Ram Kori, a young Hindu girl, fell in love and eloped with Amir Noor Ali, a Muslim boy. Her mother approached the courts, pleading that her under-age daughter had been abducted and forcibly converted. The government subsequently arrested Ali and imprisoned him for two years and Kori, now Islam Bibi, was returned to her parents.

If this story sounds out of place in today’s Pakistan, it is because it pre-dates the creation of the country. The incident took place in 1936 when, in British-ruled, un-partitioned India, Hindus were in a majority unlike their numbers in present-day Pakistan. Kori was a resident of what was then the North West Frontier Province and Noor Ali came from the Waziristan tribal agency.

The tribal Muslims, however, did not take the return of the girl lying down. For the next 11 years there was a rebellion against the British, led by a local Pakhtun leader known as the Fakir of Ippi.

The story of Kiran Kumari, who fell in love and eloped with a Muslim boy from a village in the southern part of Rahimyar Khan district earlier this year, is the same as Kori’s – right down to the support that both girls received from the local Muslim population. In Kiran’s case, this support has been led by Mian Abdul Haq alias Mian Mitho, the political and religious leader of the area. The only difference is that it appears that Kiran is not going to make it back to her parents.

Conversion spot?

On a day in early September, reporters and photographers from different parts of Pakistan came face-to-face with most of the characters in her story at Mitho’s residence, on the outskirts of Daharki town in northern Sindh. As Kiran walked into a room full of journalists, she looked at everyone and smiled charmingly. She didn’t look a day older than 14, but when she spoke she exuded the confidence of a minor celebrity.

She narrated in detail how she fell in love with Shabbir Ahmed, who told her that she would have to convert to Islam if she wanted to marry him. She then left her home a day before Eidul Fitr to join Ahmed who brought her to Mitho’s house. Once among Muslims, she hastily accepted Islam and the two were married.

Mitho, who represents Ghotki district in the National Assembly, belongs to the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party and is the custodian of a famed Muslim shrine, Bharchundi Sharif, near Daharki. He is known to convert and provide protection to Hindu women who want to marry Muslim men. A tall man with greying locks, a flowing white beard and a conical cap, he looks like Santa Claus dressed in white.

Bharchundi Sharif, a Muslim shrine near Daharki under the patronage of Mian Mitho. Photo credit: Salman Haqqi.

Mitho is unapologetic when asked why he helps eloping women convert. He said it is his duty to provide protection to anyone who wishes to accept Islam. “We take in the eloping couples because it is our duty to provide them with security,” he said.

By his own assertion, Mitho maintains regular contact with many of the women who have converted recently, supposedly to ensure their safety and security. But Hindu community leaders explain that the concept of honour killing or declaring their women as karis is foreign to the community; they insist that no convert has ever been harmed by her family following her marriage.

Mitho also adds that his first reaction, after a woman arrives at his house for conversion, is to call her parents and inform them that their daughter is safe with him. “We then wait a few hours to see if they are interested in taking her back,” he told the Herald. “More often than not, they show no interest because they are angry at her for wishing to convert to Islam and they don’t take action until after she has been converted and married.”

In Kiran’s case, Hindu community leaders insist that she was abducted. “On the eve of Eid, she went to the fields with her mother to bring back fodder for their livestock. Four Muslim boys started teasing the girl as the two women were returning home. When Kiran told them off, they became angry and took her away on a motorcycle” – this is how Ramesh Jaipal, a leader of the Hindu community in Rahimyar Khan, narrated the case. He told the Herald how hundreds of Hindus peacefully protested outside the house of Kiran’s alleged abductors a day after she was taken away – only to face further abuse. Many of the protesters were badly beaten by local Muslims for gathering in a Muslim area, he says.

While Kiran denies all this and insists that she left her home of her own volition, she was confused about how to explain the reasons behind her conversion. “Did you leave home because you loved Islam, or because you loved the boy?” she was asked. “I left for the love of Islam. Shabbir was simply the route to my new religion,” she replied, but could explain what it is about Islam that inspired her to convert, or how well she knew the religion prior to her conversion. Soon her answers begin to contradict each other – the question of how she landed at Mitho’s house, especially, became blurred in the thicket of her changing statements.

To divert attention from her, Mitho’s men rushed in her husband. But it seemed that Ahmed was not as confident as his wife. When asked a question, his eyes darted to the back of the room towards where Mitho was standing, for reassurance and confirmation. After much confusion, Kiran whispered something in his ear and he began to talk about where he comes from.

A diffident Ahmed, understandably, failed to reduce the confusion in the room. At first, he said he doesn’t love Kiran; then, minutes later, after she surreptitiously elbowed him, he began to talk about how he wrote love letters to her for two years. Neither of the two have these letters anymore. In this case, the mixing of love with religion is not as seamless as Mitho and his men would like it to appear.

