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KARACHI, Aug 24 2012 (IPS) - Narain Das, a cloth merchant from Jacobabad in northern Pakistan, blesses his lucky stars that he has three sons, aged 18, 16 and 12. “If they were daughters, I, too, would seriously be thinking of migrating from here,” he reflects on the lack of protection his community faces.
“Abduction, rape and coerced conversion of our daughters, extortion, blackmailing and kidnapping of businessmen for ransom” are some of the reasons given by former legislator and chairman of the Pakistan Hindu Council, Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, for the recent exodus of the Hindu community to India, reported in the media.
Hindus form 1.7 percent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million.
Muslim Odhano, a Muslim rights activist from Jacobabad, has been observing a huge migration trend of Hindus from Sindh province – where the city is located – over the last four to five years.
“It’s not just the Hindus, even Muslims are continuously harassed by people from the Jakhrani tribe which is carrying out looting, extortion and dacoity (banditry) here. But Hindus are facing a double whammy, because their daughters are not safe here and are being kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam,” he told IPS over the phone from Jacobabad.
Odhano said the Jakhranis enjoyed complete impunity because of their political affiliation to the ruling Pakistan People Party. The posting of the police is done with the consent of the legislator, who is also from the tribe. “There is a complete breakdown of the law and order situation here,” he said.
Minority communities in Pakistan are facing increased discrimination and harassment, to the extent that many are fleeing their country.
Early last week, the English language daily Express Tribune reported that 60 Hindu families comprising 200-250 people, from Balochistan and Sindh provinces, were leaving the country on the pretext of pilgrimage and seeking asylum in India, on the grounds of religious persecution in Pakistan.
Dismissing the news, Interior Minister Rehman Malik called the migration a “conspiracy to defame Pakistan.” He said the Indian High Commission would be called upon to give reasons for issuing visas in such huge numbers. In addition, he said minorities could not leave the country without the permission of his ministry.
While there has been little recognition of the problem by authorities, there is even less indignation from the nation as a whole.
“There is no outrage because Pakistan has passed into the hands of intolerant bigots,” I.A. Rehman, secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told IPS. He talked about “the death of the nation and its replacement with a herd of bloodthirsty morons.”
Mukesh Rupeta, a Hindu journalist based in Jacobabad, said he had bid farewell to as many as “a hundred Hindu families migrating to India in the last year.” He added, however, that the problems faced by the Hindus had been brewing for over a decade. His three brothers and two sisters have already migrated to Indore, in India.
“Most Pakistani Hindus are tight-lipped about leaving, so they go on the pretext of pilgrimage. Once there, they either seek asylum or get their visas extended. In the next fifteen years, they can eventually get citizenship,” he said.
It is not easy to migrate, he said, but the Hindus are left with little choice. “It can take a good five years to settle, but people say they at least have found peace of mind that their family is safe.”
Former legislator Vankwani said many of those migrating belonged to the more affluent business class, who were easy prey for kidnappers and extortionists because of weak security and because they had little political and administrative clout.
“Despite being highly educated and well-qualified Hindu doctors, engineers and business graduates, they find it difficult to land top jobs,” said Sanjeev Kumar, who heads the Karachi-based Pakistan Hindu Seva, a non-governmental organisation that promotes education among less privileged Hindu families.
Rupeta pointed out that while there are Hindu judges and even a few doctors in the armed forces, there are fewer Hindus in top-ranking jobs. “They do not get the positions they deserve on merit.”
The community was also shaken by the recent kidnapping of 11 Hindu traders from Balochistan and Sindh, seven of whom have now been recovered.
Vankwani recalled the years between 1989 and 1991, when Hindus were persecuted. “Thousands left for India, but returned when the situation was under control. Something similar is happening now.” He said he was, however, not sure that they would return this time.
The news of the exodus of Hindus early this month was followed closely by the abduction, conversion and marriage of 14-year old Manisha Kumari to a Muslim boy last week.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan had earlier noted the worrisome increase in kidnappings of Hindu girls who are then coerced into embracing Islam. Motumal Amarnath, a senior lawyer with the Commission, told IPS that at least 20 to 25 Hindu girls are abducted each month and converted to Islam.
But he said he was not sure that the reports of mass migration were accurate.
“I have made enquiries, and while there may have been a few cases, I have been unable to confirm the names or addresses of the people who have left,” he told IPS. He added that “We are Pakistanis first, and this is our motherland. We would never leave. Times are bad for all of us – including Ahmadis and Shias (Muslims).”
“The Jacobabad story may have been exaggerated,” Rehman, the secretary general of the Commission, told IPS. Nevertheless, he added: “There have been persistent reports that Hindus in Sindh and Balochistan are fleeing from Pakistan or are being frightened into migrating, and the trend is unmistakable.”
In a press statement, the Commission said the migration was a reflection of the state’s failure to save its citizens from violence, discrimination and excesses such as forced conversion of young women.
It urged civil society organisations and the media to keep the “spotlight firmly trained on the raw deal these communities” were getting.
“Ahead of the forthcoming elections, the political parties also have an opportunity, through their manifestos, and more than that through their actions now, to articulate their vision for religious minorities in Pakistan,” the Commission stated.
Without naming anyone in particular, Amarnath, the lawyer with the Commission, said there were some “religio-political groups, in cahoots with intelligence agencies,” who were creating a sense of insecurity among the Hindu community.
He also pointed to vested interests that might profit from the migration of affluent Hindus by laying claim to their property, “just like some did with the evacuee property in 1947 (when India and Pakistan became separate states).”
While it is not yet clear if the families who have gone on the pretext of pilgrimage will return to Pakistan once their visas expire, the situation has nevertheless brought into sharp focus the underlying sense of insecurity that has beset the Hindu community.
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