Is conversion to Islam the only option for minorities, including Hindus in Pakistan?
Fear of being accused of blasphemy, which attracts capital punishment, is one of the reasons for conversions
Seen as the terrorist factory of the world, Pakistan is equally infamous for its treatment of minorities. The worst-off are the Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, who are subjected to all kinds of abuses in Pakistan. Whether they are Pakistan’s lawmakers, judges or police officials - all conveniently look away when minority community members run from pillar to post for justice from exploitation at the hands of the majority Sunnis.
Newspaper pages and television channels are replete with stories of forcible occupation of Hindus land or kidnapping and raping of minor Hindu girls or demolition of religious places in Pakistan’s Sindh and Punjab provinces. Compelled to live as second-class citizens, today, minorities are leading a life which their forefathers would have never imagined while deciding to stay back in the newly-created Pakistan in 1947.
Rather, in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ‘Naya Pakistan,’ their life is worse than that of animals. From electoral laws to family laws to law on evidence to domicile and nationality to offences against religion, minority Hindus or Sikhs are heavily discriminated against and made to accept their fate as inferior human beings with no respite from further dehumanization at the hands of the majority community.
In June, dozens of Hindu families converted into Islam in the Badin district of Pakistan’s Sindh province. According to The New York Times report, video clips of the ceremony went viral across Pakistan, delighting hard-line Muslims and weighing down against Pakistan’s dwindling Hindu minority population. The incident was the latest in a series of forced conversions in Pakistan. But poverty and offer of incentives like jobs and property are also cited as reasons for conversions of Hindu minorities in this South Asian country.
If media reports are to be believed, more conversions are likely to take place in Pakistan in coming weeks and months. The country’s economic condition which is on the verge of collapse in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is cited as the potential reason for such conversions by the poor Hindus. The World Bank predicts that Pakistan’s economy will contract by 1.3 percent in the 2020 financial year because of Covid-19 wherein up to 18 million of the country’s 74 million jobs may be lost.
While the poor economic condition of the Hindus could be the reason of their inclination towards Islam, one should not forget the minority community members’ fear of being accused of blasphemy, which attracts capital punishment, is also a reason for their conversions. Codified by British rulers in 1860 and inherited by Pakistan when it came into existence in 1947, the blasphemy law became an instrument of persecution of minorities under the military government of General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. Over time, the blasphemy law was expanded in several installments.
In 1980, making derogatory remarks against Islamic dignitaries was made an offence, carrying a maximum punishment of three years in jail. In 1982, another clause was inserted in the blasphemy law wherein willful desecration of the Koran was made punishable with life imprisonment, whereas under another clause of blasphemy law (inserted in 1986), derogatory remarks against the Prophet Mohammad attracted death penalty or imprisonment for life.
But critics say often the blasphemy laws have been used to settle personal scores. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its 2019 report said the same thing. “Unsubstantiated, widely implausible or outright false accusations stemming from personal or domestic disputes are fairly common, especially religious minorities in Pakistan,” the USCIRF report said.
Mere accusation of blasphemy is enough to make someone a target for hardliners in Pakistan. This has been explained vividly by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a voluntary organization. Between 1987 and 2018, as per the Commission, 1,540 minorities were punished under various sections of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan/ This was enough to restrain Hindus, Sikhs, Christians or other minority community members from speaking against their exploiters from the majority community in the country. They prefer to convert than become unreasonable targets of violence and punishment under the draconian blasphemy laws.
Remember, Pakistan is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that the right to freedom of religion includes the right to change one’s religion and that no one shall be subject to coercion to change their religion. Despite this, conversions are taking place unchecked — the very reason for continued decline of Hindu population in Pakistan. According to a report, in 1947, Hindus comprised 20.5 percent of total population of Pakistan and by 1998--the last Pakistan census to classify people by religion--Hindus were just 1.6 percent of the country’s population. It is estimated that the minority Hindus population could have further declined in the past two decades.
Such a fast dwindling of Hindu population speak volumes about the human rights situation of minorities in Pakistan, yet Prime Minister Imran Khan has the temerity to raise accusing fingers against India, the country which has in the past 70 years framed no law that bars Muslims or any minority community members to profess religion, education or profession of their choice. There is no incident of proselytization of Muslims, Christians or other minority community members under any duress or allurement.