By Irfan Husain
MEET Sanno Amra and his wife Champa: a middle-aged
Hindu couple. They live in a small, simple but spotlessly clean home in
’s Punjab Colony.
Until six weeks ago, they lived with their five children, reasonably
content with their lot. Sanno worked as a chauffeur, and his wife cooked
for a family. On October 18, their lives suddenly fell apart: Champa
returned home from work to discover that her three oldest daughters were
missing — Reena (21), Usha (19) and Rima (17) had seemingly vanished
without a trace. This is any parent’s worst nightmare, but the
couple’s woes had only begun.
After searching frantically for the girls, they went to the local police
station where the SHO put them off without registering a case. A couple of
days later, they met the deputy superintendent of police for
. This proved to be the only bright spot in the entire tragic episode, for
DSP Raza Shah went out of his way to help. He forced his subordinates to
file an FIR, and his intervention was invaluable in ensuring the safety of
the parents. And just for the record, the MQM ‘sector-in- charge’ also
lent them his organisation’s support.
On October 22, a police FIR for kidnapping was duly prepared, naming three
young men from the neighbourhood as the principal suspects. Immediately,
Sanno and his wife started getting threats from their neighbours. Earlier
they had never had any problems, although they were the only Hindu family
in a predominantly Muslim locality. But now, the same people were
pressuring them to remove the names of the local boys from the FIR.
Within days, they received a package by courier containing three identical
affidavits signed by their daughters, stating that they had converted to
Islam of their own free will. The declaration concluded: “That since my
parents are Hindu and after conversion of my religion, it is not possible
for me to live and pass my life in Hindu system/society [sic] and
therefore, I have decided to live separately...”
According to their affidavits, the girls (now calling themselves Afshan,
Anam and Nida) were living in the hostel of the Madarsa Taleem-ul-Quran,
and were being instructed by a local moulvi. On November 10, a court order
directed the police and the administrators of the seminary to arrange a
meeting between the girls and their parents.
When Sanno and Champa finally met their daughters, they were shocked to
see that they were in burqas that concealed them from head to toe, leaving
only their eyes uncovered. The eyes of the youngest girl were bloodshot
from weeping. At this supposedly private meeting, a dour woman was present
throughout as were a moulvi and a couple of cops. In subdued voices
muffled by heavy fabric, the girls said they wanted to stay where they
Understandably, the parents are convinced that their daughters were under
pressure. In fact, they simply cannot come to terms with the notion that
their children have not only abandoned them, but also the faith they grew
up in. As far as they are concerned, their daughters have been
brainwashed. Interestingly, the girls have cited “religious channels on
TV” as the reason for their conversion.
Since their daughters left, Sanno and Champa have not returned to their
jobs. They stay at home with Suraj and Arti, their young son and daughter
and wait for news. Apart from their neighbours, they have also been
isolated by their own community. According to Sanno, other Hindus look
down on them because of their girls’ apparent conversion. Face, that
most pernicious of Asian values, has been lost.
I spoke to DSP Raza Shah and asked him if in his opinion, any pressure had
been brought to bear on the girls. He was sure it had been a voluntary
conversion, adding that it was very possible that neighbours might have
influenced them. The parents are clear that their daughters never watched
TV in their presence, nor did they ever discuss the possibility of a
conversion. According to Vijay, a relative, twenty girls from the Hindu
community had converted to Islam in the last five years.
Talking to the parents in their simple home, I could feel their pain and
their distress. “We just sit and stare at each other”, Sanno said.
“For us, life is over.” Above all, they want the certainty of the
knowledge that their daughters did not abandon them voluntarily. They went
back to the madressah recently where they were refused access to their
daughters. “Even if they have become Muslims, we are still their
parents,” Champa said tearfully. The moulvi at the madressah, instead of
being sympathetic, invited Sammo and Champa to convert as well.
What the stricken parents are looking for is closure: once they are
satisfied that their daughters will never come home again, they will learn
to live with their grief. But for this to happen, they want the girls to
be moved to neutral ground like the Edhi orphanage where they can meet
them without the coercive presence of moulvis and cops. But this request
has been turned down by a judge.
Vijay has shared the family’s tribulations, and is understandably
bitter. “Mr Jinnah had promised the minorities equal rights and
protection. But it seems his promises were buried with him,” he
maintains. Given the spate of conversions, some voluntary, some forced,
the insecurity among the minorities, especially among Sindhi Hindus, is
Even if most of these conversions are not at gunpoint, they still take
place in an overpowering environment of religiosity. Religious programmes
on every private and public TV channel must leave an imprint on young
minds. The need to conform at school and college where religion casts a
constant shadow, must exert a subtle influence on non-Muslim students. And
in a society based on faith, the minorities have been marginalized to the
point where they are tempted to convert simply to get ahead in life.
But Sammo and Champa are not concerned with the larger issues regarding
the place and fate of the minorities in Pakistan. All they want is
justice. For them this involves being able to spend time alone with their
beloved daughters, free from pressure and coercion, and to satisfy
themselves that they took this drastic step on their own. Surely in a
state that aspires to General Musharraf’s oft-touted ideal of
‘enlightened moderation’, this should not be too much to ask for.