Pakistan’s Troubled Minorities
Veengas Yangeen on forced conversions and dubious convictions of blasphemy.
Veengas Yasmeen is a senior journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes exclusively on Pakistan’s religious minorities in Pakistani national dailies and periodicals. This interview has been edited for clarity.
How do you view the current situation for minorities in Pakistan?
Overall, the condition of ordinary people is not good. They are suffering. But minorities in particular are plagued with many problems because of their beliefs, and they are being victimized in the name of religion. Yet they cannot complain.
Article 25 (1) of the Pakistani constitution says all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection under the law. Unfortunately, when we take a look at the miserable condition of minorities, it seems that this does not apply to them. In every realm they are being treated unequally and as second-class citizens. Opportunities are not evenly distributed among Muslims and non-Muslims. Minorities face discrimination and they do not have an equal status. They do not have job opportunities. For instance, Christians get menial jobs, like that of sweepers.
Ironically, despite the fact that they are the indigenous people of this land, we have put them in the category of “minorities,” because they are not Muslims. I reject this categorizing and urge the government of Pakistan to abolish the word “minority.” They are equal citizens, and they should be treated as such.
What are your thoughts about the forced conversions of minority girls, particularly of Hindus and Christians, in Pakistan?
First, our society is male-dominated; second, unethical and criminal acts usually take place in the name and under the cover of religion and honor. Forced conversions of Hindu and Christian girls shows that certain groups can commit crimes in the name of religion.
It is a sad state of affairs when minority girls can be kidnapped, married off, and forcibly converted to Islam. It is beyond my comprehension – what kind of a society do they want to build?
Due to forced conversions, minority Hindu and Christian girls cannot even go to school or college. They are imprisoned in their homes.
As for the victims, their families are unable to follow up due to the wrath of the local clerics, who claim that the victims have now become Muslims. The victims’ families cannot ask their daughters whether they have converted willingly or not.
You have been writing on the cases of forced conversions since the case of Rinkle Kumari. Can you tell us about these Hindu girls, who are victims of forced conversions in Sindh?
What happens is that the perpetrators, in the name of religion, kidnap Hindu girls, and local clerics, in my many cases, provide a place to keep them. To understand the motives, you need to understand the cultural, historical, and political perspectives.
There is no denying that Sindh is known for its traditional, tolerant Sufi-culture, diversity, and pluralism, and for its cultural roots that go back to Hinduism. Interestingly, Hindus are sons of the soil; they are indigenous to Sindh.
Since the 1970s, when former General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, he began nurturing extremism across the country. Extremists also made inroads into Sindh, and they have today penetrated deep inside the region. It is these people who appear to be involved in forced conversion cases. These extremists, by forcibly converting Hindu girls, want to force the Hindu community to leave the Sindh. When your children are unsafe, you will want to leave.
Coming back to your question, yes, I have been writing on the forced conversions since Rinkle Kumari’s case, who was forcibly converted. Let me share one more thing: when the cases of Rinkle Kumari, Asha Kumari, and Lata Kumari reached the Supreme Court of Pakistan, they were not allowed to meet their family members, their parents. In this sorry situation, Hindus are compelled to leave Sindh due to forced conversions and injustices. Those who cannot afford to leave are still suffering.
Now, due to frequent cases of forced conversions, Sindh looks different. Meanwhile, the government has either kept silent over the issue or are unable to apprehend the perpetrators. Instead, the perpetrators involved in such cases pressure the government using the sword of religion.
What progress do you think has been made in the fight against forced conversions and forced marriages of minority girls in Pakistan?
People used to think that the reason that minority girls were converting is that they fall in love with Muslim boys. But now they realize that this is not love; rather these are cases of forced conversions and forced marriages of minority girls.
In the past, when I would speak up about this, particularly over the case of Rinkle Kumari, people would say I was giving unnecessary coverage to her case. Now, though, I do see people from different walks of life raising their voices over forced conversions and forced marriages of minority girls. They agree that these cases malign our society and our international image. They are becoming part of the fight against these practices. This is good progress.
How do minorities get implicated in the blasphemy cases?
How do minorities get implicated in the blasphemy cases?
Unfortunately, those who accuse minorities of blasphemy have the golden coin of religion; they can easily use it for their own interests. First, you call them a minority; second, you put the gun of blasphemy to their heads. Once the accusation is made, it becomes a sacred issue without investigation.
The police arrest the accused and the government remains silent, encouraging people to make the accusations.
How do you view Asia Bibi’s case?
Everyone knows that people use blasphemy laws against minorities; we have the example of Rimsha Masih’s case, in which a cleric tried to entrap her in a blasphemy accusation. Similarly, reports suggest that Asia Bibi is innocent. The government should release her and not let people misuse the blasphemy laws.
How long will this go on? Resolving Asia Bibi’s case could open a positive chapter in the history of Pakistan, if she can receive justice.
What should the government do to improve the situation for minorities, and to stop their emigration?
If the government of Pakistan wants to improve the situation for minorities, it must first stop the misuse of blasphemy laws and crimes committed in the name of religion. It should ensure that all citizens are equal [in practice]. No one should be allowed to victimize minorities. Then, the situation would improve. Minorities are emigrating because they are not being treated as equal citizens. If they get equal rights and their children can move about freely, they will be less likely to leave.