Eroding Religious Harmony

By Salam Dharejo, Sindh

Umarkot, the birthplace of Moghul Emperor Akbar and a city of large Hindu population, is one of the few towns in Pakistan where religious festivals such as Holi and Diwali are celebrated by both Hindus and Muslims. Holi and Diwali are considered to be a particularly Hindi festival. However both Hindu and Muslim residents of Umarkot unite to celebrate these festivals to express communal solidarity and their particular village identity in spite of religious differences. No matter whether they are Hindus or Muslims, residents of Umarkot primarly identify with each other as members of the same village. Thus during such festivals, they dance in the streets and exchange sweets. A desert town splashes colors and celebrates with each other.

But this year the celebration turned into a bloody day. While earlier Muslims and Hindus would dance jubilantly together, this year Muslims were roaming the streets to find Hindus and punish them.

For instance on 11 March, riots erupted in Udhepuri Muhala as a mob attacked Hindus and their property. They reasoned that a blasphemy was committed by unknown persons who wrote the name of the Prophet on a road near Dr. Rab Nawaz Kunbher Chowck, Umarkot. The incident took place at about 2 pm and news spread in the area through mobile phones and slides on television channels. Consequently, within a short span of time, hundreds of people gathered and started violent acts against Hindus. In this incident several Hindus were injured and a petrol pump and some shops were set on fire. “I was on my way towards Temple for pooja when a group of angry young men blocked the way and attacked on me with iron rods and danda with shouting “tum kafir ho, mot tumhara mukadar hay” (You are infidel, death is your destiny)” spoke sixteen years old Sunny Kumar, one of the victims of this riot.

To investigate the blasphemy case, a delegation of Human Rights Commission (HRCP) of Pakistan comprising of Professor Badar Soomro, the Council Member of HRCP, Pir Abdul Rehamn Sarhandi, Punhal Sario, Jam Saqi and others visited Umarkot. The fact-finding mission of HRCP interviewed journalists, local administration, religious leaders, and eye witness accounts of the people. They concluded that it was a conspiracy carried out to destabilize the religious harmony among Hindus and Muslims in Umarkot. According to them, it was a planned incident against the Hindu community. Consequently it was no surprise that a similar incident also happened at Mir Wah Gorchani around the same time. The report argues that the people who actively took part in the violent protest were frequent visitors of the offices of agencies. Professor Soomro told Newsline that two eyewitnesses gave contrasting statements. One of the eyewitness stated that he saw the name written in green color while the other was of the view that the name was written in blue color.

One of the eyewitnesses, Rizwan Kunbhar, told Newsline that “when he reached the spot he found the name written on road but it was not clear that whether it is Manoj or Mohammad?” On the other hand, Rehan Shah, the reporter of Daily Ummat who was actively involved in protest, stated that he saw the name and tried to take photograph. However, due to problems with the camera, the name does not appear clearly.

To investigate the incidence, a peace committee comprising of 28 members including with religious leaders, police officials, and personnel of district administration, local political leaders and social activists has been formed. In the first meeting of the committee held on March 18, eyewitnesses were interrogated. The SSP investigation leader of Umarkot named Imdad Ali Solangi told Newsline that Abdul Malik Kunbhar, Ibrahim Gishkori, Gulab Udhepuri and Tariq Udhepuri claimed they had seen the name of prophet written on road but could not detect the person who write the name on that spot. He added that with the help of the confession of these eyewitnesses, police would investigate the case to capture the culprits. He also however added that other members of the peace committee would also trace out the culprits through their own sources of information. Regardless of these investigations, the Hindu-Muslim relations in Sindh have severely worsened.

Sindhi Hindus: then and now

Out of total of 2.5 million Hindus in Pakistan 95 percent lives in Sindh. In Sindh, 51 % of Hindus live in Tharparkar and 43 percent in Umarkot district. It has been observed that religious riots erupted in Umarkot have made Hindu residents all over Umarkot and Tharparkar districts insecure. On the lack of security, a local scholar and social reformed named Mir Hassan Areeser comments, “Security agencies have been failed in providing protection to the Hindus businessmen, consequently, in the state of insecurity rich Hindus are forced to migrate to India”. These riots do not reflect how Hindus and Muslims previously used to interact in past.

For centuries Thar Desert of Sindh has been a symbol of religious harmony and peace. Hindu and Muslims share the same culture, language and tradition. They have lived together in peace and harmony. But in recent history, Thar is witnessing a drastic change where religious extremism is eroding centuries old social harmony and religious tolerance.

