Kidnapped, Coerced to Convert and Forced into Marriage in Pakistan

Aarti Sharma

Aarti Sharma

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: It was the family’s worst nightmare. It wasn’t till much later when they looked around for her did her brother recall that his youngest sister had stepped out into the heat of the afternoon for a walk around 2 pm. That was the last they had seen of her. Panicking, they asked around from neighbors and others in the street and were able to piece together what had transpired. She had been approached by six men with weapons who came in two cars and on two motorcycles. Within 30 minutes they whisked her away and she disappeared.

The anguish in her uncle’s voice over the phone was still palpable eleven days later as he described the events of that fateful day on Saturday, September 9 when his older brother Raj Kumar’s youngest daughter disappeared. “”They looked everywhere and finally filed a First Information Report with local police,” said a distressed Kishwar Sharma. By then, they had understood that the men who had taken Aarti Kumari Sharma worked for a large land owner, Ammer Wassan. She was taken to a local mosque, forcibly converted to Islam and married against her will to a man named Amir Bux. She was also reportedly coerced into signing an affidavit claiming that she married Bux and converted on her own free will.

Aarti, 20, worked as a teacher of young kids at the Qasim Model School in Gambat, a town of 100,000 people in the District of Khairpur in the Sukkur Division of the province of Sindh in Pakistan. The entire southeastern edge of the district borders the Indian state of Rajasthan and the city of Khairpur is about 120 miles west of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. Gambat is about 20 miles southwest of Khairpur and 20 miles to the west flows the Indus River. As with the rest of Pakistan, Gambat is predominantly Muslim, but has a tiny population of over 1,000 people who are Sindhi Hindus.

“There are many mandirs (temples) in Gambat,” said Sharma who is a Brahmin, “ to Shiva, Krishna, a Gaushala and most of them also revere Guru Nanak (a tradition among Sindhis). Muslim have grabbed the lands that belonged to the Gaushala (shelter for cows).” At the time of the Babri Masjid incident in India (December 6, 1992), the temples were desecrated with trash, and those in Khairpur and the huge port city of Karachi were heavily damaged.

As a child, this reporter had first-hand experience of the harassment in Karachi where his father was posted to the Indian High Commission for three years. The chowkidaar (night watchman) for the housing complex for four families was a local Hindu and told of how difficult it was to go to the local SwamiNarayan Temple in the Lighthouse area or the Shiv Temple in Clifton Beach. Sharma estimates that now about 200,000 Hindus live in the Karachi region or 1.3% of the city’s 15 million inhabitants. Another 250,000 are Christian.

Sharma himself was kidnapped in April 2011 when he was held hostage for four days in a bank in Gambat where he had a rice and wheat wholesaling business. He was stripped naked, beat and his tormentors asked for a ransom of 1 crore rupees ($95,000) but was able to negotiate it down to half and escaped with his life. He immediately decided to flee Pakistan and immigrated to the US in 2012, settling with his wife Padma in Houston.

“Aarti’s basic civil rights and freedom have been flagrantly violated, in contradiction of Pakistani law and international human rights law,” said Rishi Bhutada, a Board Member of the national Hindu American Foundation and a Houston resident. “We urge the Sindh High Court to order the immediate release and safe return of Aarti to her family.”

According to the HAF, many NGOs and human rights groups, including Global Human Rights Defence and the Movement for Solidarity and Peace, have estimated that more than 1,000 Hindu and Christian girls and women are kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam annually. The courts and legal system in Pakistan are often complicit in sanctioning this practice by accepting false documents and statements obtained through force, threats, or coercion.

Sharma acknowledged the sad condition of Hindu women in Pakistan, citing the case in May 2012 of another Sindhi Hindu woman Rinkle Kumari and another girl in his family who was likewise kidnapped and now has two children from the captor whom she had to marry. Aarti was engaged to be married in November. “It only became clear to us later that Aarti had been raped by the abductor in the school they both taught in.” explained Sharma. “He then blackmailed her threatening to show a video of the rape and she took Rs. 50,000 to 60,000 cash and 10 to 12 tolas (10 gms) of gold over 6 months from the house to pay him off.”

The last the family saw of her was this past Monday, September 18, nine days after she was kidnapped. After waiting for 3 hours in a clinic, with the kidnapper’s armed guards at the door, a desolate and frightened Aarti was allowed to meet a social worker and only her mother for 4 minutes and wept inconsolably, looking fearfully towards the door, saying she was abducted. She was then quickly whisked away.