18th March 2021

By Ahmed Saeed and Asra Haque


LAHORE

A Tangwani court on Wednesday, March 17, sent 13 year old Kavita Oad to the Sukkur Child Protection Centre after she declared before the magistrate that she had converted to Islam of her free will and requested she be provided protection.

According to the minor’s family, Kavita had been groomed by a much older Muslim man by the name of Mushtaq Bahalkani. On March 8, 2021, she was abducted at gunpoint from her home in Tangwani taluka by five men who arrived in a white car, and was moved to Ghotki where she was converted to Islam at the Bharchundi Shareef Dargah. The Bharchundi Shareef is notorious particularly because of the Barelvi cleric Abdul Haq, more popularly known as Mian Mithu, who has been accused by minority communities in Sindh and civil society organizations of forcefully converting and solemnizing the nikkahs of underage Hindu children in Sindh.

In a video that made the rounds on social media on March 11, Kavita can be seen accepting the fold of Islam in front of a cleric while surrounded by a dense crowd of unfamiliar Muslim men.

A first information report (FIR) was registered against Mushtaq Bahalkani and others under charges of abducting the minor girl at the Tangwani police station, however on March 14, a group of unidentified arsonists set her fire to her father, Takht Oad’s home on fire. Takht Oad has alleged that goons from the Bahalkani tribe had threatened him and his family, and demanded he rescind the case prior to the arson attack.

Sukhdev Hemnani, Vice-President of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) District Ghotki, on March 16 took to Twitter to confirm that two people have been detained under suspicion of setting fire to Takht Oad’s home.

Since her kidnapping, members of the Oad tribe and the Hindu community in Kandhkot have been staging protests against her forced conversion, while her family have implored the authorities to return their daughter to them. Furthermore, Kavita’s family has alleged that she has already been married off to Mushtaq Bahalkani and this fact is being withheld from the media and the courts.

It is pertinent to note that under the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013, marrying a girl under the age of 18 is illegal and any sexual activity with a minor be considered statutory rape.

In an interview with journalist and anchorperson of Aaj News’ Spot Light Munizae Jahangir on March 17, Takht Oud and his counsel Advocate Abdul Ghani Bijrani revealed that they had submitted two applications to the court: one for trying the abductors under section 364A (kidnapping or abducting in order to murder) of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) in an anti-terrorism court (ATA) as the case concerns a minor, and the other to constitute a medical team to determine if she had not been sexually assaulted as Kavita had initially eloped with Mushtaq Bahalkani in order to marry him.

Member of the Sindh Assembly from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) Mangla Sharma drew parallels with the Rinkle Kumari case back in 2012, and stated that forced conversions of minor Hindu girls is not a new thing.

“For a little girl to be inspired by a religion, one has to find fault with their original religion,” Sharma posited. “We first need to ask that girl what she knows about her original faith. If a girl that young cannot even fully comprehend her faith, how does anyone expect her to be inspired by another religion?”

MNA Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Patron-in-Chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council confirmed he had convened with Mian Mithu, Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi (gaddi nashin of the Sarhandi Shrine in Samaro taluka of Umerkot district), and Umar Naeem Binoria (successor to Chancellor of Jamia Binoria in Karachi, Mufti Muhammad Naeem) to sign an agreement that underage girls who approach them to convert to Islam be allowed to meet with their families and only then be converted in an open, free and safe environment.

He stated that till date, Mian Mithu has strictly obliged to this agreement, however Kavita’s case is being wrongly attributed to him.

“Kavita converted in the presence of another pir by the name of Mian Abdul Khaliq at the Bharchundi Shareef,” Dr. Vankwani stated but the claim was contested by Aaj News Kandhkot correspondent Hazoor Bakhsh Mangi who pointed out that Mian Mithu is a member of the Bharchundi Shareef, and this group has been actively targeting small and impoverished Hindu communities and converting their girls forcefully since the past decade or so.

