December 21 will forever be etched on the memory of Sapna and her family. Belonging to a poor Hindu family, Sapna and her older sister Sabita were teachers in a neighbourhood school in Paharipura, Peshawar, the capital city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. They were the sole breadwinners for the family after their father, who worked for Radio Pakistan, retired four years ago.
On that cold wintry day Sabita stayed after school to give extra tutoring while Sapna walked home alone. During her walk a car suddenly pulled up alongside her- out jumped a man who placed a cloth doused in an unknown chemical over her face. Sapna passed out.
When she regained consciousness she found herself in unfamiliar surroundings. A man, whom she had never seen before, asked her to marry him. But first Sapna would have to convert to Islam.
On her refusal, the man placed the intoxicant-doused cloth over her nose and she fainted once again. This routine carried on for 16 days.
Sapna narrated her account of the kidnapping to the judicial magistrate earlier this month after she was rescued.
“The police traced her through a phone call she made to us asking us to rescue her,” Ramesh Kumar, her brother-in-law told Index on Censorship during a phone interview. He, along with his wife, Sapna’s older sister, had accompanied the police and found her in a village in Bahawalpur, in Punjab province some 680 km from Peshawar.
“Unfortunately, the person who kidnapped her, Zahid Nawaz, got a tip-off and escaped,” said Kumar. Nawaz wasn’t a complete stranger to Sapna. Kumar believes that his sister’s kidnapper had managed to ensnare Sapna by calling her a few times before the snatching took place.
“When he learnt that she was a Hindu, he told her that he didn’t have a sister and looked on her as one,” he added.
Despite being the first case of its kind in the area Sapna’s kidnapping has spread fear among the Hindu community in Peshawar- since the day her sister was abducted Sabita has not been allowed to step out of her house.
However, the kidnapping of Hindu girls is nothing new in other parts of the country. According to Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, head of the Pakistan Hindu Council and a legislator: “We hear of three to four such cases every month from Sindh [province].”
More worrisome to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) is the forced coercion of these Hindu girls to Islam before marriage takes place. The majority of these cases have been reported in the Sindh area with the HRCP calling it one of the “most outrageous human rights violations one has to deal with.”
I.A. Rehman, of the HRCP, blamed both the state and society for the escalation: “Both are getting more and more caught in the frenzy of religiosity, a process accelerated by the increase in Al-Qaeda/Taliban/Salafi influence on Pakistan’s Muslims.
“Hard-line Islam is supposed to liquidate non-Muslims and Shias and people belonging to other sects, such as Barelvis who enjoy music and visit shrines,” referring to the recent killings of devotees at a sufi shrine in Karachi earlier this month.
At the same time, he pointed out, the “zealots” among the society hoped to secure a “place in paradise” by converting non-Muslims to Islam. Hindus account for just over one per cent of the Pakistan’s population of 180 million.
Rehman deplored how the judiciary had been unable to intervene in such cases, noting how such lack of action reassures the culprits and depresses the communities of the victim.
Most religious minority members sitting in the assemblies are selected, as opposed to elected, and are therefore not the true representatives of their communities. Instead, they often toe the party line that has given them the ticket to their seat.
For their part, people like Vankwani say: “The main political parties pay lip service to our problems but have consistently failed to protect our lives or our rights,” arguing that until fair representation of minorities occurs in the assemblies their issues will never be resolved.
Amar Guriro, a journalist from a Hindu community, had a different take on the issue of coerced conversion. “There are cases where girls have converted of their own will or have eloped because, unless their parents can pay the heavy dowry that is demanded by the groom’s side, they cannot be married off,” he said.
Muslims have often been accused of preying on Hindu girls of marriageable age, forcing families to marry off their daughters at an earlier than desired time. “If they don’t there is a danger they may be kidnapped and asked to renounce their religion,” Guriro reported.
According to Amarnath Motumal, a lawyer with the HRCP, young Hindu girls may easily get “influenced” by their Muslim paramour: “In a country where even in schools Islam is the only religion taught and where religious freedom is negligible, young minds can easily be moulded.
“In Pakistan a Muslim woman cannot be married without the consent of the waali (her guardian — a father, uncle, or brother). Why didn’t the same hold true for the Hindu girl who had converted?”
Motumal has appeared in several cases of forced conversions. He told Index that during these hearings there is immense pressure on not just the young girls but also the judge as hundreds of protesting clergy can gather outside the courtroom. “The girls often do not have the courage to speak how or what they feel about the predicament they are in. And if the woman converted of her free will, why is she not allowed to meet with her parents?” he asked.
In 2012, the cases of Rinkle Kumari from Ghotki and Dr Lata Kumar in Karachi were taken up by the court after concerns arose in the media that they were forcefully converted to Islam.
Today, Motumal said, both women live with their respective Muslim husbands, but, he added: “They may be apparently happily married, but who knows what is going on in their hearts. They know what their fate will be if they have a change of heart and mind — they may be shunned by their own community and never find a match!
“Most believe themselves to have been polluted beyond redemption and prefer to stay with their abductors to returning home.”