Forced conversions of young girls is an emotive issue in the Hindu community of Sindh. Those accused claim that young love is being misrepresented by the community, the media and activists. But those who know the whole truth often do not speak.

Last year Hari Lal’s house in Daharki, a city in Ghotki district, was echoing with the sound of laughter and the cranky fights of his daughters Reena and Raveena on the eve of Diwali. Diyas illuminated the small courtyard where the sisters had drawn intricate rangoli patterns, after carefully choosing each colour. But this year, Diwali at the Lal home is devoid of colour. In March, Lal maintains, his daughters were kidnapped during the festival of Holi.

“Today our day started with crying,” Lal said. The 50-year-old could not help but remember Reena and Raveena on every special occasion.

Lal had made headlines earlier this year when a video of him – helplessly slapping himself while crying outside the Ghotki police station, asking the police to do something to recover his daughters – went viral online. Lal was not alone. Reportedly over 2,000 Hindu men and women from nearby villages and towns had joined him in demanding justice for Reena and Raveena, blocking the highway for three consecutive days.

The incident became a flashpoint about the issue of forced conversion of Hindu girls. Pakistan Peoples Party Chairman Bilawal-Bhutto Zardari met with Lal and his son Shaman Das, and assured them that all efforts would be made for the recovery of the girls. Prime Minister Imran Khan took note of the incident. Even Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj directed the Indian high commissioner in Islamabad to send her a report about the incident.

But it was all for nothing. In April, the Islamabad High Court found that the sisters from Ghotki were not forcibly converted to Islam. A medical test showed that Lal’s claims that Reena and Raveena were minors were also incorrect.

Some now use the ruling as an example of how the issue of forced conversions of Hindu girls in Sindh is blown out of proportion.

But Lal refuses to accept that his daughters married the two Muslim men, Safdar Ali and Barkat Ali – both of whom were already married with kids – out of their free will. His son, Shaman Das, alleges that the strings of what happened to his sisters were being pulled by the pir of the shrine Bharchundi Sharif, Mian Abdul Haq, more commonly known as Mian Mithu.

Bharchundi Sharif, a Muslim shrine near Daharki under the patronage of Mian Mithu. Credit: Salman Haqqi/Dawn

Mian Mithu, a former Pakistan People’s Party member of the National Assembly, is infamous for his involvement in cases of alleged forced conversions. In 2015, when Imran Khan asked Mian Mithu to join Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, he faced so much backlash from the Hindu community that he had to distance himself from the pir. The Pakistan People’s Party had earlier denied Mian Mithu a ticket when he first came under the spotlight in 2012 because of accusations of forcefully converting a Hindu girl, Rinkle Kumari. The conversion, Mian Mithu had claimed, was not forced.

The religious leader found himself in the news yet again in September this year. He made headlines when he reportedly led a large number of people who took to the streets in protest to an alleged incident of blasphemy. In a rare move, Mian Mithu recently called a press conference in Karachi, clearly in an attempt to clear his name.

The Mian Mithu Show

Mian Abdul Haq alias Mian Mithu. Credit: Dawn

The Karachi Press Club was bustling with energy on a Tuesday. Reporters chattered away before the man of the hour, Mian Mithu, took his seat facing the audience. He looked calm. He was wearing his signature cone-shaped white cap and a grey kameez. His white beard and calm demeanour gave the impression of someone who is very sure of himself. Joining Mian Mithu was his 30-something son, Abdul Malik, and another associate.

“I have nothing to do with the Ghotki violence,” Mian Mithu said. “In fact, my sons and nephews tried to control the mob, which was charged over an incident of blasphemy committed by a Hindu school principal.”

He and his followers had nothing to do with the vandalism of the Sacho Satram Das temple, he maintained. Instead, he insisted, some organisations were trying to defame him.

But Mian Mithu was not just there to talk about the recent riots in Ghotki. He wanted to address another accusation against him that keeps resurfacing: forced conversions of Hindu girls.

“In the past 200 years, not a single Hindu has been converted to Islam forcibly,” he claimed. “All those men, women, girls and boys, whether they belong to the Hindu community or any other community, come to us to change their religion out of their own choice. They are not forced to convert.”

