Shortly after an armed gunman killed 50 Muslims as they prayed in two mosques in New Zealand on March 15, videos of the attack and other images alluding to the motive and ideology of the perpetrator began circulating on social media in Pakistan.
This was not the first such attack in the world. But it was the first time in my memory that such an attack received widespread coverage in Pakistan. There are no points for guessing why. The attack fit a particular narrative: of a hostile world attacking and marginalising Muslims. Not minorities, but Muslims.
In the past few years, murderous attacks by cow vigilantes in India and the persecution of the Rohingya community in Myanmar have also attracted attention in Pakistan.
I remember getting into a heated discussion in a public space in 2013, shortly after the plight of the Rohingya Muslim community in Myanmar was first highlighted by the global media. This was in March that year, a few days after over 100 homes of Christians in Lahore were burned to the ground over an alleged case of blasphemy, forcing the local Christian population to scatter in fear for their lives.
On one side, a man argued that it was wrong to make the entire community suffer for the alleged crimes of one person. On the other side, a government official passionately argued that if no one batted an eyelid when Christians in Myanmar were persecuting Muslims, why should Pakistanis shed a tear when Christians were being persecuted in a Muslim country. It was clear this official did not know much about the Rohingya crisis, as the majority community accused of targeting the Rohingya are Buddhists, not Christians.
The New Zealand example
The response of the New Zealand government and its people to the March 15 terrorist attack was unprecedented and is an example to other countries.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern not only condemned what she called a “terrorist attack” in a speech to the nation, she emphasised to migrant communities that New Zealand is their home. The next day, she and hundreds of women across New Zealand turned up on the streets and at workplaces wearing headscarves in a bid to show solidarity with victims of the terror attack, and to shun the Islamophobic ideology that allegedly inspired it. Ardern also promised gun law reforms and announced an immediate ban on the sale of military-style semi-automatic guns and assault rifles.
A few days after these events, Pakistan was faced with an incident that accorded it an opportunity to serve as an example to others.
It was reported that two minor Hindu sisters – aged 13 and 15 – were kidnapped from their hometown in Sindh’s Gotki district on March 20 and brought to South Punjab, where they were forcibly converted to Islam and later married to two Muslim men. While the brother of the kidnapped girls has petitioned the Lahore High Court for their safe return, their spouses have moved the Islamabad High Court for protection, alleging that their lives were under threat from the girls’ families.
The case was first reported on social media when a video of the father of the girls, crying and beating himself while reporting the incident, went viral. Later, a separate video showed the two minor girls in which they purportedly said they accepted Islam of their own free will after being inspired by it, and were married of their own accord.
There have been other such incidents in the past when Hindu girls in Pakistan have been kidnapped, converted to Islam and married. The pattern is the same: one narrative alleges kidnapping and coercion, the other narrative maintains they were inspired by Islam.
With Hindu families in Pakistan already considerably marginalised, it becomes extremely difficult for them to get their abducted daughters back.
A few shrines, such as Barchundi Sharif in Gotki, are particularly notorious for facilitating the abduction process. In the hundreds of such kidnappings that have been reported in the past few years, it is this shrine that has prepared conversion documents, which are then used by lawyers to draw up marriage certificates. Once the legal proceedings have been undertaken it becomes difficult for the Hindu families to get their daughters back. In this case too, the Barchundi Sharif shrine prepared the conversion documents for the girls.
Often the new legal documents are the only official documents that attest to the ages of these girls. In almost all of these cases, their ages are exaggerated to be over 18 to meet the requirements of the law.
In early 2017, the Sindh Parliament tried to pass a law against forced conversions, by making it illegal for a child under 18 to convert. The Sindh governor, however, refused to ratify the law because of protests by religious parties.
The marriageable age in Sindh is 18, making the marriages of the two teenaged sisters illegal. But their families will need to provide authorities with documents showing their actual age. It is unlikely that they have such documentation. The lawyers of the girls’ husbands have told the Islamabad High Court that one of the sisters is 20 years old.
The hue and cry in Pakistan about this case will keep it in the spotlight for some time. Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken notice of it, while other prominent political leaders are following it closely. Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj also tweeted about the case, highlighting her Bharatiya Janata Party’s narrative of protecting the interests of the Hindus. But here again, it was about Hindus, not minorities.
A cursory look at the outcome of previous cases, however, is enough to depress one about this one. Many such cases that have been highlighted in the past slowly receded from public memory after they got entangled in tedious legal proceedings. For now Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is making the right noises. One hopes that pressure exerted by the government will lead to justice.
Furthermore, Pakistan must realise that it should raise its voice not just for Muslim communities across the world but for all persecuted minorities, regardless of their religion. Like New Zealand, Pakistan – both the State and its people – must be unequivocal in condemning incidents that harm the country, such as the abductions and forced conversions of Hindu girls, and take steps to ensure that they do not happen again.
Haroon Khalid is the author of four books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.