Hindus under attack in precious Thar region

Thar, comprising of Tharparkar and Umarkot districts and sharing a long border with India is become a strategically important location for political and administrative reasons. With the changing dynamics of international geo-politics and economy, Thar becomes an even more critical region. Commenting on the importance of Thar to current day geo-politics, a veteran politician named Jam Saqi notes, “Opening of Khokhrapar border for railway connection with India would boost the trade and commerce between both neighboring countries. Similarly, exploration of huge stock of coal in Nangarparkar would attract various business stakeholders to come to the dry dunes of the Thar. Keeping in view the golden sand of the area, political and business actors would have to strengthen their power and establish their bases in the area.” On one hand, there are such hopes. On the other hand, the Hindu community is facing multidimensional threats to their property, social status and religious identity. Majority of Hindu living in Mithi, Umarkot and Islamkot run their own businesses. Such self-employed Hindu businessmen are however frequently kidnapped.

For instance in the month of June 2008, a prominent businessman and head of Maheshwari community was kidnapped by professional gangsters. The Hindu community launched a campaign for his recovery. They went for series of strikes all over the Thar region. Similarly, Khushal Malhi and Amlakh Malhi were also kidnapped and were recovered after paying huge amount as ransom to kidnapers. The Hindu community felt most insecure after the brutal killing of Ram Maheshwari in October 2005. In addition to physical harm, many Hindu women have been forcibly converted.

Conversion of religion in Hindu Women

Most of the women who have been converted to Islam belong to scheduled or low caste such as Bheel, Kolhi and Shikari. Conversion of Hindu women has exposed the community to the most extreme level of social humiliation and cultural stigma. Hundreds of Hindu women have been converted to Islam. I recognize that in many cases Hindu women have converted by will. However it is also evident that in most of the cases women have been converted forcibly.

For instance thirteen years old Mashu was abducted from Jhaluree, a village near Mirpur Khas in December 2005. She was forcibly married to Akbar, one of the four kidnappers. Before marrying, she was converted to Islam and had to change her name from Mashu to Mariam. One culprit behind such forced conversions in Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi.

Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi claims that he has converted about ten thousand Hindus. However, he argues that most of them converted willingly. He told Newsline that he has never tried to forcibly convert Hindu women. All of the women came to the court to fulfill the legal requirements and confess in front of the magistrate that they had willingly converted. The Hindu community and Human Rights organizations have however rejected claims that these women willingly converted. They have instead consistently condemned the practice of abduction and conversion. In spite of their condemnation, the peril is becoming stronger with the passage of time. A local poet and writer named Haleem Bhaghi informs us about the threat to conversion, whether forced or unforced. He argues, “What ever the reason of conversion may be, conversion results to a threat to identity and social disgrace for the Hindu community.” Conversion of Hinuds is necessitated by hard-line religious groups who come to these regions and provide services.

Outsiders enforce Islam in Umarkot

A growing numbers of religious groups are consolidating their position in Thar through providing services like digging wells in remote areas and education facilities in Madrassas. On their growing power, Mir Hassan Areesar observes “Social harmony and religious tolerance of the area is on stake due to intervention of outsiders.” Tracing the numbers and activities of religious institutions, a local writer and intellectual named Arbab Naik Mohammd told Newsline that more than three thousand Madrasas exist in Thar. He recalls that recently in 2005, Dawat-e Islami has established a huge Madrasa in Umarkot town. Moreover, he reveals that Al Khidmat Welfare Society, Al- Mustafa Welfare Trust, Al Akhtar Trust, Al- Rashid Trust and Alamgeer Welfare Trust have several welfare institutions and outlets of service in Thar.

Migration of aliens in the area is also a potential threat to the stability of religious harmony. In recent years hundreds of Pushto speaking brick kiln workers have migrated to fill the gap of local worker who have been freed from the bondage of brick kiln owners through interventions made by NGOs with the support of administration. On these increasing numbers of outsiders who have taken positions in Umarkot, a local correspondent of ARY channel named Mumtaz Areesar notes, “More than 40 brick kilns are located in the surroundings of Umarkot, most of the brick kiln owners are Pakhtoon. They have lost almost all local workers due to operation against bondage, so they are reluctant to keep local workers. Therefore, fearing the loss of workers and to protect the business, Pakhtoon Brick Kiln owners have brought workers from northern areas of the country.” Due to the large presence of outsiders who want to reject the past religious harmony and establish a purely Islamic ethos in Umarkot, religious extremism has taken over. A journalist who was reporting during these recent riots said, “Increasing religious extremism in Thar is evident from the recent riots in which the workers of “Dawat-e- Islami” were found actively involved.” “Dawat-e-Isami” is one such outsider religious faction that is trying to erase the long history of Hindu presence in Umarkot. Moulana Abdul Rehman Jamali, the divisional head of another religious faction called “Jamiatul ulma-e- Islam” acts apologetic. He told Newsline that he had tried his best to peacefully resolve the issue. The youngsters belonging to his religious group however were very aggressive and did not oblige his request.