Faryal Bibi, born Rinkle Kumari, addresses a press conference in 2012. Credit: Online photo/Dawn

Going back to the case of Rinkle Kumari, he proudly shared that Faryal Bibi – the Muslim name of Rinkle Kumari – had recently completed reading the Quran and had returned to Pakistan after performing Umrah. She currently teaches the Quran to children at the madrasa, he said.

Mian Mithu clearly wanted to position himself as a saviour of love. He said that he supported newly converted Muslims, even Hindu women who enter the religion after falling in love with a Muslim man. This is something Mian Mithu has apparently been doing for years.

Back in 2013, when he was a local member of the national assembly, he had invited the press to his residence on the outskirts of Daharki. Reporters and photographers had travelled from Karachi to see Kiran Kumari, another young woman who had supposedly fallen in love and eloped with a Muslim boy.

Kiran had narrated her and Shabbir Ahmed’s love story in great detail. She told the captivated audience of journalists that she and Ahmed had come to Mian Mithu’s residence a day before Eidul Fitr, where she embraced Islam and married the love of her life. Mian Mithu had told the media that he gives shelter to eloping couples because it is his “duty to provide them security”.

Six years later, Mian Mithu repeated the same lines at the Karachi Press Club. “There is no force in religion, but there is also no bar on helping those in need,” he declared.

“Once non-Muslim converts, the first thing that they need is shelter and a source of livelihood,” he said. “Yes, I support those who are in need, but they convert out of their own free will.”

Representatives of the Hindu community and civil society protest against forced conversions and marriage. Credit: Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

Far from the Madding Crowd

Away from the cameras and prying journalists, 18-year-old Radha* was walking on a narrow pathway passing through green fields. She was waving a small stick in her hands. She looked like any other young woman in her village in Umerkot district. Radha was wearing a colourful choli and gharara and her arms were re full of white bangles. Suddenly, she stopped and pointed to the fields where her life changed forever. “There,” she said, pointing the stick in her hand to the exact spot where she was playing when she was kidnapped by a man named Ali Nawaz, when she was 16.

“He kidnapped me from the fields in the evening and took me to some house,” she said. It was at this house that the teenage girl was raped multiple times.

Radha’s father Vinesh* petitioned the Sindh High Court against the kidnapping of his daughter. He had found out that his daughter was being kept in a village near the Sarhandi shrine, in Mirpurkhas division. Soon the court-ordered Nawaz and four of his accomplices to produce the girl in court.

The men did their best to intimidate Radha.

“They said that I have to tell the judge that I have changed my religion and married Ali Nawaz out of my own free will,” she recalled. They also warned her that they would kill her parents if she did not comply.

But, in court, Radha told the judge the truth, that Ali Nawaz had kidnapped her and had been raping her for three months. “When the judge asked who I want to live with, I said my parents,” Radha recalled the traumatic ordeal, her voice shaking as she spoke.

Members of the Hindu community in the area insist that this is not an isolated case.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in 2018, more than 13 Hindu girls were abducted and married off to Muslims without the consent of their families. But members of the Hindu community say the number is higher.

Finding reliable data on the matter is difficult. Like the Reena and Raveena case, many cases that are initially reported as cases of forced conversion are later deemed love marriages. But the community refuses to buy this explanation. They believe that there is something more insidious at play here.

A thin line

A screengrab from a viral video of Reena and Raveena saying that they have voluntarily accepted Islam. Credit: Dawn

Ameet Kumar is a social rights activist and mukhiya or chief of the local Hindu community in Daharki. “When a mother gives birth to a daughter in our community, we feel fear,” he told us, as we sat for tea at a dhaba.

“It’s become a nightmare to live in these circumstances,” he said, adding that many Hindu families have stopped sending their daughters to school out of fear of abduction and kidnapping.

Dewan Lal, a member of the Hindu community, said that these fears were not unfounded. The thin and tall man claimed that every other Hindu here can narrate a similar story of abduction, conversion and forced marriage involving someone related to them. It allegedly happened with his own niece, 18-year-old Simran.

