ISLAMABAD: There are no authentic statistics are available on forced conversions in Pakistan. However, some media reports suggest that as many as 1,000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam from other religions in Pakistan every year.
Despite earning some sporadic attention in the national media, forced conversions have not received the attention they deserve.
To begin with, a forced conversion is where any person uses any sort of pressure, force, or threat -- be it a physical, emotional or psychological one -- to coerce a person into adopting another religion.
In Pakistan’s context, a forced conversion usually refers to Hindu or Christian women who are made to convert to Islam.
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Usually girls belonging to religious minorities, sometimes those who are still in their teens, are abducted, converted to Islam and married to an alleged abductor or any of his accomplices. In court, the girls, who remain in the custody of their abductors throughout, testify that they wilfully eloped and changed their religion.
In recent years, the practice has taken root in Sindh, a province where most of Pakistan’s Hindus still live and where the society in general is tolerant towards people of other faiths.
But the marks of burgeoning religious extremism in general are now visible in the province. Biased attitude of police and judiciary in dealing with such cases has only exacerbated the problem.
Lal Chand Malhi is a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) member of the National Assembly on a minority reserved seat who, as a public representative, has been dealing with many such cases from his area.
Malhi hails from Umerkot in Sindh, a district where almost half of the population is Hindu. He says forced conversions are a routine matter there.
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“Hindu girls are abducted and converted.... this is happening every day,” he tells The Express Tribune with alarm.
The lawmaker claims that the actual number of forced conversions of Hindu girls is much higher than reported in the media.
He said the cases which are reported in the media mostly relate to well-off Hindu families. He added that cases from poor families, which constitute 95 per cent of the Hindu community, remain unreported for various reasons.
“So called forums, working on these issues are useless when it comes to such cases from scheduled classes. The victim’s families neither get any legal help nor are their cases reported in media,” he says. “I think 90 per cent of cases go unreported.”
“Here we are talking about those poor families who either work as bounded labour or earn only one-time meal. These people refrain from going to the police due to obvious reasons,” Malhi says, adding that these people usually approach a local landlord or politician instead.
“Again majority of the landlords in the area do not belong to our religion and naturally are not that sympathetic to them” he describes why these cases remain unattended and unreported.
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To make matters worse, Malhi believes statistics reflected in the media on forced conversions primarily come from various Christian forums since there is no formal mechanism to monitor such cases in the Hindu community which is disorganised. On the other hand if such an incident takes place in some upper class Hindu family, Malhi says, it is highlighted at every level immediately.
But little happens after that.
“A case gets highlighted and pressure builds on police to take action. But when the girl is discovered living in a madrassa, the police does not dare to conduct a raid there,” he laments.
“Police keep on pleading the administration of the seminary to grant access to the girl. The process takes days till her captors are satisfied that the girl has been brainwashed or she is under their full influence and would repeat before the police whatever they tell her,” Malhi recounts.
The alleged abductors then allow police to record her statement, setting the tone for the remaining trial.
“The girl is kept away from her family during the whole episode. When she is brought before the court either she is already brainwashed or she is under pressure. This is the condition under which her statement is taken and the case is decided.”
The victim’s family thereon does not see their daughter again.
Malhi says there is a need for special legislation on conversion and wants to introduce such a bill in parliament once he gets the nod from his party.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2016.