26 mar 2012
In Pakistan, Hindus say woman’s conversion to Islam was coerced
In the predawn darkness on Feb. 24, Rinkel Kumari, a 19-year-old student from a Hindu family, disappeared from her home in Mirpur Mathelo, a small village off a busy highway in Sindh Province. Hours later, she resurfaced 12 miles away, at the home of a prominent Muslim cleric who phoned her parents with news that distressed them: Their daughter wished to convert to Islam, he said.
Their protests were futile. By sunset, Ms. Kumari had become a Muslim, married a young Muslim man, and changed her name to Faryal Bibi.
Over the past month, this conversion has generated an acrid controversy that has reverberated far beyond its origins in small-town Pakistan, whipping up a news media frenzy that has traced ugly sectarian divisions and renewed a wider debate about the protection of vulnerable minorities in a country that has so often failed them.
At its heart, though, it is a head-on clash of narratives and motives.
Hindu leaders insist that Ms. Kumari was abducted at gunpoint and forced to abandon her religion. Local Muslim leaders say she wanted to marry her secret sweetheart: Naveed Shah, a young neighbor who said he had been conducting a secret courtship with her via mobile phone and the Internet for several months. Ms. Kumari, for her part, has said in a court filing and media interviews that she converted of her free will – but public figures have questioned whether she had been pressed or intimidated into saying that.
The truth may emerge Monday, when the young woman is due to testify before the Supreme Court in Islamabad. For the past two weeks she has been sequestered in a women’s shelter in Karachi on court orders. When she takes the stand on Monday, many Pakistanis hope she can resolve the central mystery: where do her religious, and romantic, intentions lie?
In one sense, the drama is an old story in South Asia, where the contours of society have been shaped by waves of conversions over the centuries. Since the founding of Pakistan, most conversions are to Islam, the state religion. But such conversions usually take place quietly, even in an organized fashion, and the unusual furor surrounding the latest case stems partly from the brash manner of her conversion at the hands of a divisive local politician, Mian Mitho.
After Ms. Kumari declared herself a Muslim in her town court on Feb. 27, Mr. Mitho triumphantly led the new convert from the courthouse, parading her before thousands of cheering supporters. Then he drove her in a caravan to an ancient Sufi religious shrine controlled by his family and famed as a site where Hindus have been converted.
There, Ms. Kumari was welcomed by Mr. Mitho’s elderly brother, Mian Shaman – the same cleric who had converted her three days earlier – who led her into the towering shrine. When she emerged, now wearing a black veil, gunmen unleashed volleys of celebratory Kalashnikov fire into the air and shouted “God is calling you!”
Hindu leaders, enraged, viewed the images as a crass provocation. “If the couple was really in love, then why this fanfare of guns?” said Amarnath Motumal, a Hindu lawyer and human rights activist in Karachi. “It clearly shows they are trying to embarrass the Hindu community and are bent on taking our girls forcefully.”
Ms. Kumari’s parents pursued the case through the courts, claiming that their daughter had been abducted by a Muslim supremacist, and that the police and judiciary were biased against them because they came from a minority background.
“Mian Mitho is a terrorist and a thug. He takes the girls, and keeps them in his home for sexual purposes,” said Ms. Kumari’s father, Nand Lal, a government schoolteacher, noting that Mr. Mitho’s armed guards had escorted his daughter to court appearances and news conferences. His wife, Sulachany Devi, issued an anguished appeal. “Rinkel was my blood, and she remains my blood. All I want is for her to return home,” she said.
Mr. Mitho, in an interview, denied the allegations against him. “I am merely protecting her human rights,” he said. And at the Sufi shrine in Ghotki district, his brother, the cleric who converted Ms. Kumari, was equally unapologetic.
“We are saving them from the fires of hell,” said Mian Shaman, a frail man in his 70s with a mottled complexion and a wavering voice. “We consider they are born again, and the sins of their previous life are washed away.”
Mr. Shaman estimated he had converted 200 people the previous year. He insisted none had been coerced. “Forced conversions are not permitted in Islam,” he said firmly.
Mr. Shaman led the way into the mosque, a spectacular building covered in intricately patterned indigo tiles and a carved wooden roof. Then he walked into the adjacent shrine, where murmuring pilgrims rocked back and forth in front of four tombs containing the bones of the cleric’s ancestors.
Women are not permitted inside, he said – they may only peek through a small barred window in the tomb wall – but he made an exception for Ms. Kumari. “She was a special lady,” he said.
The case has caused division within the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, of which Mr. Mitho is a member. Earlier this month, President Asif Ali Zardari privately intervened to have Ms. Kumari taken into protective custody. Later, the president’s sister, Dr. Azra Fazal Pechuho, delivered an impassioned speech to Parliament about the plight of the Hindu community.
“I have a lot of discomfort with this kind of behavior,” said a senior party member from Sindh Province, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political delicacy of the matter. “The state is not giving the Hindus an equal environment. So they are turning to a narrative of forced conversion to fight back.”
Pir Muhammad Shah, the local police chief, agreed that Mr. Mitho’s actions had aggravated the situation. “It teased the whole Hindu community, and led them to believe the conversion had been done at gunpoint.”
Although Pakistan is blighted by sectarian bloodshed, rural Sindh Province is a relative beacon of religious tolerance. The majority of the country’s Hindus, estimated to number more than three million people, live here, and they have a history of tranquil co-existence with Muslims. The two communities share religious festivals, go into business together, and attend one another’s weddings and funerals.
Yet it remains a delicate social balance. In many Sindhi towns, wealthy Hindu traders have been targeted by kidnappers. Conversions, which are freighted with notions of collective honor, can present a jarring social fault line. Officials with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have spoken of up to 20 forced conversions a month – and Hindu families fleeing for India – but they admit that the research is thin.
As Ms. Kumari’s anticipated court date nears, it has revived many old tensions. And while no one is expecting widespread violence in her case, in some of its particulars it bears a remarkable resemblance to an earlier conversion scandal – one in 1936, when a British magistrate returned a Hindu girl to her parents after she had been converted. The result was an 11-year uprising by Muslim Pashtun tribesmen that at one point involved 40,000 British troops.