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While Pakistan remains a diverse country, since the Partition of India in 1947, migration and a protracted process of social and religious homogenization has seen the Pakistani Hindu community dwindle. Partition saw large-scale movement of communities across newly defined borders between India and Pakistan, with Muslims in what became India fleeing primarily to Sindh and West Punjab, and Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan relocating to areas primarily in north-central India. While in 1941 non-Muslims constituted approximately 20 per cent of the population of West Pakistan, a decade later their proportion had fallen to just 4 per cent of the same area. More recently, the latest census in Pakistan recorded a Hindu population of approximately 2.5 million, or 1.6 per cent of the total population; these figures are widely contested, however, with some claiming they are higher. While updated official figures detailing the size of Pakistan’s Hindu population are currently unavailable, and with the census slated for 2016 recently postponed, some reports have estimated that 1,200 Hindus have fled from Pakistan to India in the past four years. Again, some estimates are much higher: for example, a member of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, also a patron of the Pakistan Hindu Council, recently claimed that approximately 5,000 Hindus leave Pakistan each year due to religious persecution, many travelling to India.
The majority of those currently migrating from Pakistan are from the province of Sindh, where the bulk of the Hindu population in Pakistan resides. Sindh, in the south-east of Pakistan, is regarded as a hub of Sufi Islam and has long been known for its tradition of religious tolerance. The town of Mithi in Tharparkar District, for instance, is celebrated as an example of inter-communal harmony, where Hindus and Muslims respect and at times celebrate one another’s religious traditions. More recently, since the passing of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the provincial government of Sindh has also introduced some positive measures to promote pluralism, including designating the Hindu festival of Holi a holiday for the first time anywhere in Pakistan in March 2016.
Yet in Sindh, and elsewhere, growing religious polarisation is evident, fuelling discrimination and violence towards Pakistan’s Hindu population. In March 2014, a temple in Larkana was set on fire following allegations that a young Hindu desecrated a copy of the Qur’an. Later, in November 2014 a temple in Hyderabad was attacked. More recently, a blasphemy allegation against a Hindu man in July 2016 in Ghotki, Sindh, led to further tensions and the shooting of two Hindu men the following day, with one of the victims, a 17-year-old, subsequently dying of his injuries.
In addition to violent attacks, a key challenge is the kidnapping and forced conversion of Hindu women and girls to Islam. The women who are subject to these coercive practices are predominantly poor, as highlighted by the disproportionate number of Scheduled Caste Hindu women among the victims. While there are no reliable statistics available regarding the number of forced conversions that take place each year, human rights activists have estimated that approximately 300 cases of forced conversion of Hindu women and girls take place annually, although they expect the scale of the problem may be greater due to gaps in reporting and documentation. The problem of forced conversion is particularly pronounced in Sindh, as recently highlighted by Lal Chad Malhi, a member of the National Assembly from Umerkot district in Sindh. Malhi noted that forced conversions are routine, and that there was a need for a formal mechanism to report conversions in order to capture the scale of the issue.
Measures taken to address key issues facing the Hindu community include the approval of the Hindu Marriage Act by the government of Sindh in early 2016, and the more recent passing of a Hindu Marriage Bill at the federal level by the National Assembly in September 2016. These developments are expected to help address issues of kidnapping and forced conversion of Hindu women, which are, in part, a consequence of legal gaps surrounding marriage and personal law that exacerbate their vulnerability, as well as making it difficult to bring these issues to court. Further legislation directly aimed at addressing forced conversion is also under discussion in the Sindh Assembly, but progress has been slow.
In addition to rising prejudice, material concerns also contribute to the marginalization of Pakistan’s Hindu population. Because Pakistani Hindu settlements and their places of worship are often located in sought-after land such as inner-city land in Sindh, the minority Hindu population is sometimes seen as an impediment to lucrative property development. Recognizing these economic factors is therefore crucial if violence against the community is to be reduced, as such tactics may be deployed, at least in part, as a means to force Hindus from their land. Other key challenges include access to and discrimination in education, as well as the kidnapping of Hindu businesspeople for ransom. Rapporteurs working with MRG’s local partner organizations have also detailed the well-documented problem of bonded labour of Hindus, which disproportionately affects the Dalit community.
Photo credit: Mirza Arif Beg.