The only agreement Pakistan’s English and Urdu press can perhaps have, is that they disagree.
Differences in their editorial policy or line appear especially starker when these newspapers report on or give opinion on religion or culture. In these areas, coverage is so divergent that it almost gives the impression that there is a clash of civilizations in Pakistani society.
This phenomenon became evident last week in the high-profile case of the conversion of two minor Hindu sisters who were estranged from their families in Sindh’s Ghotki. The facts are still being fully ascertained but this has not stopped the media from taking strong positions. Here are some of the most important divisions in how the case has been treated in the English and Urdu newspapers.
‘Forced conversion’ as unconstitutional
The English press has taken two main arguments. First, it says that forced conversions are a real phenomenon, and, second, that forced conversions are not just immoral but are illegal and unconstitutional.
On the first point, English newspapers have targeted a pattern of societal denial that seems to exist on religious conversions. They unequivocally condemned the incident as a clear case of abduction and alleged forced conversion, and emphasized this point more than any other. Daily Dawn’s editorial ‘Force Conversions’ on March 26 states:
“Too often, officials casually lean into the suggestion that such incidents are simply a matter of women deciding to convert and marry of their own free will. The fact is that the majority of new converts in Sindh are young women or minor girls from socioeconomically vulnerable Hindu families [exploited by a local nexus of power of] politically influential families, clerics and seminaries. The government is forced to capitulate to pressure exerted by the religious right that conflates safeguards against coercion with ‘obstacles’ in the path of those who wish to convert.”
The papers also targeted a statement from Sindh Inspector-General of Police Kaleem Imam, who announced without any proper investigation that the girls had converted and married of their free will, with The News singling out his remarks in its editorial on March 26, titled ‘The unequal other’:
“Such a blasé attitude in a country where it is estimated that at least 1,000 Christian and Hindu women are forcibly converted each year—25 percent of these conversions take place in the Umerkot district of Sindh—shows how little attention is paid to the rights of our minority communities.”
The illegal and unconstitutional nature of such conversions was emphasized by The Nation in its Editorial on March 25:
“The present case violates the law of the land on two accounts; firstly, it flouts article 20 of the Constitution of Pakistan that guarantees freedom of religion to every citizen, and secondly, the act was also in violation of “The Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act” as the two girls are 14 and 16 years old according to the first information report (FIR) registered in the police station.”
Minorities in Pakistan: Might vs. right?
Both The Nation and Daily Times highlighted the ages of the victims as an important part of the case, and further evidence of a pattern. The latter was particularly critical in its editorial ‘Stopping forced conversions’ on March 25:
“Hindu to Muslim conversions in Sindh seem to be exclusively underage girls or women of marriageable age who disappear and later emerge to reveal they had eloped with Muslim men and converted to Islam freely. The fact that there are hardly any Hindu men or older women who convert to Islam reveals the grim reality behind this facade.”
The mainstream Urdu press also addressed this angle, but was cautious about labeling the abduction as forced. In its editorial titled “Alleged Abduction of Hindu Girls” on March 26, Roznama Express wrote that the issue was a sensitive one due to its relevance to minority rights in Pakistan, and urged that the government must ensure timely action so that the issue wasn’t exploited by “enemies” for their “nefarious designs”.
An opinion piece on March 27 by PTI MNA Ramesh Kumar Vankwani went even further. A minority member of the National Assembly, Vankwani contrasted the way the Ghotki case was handled with the response of the New Zealand government to the Christchurch mosque tragedy. In his aptly titled piece, “The previous weeks have taught us much”, Vankwani urged appropriate government attention on the issues of minorities, and to use Ghotki as an opportunity to replicate the compassion shown by Jacinda Arden.
Who speaks for the government?
If anything can demonstrate the divisiveness of the press on Ghotki, it is their selection of government representatives to comment on the matter. Daily Jang carried an opinion piece from PTI MNA Ramesh Vankwani, which shed light on the nature of forced conversions targeting minorities:
“The daughters and sisters of minorities are being kidnapped and forced into marriage, which not only adds to their sense of insecurity but also dents the country’s image globally. We cannot object to willful conversion but snatching minors from their parents and converting them forcefully to a religion whose Prophet (PBUH) has even barred taking hatchlings from bird nests, is simply unjustifiable.”