In response, Dr. Vankwani clarified that although Mian Abdul Khaliq and Mian Mithu are related, there was neither contact nor collusion between the two in Kavita’s case.

“The Bharchundi Shareef pir (Mian Abdul Khaliq) did indeed violate the agreement, even I did not know that the Bharchundi Shareef and Mian Mithu are two separate entities.”

Explaining the terms of the agreement itself, Dr. Vankwani stated that madrassas and clerics must conform to a mechanism where, when approached by a girl who wants to convert to Islam, they must promptly inform the relevant District Commissioner (DC). The DC will take her to a safe house, such as the Dar-ul-Aman or the Child Protection Bureau, where she will be allowed to meet with her parents privately for a certain number of days. Furthermore, local religious leaders who met with Dr. Vankwani also agreed that they will only solemnize these girls’ marriages until they reach the age of 18 and no longer need to be kept in the safe house.

“For a minor girl wanting to convert, that she is converted and then sent to a safe house for a number of years, isn’t that unfair?” Ms. Sharma demanded. “Why should she even be converted when she is just a child? Shouldn’t she be converted after she turns 18?”

Advocate Bijrani termed the conversion of minor girls an underhanded scheme.

“Kavita could not be married off because of the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act, so they settled for this to ensure that she cannot slip through their fingers. Until and unless the Hindu Marriage Bill is not passed, there can virtually be no protection for minorities in Sindh.”

Ms. Sharma posited that due to the continued deferment of the Hindu Marriage Bill 2016, the protection of young Hindu girls from forced conversion and marriages has also been subsequently deferred. As of right now, the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013 is the only law that has extended some modicum of protection to underage victims of forced conversion and marriages.

“Legislation is the need of the hour,” she asserted. “Forced conversion here is considered a religious issue when in fact it is a social issue. These girls, especially if they are underage, are groomed and decide to convert in order to marry. If an individual wants to convert, they should be able to submit an application to the courts to declare their change of faith.”

Voicepk.net reached out to Mian Mithu, who stated that he only agreed to Dr. Vankwani’s proposed mechanism in order to prevent any further sullying of Pakistan’s image. He also clarified that per the mechanism, the DC will produce the girl in court after she has been shifted to a safe house and allowed to meet with her parents. The girl will submit to the judge whether or not she wants to return with her family or accept Islam at a madrassa or the Bharchundi Shareef.

“This is wrong, though,” he added. “Involving the DC, judges and what not… it’s wrong according to Shariah. But the only reason we are agreeing to these terms is so that people no longer have any reason to badmouth Pakistan or Islam.”

With regards to forced conversions, he insisted that severe punishments be meted out to individuals involved in such a crime.

“They should be publicly hanged. How dare they wrong someone like that?” he declared, while also asserting that neither he nor the Bharchundi Shareef have ever converted someone against their will, and even recounted multiple instances where he sent young girls who had approached him to accept Islam back to their families.

“A young Hindu girl had run away with a Muslim who already had a wife and children, and came to me to convert. We asked the lad if he had plans to take her on as his second wife but he refused. We sat down with the girl and told her that her partner was married with children and did not want to marry her, and asked her if she still wanted to convert in order to be with him or simply accept Islam. She said that since her lover had broken her heart, she no longer wanted to convert as well. We connected her with a lawyer and she was on her own from that point onwards,” Mian Mithu narrated one such instance.

He also further stated that since the passage of the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013, he has never solemnized the nikkah of a minor. However, when it comes to converting an underage individual, there is no secular or Sharia law that imposes a restriction for the age of conversion. He also categorically denied any involvement with Kavita’s case, saying it was a matter that concerned whoever was responsible for converting her at the Bharchundi Shareef.

However, he disagreed that a minor should not be disallowed from marrying.

“I will not say that underage Muslims cannot marry. There is no stipulation in religious laws, but if they make secular laws that are opposed to Islamic laws, then I have no choice but to adhere to them.”

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