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.