Simran, a high school student, had gone to the Mol Mata Mandir with her mother in May this year. “This is where she disappeared from,” Dewan Lal told us.

As in the case of Reena and Raveena, the community staged protests for the recovery of Simran, this time outside the Sukkur Press Club.

Much like Reena and Raveena, a week later, Simran could also be seen in a viral video clip, saying that she had changed her religion without any coercion and had married her husband Afaq out of her own free will.

Like Reena and Raveena’s family, Simran’s uncle, Dewan Lal, claimed that Mian Mithu was behind the conversion.

“After the court allowed Simran to go with her husband, Mian Mithu’s son, Mian Aslam, along with some of his men, visited the girl’s house,” he said. “They told us that Simran had married and converted her faith of her own will, and firmly asked us to let them live together now.”

Simran’s parents were apprehensive. They feared that like many girls of the area who “marry Muslim men out of love”, their daughter would not be allowed to leave her house, study or meet her family. When the parents expressed their concerns in the Sindh High Court, the court’s circuit bench in Sukkur passed a unique order. The two-judges directed the groom, Afaq, to ensure that Simran meets her parents and family members every three months. The judges also directed the man to allow his new bride to pursue her studies or work if she chooses to.

Mian Mithu’s followers point to cases like that of Simran’s to rubbish the Hindu community’s claims that their women – and girls – are being forcefully converted. They claim that these women choose their future partners and, obviously, in order to marry a Muslim man, they have to embrace Islam.

A Question of Choice

Eshwar Lal Makheja met us at a gao shalla or cowshed in the middle of Sukkur city. He was closely watching the caretakers as they prepare fodder for the 300 cows on the premises. The more well-off members of the community in the city make voluntary contributions to arrange food for the animals. Hindus, Makheja said, consider cows sacred because their Lord Krishna would cherish the butter stolen from the neighbours in his childhood. We walked and talked as Makheja took us on a tour of the under-construction Krishna Temple on the gao shalla’s premises.

Makheja is the mukhiya of Sukkur’s Hindu community, some of whom has lived in the region since before Partition. He is also president of the Hindu Panchayat Council’s chapter for upper Sindh – where Hindus contribute significantly to the economy through businesses, trade, exports and farming.

The well-respected community member said that debunked cases of forced conversion should not be taken at face value. The most sensitive issue, Mukheja said, is rape.

“Once a girl is raped, she is blackmailed into giving whatever statement they want recorded in the court,” he said, supposedly speaking from his own experience of handling dozens of such cases.

He questioned why it is Hindu girls alone who are so eager to change their religion and elope. Why aren’t Hindu boys, who enjoy more social independence than the girls, doing the same?

Makheja, who himself comes from a wealthy upper-caste Hindu family, said that the most unfortunate thing is that their community is being pushed around and cornered despite the fact that they have lived in Sindh for generations.

“The situation prevailing in the province towards the Hindus is just a glimpse of the hostility towards our community,” he said. “The problem should be identified at the state level. But, unfortunately, nothing is being done on the part of the state.”

The Sindh government did, however, get involved and tried to work towards a solution.

To control the growing incidents of alleged abductions of Hindu girls, their forced conversions and marriages below the legally fixed adult age of 18 years, the Pakistan People’s Party-led Sindh government passed a law to criminalise such acts in 2014. The Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act sets the legal minimum age of marriage for boys and girls at 18 years. Religious groups had opposed the new law, which finally came into force following amendments to certain sections.

However, community leaders say that the new law in Sindh is being bypassed, as converted girls are being shifted to Punjab to register their marriages and conversions because the legally fixed minimum age for marriage is 16 years in Punjab.

“Raveena and Reena were shifted to Rahim Yar Khan district in Punjab,” Eshwar Lal said. “This is the new trick to play with the law.”

Hari Lal, Reena and Raveena’s father, had claimed that his daughters were aged 14 and 16 when they were abducted. Case proceedings presided over by Chief Justice Islamabad High Court Athar Minallah had later found that the women aged 18 and 19 are adults.

