The Khanka Aalia Qadria
Text and Photos by Amar Guriro
KARACHI – In Pakistan, not only its people, but its walls also talk about controversies. We witnessed that while driving through the small town of Daharki in the northern Ghotki district of the southern Sindh province. All those who are helping the Sindhi Hindus to reclaim the recently converted Hindu girl Rinkle Kumari (now Faryal Shah) have been termed as “infidels” and “American agents” by the wall-chalking.
Early on a February 24 morning, nineteen-year-old Rinkle’s family found her missing from their house in the Mirpur Mathelo town. Hours later, her father received a phone call from Pir Mian Abdul Hayee alias Mian Shaman, an elder member of the Pirs of Bhurchandi Sharif shrine in the same district. Shaman said that Rinkle was at his house with a young Muslim man and that she wanted to become a Muslim. Local Hindus and Pirs of Bhurchandi Sharif made an agreement a few years ago that if the Pirs find any Hindu male or female eager to become a Muslim, they would inform the family and the local Hindu elders.
That same night, Rinkle’s family came to know that not only had she converted to Islam, but was also said to have married a young Muslim man named Naveed Shah, who lived in the same neighbourhood where Rinkle lived. Annoyed Hindus of the district refused to accept her conversion and marriage, and claimed that the Pirs of Bhurchandi Sharif shrine kidnapped her from her house, forcibly converted her to Islam and then forced her to marry Shah.
The local Hindus approached the police and asked them to lodge the First Information Report of her kidnapping against the Pirs of Bhurchandi Sharif, and warned of staging a protest if they failed to do so. Hindus control all the businesses in the district. As the Pirs of Bhurchandi Sharif are supposedly the most powerful and influential in the district, the police asked them to produce the girl in court to get legal cover.
Two days later, Rinkle was produced in a local court of the Ghotki city, where she said that she converted to Islam out of her own free will, and that she loved Shah and decided to marry him. The news outraged Hindus from her small town, where the community leaders accuse Muslims of preying on Hindu girls of marriageable age. They gathered at the court where the supporters of the Pirs were seen engaged in aerial firing to celebrate Rinkle’s conversion. The Hindus also claimed that the powerful local politician and Pakistan People’s Party Member National Assembly Mian Mitho brought armed men to harass them. The enraged Hindus said that Rinkle was forced to issue the statement in court. They challenged it in the Sindh High Court and the case later reached the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
The Wall Chalking
The case was reported by the local and national media, and several groups were made on Facebook in support of Hindus and Rinkle, whereas many others supported her conversion. The court in Karachi sent her to a shelter home so that she could decide where she wanted to go. The case received so much attention that President Asif Ali Zardari personally intervened to have Rinkle taken into protective custody. Shortly, the president’s sister Dr Azra Fazal Pechuho delivered an impassioned speech in support of Hindus.
Later, the chancellor of the religious seminary Jamia Binoria Aalmia, Mufti Muhammad Naeem, issued a statement, slamming the high court’s decision to send Rinkle to a shelter home. Not only this, but the US also stepped in and demanded the Pakistani government to help the Hindu community. US Congressman Brad Sherman wrote a letter to Zardari, asking him to take all necessary steps to bring an end to the harassment of Hindus in Sindh.
To ascertain what exactly happened in Rinkle’s case, I travelled to Mirpur Mathelo, a small town in the Ghotki district some 425 kilometres in the north of the provincial capital of Karachi, where I found that the local Hindus were too afraid to talk on the issue.
After visiting the Mirpur Mathelo and Daharki towns, we rushed to Bhurchandi Sharif. The white dome of the shrine could be seen from far away. Around 2,000 followers of the shrine welcomed us. They told us that the Hindus are lying and that Islam had made an impression on Rinkle, who converted out of her own free will.
The Bhurchandi Sharif shrine, very different from most of the Sufi shrines in Sindh, was built in 1890 over the grave of Hafiz Muhammad Siddique, a religious leader who educated many big names of the Independence Movement and also converted to Islam the famous hero of the movement, Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi, previously a Sikh. Just beside the shrine, there is a mosque, every inch of which is made of indigo tiles and a carved wooden roof that was constructed in 1830.
Unlike other Sufi shrines in the province where any pilgrim can visit without any discrimination of gender, religion or sect, at Bhurchandi Sharif, only male Muslims can enter and there is a small window from where women can peep inside. But on February 27, when Rinkle became Faryal after recording her statement in the Ghotki court, she was brought inside the shrine amid aerial firing and distribution of sweets. This was the first time in its history that a woman had entered the shrine to recite verses from the Holy Quran. “As she has converted to Islam, compared to all Muslims, she has a higher place in our religion. She is even more important than a Syed, so we brought her inside,” the cleric Mian Shaman told me during an interview. Shaman’s family has a history (spanning over a century) of converting non-Muslims to Islam. Among them, almost half were women, but none of them were brought inside the shrine. Not even singers are allowed inside the shrine to sing songs, play musical instruments or dance on the occasion of annual urs as it happens at almost every shrine in Sindh.
Shaman took us to a nearby madrasah, the Khanka Aalia Qadria, a religious seminary located on the other side of the shrine, where over 100 students currently receive free boarding and lodging and other facilities. The seminary has around 145 branches all across the country.
