The Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions — a bi-cameral, bi-partisan body formed late last year — is undertaking efforts to look into what the Hindu community believes are forced conversions of underage girls in Sindh’s various districts.
As part of its efforts to ascertain and resolve the issue of forced conversions, the committee recently paid its first visit to Sindh in October this year.
The committee, led by Senator Anwarul Haq Kakar, met a number of Mukhis — Hindu community leaders — besides civil rights activists of the province while visiting Sukkur and Ghotki. Parliamentarians also met the additional inspector general of Sukkur region along with other high ups of the area, as well as the provincial chief secretary, police chief and other government functionaries in Karachi.
“I feel there is an element of consent or willingness on the part of Hindu girls in such cases. It is not only Hindu but Muslim girls also who have eloped for freewill marriages in Sindh and their number is high too,” Kakar informed Sabaat from Islamabad. He added that cases of Hindus could be probed further. “FIRs are not lodged in cases the way they should be registered, as per members of the Hindu community,” he said further.
As part of its quest, the parliamentary body is also debating the definition of ‘forced conversion’.
The Hindu community of Sindh has been raising the issue for a long time and has also claimed that many Hindu families have migrated to India because of this factor. The most common cases of forced conversion in Sindh are when a Hindu girl is abducted and forcibly converted to Islam.
Cases of forced conversions are reported mostly in Sindh, mainly in Ghotki, Umerkot and Tharparkar districts. Some cases have also surfaced in Punjab which pertain to female members of the Christian community.
Lal Malhi, Member National Assembly from Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and a resident of Umerkot district, pointed out that the committee reviewed “free will” cases of 284 girls reported in Ghotki and its surroundings. These cases also included Muslim girls, he said, adding that “the committee has taken briefings from the Human Rights Ministry as well as Council of Islamic Ideology”.
Talking about the so-called freewill cases of marriage, Malhi argued, “There has to be a procedure for such expression [of free will] so that the family of the girl intending to marry a Muslim man is also satisfied.”
Instead, he explained, Hindu families see their girls suddenly making an appearance before a court [after disappearing from home] to say they have embraced Islam and married a Muslim man.
Rights activists like Krishan Sharma pointed out that police don’t add relevant sections of the law in such cases despite the insistence of girls’ families. “Police only lodge kidnapping-related sections although other sections can be added,” he stressed, pointing to Section 376 of the Pakistan Penal Code which deals with the offence of rape.
Sharma explained that by ‘forced conversion’ the community doesn’t mean that a girl is kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam. “We don’t object if a Hindu girl is marrying a Muslim fellow of her own choice. The debate starts when a girl is converted to Islam due to some procedural lapses, as otherwise converting to any faith is one’s right. In such cases the girl’s age is not determined and even the school certificate is not examined properly,” he claimed.
In many cases heard by the Sindh High Court and lower courts, Hindu girls, after having married Muslim men, have informed judges that they want to be with their husbands and not return to their families. In upper Sindh’s Ghotki district, a former MNA was also blamed for patronising such conversions. The MNA has strongly denied the accusations.
Sharma pleaded that the police must add the relevant sections of Sindh’s Child Marriage Restraint Act when the question of the girl’s age is clearly involved. The law states that a man and woman must be 18 years of age for their marriage to be considered lawful.
He considers the parliamentary committee as the last hope to address and end the issue of forced conversions in Sindh — said to number a thousand or so per year.