In the past, Hindu minorities in Pakistan have been subject to kidnapping, killing, extortion and their shrines have often been desecrated. But the forced conversions of their daughters in recent years have badly shaken the community. Some fear that this is a conspiracy to drive the small Hindu community, numbering 2.7 million, out of a country with a population of 140 million.
Already, Hindus in Pakistan have started sending their young children either to India or to other countries to settle down. And many parents themselves hope to be able to migrate in future.
Members of the Hindu community in Larkana (Sindh province) cannot forget the tragic tale of Sundri. One day, college-going Sundri did not return home after classes. After a long search, her family went to the police. Two weeks later, the police informed the family that Sundri had eloped with Kamal Khan, an employee of a local transport company, and converted to Islam.
Sundri's parents were also informed that their daughter would soon appear in court to declare her new faith. Escorted by the police and other `bearded' men, Sundri appeared in court but ignored her parents. She stated: "I, Sundri, was of Hindu parents. Now as an adult, I have realized that the religion I was born into is not the right one. Therefore, completely on my own accord, and without being coerced by anyone, I have decided to break away from both my parents and the religion, and have converted to Islam."
The judge accepted her conversion and Sundri was whisked away to an unknown destination. She is learnt to have later married Khan but was divorced very soon. Subsequently, she was married off to another Muslim from the neighborhood. This marriage too ended in a divorce and Sundri was married for the third time. Shortly after her third marriage, Sundri died under mysterious circumstances. Her parents believe she was murdered, while her third husband claimed to the police that she had committed suicide.
Sundri's is not an isolated case. In recent years, at least 30 Hindu girls have married Muslim men after forceful or voluntary conversion to Islam. Says a local Hindu, "If a girl from our community elopes with her Muslim lover, we would be able to accept it. But the horrific treatment the girls get afterwards is truly lamentable."
In another incident, Pahalaj Rai, father of Sunita Kumari, filed a police report in Shikarpur, that Sajid Brohi had kidnapped his daughter. He too was informed later that his daughter had voluntarily converted to Islam and married a Muslim boy. Similarly, Gurumukhdas, a professor in a local college in Larkana, recently reported to the police that his daughter Baghwanti was missing. Bhaghwanti was produced in court three weeks later, where she declared she had embraced Islam and had married her childhood sweetheart Riaz.
In several cases, where girls were said to have eloped with their Muslim lovers, subsequent investigations revealed that most were abducted, forcibly married to Muslim men or sold to them. Some were even murdered. There have been cases of Hindu girls (usually from well-off families) falling in love with their Muslim college boyfriends. Opposition from the family forces the girls to run away with the lover to marry him. But the marriage generally does not last for long.
There have been instances where girls have run away with men to escape their poverty or difficult home conditions. Shakuntala, a laborer's daughter in Shikarpur, fled her house with her lover Imdad Kalhoro to marry him. But after conversion, she was forced to marry someone else.
Having burnt their boats as far as the natal families are concerned, the girls have no one and nowhere to turn to and many become victims of marriage rackets.
Says a Hindu businessman, "In Pakistan, under the Shariat law (Muslim law), it is illegal for a Muslim to change one's religion, but there is no such restriction on non-Muslims, which makes conversion - even when forced - easy."
According to Islamic law, a Muslim woman cannot remarry unless she has obtained a proper 'khula' (divorce) from her first spouse and she has no right to convert to any other religion. If she wishes to marry a non-Muslim, the man has to convert to Islam.
Hindus in Pakistan contend that their insecurity is compounded manifold because of the attitude of the administration and the judiciary towards such cases.
Though most Hindu families are concerned about the incidents, many prefer to remain silent. None of them were willing to be named during the interviews conducted for this article. Says a Hindu businessman in Kandhkot, "For more than 50 years (since the bitter Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947), we have been addressed as 'Vaaniyo' or 'Baniya', which in local terms means Hindu but is also pejorative and means someone who is mean-minded. We don't want any trouble."