Beyond conversion

According to others familiar with such cases, religion or love – or a combination of the two – are not the only factors: social and economic issues are also involved. Kiran belongs to the Meghwal caste – often described by Hindus to be the lowest rung of the Scheduled Castes – and has five sisters and four brothers. She said that most of her sisters are unmarried due to economic hurdles as well as the unavailability of suitable boys within their caste. These revelations shed some light on why Kiran may have resolved to leave her home.

Amar Guriro, a senior journalist who has written extensively on such issues, recently reported that sometimes Hindu women “convert of their own will, as dowry is a big issue within the [Hindu] community”. Many feel that eloping with a boy is wiser than waiting for a dowry that may never materialise, he added.

According to most of the Hindu women interviewed by the Herald in Rahimyar Khan, these explanations are meaningless. To them, the only explanation that does make sense is that Muslims take their girls away simply because they have the power to do so.

Whatever the reasons may be, incidents of girls from Hindu families converting and marrying Muslim men have become quite frequent, especially in the adjoining districts of Rahimyar Khan and Ghotki. Earlier in the year, the cases of three girls – 19-year-old Rinkel Kumari, 14-year-old Asha, and 15-year-old Bharti – who were converted and married, made headlines. Two of them were also heard at the Supreme Court following allegations that they were kidnapped and forcibly converted.

Ramesh Vankvani, president of the Pakistan Hindu Council, claims that at least 80 such cases, involving young girls, have been reported to him in 2012 alone. Conversion cases have, in fact, increased over the years. “A decade ago, there would be one or two cases in a year but in the last few years the situation has drastically deteriorated. In 2010 and 2011, there were at least 50 reported cases of abduction and forced conversion,” said Vankawani. “We must remember that many families do not even report the abductions because they fear losing respect within the community.”

Jai Prakash Moorani, the editor of Sindhi language daily Ibrat and a local Hindu leader in Hyderabad, is more concerned about the religious harassment which follows a conversion rather then the conversion itself. “We don’t have a problem with our girls converting to Islam – we don’t even mind the fact that they fall in love with Muslim men. What hurts us is the way these stories play out,” he told the Herald.

Mian Abdul Haq alias Mian Mitho.

Moorani complained about how after a conversion, truckloads of Muslims drive to the convert’s hometown to cheer and celebrate “the victory of Islam”. Through speeches on loudspeakers, these cheerleaders let the locality know the name of the girl who has converted, hence embarrassing her family, he said. Ironically enough, he added, such pageants of triumph are sometimes the only means for parents to find out that their daughter is still alive.

Pressure and prejudice

Such an open display of religious hostility is not without consequences. Hindus, like other non-Muslims in Pakistan, are a frightened community. Many of them have grown too fearful to demand immediate action when it comes to conversion cases. For others, the police and courts are the only resort but the process of addressing complaints is very slow in these departments. By the time the police register a First Information Report, the girl is already converted and married, says Ali Hassan, a senior journalist based in Hyderabad who has covered many conversion cases.

Many Hindus families have started taking drastic steps. “We don’t send our children to school; most of us don’t even send our married women out of the house because if something happens to them we have no one to turn to,” said Aakash Tabassum, a Hindu farmer who lives in a village not far from where Kiran’s parents live.

He pointed out that it is not just legal and political disempowerment which afflicts his community. The social and cultural discrimination Hindus face in Pakistan is even worse. “We are abused and sometimes physically beaten for walking too close to Muslims. Even though we are already living on the outskirts of the villages, Muslims constantly threaten to throw us out,” he said.

In villages surrounding Rahimyar Khan, the cultural code of untouchability is ubiquitous. According to some local accounts, Hindus are not allowed to work in grocery shops or at petrol stations because, apparently, everything that comes in contact with them will be rendered napaak (impure).Their children are mistreated at school – some even doubt whether Hindu children possess the same mental faculties as Muslim children. “Why should Hindu children go to school? Their brains don’t work like ours do,” said Mohammad Ibrahim, a worker at a petrol station in a village in Rahimyar Khan district.

Dreaming of social mobility under such highly discriminatory circumstances does not come easily to low-caste Hindu children. For many young girls, marrying a Muslim man is the only way to break these shackles. “Muslim boys promise these girls a prejudice-free life; they show them that the grass is greener on the other side, and slowly brainwash them until they agree to run away,” said Hasan.

But the promised end to discrimination materialises at a huge personal cost for the converted girls. Once they become Muslims, they can never go back to their parents, not even for social calls. There is no turning back for them, even when they find themselves struggling in a bad marriage. “They are told that meeting and fraternising with their Hindu parents will make them liable to be killed,” Hassan elaborated.

Some Hindu elders say they could convince the girls to return to their families if they could access them in time. Such a thing has happened in the past. “Whenever we were able to track our girls before they reached Bharchundi Sharif, we convinced them to come back and they did,” said Tabassum. But once they are in the shrine, whose custodians combine their political power with their religious status, the equation changes. No Hindu from his area, said Tabassum, would dare walk up to Mitho’s house without police protection to even talk about conversions. “Do you think there was any point in Kiran’s father pleading his case once she was in Muslim hands?” he asked.

This article first appeared on Herald.