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Pakistan’s disappearing Hindus

The political system works against minorities in Pakistan, dovetailing wealth, power, and sectarianism. While Pakistan's Hindus feel the effects keenly, the elites have adjusted to the political apparatus rather than challenging it.

Over 50 Hindu families migrate to India every month. According to Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, the founder of the Karachi-based Pakistan Hindu Council, this is due to the failure of the Pakistani government to find a solution to the acute sense of discontentment among Hindus arising, in part, from increasing incidence of forced conversion, particularly in Sindh province in southern Pakistan.

Recently, Pakistani parliamentarians blamed the Taliban for the plight of Hindus and attributed the development to an international conspiracy to defame Pakistan. In fact, many in the Pakistani political establishment consider the problem of Hindu migration as nothing more than individual cases of disgruntlement, rather than a worrying trend.

Exodus

There are over seven million Hindus in Pakistan and approximately 94 per cent of them are in Sindh province (especially in Hyderabad, Karachi, Tharparkat, Mithi, Mirpur Khas, Shikarpur and Sukkur). Soon after partition, Hindus constituted over 15 per cent of Pakistan's population but now make up less than two per cent.

There has been a steady increase in the influx of Hindu migrants to India over the past five years. It is widely perceived that the recent exodus is something similar to the situation between 1989 and 1991, when thousands of Hindus migrated to India.

Many Hindu migrants enter India formally as a pilgrimage destination, usually before festivals, by signing an undertaking with a Pakistani official at the Attari border. They cross with a promise to return prior to the expiry of their 30-day visa, but many request a visa extension soon after they enter India. As India has no asylum policy for Pakistani nationals, migrants often apply for a visa extension of six months to a year. According to Indian government estimates, there are around 4,000 to 5,000 Pakistani Hindus on extended visas in India. Life is very difficult for these migrants but there are many Pakistani Hindus who have chosen not to return to Pakistan over the years, banking on the Indian government’s magnanimity.

Forced conversion

The Asian Human Rights Commission reported 20-25 kidnappings and forced conversions of Hindu girls in Sindh every month. The Hindu population, especially those living in Larkana and Sakkhar divisions of Sindh, were mostly affected by forced conversions, kidnapping for ransom, and other forms of harassment.

Pakistani officials do not openly admit forced conversion but rather claim such incidents are voluntary. However if these conversions were largely voluntary, they would have occurred throughout all segments of the Hindu population, irrespective of age. Instead, a majority of conversions involve young, attractive Hindu girls, and are often linked to incidents of forced marriage.

A pertinent example of this is the Rinkle Kumari case. Nineteen-year old Kumari was allegedly kidnapped by the influential local politician Mian Abdul Haq (aka Mian Mithhoo) of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and forcibly married to his son. The Dargah Aalia Qadria Bharchoondi Sharif madrassa, where Kumari was converted, is headed by Mithhoo and is popular for converting Hindu girls. It reportedly aims to convert 2,000 Hindus to Islam every year.

Factors at play

This is not a simple situation and there are a myriad of interrelated factors contributing to these rises in forced conversion and migration. However, four specific factors, in particular, are worth exploring further:

  1. the political marginalisation of Hindus,
  2. the relative economic prosperity of Hindus,
  3. the growing radicalisation and religious intolerance in Pakistan, and
  4. the equating of Pakistan’s Hindus with Indians.

Hindus are a small and electorally insignificant minority. They are becoming a convenient target and subject to systematic negligence. Political forces are less concerned about promoting their political participation and economic development. In fact, party politics have been primarily responsible for the present state of affairs for Hindus. None of the political parties champion the rights of Hindus. Successive leaders of state and national political parties generally continue to nurture a few Hindu leaders, putting them in junior positions and mustering electoral support in Hindu dominated areas through them. Such Hindu leaders continue to be dependent on their Muslim patrons, and therefore are unlikely to negotiate for Hindu demands.

In this way, Hindus themselves must bear some of the responsibility for the plight of their community. Furthermore, Hindu leaders, mostly upper caste, often exhibit apathy towards incidents of forced conversion because the victims in most cases belong to the lower castes.

In general, it is felt that Pakistan’s Muslim leadership and the Hindu elites have adjusted themselves to the needs of the bureaucratic and political apparatus, rather than challenging it. 

The prosperity of Hindus could also be a reason behind the persistent targeting. Hindus in Pakistan are mostly educated and doing relatively well in business and the civil service. The situation can be understood in the light of attacks by Wadheras (feudal lords) on the economically well-off Hindus in Upper Sindh areas. Over 108 economically prosperous Hindus have been kidnapped for ransom from Lakrana and Sukkur divisions of Sindh province since January 2012.

Migration of Hindus can also be attributed to the growing radicalisation and religious intolerance in Pakistan. Non-adherence to the Wahhabi-Salafi-Takfiri school of Islam makes anyone a target for fanatics. Not only Hindus, but also most of the religious minorities, including non-Sunni Muslims, have been under constant threat of persecution. Sindh province, which was once popular for Sufi culture (and is also known as Bab-ul-Islam, The gateway of Islam), has been rapidly moving towards radicalisation due to the growing activities of militant groups supported by various religious and non-religious political parties.

Nationally, the targeting of minority Hindus could also be a strategy to mobilise and consolidate the majority Muslim support base in the country. The attacks could be a symbolic mechanism of equating Pakistani Hindus with Indians, which would, in a way, help reaffirm Muslim solidarity.

The road ahead

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s recent direction to the chief minister of Sindh to devise a law against forced conversion is certainly a welcome step, but government sincerity needs to be tested amid resistance from some Muslim religious groups in the area, who consider such a move as a negation of the practice of Da’waah (the calling of non-Muslims to faith). It remains to be seen how political parties will articulate their vision for minority groups in their manifestos and actions ahead of the forthcoming elections.

Local, national and international media and civil society groups need to proactively expose the elements behind forced conversions, regardless of their party affiliation and influence, and put pressure on fanatics to refrain from such adventurism and the government to act swiftly to prevent such occurrences.

It is also high time that the Pakistani authorities went the extra mile to restore the confidence of minorities by taking punitive measures against those that would target them.

About the author

Maitreya Buddha Samantaray is a contributing analyst at Open Briefing, the civil society intelligence agency, operating out of India. He is an Asia intelligence specialist who has worked for several globally renowned risk management companies.


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