Conversion losses

December 03, 2005

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MEET Sanno Amra and his wife Champa: a middle-aged Hindu couple. They live in a small, simple but spotlessly clean home in Karachi’s Punjab Colony.

Until six weeks ago, they lived with their five children, reasonably content with their lot. Sanno worked as a chauffeur, and his wife cooked for a family. On October 18, their lives suddenly fell apart: Champa returned home from work to discover that her three oldest daughters were missing — Reena (21), Usha (19) and Rima (17) had seemingly vanished without a trace. This is any parent’s worst nightmare, but the couple’s woes had only begun.

After searching frantically for the girls, they went to the local police station where the SHO put them off without registering a case. A couple of days later, they met the deputy superintendent of police for Clifton. This proved to be the only bright spot in the entire tragic episode, for DSP Raza Shah went out of his way to help. He forced his subordinates to file an FIR, and his intervention was invaluable in ensuring the safety of the parents. And just for the record, the MQM ‘sector-in- charge’ also lent them his organisation’s support.

On October 22, a police FIR for kidnapping was duly prepared, naming three young men from the neighbourhood as the principal suspects. Immediately, Sanno and his wife started getting threats from their neighbours. Earlier they had never had any problems, although they were the only Hindu family in a predominantly Muslim locality. But now, the same people were pressuring them to remove the names of the local boys from the FIR.

Within days, they received a package by courier containing three identical affidavits signed by their daughters, stating that they had converted to Islam of their own free will. The declaration concluded: “That since my parents are Hindu and after conversion of my religion, it is not possible for me to live and pass my life in Hindu system/society [sic] and therefore, I have decided to live separately...”

According to their affidavits, the girls (now calling themselves Afshan, Anam and Nida) were living in the hostel of the Madarsa Taleem-ul-Quran, and were being instructed by a local moulvi. On November 10, a court order directed the police and the administrators of the seminary to arrange a meeting between the girls and their parents.

When Sanno and Champa finally met their daughters, they were shocked to see that they were in burqas that concealed them from head to toe, leaving only their eyes uncovered. The eyes of the youngest girl were bloodshot from weeping. At this supposedly private meeting, a dour woman was present throughout as were a moulvi and a couple of cops. In subdued voices muffled by heavy fabric, the girls said they wanted to stay where they were.

Understandably, the parents are convinced that their daughters were under pressure. In fact, they simply cannot come to terms with the notion that their children have not only abandoned them, but also the faith they grew up in. As far as they are concerned, their daughters have been brainwashed. Interestingly, the girls have cited “religious channels on TV” as the reason for their conversion.

Since their daughters left, Sanno and Champa have not returned to their jobs. They stay at home with Suraj and Arti, their young son and daughter and wait for news. Apart from their neighbours, they have also been isolated by their own community. According to Sanno, other Hindus look down on them because of their girls’ apparent conversion. Face, that most pernicious of Asian values, has been lost.

I spoke to DSP Raza Shah and asked him if in his opinion, any pressure had been brought to bear on the girls. He was sure it had been a voluntary conversion, adding that it was very possible that neighbours might have influenced them. The parents are clear that their daughters never watched TV in their presence, nor did they ever discuss the possibility of a conversion. According to Vijay, a relative, twenty girls from the Hindu community had converted to Islam in the last five years.

Talking to the parents in their simple home, I could feel their pain and their distress. “We just sit and stare at each other”, Sanno said. “For us, life is over.” Above all, they want the certainty of the knowledge that their daughters did not abandon them voluntarily. They went back to the madressah recently where they were refused access to their daughters. “Even if they have become Muslims, we are still their parents,” Champa said tearfully. The moulvi at the madressah, instead of being sympathetic, invited Sammo and Champa to convert as well.

What the stricken parents are looking for is closure: once they are satisfied that their daughters will never come home again, they will learn to live with their grief. But for this to happen, they want the girls to be moved to neutral ground like the Edhi orphanage where they can meet them without the coercive presence of moulvis and cops. But this request has been turned down by a judge.

Vijay has shared the family’s tribulations, and is understandably bitter. “Mr Jinnah had promised the minorities equal rights and protection. But it seems his promises were buried with him,” he maintains. Given the spate of conversions, some voluntary, some forced, the insecurity among the minorities, especially among Sindhi Hindus, is understandable.

Even if most of these conversions are not at gunpoint, they still take place in an overpowering environment of religiosity. Religious programmes on every private and public TV channel must leave an imprint on young minds. The need to conform at school and college where religion casts a constant shadow, must exert a subtle influence on non-Muslim students. And in a society based on faith, the minorities have been marginalized to the point where they are tempted to convert simply to get ahead in life.

But Sammo and Champa are not concerned with the larger issues regarding the place and fate of the minorities in Pakistan. All they want is justice. For them this involves being able to spend time alone with their beloved daughters, free from pressure and coercion, and to satisfy themselves that they took this drastic step on their own. Surely in a state that aspires to General Musharraf’s oft-touted ideal of ‘enlightened moderation’, this should not be too much to ask for.