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Speaking out against forcible conversion

By Xari Jalil

LAHORE: Prof Ashok Kumar is not afraid of taking a prominent stance on the Rinkle Kumari issue.

Fear, he says, is secondary compared to what is happening to the Hindu community in Pakistan, in particular Sindh. “We can’t just sit back and watch what our community is going through,” he says.

The recent case of Rinkle Kumari is not altogether an uncommon occurrence. Several young Hindu girls have been kidnapped in the dead of night from their homes, and dragged off to be forcibly converted to Islam, as they and their family members have later alleged. Usually this conversion is accompanied by a signing of the ‘nikahnama’ which strengthens the kidnappers’ side of the story, but still does not provide any kind of proof whether the marriage was done under duress or not.

On Thursday, protesters belonging to the Hindu and Christian communities in Lahore, accompanied by representatives of the Joint Action Committee (a group of social organisations), gathered outside the Lahore Press Club and shouted slogans in response to the slow treatment of the case, venting anger at religious fascism, forcible conversion, and a lack of support from the government.

Ashok Kumar, a professor of Sindhi language in the Linguistics Department of the Punjab University, is one of the protesters.

There are others too, students, professionals, young women, social workers, but the turnout has not been very high.

“We only decided this last night so couldn’t inform everyone on such short notice,” said Shahtaj Qizalbash from AGHS Legal Aid.

But Tanveer Jahan, also a member of the JAC, gives a more direct reply. “When it comes to minority rights, or any such sensitive issue, one just cannot expect any mass participation in Pakistan,” she says.

“You can just forget about the masses.” She says that both sides of the picture are grim – one side which does not support, and only watches the situation passively, while the other side which does come out on the streets but does so for its own vested interests and exploitation. “It is social workers like us who are stuck in the middle.”

“Down with mullah-ism!” shout the protesters, and a small number of drivers slow down on the busy section of the Simla Hill roundabout to see what the commotion is about. While many simply shake their heads and carry on, some are affected nevertheless, like Mehr Muhammad, a contractor.

“It is a sin to take away anyone’s rights like that,” he says, as he stands by watching the protest. “No religion allows this trampling of religious freedom. These girls should not be kidnapped and converted through force…how is it even conversion?” he questions, his brow furrowing over the worrying situation.

But another man has a completely different opinion. “Isn’t it a blessing if anyone is being converted into a Muslim?” he questions.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected two petitions, one filed by Rinkle’s husband, and the other filed by the father of another Hindu girl Dr Lata, from Jacobabad.

The two wanted to meet the girls, but the apex court observed that the two girls should be allowed to make a decision on whether they want to go with their parents or husbands based on a freewill therefore they were sent to Panah, a shelter home run by human rights lawyer Dr Majida Rizvi, where they will stay isolated till the court summons them again. The matter is to be taken up again on April 18.

The matter has been tangled yet further with the alleged involvement of Mian Mithu, a PPP MNA from Ghotki, where Rinkle was kidnapped, and also one Naveed Shah, who was a close associate of Mithu.

“Even when Nafisa Shah and some other PPP MNAs tried to move a resolution against this issue in the assembly, Mian Mithu did not support it,” says Tanveer Jahan. “I simply ask if an FIR has already been lodged against these two then why are they not under arrest?”

Another girl, Asha is still missing and Dr Ashok says: “The state of the Hindu girls being converted is terrible. Since January there have been at least 47 kidnappings. Another point to observe is that this is only happening to young girls, never boys or elders.”

Peter Jacob, worker for minorities’ rights, says this forcible conversion is not restricted to just Hindus and in Sindh. “In the last five years, there have been up to 400 to 500 conversions of Christians. And something equally horrifying, I know of: forcible circumcision of young men in Punjab and one in Balochistan…where are we going, one asks.”

In feudal terms, owning another party’s woman is having the upper hand. That coupled with marriage, gives the perpetrator more strength. No one knows what becomes of many of the girls after being married. Meanwhile, many Hindus feel that they are simply being harassed so they leave the country forever.

“But this is not just an issue restricted to Sindh,” says one. “This protest is meant to be calling out to the whole nation…Why does no one raise their voices for our rights too?” he asks.