Pakistani Hindu children celebrate holi in Karachi on March 12, 2017. Photo: AFP / Rizwan Tabassum

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When the provincial government of Sindh assembly tabled a bill against forced religious conversion in November, the clergy reacted angrily, with the Council of Islamic Ideology – the country’s highest religious consultative forum – wasting no time in declaring the law un-Islamic, forcing the government to withdraw its bill before it could see the light of the day.

Politicians in Sindh – a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) stronghold – had drafted the legislation following a string of abductions, forced conversions and rape cases involving Hindu girls and boys in various parts of the province.

The NGO South Asia Partnership-Pakistan (SAP-PK) reported in July 2015 that at least 1,000 Hindu girls are forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan every year. Its report also defined “forced conversion” as involving the use of pressure, force, duress, or threats – either physical, emotional, or psychological – to make someone change their religion.

Another NGO, The Pakistan Hindu Council, has claimed that at least 300 girls and boys have been abducted and converted to Islam under duress since January 2016. In early May last year, three sisters –Saweeta 18, Kajal 15, and Leelan Kolhi 13 – were kidnapped from the Lalu Lashari district of Hyderabad. The police did not make a report when the family approached them to investigate.

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Dr Azra Fazl, a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader, told the National Assembly last year that Hindu girls were being taken to madrassas in Sindh and later forced to marry with Muslim men. Speaking on the issue of Rinkle Kumari, a Hindu girl had allegedly been abducted then forced to convert and marry, she said Hindus needed legal protection.

In 2014, Pakistan Muslim League (N) parliamentarian Ramesh Kumar Vanwani told the national assembly that around 5,000 Pakistani Hindus were migrating to India every year.

“I made this disclosure on the strength of [parliamentary] records,” Vanwani told Asia Times on Monday, adding that Hindus were still seeking to move to India. He said the Sindh anti-conversion bill’s withdrawal was regrettable: “By taking it back… the government of Sindh has further damaged the morale of the Hindu community.” Peaceful religious co-existence was the solution, he said.

“The government of Sindh has further damaged the morale of the Hindu community”

The withdrawal of the bill is viewed as a serious setback to human rights in a highly polarized society where religious hardliners enjoy absolute power to alter legislation, bully opponents, persecute minorities, brand people as heretics and blasphemers and kill them with impunity. The state, in most instances, has seemed helpless in protecting citizens, and on occasion law enforcers have conspired with the religious zealots in persecuting minorities.

According to a US Department of State International Religious Freedom Report, Hafiz Saeed – the leader of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, a designated foreign terrorist organization – has consistently issued statements calling for holy war against Jews and Hindus. Some Sunni Muslim groups have also published literature calling for violence against Ahmadis, Shi’ite Muslims, other Sunni sects, and Hindus. Some newspapers frequently publish articles containing derogatory references to religious minorities, helping to inculcate hatred among the population.

The bill could have served as a barrier against forced marriages and religious conversion of Hindu teenagers, a phenomenon closely linked with growing faith-related social hostilities in Pakistan. For the first time, perpetrators and facilitators of these crimes would have faced punishment: three to five years imprisonment. Instead, they are being let off.

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