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The abduction of Hindu teenage girls in Pakistan

What India and Indians can do, and why they should do that

The story of teenage Hindu girls being kidnapped in Pakistan, converting to Islam, getting married to Muslims and turning up in courts after a few weeks and accepting the new religion have been making the rounds for many years now. But the recent spate of kidnappings and forced marriages raised a shindig and went up to the Pakistan Supreme Court. It has now started attracting the attention of the international media. As the Los Angeles Times reports:

Hindus say the forcible conversions follow the same script: The victim, abducted by a young man related to or working for a feudal boss, is taken to a mosque where clerics, along with the prospective groom’s family, threaten to harm her and her relatives if she resists.

Almost always, the girl complies, and not long afterward, she is brought to a local court, where a judge, usually a Muslim, rubber-stamps the conversion and marriage, according to Hindu community members who have attended such hearings. Often the young Muslim man is accompanied by backers armed with rifles. Few members of the girl’s family are allowed to appear, and the victim, seeing no way out, signs papers affirming her conversion and marriage.[LAT]

There are estimated to be around 2.5 million Hindus in Pakistan. Of them, 94% live in the Sindh province, mostly in the northern districts bordering India. Pakistani human rights activists report as many as 25 cases of kidnappings, forced conversion and weddings of teenage Hindu girls every month. For those who question the veracity of these reports, here’s a simple question: Why do only young Hindu girls of marriageable age get kidnapped and convert to Islam in Pakistan, and not young men or older women?

More disturbingly, India and Indians have largely been apathetic to persecution of Pakistani Hindus.

But all the minorities in Pakistan are targeted, whether it be Christians or Shias. How is the persecution of Hindus different and why should it concern Indians?

Before I answer this question, let us get a few things out of the way. India is a secular republic and endorses no state religion. That is the way it has been since 1950 and that is the way it should remain. Thus the argument being made here is not about making India a Hindu Rashtra or a grand Hindu Republic where followers of other religions do not have equal rights. Most importantly, the mistake of conflating Pakistan with Indian Muslims, because it involves Hindus in Pakistan, must be avoided at all costs. This is an argument about the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and not about the citizens, irrespective of the religion they follow, of the Republic of India.

With these caveats behind us, here is how the problem of Hindus is slightly different from those of Christians or Shias. When Christians are targeted in Pakistan, the western countries and many Christian organisations, starting from the Vatican, bring pressure upon the Pakistani government to mend its ways. In the case of Shias, leave alone the Republic of Iran, there are various Shia parties and organisations which are willing to stand up for their cause. But who speaks for the Hindus in Pakistan? Even Nepal is no longer a Hindu Republic, and no one would have listened to Nepal even if it was one. Pakistan doesn’t even have a statutory National Human Rights Commission, it no longer has a Federal minister for minorities since Shahbaz Bhatti’s brutal murder and the Supreme Court has not given Hindus any confidence with its actions in the recent case.

Can a secular republic like India afford to speak for Hindus in Pakistan? Strictly speaking, the answer is a No. But India has spoken for Sikhs in Europe and for Tamils in Sri Lanka who were not Indian citizens. And there are ways in it which it can do the same in Pakistan too. Before we look at those ways, leave the government apart, why has the Indian media, Indian NGOs, Indian human rights groups, Indian activists and even Indian social and religious organisations been silent about the atrocities on Hindus in Pakistan. If they can raise issues about Myanmar and Syria, they can surely focus the spotlight upon neighbouring Pakistan too.

There is another reason why non-political, non-governmental groups and media in India must take up this issue on priority. Because if they don’t, the issue will eventually be taken up by a political party and the inflammatory mix of politics, religion and nationalism — imagine India, Pakistan, Hindu and Muslims being used in the same breath by a fiery politician — can have potentially dangerous social consequences. That is something India can ill-afford at this juncture.

What can the government of India do? Seema Sirohi suggests that India can raise it officially as a minor talking point during the next bilateral talks with Pakistan. But my good friend Primary_Red perhaps has a more diplomatic and politically correct suggestion:  India should make progress in bilateral talks with Pakistan contingent on improved human rights environment across Pakistan. Moreover, India can also offer asylum — on a case by case basis — to Pakistanis in grave danger on the basis of their faith.

Yes, Pakistan’s Hindu community made a choice many decades ago — to stay in Pakistan. It endures extortion, disenfranchisement and other forms of discrimination in that country. But that doesn’t mean that they are condemned to live a life of persecution and misery as religious extremism rises in Pakistan. There are ways in which India and Indians can help them. As fellow humans in a neighbouring country, we should not shy away from lending that helping hand.

Update: Thanks to my discussion with Constantino Xavier, it’d be better to clarify a few things here. This is not about making an exclusive case for Hindus in Pakistan, and leaving other groups such as the Ahmedis, Shias, Christians, Balochs or Hazaras to face persecution there. This is more about understanding that because of the history of partition, the case for Hindus in Pakistan will always be a delicate one for India to make. Notwithstanding the difficult nature of the case, it still needs to be made, both by India and Indians.

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