ISLAMABAD - A new law designed to protect the marital rights of Pakistan’s minority Hindu community is also expected to help prevent what Hindu activists say are forced conversions to Islam of teenaged Hindu girls.
The law makes it illegal for Hindus to marry before they turn 18. According to journalist and rights activist Jai Prakash Moorani, that takes away the incentive for forcefully converting underage girls.
“If those who are forcing these girls to convert cannot marry them, then they won’t have an interest in converting them,” Moorani said.
Pakistan’s Hindu community has long complained that conversion and marriage were being used as legal cover for the kidnapping of young girls, who were allegedly threatened with harm or harm to their families so they would give false statements in court.
Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, a Hindu member of Pakistan’s parliament, disagreed that the new law provided any protection to such girls.
The act as it was passed, he pointed out, only applies to the Hindu community, so if a girl was forced to convert, it did not apply to her.
He thought a better solution would be to not allow persons under 18 to convert at all.
“If you don’t allow persons under 18 to get married, to get driver’s licenses, to get national identity cards, why do you allow them to convert?" he asked.
The law does state that any Hindu marriage may be annulled by court if the “consent of the petitioner was obtained by force, coercion, or by fraud.”
In Sindh province, where most of Pakistan’s Hindus live, police officials said many of the converted girls were not kidnapped. Many times, they said, poor Hindu girls eloped with affluent Muslim men and converted because a Muslim cannot marry a Hindu.
Hindu activists maintained that such girls were too young to be allowed to make life-changing decisions.
“What does a 12-,13-year-old know about love?” asked Ravi Dawani, the general-secretary of All Pakistan Hindu Panchayat.
Girls between 12 and 18, he said, were often lured away with false promises and later threatened so they would lie in court when their marriages or conversions were challenged.
Often, he added, their parents were not allowed to meet them.
Hotchand Karmani, the president of Pakistan Hindu Council, said the community wanted the judiciary to intervene and give such children, whether boys or girls, time to think about their decision.
“Many of them have no idea of Islam or any other religion,” he said. “They convert in the name of love and then have problems a year or two later.”
Pakistani Hindus also expressed reservations over another clause that allowed a court to terminate a marriage if one of the two partners converted to another religion and filed a petition in court.
This, they said, opened doors for the kidnapping and conversion of young Hindu married women similar to forced conversion of unmarried teenage girls.
“If someone wanted to terminate their marriage, they should do so before converting to another religion, not immediately after,” Vankwani said.
Kapil Dev, a rights activist, said he was surprised to find the clause in the act since the Human Rights committee in the Senate promised to have it removed.
Despite those concerns, Pakistan’s Hindus in general welcomed the passage of a law that allowed for their marriages to be legally registered.
Hindu marriages were not recorded through any government document previously, creating problems when spouses applied for identity cards and passports, or tried to get benefits for their husbands or wives.
And if a marriage broke down, there was no legal recourse for either spouse.
President Mamnoon Hussain signed the Hindu Marriage bill into law on Sunday. It applies to three of Pakistan’s four provinces. Sindh province has passed its own version of the bill.