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Illustrations by Reem Khurshid.
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 nashin of 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?”
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.
“Contrary to perceptions, most of those in this category don’t migrate to India. They are shifting from Ghotki, Khairpur, Umerkot, etc to Karachi where they can be found in large numbers dominating the rice, pulses and cotton markets,” said Mr Sharma. “Ironically, Hindus feel safest in the country’s most lawless city.”
The highest number of Hindus in Pakistan, however, live in southern Sindh where most of them work as agro-based bonded labour. “They have no access to education, health or basic amenities. Their women and children work in the open all day, they’re visible, everyone can see them. They’re easy targets for the waderas’ sons and their henchmen.” (The daughters of Muslim haris elsewhere in the country are often no safer at the hands of waderas.) That is also why the highest number of forced conversions of Hindu girls and young women take place in the green belt of Umerkot district — rather than the arid Tharparkar district — where Muslims zamindars have vast landholdings and most of the haris are Hindu.
(Local Hindus are at pains to point out that it is only the wealthy Muslim zamindars that prey on their girls and women. Other Muslims in Thari society, they say, have always accorded them dignity and respect.)
According to human rights campaigners, older men lure and entice young and naive Hindu girls by promises of marriage that seem like a stepping stone to a far better life than they could ever dream of. “But even if no force is involved, this is not informed consent,” maintained one of these activists. “In the case of minors, it should not be deemed consent at all, but compulsion.”
Dr Ramesh Vankwani, MNA and patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council, said, “There is not even one case in which anyone has willingly converted. These men, who are often already married, kidnap the girls, keep them in their custody for 15 days, rape them, and through threats and intimidation, make the girls say they converted willingly”.
When a young girl finds herself in such a situation, she is left with few options. Returning home can mean putting herself and her family at risk of retaliation by her abductors. At the same time, and this is particularly in the case of older girls, she is also afraid the community may shun her because they see her as defiled. “For her to remain with the man can appear to be the lesser evil,” said Fatima Halepoto, a human rights lawyer. “What adds to the tragedy is that these girls, or even the children they bear, are never fully accepted into the man’s family either. I know of cases in which they are made to live in a room separate from the main house.”
However, it is not only the powerlessness of haris in the social hierarchy that gives license to wealthy waderas to take advantage of them. After all, Hindus have lived here since centuries; it is only in recent years that forced conversions have become such a burning issue. An increasing wave of fundamentalism in the area is also contributing to an indirect sanction of the practice. Moreover, this growing religiosity has given rise to another aspect of religious conversion, one that directly exploits the haris’ extreme poverty.
About 20 kilometres north of Umerkot, near the garrison town of Chhor, lies the settlement of New Islamabad. Fresh converts are schooled for four months here in the basics of Islam after they recite the kalima at the imposing Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) madressah complex in Chhor. The new Muslims receive a ‘sanad’ (certificate) upon completing their course.
The head of the madressah complex, an affable man by the name of Mohammed Yaqoob who is also the general secretary of JUI-F Umerkot district and the head of the Wafaqul Madaris Al-Arabia in Umerkot and Tharparkar districts, said: “We accept only families for conversion. New Islamabad can accommodate 40 families at a time. Twenty-three families have recently left and another 35 are due to arrive soon.” With a sheepish smile, Maulvi Yaqoob said he did not wish to speak ill of Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi and agreed that Maulana Fazlur Rehman would not approve of the kind of conversions that took place in Samaro. He maintained that he refused to carry out conversions of Hindu girls accompanied by Muslim men wanting to marry them. “There is less Islam here and instead more of other things.”
At the same time, the madressah makes an exception for young Hindu men and women who cannot marry each other because of the many prohibited degrees of relationship in their culture. For them, changing their religion seems the only recourse.
Maulvi Yaqoob estimates that around 9,000 conversions have taken place at the madressah during the last 15 years. More recently though they have started maintaining a record, and he can confirm that last year, around 850 Hindus underwent conversion here.
In earlier years, he said, his compatriots had to often venture far afield in the area to preach, “but now 99.9 per cent of people who come to us for conversion come as a result of tableegh by the earlier converts”.
Another reason for impoverished lower caste Hindus to approach Maulvi Yaqoob for conversion may also be the largesse they receive upon entering the fold of Islam. The madressah’s New Muslim Welfare Association provides converts with brick and mortar homes to live in, ghee, flour, sewing machines, dowries for their daughters, etc. The ‘new’ Muslims are given the facility of cultivating crops on the surrounding land where a concrete-lined canal, supplying water to the Cantonment from Nara Canal in the east, provides water all year round. It is a vastly different scenario from the parched expanses where they wait anxiously for rains every year.
