For the first 16 years of her life, Ravita Meghwar was a Hindu girl living in a village in Pakistan. But today her name is Gulnaz Shah, and she is married, and a Muslim. Her family members believe that kidnappers drugged them and abducted their daughter, and that she was forcibly converted to Islam. She says she eloped and married of her own choice.
A decade or two ago, Meghwar’s case would have gone unreported. But in recent years, case after case involving Hindu girls converting to Islam have emerged in courts in Pakistan’s southeastern Sindh province, home to the majority of the country’s Hindus. The allegedly forcible nature of the conversions, the almost identical pattern of the cases, and the targeting of minor girls have deeply unsettled the Hindu population, which constitutes about 2 percent of Pakistan’s approximately 200 million people. This sense of alarm feeds into a broader reckoning: 70 years after the partition of the Indian subcontinent, some Hindus are reassessing their place in Pakistan.
Cases of forced conversion are mostly reported from the Sindh province, as Meghwar’s was this year. Although Pakistan became a Muslim-majority state post-partition—with Muslims dominating politics, the economy, and society—Hindus managed to retain a degree of social influence in the Sindh province, where they were known as successful merchants. According to the most recent available census, more than 6 percent of Sindh’s population is Hindu.But lower-caste and low-income Hindus in Sindh toil on farmlands for powerful, rich landowners, sometimes in a form of economic servitude. They face social discrimination and are often cut off from the Hindu community at large. A 2015 report by the South Asia Partnership-Pakistan argued that social, cultural, economic, and religious factors have combined with feudal power structures in rural areas to enable forcible conversions.
Lajpat Meghwadh, Ravita Meghwar’s brother-in-law, believes she was targeted because her family was part of a larger political dispute in their village over the use of a well. “The person who Ravita has gone off with has no connection to the family, except that they had a dispute. He has never come to our house,” he said.While Hindu activists and families allege that young girls are abducted, coerced into converting to Islam, and married off to Muslim men in an organized manner, Muslim religious activists and leaders are defensive about conversions, believing that converting someone to Islam is a way of earning blessings. These conversions are often backed by powerful shrines, seminaries, and clerics, as well as local politicians. Seminaries and shrines protect the couple and say the girl willingly eloped, converted, and married.This poses a challenge for lawyers and activists, who have to figure out if these marriages are born of free will or are marked by threats and violence. And almost invariably, the girl’s testimony that she exercised her right as an adult to marry settles the case, while her parents continue to insist she is being pressured by the influential followers of the shrine where she converted to Islam.
Forced conversions became a national talking point in 2012, when three Hindu girls were reported to have been forcibly converted to Islam and married to Muslim men. The cases went to Pakistan’s Supreme Court. One of them involved a girl called Rinkle Kumari, whose conversion took place at a shrine associated with a legislator who was then part of the Pakistan Peoples Party, which governed the country at the time.