Daily Ummat took a diametrically opposite approach by instead interviewing PTI leader Mian Mithu from Sindh, who is notorious for allegedly pursuing an aggressive policy of forced conversions. Significant column space was dedicated to Mithu’s interview in the March 27 issue of Ummat, in which he asserted that all allegations of forced conversions were false and part of a conspiracy.
He stated that, “All those propagating against the conversion of the two sisters are agents of the Indian intelligence agency, R&AW. The number of boys converting to Islam is equal to the number of girls.” The newspaper wrote that Mithu was responding to Pakistan’s ‘liberal lobby’ and ‘Qadiyani (sic) media’ who are falsely propagating that only Hindu underage or marriageable girls convert to Islam, not boys.
Conspiracy theories and culture wars
Sections of the Urdu press have turned the Ghotki case into yet another global conspiracy. The usual suspects came up again: liberals, seculars, NGOs, and of course, ‘Qadiyanis’ (sic). Newspapers such as Daily 92 News, Ummat and Daily Islam allege that the incident was being used to stoke hatred against Islam, by opposing and demonizing all attempts to convert people from other faiths.
In an editorial in Daily Islam on March 28, a certain “section of society” was condemned for its malicious propaganda, using the example of Aurat March to show that progressives had a double standard on supporting women’s empowerment while not supporting the Ghotki sisters for their decision to convert and marry: “It is perplexing that the critics of the girls’ decision to leave home, convert and marry Muslim men are the same people who champion women’s right to freedom and free will and usually extend every support to women eloping from homes.”
Meanwhile, another point of contention pointed out by the English press, the age of the girls, was addressed by Irshad Ahmed Arif in a piece for Daily 92 on March 26. He wrote that, “If a person embraces Islam of their free will then the age or parents’ consent is no more required.” He further argued that Hazrat Ali (May Allah Be Pleased with Him) also embraced Islam as a minor, while Abu Jahal protested his son Akrama’s conversion the very same way the seculars and liberals protest the conversion to Islam today. In what can only be considered an apologist’s argument, Irshad made the case that if conversion is illegal, then all Sufi saints who were responsible for spreading Islam such as Data Ganj Baksh, would be considered wrong as well, which means the entire premise of Pakistan as an Islamic state would cease to exist.
By emphasizing this point, sections of the Urdu press denied that the conversion was forced, and instead contextualized the controversy as an attempt to take away the right of people to marry or change their faith, essentially turning the issue on its head. Papers such as Ummat and Islam even began addressing the Ghotki girls as ‘Muslim sisters,’ indicating they were now one of them, while the secular liberals were being compared to the tyrannical Quraish as Irshad Arif did above.
In an op-ed for Daily 92 News on March 26, Muhammad Aamir Khakwani accused the media and NGO sector of sensationalizing every issue pertinent to minorities, because they are funded for it. He equated the NGOs and rights activists to ‘Rudalis’ (professional mourners engaged at funerals in India), who he said start mourning over any issue related to Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus.
It was certainly heartening to see that the right-wing press, which is often derided for either ignoring or speaking against women’s rights, religious freedoms and honour-based crimes, was so assertive on the rights of the Ghotki sisters.
One of those issues was the right of the girls to convert. While the English press has always taken the lead on advocating religious freedoms, the conservative Urdu press took centre stage on the Ghotki controversy, seeing it as an effort to discourage others from converting to Islam. Special attention was drawn to Ramesh Kumar, the PTI MNA who harshly criticized ‘forced conversions’ in his piece for Daily Jang as shown above, and has tabled bills in the National Assembly against child marriages and involuntary conversions.
However, Daily Ummat’s headline on March 28 distorted the perception of this effort as “Hindu leaders move to make conversion to Islam ‘impossible’”.
The story went on to allege how Kumar is doing so, stating: “Ramesh Kumar Vankwani is actively working to make conversion to Islam ‘impossible’. The parliamentarian has submitted two bills and a resolution in the National Assembly seeking increase in punishment for abduction and forced conversions while the resolution blames Mian Mithu of Bharchondi Sharif, Pir Ayub Jan Sirhindi and other religious personalities and ulema for forced conversions and seeks action against them”.
The story created the impression that such bills can result in a reaction from the Muslim community. One can easily argue that it isn’t legislation, but rather such headlines, that can elicit such a response. Not only is this misleading, but if misread, these stories can easily endanger someone’s life.
Sher Zaman Khan is a PR and Communications professional based in Islamabad
Usman Zafar is a freelance journalist and academic based in Islamabad