Yazman Mandi a gateway to the great desert of Cholistan, was a scene of kidnapping of a young girl. A pretty 15-year-old Hindu girl, Bhambo Mai was kidnapped and taken away to Faisalabad. Here is our report from Yazman in Bhawalpur.
BHAWALPUR: In a tehsil of Bhawalpur, Yazman, a Hindu woman, Hassi Mai, sits forlorn lamenting the fate of her child, whose good looks brought her misfortune. She opens her trunk and pulls out a picture of her 15-year-old daughter and stares at it longingly. Her daughter, Bhambo Mai, a 15-year-old Hindu girl was allegedly forcibly converted to Islam and married off. Hassi Mai points to her daughter’s Child Registration Certificate which shows her date of birth to be 15 years and 9 months_ just 3 months younger than the legal age for marriage ( 16 years) in the province of Punjab.
Bhambo Mai was kidnapped by a resident of the village, Munir Ahmed on the night of the 13th of March. Hassi Mai alleges that Munir Ahmed forcibly converting Bhambo Mai to Islam and then forced her to marry him. Hassi Mai says that she is now afraid that the abductors will harass her and her other five children. She lost her husband a few years ago and for fear of being hounded, she locked up her house and came to live with her brother in law.
“We are laborers and I toil all day on the farms to make ends meet for myself and my 6 small children. My husband passed away and every day is a struggle. I am so distressed, I cry all day. I want my daughter back, she has been misled and coerced,” Hassi Mai appealed.
After Bhambo Mai was abducted Hassi Mai is fearful of the safety of her other five children.
“I miss my daughter a lot, I am really suffering,” she continues. “I have been unable to eat or cook any food for the last 9 days. It feels like someone in our family has died. I cannot bear to even cook dinner for the family, I have borne so much injustice.”
After Bhambo Mai was allegedly kidnapped, her family informed the village chief instead of the police to locate the girl. The village chief informed them that Munir Ahmed had taken the girl to Faislabad and was demanding 400,000 rupees in ransom. Hassi Mai is poor and could not afford to pay the ransom and so her nephew Shimla Ram collected the money from the Hindu community. The ransom money was paid to Munir Ahmed, but he never kept his end of the bargain and refused to release Bhambo Mai.
“We went to Faislabad where we paid Munir Ahmed 400,000 in ransom,” explains Shimla Ram. “He told us that within half an hour they will release Bhambo Mai in Faisalabad. Then they brought Bhambo Mai in a car and we traveled in a separate car together to Bhawalpur. Munir Ahmed and his companions traveled in the car where they were holding Bhambo Mai. When we reached Bhawalpur Munir Ahmed and his companions called the village chief saying that Bhambo Mai had converted to Islam and has married Munir Ahmed, therefore we cannot hand her over to her family. It was then that we realized that there is something afoot and they may never release Bhambo Mai .”
“There is no law to protect minorities in this country, we are repressed here. Whoever we approach tells us that the girl has converted to Islam, now she cannot be recovered from the kidnappers. What is happening in this country? The white in the flag of Pakistan represents minorities, but I feel you want to erase that white-out?” – Malik Ram
The village chief assured Bhambo Mai’s family that he will arrange for her to be divorced in the morning and then bring her back home. But meanwhile, Munir Ahmed and his companions filed a complaint against Bhambo Mai’s family for kidnapping her.
Shimla Ram explains that when they reached Bhawalpur from Faisalabad, the village chief said this is a matter of honor for the girl as she has converted to Islam and got married, so the family must proceed carefully and be patient. “We will get the girl divorced and hand her over to you tomorrow”, the village chief told Shimla Raam. According to Shimla Raam the village chief then released Munir Ahmed and his companions who approached the police and filed an FIR against them and the village chief for kidnapping. After Munir Ahmed lodged the complaint against Bhambo Mai’s family, the police arrested Bhambo Mai and took her into their custody.
“We went to the police station and informed them that the girl is a minor and has been kidnapped, but they insisted that she has converted to Islam and refused to lodge an FIR, but after we persisted they lodged a complaint for kidnapping against Munir Ahmed and his companions,” tells Shimla Ram to Voicepk.net
But the very next day Bhambo Mai gave a statement in front of the magistrate that she had married Munir Ahmed of her own free will, after which the court allowed her to go with her ‘ husband.’
