OUTLOOK INDIA -- Magazine | Jan 30, 2006
Sins Of Sindh
'Appalled' is how Pak liberals, human rights NGOs react
An investigative report by a respected Pakistani journalist on the abduction, conversion to Islam and forced marriage of Hindu women in Pakistan to Muslim men, carried as a cover story by a liberal Indian newsmagazinei.e. not Organiser but Outlook! It was bound to create a stir and it did.
In a strong response to Mariana Baabar's searing report from interior Sindh (Sindh's Stolen Brides, Jan 23), Amnesty International said the story revealed "appalling abuses" suffered by Hindu girls and women in Sindh province.
"It indicates that the Pakistani state has failed to exercise due diligence when it failed to prevent such abuses inflicted on Hindu girls and women in Sindh and when it did not ensure that these victims of abuses obtain legal redress," said Amnesty in a statement from its international
secretariat in London. It added that the Pakistani state "was under a domestic as well as an international obligation" to ensure that its citizens' rights to freedom of religion, and freedom of choice of a marriage partner, are not violated.
Human Rights Watch, in its reaction to the article, said in a statement from New York that "abductions, forced marriage and forced conversions are clear human rights abuses...(this is) one illustration of a larger epidemic of abuse and violence against women in Pakistan".
In India and Pakistan, right-wingers on both sides reacted predictably, with responses that were mirror images of each other. Far more interesting were the differences between liberal responses on either side of the border.
Pakistani liberals came out strongly, and emotionally, against the failure of the Constitution and the state to protect the rights of the country's minorities. "It makes the blood boil," said Jugnu Mohsin, managing editor and publisher of The Friday Times, reacting to the article. Commented Saba Khattak, executive director, Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad, "I found the article extremely moving (it brought tears to my eyes) and agree with Mariana's conclusion that this is a sad reflection on current as well as previous governments in Pakistan." After reading the piece, journalist and consultant Uzma T. Haroon urged Mariana to have it published in Pakistan, to make "the custodians of the Constitution and protectors of our rights aware of such practices".
Indian liberals, on the other hand, while strongly condemning what was happening to Hindu women in interior Sindh, were careful to distance themselves from the hawks, of saffron and other hues, who routinely bash Pakistan. As Justice (retd) Rajinder Sachar of the People's Union for Civil Liberties put it: "As an NGO, we strongly feel the government of Pakistan should take steps to prevent the forcible abduction and conversion of Hindu women and to take strong legal action against those responsible for such actions. That is to be expected of any proper government. But the issue should not be blown out of proportion or used to score points." Should the Indian government raise the issue with the Pakistani side? "No harm in doing it, but in a friendly and sympathetic way," said Sachar.
Unlike Sachar, G. Parthasarathy, a retired diplomat who has served as High Commissioner to Pakistan, felt India would be ill-advised to raise the issue officially with Pakistan, as "this is a case of state inaction, rather than massive action by the state. It's a very different situation from Balochistan, where helicopter gunships are mowing down civilians. What is happening in Sindh is terrible, but it is for NGOs to raise these issues".
Writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia, who has extensively researched abductions and forced marriages at the time of Partition, observed: "On both sidesthe Hindu and the Muslimthere is a patriarchal set-up, and the woman has no say on either side.Whatever choice she makes is 'wrong'whether to stay with her abductor, or to go back to her family, which will never really accept her because she has had sex with a Muslim."
While the official Indian response was a circumspect silence, on the Pakistani side, foreign secretary Riaz Mohammed Khan claimed he had not read the story when Outlook asked him his opinion at a press conference in Delhi. Without confirmingor denyingthat the abductions, conversions or forced marriages were taking place, Khan said, "Of course, we don't acquiesce in any kind of coercion for any purpose." He added that the government does take action "where it is necessary", and that people could seek redress through the courts for human rights infringements. He also lauded the role of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission and its "robust and active and independent" civil society. "Where they see the government is slack, they do not hesitate to draw attention to it."
Khan is absolutely right: civil society groups like the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan are a fearless lot and have consistently drawn the government's attention to the oppression of religious minorities in Pakistan. To no avail.