JACOBABAD, Pakistan — Rachna Kumari, 16, was shopping for dresses in this city’s dust-choked bazaar when it happened.
The man who her family says abducted her was not a street thug. He was a police officer.
Nor was he a stranger. Rachna’s family knew and trusted him. He guarded the Hindu temple run by her father, an important duty in a society where Hindus are often terrorized by Muslim extremists, and he had helped Rachna cram for her ninth-grade final exams.
After she disappeared from the market, he did not demand a ransom. According to her family, he had an entirely different purpose: to force her to convert to Islam and marry him.
In a country where Hindu-dominated India is widely reviled as Enemy No. 1, Pakistan’s Hindu community endures extortion, disenfranchisement and other forms of discrimination.
These days, however, Hindus are fixated on a surge of kidnappings of teenage girls by young Muslim men who force them to convert and wed. Pakistani human rights activists report as many as 25 cases a month.
Most occur in the northern districts of Sindh province, on the border with India and home to most of Pakistan’s 2.5 million Hindus. The Hindu community is shrinking as families flee the area, which is run largely by Muslim feudal chiefs who own vast tracts of farmland and wield wide influence over politics, law enforcement and the courts.
Hindus say the forcible conversions follow the same script: The victim, abducted by a young man related to or working for a feudal boss, is taken to a mosque where clerics, along with the prospective groom’s family, threaten to harm her and her relatives if she resists.
Almost always, the girl complies, and not long afterward, she is brought to a local court, where a judge, usually a Muslim, rubber-stamps the conversion and marriage, according to Hindu community members who have attended such hearings.
Often the young Muslim man is accompanied by backers armed with rifles. Few members of the girl’s family are allowed to appear, and the victim, seeing no way out, signs papers affirming her conversion and marriage.
“In court, usually it’s just four or five members of the girl’s family against hundreds of armed people for the boy,” says B.H. Khurana, a doctor in Jacobabad and a Hindu community leader. “In such a situation when we are unarmed and outnumbered, how can we fight our case in court?”
Prominent Pakistani Muslims have joined Hindu leaders in calling attention to the problem.
President Asif Ali Zardari’s sister, lawmaker Azra Fazal Pechuho, told parliament last month that a growing number of Hindu girls are being abducted and held at madrasas, or Islamic religious schools, where they are forcibly converted. She and other lawmakers have called for legislation to prohibit the practice.
The issue was thrust into the spotlight by the case of Rinkle Kumari, a 17-year-old Hindu girl from the town of Mirpur Mathelo in the southern province of Sindh. The case was one of three that recently went before Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
Kumari’s parents, who are not related to Rachna’s family, allege that five men broke into their house in late February, subdued Rinkle with a chloroform-soaked cloth and took her away. The parents say the girl was forced to convert to Islam and marry Naveed Shah, a neighbor.
Shah contends Rinkle acted willingly.
“She was not forced at all,” said Shah’s lawyer, Malik Qamar Afzal. “She embraced Islam freely, and afterward agreed to marry.”
The day after the alleged abduction and conversion, Rinkle was allowed to meet with her mother at a district court.
“She told me, ‘I have been kidnapped and I want to go with you,’” recalled her mother, Sulchani Kumari. “She was sobbing as she told me, ‘For God’s sake, take me away from that hell.’”
Hindu community leaders acknowledge that in some cases, Hindu girls convert and marry Muslim men willingly. Determining which cases involve coercion has been difficult for authorities.
Asha Kumari, a 16-year-old Hindu girl not related to Rinkle or Rachna, disappeared March 3 from a beauty parlor in Jacobabad where she was taking a beautician’s course, according to her brother, Vinod Kumar, 22.
Neither her family nor police could find her until April 13, when she appeared before the Supreme Court, accompanied by her new husband, Bashir Lashari.
Like Rinkle, she told the court she had willingly married and embraced Islam.
As in Rinkle’s case, the conversion took place at a Sufi Muslim shrine run by the brother of Mian Abdul Haq, a Muslim lawmaker with the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and a wealthy landowner in northern Sindh.
“This is the way it always happens,” said Vinod Kumar. “These girls are kidnapped, and then later they show up in court and say they have converted.”
Hindu community leaders took the cases of Rinkle and Asha and that of a third Hindu woman all the way to the Supreme Court.
On Wednesday, the court ruled that the three could choose whether to stay with their new husbands or return to their parents. All three decided to stay.
At the heart of the problem, Hindu community leaders say, is a lack of will on the part of police and courts.
“When someone gets kidnapped, Hindus lodge kidnapping charges, but authorities don’t respond,” said Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, a leader of the Pakistan Hindu Council. “After 20 days, the kidnapper and his people pressure the girl and say, ‘If you don’t accept Islam and give wrong answers in court, you know what will happen.’ That’s coercion.”
In the case of Rachna Kumari, police themselves stand accused.
Pakistani authorities have periodically assigned police officers to Hindu temples as a precaution since the 1992 demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya, India, triggered unrest between Indian Hindus and Muslims.
Barkat Talani, an officer at the Jacobabad temple run by Rachna’s father, began helping her with her studies as a favor to the family.
After she was abducted in August, Talani was arrested and suspended from his job.
At a court hearing a month later, Rachna appeared in a black burka, surrounded by about 100 of Talani’s supporters, many of them armed, said the girl’s uncle, Rakesh Kumar. The judge accepted a statement written by Rachna that indicated she had willingly converted and married. Her family contends the document was drafted by Talani’s lawyer.
A few weeks later, while out shopping with her new husband’s female relatives, Rachna appeared at her grandmother’s door and asked for a drink of water.
“I asked her, ‘Why did you leave us?’” the grandmother, Maharajni Andhrabai, recalled. “She said, ‘I was forced to.’ She was weeping.”
Later, Talani reported that Rachna had disappeared. Talani and her family both say they do not know where she is.
Talani is back at work, according to Jacobabad’s police chief, Jam Zafrullah Dharejo, who said the allegations against the officer were unfounded.
Now the Kumari family has a singular focus: safeguarding Rachna’s 13-year-old sister, Bharti. They’ve withdrawn her from school and forbidden her to set foot in the bazaar.
“We’re so sad about what happened to Rachna,” the grandmother said, “but we’re also worried about what else could happen.”