The Hindu community in the desert region fears for its faith, and with good reason.
UMERKOT: “When a girl is brought before a qazi for conversion to Islam, the qazi must comply immediately. If he delays the conversion even to say his prayers, he himself becomes kafir,” said Pir Waliullah Sarhandi, a younger brother of Pir Mohammed Ayub Jan Sarhandi. The latter, who is gaddi nashinof the Sarhandi shrine in Samaro tehsil of Umerkot district, claims to have converted thousands of Hindu girls and young women to Islam, mostly those belonging to the scheduled castes — Bheel, Meghwar and Kohli. Allegedly, this includes forced conversions, as well as conversions of underage girls eloping with Muslim men.
The most recent case to have caused a stir is that of Ravita Meghwar: her parents claim their 16-year-old daughter was abducted by men from an influential Muslim community living near their village in Tharparkar district, forcibly converted by Pir Ayub Jan in Samaro and married off to one of her kidnappers. When Ravita appeared in court in response to her parents’ petition she refuted their account, maintaining that she had gone willingly and that she wished to stay with her husband, Nawaz Ali Shah.
It is a story that is playing on repeat in Tharparkar and Umerkot, districts that are home to large communities of Hindus — Tharparkar’s Hindu population is in fact around 50 per cent — and it threatens to wreck centuries of inter-communal harmony in the area. This is a part of the country where religion has traditionally been worn lightly. Instead, cultural commonalities bind the communities. At one time there was even social acceptance of Muslim men marrying Hindu women: former Sindh chief minister Arbab Rahim’s maternal cousin is one-time MPA Ram Singh Sodho, whose mother converted to Islam after marriage. Now locals profess increasing concern that Thar too like the rest of the country is becoming polarised along religious lines.
After the hue and cry over forced conversions in Umerkot and Tharparkar districts, the Sindh Assembly passed a bill against the practice in November 2016. But before the governor could sign it into law, some religious organisations threatened widespread agitation if the government did not withdraw it. Their main objection was to the provision stipulating that the conversion of underage individuals would not be formally recognised until they reached the age of majority. The attempted legislation was mothballed. Now however, the government has announced it will review the bill again. To what end, it is difficult to predict.
A little before sunset on an overcast day, Gulzar-i-Khalil, Pir Ayub Jan’s madressah in Samaro, looks drab and uninviting. Its dun-coloured façade with its peeling paint and barren surroundings has an air of neglect, and facilities for the students appear to be extremely basic — as if the owners have far more important things to attend to. In the grounds, groups of boys mill about, enjoying the weather during a break in their religious instruction. Two men are stooped over a griddle on a wood fire nearby, making chapattis for the evening meal at the madressah.
The pir’s brother, voluble and expansive, clearly takes pride in the institution’s reputation as a one-stop shop for no-questions-asked conversions. “We’ve converted untold numbers of Hindus to Islam,” he said, declaring himself unable to give a precise figure. “No one is forced to become a Muslim, there’s not even one instance of that,” he insisted. Pir Ayub Jan himself is in Karachi to gather support for putting pressure on Sindh’s legislators to withdraw the bill.
Similar to Bharchundi Sharif in Mirpurkhas district further north, the Sarhandi shrine is synonymous with religious conversions, but most of the conversions taking place at the latter are of Hindus living in lower Sindh. Even going by the estimates of those engaged in the conversion of non-Muslims in Tharparkar and Umerkot districts, the annual rate is at least in the several hundreds, possibly more.
“At least 25 conversions of young Hindu girls and women take place every month in Umerkot’s Kunri and Samaro talukas alone,” said an activist from a local human rights organisation. “This area is so deprived and the people, most of whom belong to the scheduled castes, are so powerless that the families know there’s no use in them reporting forced conversions to the police, let alone raising a hue and cry.” That is why only a miniscule number of alleged forced conversion cases make it into the media. According to a list compiled from news reports by the organisation mentioned above, in 2015 and 2016, only 13 Hindus in the Samaro and Kunri talukas converted to Islam.
However, a curious disparity is evident even in the few cases that have been reported. The list of 13 only includes two males. One of them is Dilip Kumar, an adult, and the other is Ramesh Bheel, a young boy who converted along with his mother Devi Bheel. Human rights activists in Umerkot and Mithi, Tharparkar’s largest town, ask in exasperation: “Why only young girls and women of marriageable age? Why don’t mature women convert? Why is the story always the same — a girl runs away with a Muslim man, converts to Islam and refuses to have anything more to do with her family, who have little choice but to stay quiet?”
Daughters gone forever
Shiv Dhan and Mani, however, did not stay quiet when their two daughters, Sonari and Samjoo, were abducted from home in the middle of the night on Jan 15, 2016 by a group of intruders armed with guns and axes. Among them was the son of a landlord who owned acres of land on the other side of the main road running alongside their village and who subsequently married Sonari. At his modest home, Shiv Dhan, who along with his wife works on a local landlord’s farm, reached into a crevice in the mudbrick wall and carefully pulled out a bundle of folded newspapers. The yellowing pages were a testament to the couple’s desperate struggle to get their daughters back. “Along with some members of our family, we occupied the road there and remained there for several days in protest,” he said. “We filed a case but they never let us meet her or talk to her alone.” Sonari maintained in court that she had converted to Islam and married of her own will.
Their sole comfort is that their younger daughter was returned in a few days: they have never met, or even seen 16-year-old Sonari since. Tellingly, when asked how many children he has, Shiv Dhan said he has one daughter and two sons. Whether he has become resigned to never setting eyes on Sonari again, or whether she is now dead to him after having changed her religion, it is difficult to tell.
Instances of Hindu men wanting to convert for the sake of marrying Muslim girls are virtually unheard of. One that did occur two years ago is illustrative of the power imbalance in the area’s social dynamics. A young Hindu man from Umerkot city was working in Karachi when he fell in love with a Pakhtun girl. He brought her to his native town, became a Muslim and married her. It was not long before the men from her family descended on his house, and not finding the couple there, abducted some women of his family. Although police rescued them before the men could go very far, the boy’s family returned the girl. “Do you ever hear of Hindu girls’ families being able to do something like this? They can’t because the police and agencies are all on the side of the Muslims,” said Ramesh Kumar*, a rights activist in Umerkot.
A demographic breakdown of the Hindu population in Sindh offers an interesting perspective on the travails of the community in Pakistan. According to Krishan Sharma, a Mithi-based human rights activist, northern and central Sindh are home to upper caste, well-to-do Hindu business families, who live in prime locations coveted by politicians and tribal sardars who want to invest in land, or set up petrol pumps, factories, etc. Often the long-term Hindu residents do not wish to sell their property, so “a situation is created to drive them out”. That can include kidnapping for ransom as well as forced conversion of their daughters.