Pakistan: Khaled Ahmed - Religion and regression // 4 Leftist social media activists vanish in a week

Last month, PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari did something that no man with a conscience could have thought of doing: He gave his word to Amir Jamaat-e-Islami Siraj ul Haq that the Sindh Assembly will strike down a recently passed law meant to protect non-Muslim girls from being forcibly converted to Islam. Hindu and Christian girls have been forced to convert, so that Muslim men can take them as wives. The law would have addressed the abuse of Muslim law which forbids forcible conversion.

The Movement for Solidarity and Peace, which campaigns against religious violence in Pakistan, says, “100 Christian girls and at least 300 Hindu girls (in Sindh) suffer such conversions every year” and has presented its case at the US Congress too. The law passed by the Sindh Assembly laid down that “change of religion will not be recognised until the person reaches 18 years of age”; otherwise “perpetrators will get five years in jail”.

Secretary general of the Jamaat-e- Islami, Liaquat Baloch, attacked the law: “The provincial assembly passed the bill in haste to please foreign lobbies. We will not let it sail through and will challenge it in the Council for Islamic Ideology and the Federal Shariat Court.” The Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill, 2015 was tabled by minority members Nand Kumar and Khatumal Jeewan. They must feel cheated by the ruling party using the issue as a pawn in the political battle at the national level.

Hindutva may turn out to be less terminal in its destructive spread than sharia, but the seduction of religion is there in South Asia. In the Sindh district of Ghotki, there is the Sant Satram Das temple from where Hindu girls have been picked up and “converted” before being forcibly married to Muslim men. Near the temple, there is also the infamous Bharchundi Sharif shrine whose patrons once became famous in India for converting non-Muslims. But the shrine is not without its blots today, its custodians backing conversions as divine inspiration. Every April, there is the death anniversary of Bhagat Kanwar Ram, a popular Sufi poet and singer,killed in the communal riots of 1939, allegedly by the then-custodians of the Bharchundi Sharif shrine.

In the past, this northern Sindh region generally abjured violence and treated Hindus well on the basis of their Sindhi identity. In southeast Sindh, in Tharparkar, Mirpurkhas, Umerkot and Sanghar, they suffer maltreatment. But in 2012, upper Sindh too experienced an anti-Hindu trend after madrassas from South Punjab spread their tentacles into Sindh. This trend was emphasised after Deobandi Islam’s Taliban affiliation gave it impunity.

In the past, Hindus were the dominant class — some of their dominance is still in evidence. One local observation goes like this: “In Ghotki, the cotton ginning factories are owned by Hindus. In Sukkur, half the trade in rice, grains and dates is conducted by Hindus. In Khairpur, Hindus have a big role in the date trade (which goes mostly to India). In Jacobabad and Kashmore, rice milling and trading are Hindu domains. In Larkana, Hindus have a big role in the rice trade. All of this makes them a target.”

Hindu girls are in fact the target and this persuaded the two Hindu members of the Sindh Assembly to table the bill about conversions. A member of the Sukkur Hindu Panchayat stated in a 2012 report by journalist Cyril Almeida: “Periodically kidnapping Hindus, entering our homes, picking up our children, it’s all meant to prevent the community from growing, to keep us under psychological pressure.” Like the Hindus of Bangladesh - whose constitution is “secular” - the Hindus of Sindh have tried to migrate to India. Now, if the upper Sindh leader Asif Ali Zardari decides to rescind the law that protects the Hindu community, Pakistan will sink further into chaos.

The police are lax. Converted Hindu girls are often raped or beaten and, when the family complains to the police, they let the case drop when the abductors report conversion. In Islam, inward conversion is welcomed, but outward conversion attracts the death penalty, so far not enshrined in law, but all known away-convertees have been killed. 

Religion is not turning South Asia into paradise. Anand Teltumbde wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly (January 3, 2015): “On 8 December, 57 families (nearly 350 persons) in Ved Nagar in Agra were converted to Hinduism by Dharma Jagran Samanvaya Vibhag and Bajrang Dal activists, both RSS outfits.”

Amarnath Motumal, the vice chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), reports: “About 1,000 non-Muslim girls are converted to Islam each year in Pakistan. Every month, an estimated 20 or more Hindu girls are abducted and converted, although exact figures are impossible to gather.”

Two of the men-Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed-disappeared on January 4, according to a cybersecurity NGO, while Salman Haider vanished Friday and Ahmed Raza Naseer on Sunday, relatives said.

At least four Pakistani activists known on social media for their secular leftist views have gone missing this week, relatives and NGO workers said on Sunday, as analysts voiced rights concerns. Two of the men-Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed-disappeared on January 4, according to a cybersecurity NGO, while Salman Haider vanished Friday and Ahmed Raza Naseer on Sunday, relatives said. The interior ministry has said it will investigate the disappearance of Haider, a Dawn newspaper blogger known for his outspoken views on enforced disappearances in the southwestern province of Balochistan, but made no reference to the others.

All four were active on social media groups promoting leftist, secular views, often against the military or conservative state. Pakistan is routinely ranked among the world’s most dangerous for journalists, and reporting critical of the military is considered a major red flag, with journalists at times detained, beaten and even killed.

“The state has controlled TV and now they’re focusing on digital spaces,” said Raza Rumi, a writer and analyst who left Pakistan in 2014 after he was attacked by gunmen who shot his driver dead. A security source denied intelligence services were involved in the disapperances. Naseer, who suffers from polio, was taken from his familiy’s shop in central Punjab province, his brother Tahir told AFP.
Hours after Haider was due home Friday evening, his wife received a text message from his phone saying he was leaving his car on the Islamabad expressway, his brother Faizan said. Police later found the car and registered a missing persons report. Faizan said his brother had not received any specific threats.

Waqas Goraya, who is usually a resident of the Netherlands, was picked up on January 4, as was Aasim Saeed, said Shahzad Ahmed, head of cyber security NGO Bytes for All. “None of these activists have been brought to any court of law or levelled with any charges. Their status disappearance is very worrying not only for the families, but also for netizens and larger social media users in the country,” Ahmad said.

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