BHAMBO MAI BEING PRESSURISED
However, Shimla Ram insists that Bhambo Mai was pressurized to give this statement in front of the magistrate for fear of her life. He says the magistrate should not have rejected the request to send Bhambo Mai to Darul Aman, a shelter home for women. He claims that the magistrate also overlooked the fact that Bhambo Mai is a minor and therefore not of legal age to be married. But the magistrate furiously told the Hindu family to approach the High Court if they are not satisfied with the order of the court.
Shimla Ram says he was disappointed by the order of the court. Their lawyer told them since Bhambo Mai has given a statement in favor of her husband, Munir Ahmed in court, the matter has become more complicated. Shimla Ram says “We asked the lawyer if he told the magistrate that the girl is a minor? The lawyer said that the judge rejected the Child Registration Certificate which specifies the age of Bhambo Mai as 15 years 9 months and therefore she cannot be sent to a shelter home.”
Shimla Ram laments that their lawyer seemed helpless and said that we have no choice but to appeal to the High Court.
LEGAL AID FOR HASSI MAI
Since Hassi Mai is very poor and does not have the means to pursue the matter, the Asma Jahangir ( AGHS) Legal Aid cell will take up the case on her behalf. Alia Malik, a family law practitioner at the Asma Jahangir legal aid cell says that there are many discrepancies in this case. She explains that in the marriage certificate ‘nikah nama’ Bhambo Mai is shown to be 20 years of age, when in the Child Registration Certificate she is actually fifteen years and nine months. There is only one witness listed in the marriage certificate when at least two are mandatory.
“There are lots of illegalities in this nikah nama,” explains Alia Malik. “It is obligatory on the designated nikah registrar to ensure that all the mandatory columns are filled in the nikah nama. And if certain columns are not filled, which is the case here, the nikah registrar is held responsible. In this ‘nikah nama’ the girl’s age is listed as 20 years when in the Child Registration Certificate she is not even 16 years old and is a minor. The marriageable age for girls in Punjab is 16 years and therefore Bhambo Mai is underage and cannot be married off.”
Bhambo Mai’s cousin Malik Ram wondered how a 15-year-old girl who has been brought up as a Hindu could take such a big decision of her life, to change her religion within 3 days. He demands that Bhambo Mai be handed back to her family for just a week so that we can be convinced that she was not forced into converting her religion and did it of her own free will.
THE FEARFUL HINDU COMMUNITY
Malik Ram says that after this incident the entire Hindu community is afraid and uncertain of their future. He says he is scared of sending his daughter to school as he fears she may be kidnapped and forcibly converted like his cousin Bhambo Mai.
“There is no law to protect us here, they might as well kill us, throw us out of Pakistan or drown us in the sea. Now how do we educate our girls, send them to school when there is a danger that they may be kidnapped? My daughter is 4 years old and I have aspirations for her to become a doctor. But since Bhambo Mai has been kidnapped, we have lost the confidence to send our girls to school, what if they meet the same fate? Maybe my daughter will never become a doctor,” says Malik Ram sadly.
Alia Malik who has been representing women for over 2 decades says that in cases of enforced conversions the court and the state must give complete protection to the woman so that she can make the important decision of converting without any pressure.
She further explains that “In such a case the court must first order the girl to be kept in an independent place where she feels safe enough to record her statement. The state is responsible for the safety of the girl and must protect her so that no individual or even an official of the state can influence her. The girl must then decide of her own free will, in an atmosphere where there is no coercion which religion she will adopt or abandon.”
Back in Bhawalpur, Malik Ram laments “there is no law to protect minorities in this country, we are repressed here. Whoever we approach tells us that the girl has converted to Islam, now she cannot be recovered from the kidnappers. What is happening in this country? The white in the flag of Pakistan represents minorities, but I feel you want to erase that white-out?”
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 2018 a thousand Christian and Hindu girls were converted forcibly to Islam. There is no law criminalizing forced conversions in Pakistan and there is no age limit to when individuals can change their religion. Perhaps that is why incidents of forced conversions of Hindu girls is on the rise. In Yazman Mandi, Hassi Mai waits for her daughter to return and on her return hinges the faith of the Hindu community in the state of Pakistan to protect its most vulnerable. Will we fail them?
With Ahmed Saeed from Yazman, Bhawalpur and Munizae Jahangir in Lahore.