Activists and members of the Hindu community do not think that this act alone is enough. In 2016 the Sindh Assembly had unanimously passed a bill against forced conversions. But this was not signed into law due to pressure by some religious quarters.

Asad Iqbal Butt, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s vice-chairperson for the Sindh chapter, said that a very sophisticated and organised campaign was behind forced conversions of Hindu girls by religious leaders.

“These spiritual leaders’ devotees first earn the trust of Hindu girls, and then motivate them to change their religion in some cases,” he alleged. “In other instances, the devotees kidnap the girls with the support of their pirs. Since the converted girls are not allowed to meet their families, we do not know what becomes of them.”

Human rights groups have been voicing their concerns over the situation in the province for a while.

Hindu minority and civil society protest against forced conversion marriages in front of the National Press Club in Islamabad, 2016. Credit: Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

“In a majority of the cases, the girls say that they want to live with their husbands, so the judges allow them to go with their husbands,” said Zahida Detho, an activist closely working with the minority community. But she said, in many cases, the girls give these statements because they face threats at the hands of their kidnappers, who have warned them that they will cause harm to their family members unless they comply.

“The actual story unfolds when a kidnapped girl returns to her family, which is very rare,” said Detho.

Radha’s was such a rare case. Her father Vinesh had clearly mentioned in his plaint that his daughter’s kidnappers were being protected by the influential village pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi – known for having converted hundreds of Hindus, mostly women.

Pit of Tharparkar

Sarhandi’s residence is located around 20 km off the Umerkot road, where he also runs a madrasa for boys. Members of the Hindu community and human rights activists in the Mirpurkhas division claim that Sarhandi uses force and his influence to suppress Hindus living in Tharparkar.

It was a sunny morning, and Sarhandi was sitting in his courtyard, wearing a crisp white cotton shalwar kameeez and matching headgear. He occasionally stroked his long grey beard as he carefully listened to the allegations against him. He raised his eyebrows from time to time but did not interrupt us nor lose his temper.

He took a moment before responding. In the background, we could hear young boys reciting the Quran in the madrasa.

Finally, Sarhandi responded to our questions about the community’s accusations of him patronising forced conversions of underage Hindu girls and marrying them off to Muslim men after they abducted the girls and sexually assaulted them.

“It is all propaganda by the NGOs that are agents of India’s spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing and Western donors that want to defame Pakistan,” the cleric said. He said that the claim that they only convert Hindu women is utterly false. He signals a young devotee to bring a logbook in which he and his men have recorded each conversion.

Students at Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi’s madrasa in Samaro with the seminary’s caretaker. Credit: White Star

One would expect Sarhandi to be perturbed by the laundry list of heinous acts he is accused of committing. Instead, the pir managed to maintain a sense of humour during the interview. He opened the logbook. “This is Bheero Kohli,” he said. “A relative of the Indian cricketer Virat Kohli,” he joked. He then continued to point out names of Hindu men who have come to him to embrace Islam.

Sarhandi vehemently opposes the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act that criminalises marriages of underage children. “There is no age religiously determined to embrace Islam,” he said. “Similarly, no age limit was fixed for the marriage of women.”

Sarhandi believes that people like him are the real victims and the media continues to misrepresent them, running “one-sided” stories. “Please [publish] my complete version,” he requested, giving us a knowing smile.

But men like Sarhandi and Mian Mithu routinely find themselves surrounded by journalists, taking notes and photographs as they speak. Their views on the topic of alleged forced conversions are extensively documented. As are those of representatives of the Hindu community, parents of the girls who have been allegedly abducted and human rights activists who are demanding change. The missing voices are those of the girls.

Girls like Reena, Raveena and Simran are only seen speaking in carefully curated short videos that are circulated online. Pirs like Mian Mithu speak on behalf of women like Faryal Bibi. Even in a rare case like Radha’s, where a girl has returned home after defiantly speaking her mind, she is mostly confined to her home after marriage to a Hindu man. Everyone seems to have something to say about alleged forced conversions of Sindh’s Hindu girls, except the girls themselves.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

This article first appeared in The Dawn.