In the remote village of Ghorghasht in Buner District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Priya Rani, a 17-year-old Sikh girl was on her way to school on Thursday when she went missing. Hours later, Muslim neighbors started knocking on her family home’s doors, congratulating her relatives of her marriage and her conversion to Islam. The parents, the siblings and the extended family – who all live under the same roof – were shocked.
“She is seventeen. She did not know what was going on. She has been tricked into this. We went to the police and complained,” Mahinder Lal, her uncle, who is one of the complainants in the case, told WION’s Taha Siddiqui.
But it was not easy getting the police to register such a case. “They kept saying it’s a matter of religion and now nothing can be done,” he adds.
But pressure from higher ups has led to the police registering a case and arresting the alleged husband, named Wajid Ali. They have also formed a joint investigation team to look into the matter.
Meanwhile, Priya has been sent to a women protection center. The police are to complete their investigations in 15 days and then the fate of Priya is to be decided.
The family has little hope for an outcome in their favor, given the environment that now prevails in their village.
“The Muslims took out a big rally where they talked of jihad against us, if the girl was returned. The authorities are not even letting us meet her. They are intimidating her, and threatening us to back down too,” says another relative of Priya, who wishes to remain anonymous.
Following these almost-violent protests by local Muslims on Friday, the family of Priya and some 35 Sikh families who live in the same neighborhood and own local shops have been forced to shut down their businesses. Many of them have restricted their movements. On the other hand, just down the road from where these shops are located, Muslim neighborhoods are thriving with business activity. A visit to the police station where the case has been registered reflects how the law enforcers have already made up their minds, confirming the fears of the Sikh family.
“She converted by her choice. She was in love with the boy. That’s the story – nothing more,” says one police officer at the station, who is part of the investigation team.
When told that she was underage and not mature to make such a decision, they disagree. They also underplay the threats against the religious minority.
In the nearby city of Peshawar, the provincial capital, a fact-finding mission, led by Baba Ji Gurpal Singh visited the village following the incident.
“The police are under pressure. There were lots of mullahs when I went to the police station to talk to the investigation team. This is definitely a case of forced conversion,” says Gurpal Singh, who headed this fact-finding mission, under directions from one of the largest Sikh temples in the city.
Singh, who is also a human rights activist points out that attacks against religious minorities in Pakistan have seen an increase. “The Muslims forcibly take Sikh and Hindu girls, who are usually under-age and then claim to convert them, just to keep them,” the activist adds.
Back in the village, a relative of the family also feels tensions are more recent. According to him peace between the Muslims and others, especially the Sikhs has started to worsen in their village after neighboring Swat Valley’s take over by the Pakistani Taliban.
It is believed that many fighters of the Pakistani Taliban managed to escape Swat when the Pakistan army took it back from the militant group in 2009. Such escapees have now scattered and settled in areas like this district of Buner, which borders the valley.
Only last year, The Pakistani Taliban shot down Soran Singh, a Sikh member of the provincial assembly, belonging to the ruling party and hailing from Priya’s district. The Sikh community feels he was targeted due to his faith.
Even before Priya’s return, which they are unsure of, her family is planning to move away from the neighborhood.
“We appeal to the world, don’t let us be killed. Help us,” says Priya’s uncle as he breaks down in tears, and ends the interview.
Nearly 1000 underage girls from minority religions are forced to convert to Islam each year in Pakistan.
In Sindh province, where such cases of abduction are more prevalent, government recently tried to introduce a law to ban forced conversion of religious minorities and marriage of girls who have not turned 18 yet, but the religious lobby took to streets, calling the law anti-Islam, forcing the provincial government to take it back, with a promise of introducing it after a review.
Among the 200 million population, religious minorities comprise of less than 2% of Pakistanis, as per current estimates. Many of them are fleeing, human rights observers say, making them a fast disappearing segment of society.