For progressives and rights activists in Thar, the rapidly expanding settlement of New Islamabad is further evidence that the secular nature of their society is being changed. “Where does the JUI get such lavish funding for all this construction and for maintaining the place?” said Akbar Soomro*, a development sector employee. Another social worker puts it bluntly: “The reason for what is happening is India’s close proximity to this part of Pakistan. Hindus, however loyal to this country, will always be suspect in the eyes of the establishment.”
According to MNA Ramesh Vankwani, “The forced conversions have set a precedent, that converting Hindus to Islam is sawab ka kaam. No one is protecting us, not even the state”.
Mr Sharma, the human rights worker based in Mithi, narrated a chilling incident. At a wedding function a few years ago, he found himself in conversation with a senior law-enforcement official.
“At one point he told me, ‘The state is not comfortable with you people’”, recalled Mr Sharma. “I asked if he was referring to Hindus. He said ‘No, everyone. In other border areas we get support and facilitation from people about the enemy, but we get no information from people in Tharparkar, from either Muslims or Hindus. There’s no support from the security perspective to the state.’ When I responded, ‘Should we Hindus leave?’ he said, ‘No we’re not asking for that. We simply want Muslims here to be better Muslims’.
Some time later, when I saw a vehicle belonging to the FIF [the Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation, the charity wing of the Jamaatud Dawa], I realised this wasn’t an individual’s statement.”
From the point of the security forces, Thar’s geographical contiguity with India makes it a particularly sensitive area where cross-border infiltration makes it necessary to exercise more-than-usual vigilance over the local population, regardless of religious affiliation.
Nevertheless, say locals, while the state has little money for health, education or development in the area, there seems to be plenty of funding for new madressahs that have mushroomed since the early 2000s. It is not as though ultra conservative Islam has never existed here. Many decades ago, Badiuddun Shah Al-Rashdi, a cousin of Pir Pagara, brought the Salafi Ahle Hadith movement to Thar from Badin with funding from Kuwait.
However, in a society that valued its pluralism, the influence of its political arm, the Jamiat Ahle Hadith, remained confined to a few pockets, such as between Diplo — a town in Tharparkar — and Badin district. Until about 15 years ago, that is, when a hardline version of Islam began to spread throughout Thar. It found a natural ally in members of the Jamiat Ahle Hadith. These now form the bulk of the JuD presence here. According to locals, they seem to have unlimited funding at their disposal to build madressahs; they even purchase mosques to disseminate Salafi Islam.
Although most madressahs in Umerkot and Tharparkar districts belong to JUI-F, JuD’s presence in Thar is steadily increasing. (A few madressahs belong to the Jamaat-i-Islami as well.) This is despite the fact that JUD is on the Interior Ministry watchlist under Schedule II of the Anti Terrorism Act, which denotes that the government has reason to believe it may be involved in terrorism.
An enormous JuD centre is under construction just outside Mithi at the Nagarparkar road junction. Several people told Dawn that locals driving trucks with construction material for the building have to disembark outside the gate. The madressah’s own people take the vehicles inside, unload the contents, and bring the trucks back. Meanwhile in Mithi itself, the FIF has forcibly occupied a college property as its base.
In response to the contention that madressahs are increasing all over the country, rights activists in Thar say that the existence of a huge, largely destitute and marginalised Hindu population in the area means that the issue of conversions is far more complex than its proponents make it out to be. It also carries a high risk of violent social conflict.
Two years ago, in the run-up to Eidul Azha, JuD declared they would sacrifice cows in Mithi’s main Kashmir chowk that Eid. (Because so many Hindus live in Tharparkar, there is no cow slaughter in Mithi, while only one shop in Umerkot town sells beef.) But the residents, both Hindu and Muslim alike, went to the maulvi and asked him not to create fasaad between the communities. Thus far, according to locals, JuD is not involved in conversions of Hindus. “They’re concentrating on making better Muslims of the Muslims for now,” said a Hindu social worker.
Most intriguing though, given the animosity in Pakistan towards proselytising by any religious community other than Muslims, is the space allowed to Christians, mainly Irish Catholic, and Ahmadis to operate their centres in Thar — some in close proximity to madressahs. (Ahmadis in particular have to contend with institutionalised discrimination and persecution in the rest of the country.) The Christian and Ahmadi missionaries offer impoverished Hindus schools, health clinics etc as an inducement — in fact, it is not unknown for the converts to revert to their old faith if the projects fail to materialise or come to an end. “If a Hindu becomes a Christian here, or even an Ahmedi, it's not a problem just as long as he ceases to be Hindu,” said Mr Soomro, the human rights activist.
Thar has long been known for communal harmony, negligible incidence of crime and a benign social ethos. If, as the locals fear, things proceed along the same trajectory, the part of Pakistan they call home may become engulfed in the kind of turmoil that has proven such a formidable challenge to the state elsewhere in the country.
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.