, Radha, 16 from Umerkot in 2018, Arzoo Raja a 13-year-old Christin from Karachi was kidnaped in 2020 and forcibly married to a Muslim, Anila Dhawan from Hyderabad in 2020 and Ravenna and Reena from Ghotiki in 2019 among others.
Despite shocking figures brought forth by different organizations the Sindh government continues to deny these stats. This growing agony can be curbed in several ways particularly by revisiting the teachings of Islam concerning minorities and the weaker class of society.
Besides, that material should be included in the school syllabus about interfaith harmony, unity, and peace. There is a dire need for effective legislation on this issue in Sindh.
Image: By FD productions – FD productions, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=122710872