A sensational media report in Pakistan claiming that some 60 persecuted Hindu families were intending to emigrate to India under the guise of a pilgrimage has set off a possible diplomatic standoff between the two countries – and left the pilgrims in the lurch.
The Express Tribune reported on Thursday that the 60 Hindu families from Balochistan and Sindh provinces had “decided to migrate to India” amid increasing cases of violence and lack of security for their community.
The report noted that some 200-250 members of the 60 families were intending to travel to India on a pilgrimage on a 30-day visa, issued by the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, but that many of them were intending to seek asylum in India on grounds of religious persecution in Pakistan.
Quoting neighbours in the families’ hometowns, Tribune reported that the families had sold off all their land and other holdings with the intention of leaving Pakistan for good since they were unable to put up with instances of religious persecution, including the abduction of Hindu girls and their forced conversion to Islam.
The sensational report was denied by Hindu leaders, who claimed that the families were merely going on a piligrimage and would return to Pakistan. And Indian High Commission sources in Islamabad claimed they had no information on any such exodus. But by then, Pakistani officials had their antennae up for a “conspiracy” and have begun an investigation.
When some 100 of the pilgrims arrived at 7 am on Friday at the Wagah border between the two countries, they were stopped from crossing over by Pakistani immigration authorities on the ground that the piligrims’ progress had not been properly cleared.
The incident has the potential to snowball into a diplomatic standoff between the two countries. Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik had earlier suggested that reports of the pilgrims’ exodus to India were part of a “propaganda” effort to defame Pakistan. In any case, he said the Indian High Commission had been asked to explain it had issued visas to 250 Hindu citizens of Pakistan.
While the circumstances of this case await clarification, the incident has sharpened the focus on the continuing persecution – and forced coversion – of Hindus in Sindh and Balochistan.
The case of Rinkle Kumari, a 19-year-old girl in Sindh who was abducted, converted to Islam and forcibly married to a local Muslim strongman Naveed Shah recently sent shock waves through the Hindu community in Pakistan. In Rinkle’s case, when her family approached the police, the latter refused to record an FIR. When Rinkle was subsequently produced in court, and insisted on being returned to her family, the judged instead illegally sent her to police custody. (More on that case here.)
More recently, Manisha Kumari, a 14-year-old Hindu girl was kidnapped from Jacobabad in Sindh province; 11 Hindu traders from Balochistan and Sindh provinces had been kidnapped in recent months, according to Hindu community leaders. (More here.)
It is in this context of continuing religious persection, and the failure of the policy and the courts to defend the religious minorities, that the reports of the exodus gained traction.
Pakistani media reports quoted the Hindu panchayat president in Jacobabad, Baboo Mahesh Lakhani, as saying that the forced conversions and the appalling state of law and order in Sindh had rendered it “intolerable” for them to continue.
Other Hindu leaders reportedly said that dozens of families were migrating to India every month, largely because the law and order situation had deteriorated so badly, and they could no longer afford to pay the extortion money that kidnappers demanded.
Pakistani politicians, however, have given a different spin to these reports of forced abductions and conversions. Sindh minister Mukesh Kumar Chawla was quoted as saying that such reports of migration were exaggerated. “If a Hindu girl elopes with a Muslim boy of her free will, what can we do?” he said.
It’s difficult to make sense of the facts in the immediate case – and confirm if the Hindu families are indeed intending to migrate to India for good or are merely coming for a pilgrimage. But irrespective of that, the underlying sense of tension among the Hindu community in Pakistan is undeniably true.
For now, however, the pilgrims stranded at Wagah appear to have been caught in the crossfires of a diplomatic tug-of-war. Whichever way it gets sorted out, the prospects for Hindu families in Pakistan to travel across to India on pilgrimages may be weakened as a result of this episode.