Rhetoric of Protection

It has been observed that religious groups have their own school of thought. Thus, to consolidate their position, each group is trying to establish its own footings through various tactics. For instance the Devebani and Brelvi do not conform to one another’s ideologies. Their differences have been exposed during the riots in Umarkot. Interestingly, all religious groups unite on the need to provide protection to Hindus. After the riots a peace committee has been formed comprised of 28 members. While Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi has announced that he does not accept the mandate of recently formed peace committee, he is however still determined to protect Hindus. He told Newsline that in order to express solidarity with Hindus he is going to convene a huge religious gathering in Umarkot in near future. Similarly Abdul Rehman Jamali is of the view that his party will make people feel more secure by organizing procession that advocate peace. Such rhetoric however does not reflect every body’s opinion.

Different opinions

A businessman and local leader of Pakistan People Party argues that the riot was in fact a planned incidence rather than an accident. As a person who was himself targeted, he says, “It was a planned incident, the main purpose was to target the Hindus particularly the Malhi community. If you look into the detail of the incident you will find many instances of personal amenity. The protesters who were mainly Urdu speaking attacked on my house and targeted the petrol pump, which is situated more than two kilometers away from the Udhepuri Muhala”. The mayor of the district, Shaukat Udhepuri, expresses an intentionally ambiguous assessment of these riots. While he does not directly criticize the Hindus, he neither vows to support or protect the Hindu community. On the nature of the riots, he comments, “We do not have personal grievances against any Hindu, though we had quarrel with Malhi community when they attacked on Udhepuri youngsters some month back. But the issue was resolved through negotiation. As for as the incident of blasphemy is concerned, it is fact that some on is involved in this incident. We do not blame any Hindu for such act, but it is clear that no Muslim can dare to do the act of blasphemy.” Since a Muslim could not perform such a blasphemous act, the mayor indirectly points the blame on Hindus. Since different people are expressing different opinions on the nature of this incident, many have started to conclude that there is some conspiracy involved.

Conspiracy

Conspiracy is a phrase frequently coined in Umarkot after the incident. “To me the recent incident in Umarkot seems a planned conspiracy against the Hindu and Muslim communities who have been living peacefully since centuries”. I agree with this assessment. I argue that the culprits want to create insecurity among Hindus and exploit Islam to do so. The riots in Umarkot are not solitary. They represent a larger wave of religious extremism that is weakening historic social bonds among people in neighborhoods all across Pakistan. Jam Saqi also points to the rise in “recent religious extremism”. Ayub Jan Sarhandi still calls himself “a supporter of Hindu Muslim harmony”. He has been “busy in establishing peaceful coexistence between the two communities” . On the riots, he argues, “I firmly believe that Hindu community of Umarkot is not involved in the incident. The act of blasphemy in Umarkot is carried out by the culprits belonging to either RAW or Ahmadies”. Similarly, the Mayor of Umarjot named Manghan Mangrio argues, “We know that culprits have political agenda to destroy religious coexistence of Umarkot. Hindus and Muslims have been living in peaceful environment and always celebrate their religious festivals jointly. Vested interests groups who want to compel Hindus to migrate have planned the recent issue.” Since no one is taking blame for thee attacks and no authority is actively trying to stop it, many Hindus have no trust and feel heavily terrified. Saroop Chand Malhi personifies the hundreds of Hindus who continue to feel threatened about their place in this new environment

The microcosm of Hindu insecurity

Saroop Chand Malhi who is now 32 years old is as scared today as he was 21 years ago when his father Panjo Mal was killed along with three other Hindus at an old temple situated seven kilometers away from Umarkot named Shiv jo Madir (Temple of Shiv). He recalls, “My father was not a fanatic and not a rich person, he had a same sweet shop which I am running today. I was a child at the time when I heard that some people have slaughtered my father while he was doing the Pooja. I exactly remember that my mother was saying that no Muslim could do this act because we have no quarrel with any person. Today I am as insecure as I was in back then. How long will we live in a state of perpetual uncertainty and fear?”

“If you tremble indignation at every injustice, then you are my comrade”

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