While inside the seminary, Shaman showed me a pile of files carrying the tag “Nau (New) Muslim File”. Each file contained hundreds of certificates that he and his forefathers have issued to newly converted Muslims in more than 100 years. “Alhamdulillah (Praise to God), we convert around 250 Hindus and Christians every year in this seminary,” he told me proudly. Talking about Rinkle, he said that she had arrived at his house and requested him to convert her to Islam. “As a true Muslim, it’s my duty to convert whoever approaches me; otherwise, I shall remain a Muslim no more. But when she came, I contacted her family and other Hindu elders, but none of them came to talk to her; so, after waiting for five hours, I converted her to Islam,” said Shaman. He rejected the allegations that she was forcibly converted. To justify his position, he showed me a large group of local Hindus brought to the seminary on a rented bus so that they could explain to me how safe they were. Majority of these Hindus are working as maidservants at the houses of different Pirs.
Ghotki Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Pir Muhammad Shah was appointed in the district in early 2011, when 29 people were kidnapped and robberies were widespread. He went on to fight with bandits, killed 19 of them and lost several police officers, but brought peace to the district and Hindus offered him a golden crown at a ceremony. He also supported Shaman’s statement. “She was not kidnapped, but wanted to marry Naveed Shah, as she knew him since a long time and was also a classmate of his sister; Rinkle and Shah had been talking over the phone since many months,” said SSP Shah.
But Rinkle’s father Nand Lal, a government schoolteacher who left the town after the incident and is now living in Karachi with his brother-in-law, insisted that she was kidnapped. “When we woke up early in the morning, she had disappeared and one of her shoes was lying on the stairs. Later in the court, Rinkle told us that four men carrying weapons had broken into the house that night and silently taken her away. She was forced to convert.”
He said, “Mian Mitho is a terrorist and it is his business to kidnap Hindu girls; he keeps them at his house for sexual purposes and later sells them.” When asked why they are being targeted, he said, “We are a peaceful community and do not have a tribal backing; therefore, we are considered to be soft targets.” Rinkle’s mother Sulachhani Devi said that her daughter is a very shy girl and could not have taken such a big step. She demanded her daughter’s return.
Although Pakistan is suffering from sectarian bloodshed, the Sindh province is a beacon of religious tolerance and majority of the country’s Hindus have a history of tranquil coexistence with Muslims; both communities share a mutual culture and language, and celebrate religious festivals, go into business together and attend one another’s weddings and funerals. While several liberal Sindhi Muslims are supporting Hindus, in cases like Rinkle’s, many Muslims are forced to stand against Hindus.
After visiting Bhurchandi Sharif, when we reached Sukkur, we rushed to the Sadh Belo temple, a historical Hindu temple located on an island in the middle of the Indus River outside the Sukkur city, where hundreds of Hindu pilgrims visit every day without any fear.
There was no electricity and most shops on the Hussaini Road in the Sukkur city were plunged into darkness. A few pushcart vendors lit charcoal in a metal drum with a grill wire on top and barbecued chicken legs to serve the orders. Heavy smoke and the smell of meat permeated the air. But the teenage vegetarian Satesh Kumar, with a handkerchief tied around his head, passed silently through the smoke and entered the building located on the other side of the road. Khanda, an insignia of the Sikh faith with a double-edged sword in the centre, is printed on the building, which is a gurdwara run by Hindus, where Kumar and his relatives gather every evening to play musical instruments, sing holy verses and pray.
Just like kidnappings for ransom, extortion by powerful feudal lords from Hindu businessmen and migration of Hindu citizens, forced conversion of Hindu girls in Sindh is a big problem for the Hindu community. Due to the division of the Subcontinent on the basis of religion (Hinduism and Islam), a large number of Hindus from today’s Pakistan migrate to India and vice versa. Despite that, a large number of Hindus are still living in Pakistan. Sindhi Hindus are native residents of the province and have been living here for several centuries.
Before the Partition, Sindh was a Hindu-majority province. After the division of the Subcontinent, the well-settled Sindhi Hindus migrated to India and the remaining became a religious minority in their own land.
Despite all the problems faced by the community, the Hindu parliamentarians have not made any effort to protect their own people. There are 18 Hindu members in the National Assembly and the four provincial assemblies, but none of them have ever bothered to work for their community. The Pervez Musharraf-led government allowed religious minorities to cast dual votes – they could vote for a Muslim as well as a candidate from the religious minorities at the same time. But this change had an adverse impact on the minorities. Though they were given the dual voting right, they could actually cast only one vote for a Muslim candidate in their constituency. The non-Muslim candidates were given reserved seats and they reached the assemblies without getting votes. Thus, they stopped paying attention to their communities and started obeying the orders of the political parties’ high-ups, who issued them party tickets and paved their way for the assemblies.
Therefore, the Pakistani government needs to immediately change the allocation of the assembly seats. The reserved seats’ system for religious minorities must be stopped at once. The candidate must contest elections and get into the assemblies only through vote so that they could think about their voters. Currently, assembly members on religious minority seats got their position on reserved seats so they have nothing to do with the minority members. There are several issues – the Family Law for Hindus, the Marriage Act and even forced conversions – that need proper legislation, to which these assembly members have never given any priority.