The girls disappeared on Holi, vanishing, as it were, into the clouds of colour and music that had drenched the streets of a Hindu neighbourhood in Deherki. For a few hours, the family of teenagers Reena Meghwar and Raveena Meghwar tried to look for them. Their older brother, Shamman Meghwar, began the journey to the police station, harbouring no hope. These stories all have much the same script, one that Pakistan’s Hindus have learned by heart.
Less than 72 hours later, the Meghwar sisters appeared in a video released on social media, reciting the Kalima—the Islamic profession of faith. The girls appeared to be reading from a script, glancing repeatedly at someone behind the camera.
In another video, released by a Barelvi extremist group, the Sunni Tehreek, a cleric said two Muslim men had volunteer “to marry these two sisters of ours who have joined the folds of Islam”.
There’s no dearth of such stories. Since March 2, alone, I have documented the cases of Komal from Tando Allayar, Lakshmi and Sonia From Karachi, Parmeela Mehshwari from Tando Muhammad Khan, Mala Meghwar from Jam Khan Pitafi, Sonia Bheel from Hyderabad, Gaini Kohli from Golarchi Badin, Lachhmi and Gawaari from Tarai Badin, Champa from Budho Qambrani, Reena and Raveena from Ghotki, and Sonia Kumari from Mirpur Khas.
Families of eight other girls requested they not be named.
In each case, a Hindu girl who was kidnapped appeared, as if by miracle, in one of a clutch of shrines or seminaries with far-Right links. Religious conversion and marriage followed. From 2000 on, there have been several such cases.
Laws to wipe out child marriage in Sindh have made marriages below the age of 18 illegal and the age of consent, across Pakistan, is 16. That should, in theory, facilitate state action against the men who married the Meghwar sisters, and those who kidnapped them.
It’s difficult for two reasons. There are no witnesses to the kidnapping, allowing those sympathetic to the perpetrators to argue that the women acted of their own free will. The fact that Pakistan’s poor rarely maintain legal birth records makes this argument even easier to sustain.
More important is the state hostility to the victims and their families. The Meghwars, and Hindu community leaders, told police in Deherki that the sisters may have been held in the Bharchundi Shareef shrine, infamous for forced conversions.
But Mian Mithu, the hereditary caretaker of the shrine, said neither he nor anyone else there knew about the teenagers, words enough for the police to look further.
Following the release of the videos, rights activists succeeded in bringing pressure on the authorities. This campaign, though, is an exception. Hindus have learned that there are costs associated with taking on perpetrators of such crimes.
The cleric Mian Javed Ahmed, who converted the sisters, is linked to the Sunni Tehreek, which is known to bring false blasphemy allegations against those opposed to it as well as inciting their murder .
Ahmed is a first cousin of Mian Mithu,who told media that the girls might have been taken to Punjab because there was no Child Marriage Act there.
The video of the child brides was made in Punjab’s Khanpur bordering Sindh—evidence either of Mian Mithu’s miraculous powers or complicity. The men the sisters are reported to have married are daily-wagers, unlikely to have the resources to travel to another province.
Hindus in Sindh are convinced that minor girls from uneducated, poor backgrounds are being lured into marrying Muslim men from better economic backgrounds, in the hope of imporving their lives. “This idea that Hindus are converting voluntarily doesn’t sit well with the facts,” says an activist on condition of anonymity. “The bottom line is 95% of the conversions involve under-age girls alone”.
“It is always better to have a converted young girl as bride because she doesn’t cost you dowry and you’re not expected to give your sister or daughter in return,” said a Hindu woman working in a beauty parlour in Ghotki. She was referring to Vatta-Satta, a tradition in Sindh whereby you get a girl as bride only if you give away your daughter or sister as bride.
“Such converted girls, having no support from parents, are the best bet as permanent slaves. Many a times, sex slaves,” she added.
Kalpana Devi, Pakistan’s first Hindu woman assistant advocate general and former mukhiya of Hindu community, said she had witnessed many cases where such girls were handed down from man to man.
“I can’t forget 16 years old Sapna from Jaccobabad who was abducted and converted in the same manner,” Kalpana Devi recalled.
She was given to a married man, whose first wife filed case for divorce. After few months, the man divorced Sapna instead, and gave her off to his brother. Who in turn gave her to another man from whom her parents had to buy her for Rs 150,000. There was an attempt to kill her because they suspected she has converted back to Hinduism, which is liable to death in their view. Her parents then sent her to India. No one knows where she is now”.
Raj Kumar, the uncle of Rinkle Kumari, the young girl from Mirpur Mathelo who was converted and married in 2012, fears that “Hindus are being pushed to the dark era when people used to kill their daughters immediately after their birth”. Kumar was forced to migrate from Pakistan after he received threats from extremism when he raised voice against the abduction of his niece in 2012.
“Leaving your homeland is like death but there is no country left for Pakistani Hindus,” he said.
(Marvi Sirmed is a Pakistan-based political commentator)
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