GHOTKI, Pakistan -- On a sunny afternoon in the town of Ghotki, in Pakistan’s Sindh Province, Mian Abdul Haq sauntered around his residence less than a kilometer from the Islamic seminary he runs. He sported loose beige robes, a full white beard, and aviator sunglasses.
As we arrived to meet the cleric, more widely known as Mian Mitha, dozens of his followers hovered around hoping to catch a glimpse of him. As he sat for an interview in a guesthouse at his residence, photographs on the wall highlighted his political clout.
“That was when I won the shooting competition in [the city of] Jhelum recently,” Mitha said, referring to a photo showing him warmly shaking hands with the Pakistani Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
In Pakistan’s northern Sindh Province, Mitha is indeed a man with political connections and influence. In 2018, he met with Imran Khan, now Pakistan’s prime minister, while preparing to join Khan’s Tehrik-e Insaf (Justice Movement) party.
But to his critics, Mitha’s clout has a nefarious edge: He runs what his critics call a notorious “conversion factory” targeting primarily young women from Pakistan’s Hindu minority who are married off to Muslim men and converted to Islam simultaneously -- often under alleged coercion.
And few feel empowered to challenge him.
"We couldn’t stop them. My wife tried to stand in front of our daughters, but they pointed their guns, so she backed off," Hari Lal, who alleges his two teenage daughters were kidnapped by men linked to Mitha’s seminary in March 2019 and forcibly converted, told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal.
In a video that went viral, Lal is seen beating his chest and face and vowing to kill himself outside a police station over the alleged abduction of his daughters.
In a new investigative mini-documentary, Radio Mashaal spoke with multiple Hindu families who accuse Mitha’s seminary, known as Dargah Bharchundi Sharif, of abducting or otherwise coercing their daughters into marrying Muslim men and converting to Islam.
The seminary is one of three major hubs in Sindh Province for converting religious minorities to Islam.
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Hindus account for 4.5 million, or more than 2 percent, of Pakistan’s population, according to census data, with most of them living in Sindh Province, which has long been seen as the country’s religious melting pot.
There are no precise figures on the number of Hindus who convert to Islam annually in the predominantly Muslim nation of 220 million people. But unconfirmed reports estimate that as many as 1,000 girls and young women may be forcibly converted each year, primarily from Pakistan’s Hindu community.
And numerous high-profile cases are centered on the Dargah Bharchundi Sharif seminary, where Mitha and his relatives insist that young Hindus embrace Islam of their own volition.
“We don’t force anyone to convert. But if someone comes to my Dargah to convert to Islam, it becomes my religious obligation to provide them all-out support,” the burly octogenarian said, turning his gaze proudly toward a group of his disciples gathered for a chance to kiss his hand and receive his blessing.
But the investigation by Radio Mashaal shows that the seminary does bear the hallmarks of a “conversion factory,” with girls and young women vanishing from their homes, marrying and converting virtually overnight, and kept away from their family -- often by court order and with the backing of Mitha.
A Tale Of Two Sisters
Mitha and his relatives boast that Dargah Bharchundi Sharif is the site where Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi, a political, religious, and revolutionary scholar, converted to Islam from his Sikh faith in the late 19th century.
Today it is Mitha’s nephew, cleric Mian Mohammad Javed, who serves as the central figure in the conversions carried out at the seminary.
Javed claims to have personally converted more than 100 people to Islam since 2015, though he rejects any allegation his converts were threatened or abducted.
"This is a total lie. It's untrue. If it were true, they would have proven it [in court]. I challenge [the accusers]," he said.
Javed gave Radio Mashaal an exclusive look at a logbook maintained at the seminary featuring entries -- including photographs, as well as marriage and conversion dates -- for 104 converts, primarily young women whose ages are listed as between 18 and 24 years old.
No date of birth is listed, just ages, and all of the information was entered by hand. In some cases there are also photos of the girls and their Muslim husbands along with thumbprints and signatures.
“Here are the names of all those girls and boys that I converted to Islam since 2015,” Javed said, adding that records were not kept prior to that year.
We arrange the marriages immediately after their conversion so that someone may not accuse us of keeping an unmarried girl with us."-- Mian Javed
Highlighting the dizzying speed with which these young women’s lives change, the dates of conversion and marriage listed in the logbook are often the same. “We arrange the marriages immediately after their conversion so that someone may not accuse us of keeping an unmarried girl with us,” Javed said.
None of the 104 entries in the logbook shows a Muslim woman married to a Hindu man. All the young women married to Muslim men are Hindus.
Two of the entries feature the sisters Reena and Raveena, whose desperate Hindu father, Hari Lal, waged a high-profile legal battle over what he claims was the kidnapping and forced conversion of his daughters in March 2019.
Lal says that while he was away from home, armed men linked to Mitha’s seminary kidnapped Reena and Raveena, who he says were 14 and 15 years old, respectively, at the time.
Reena and Raveena were converted to Islam, renamed Nadia and Aasia, and quickly married to Muslim men who already had other wives. The marriages were consecrated in neighboring Punjab Province, where the legal age to wed is 16. In their native Sindh Province, the legal age is 18.
In Javed’s logbook, Reena is listed as an 18-year-old who accepted Islam of her own free will and was married to a man named Barkat Ali. Raveena is listed as a 19-year-old who was married to Safdar Ali, who was already married with six children.
After Lal threatened to kill himself outside a police station over his daughters’ alleged abduction -- and the video of his protest went viral -- authorities eventually agreed to investigate.
.@ImranKhanPTI you could%27ve DM them , Hindus are very few in Pakistan.#Pakistan ,Father of Raveena and Reena seeking justice because his two daughters were abducted and forcibly converted into Islam after marriage. pic.twitter.com/SS8X3Uzb7W https://t.co/O2VNLk2817— Joydeep Roy (@IjoydeepRoy) March 28, 2021
But in a case that made headlines across Pakistan, the Islamabad High Court ruled the two sisters were not forcibly converted and permitted them to live with their spouses.
The ruling was a victory for Mitha, but left Lal and his wife both emotionally and financially devastated. The cost of taking on Mitha in court depleted their savings.
"We can’t do anything. My wife and I just cry. We miss Reena and Raveena very much," Lal told Radio Mashaal.
Through Mitha’s seminary, Raveena agreed to give an on-camera interview to Radio Mashaal. Now living under the Muslim name Aasia, she says she and her husband’s first wife “live like sisters.” She says she met her husband in her neighborhood, that they exchanged phone numbers, and that she told him that she and her sister Reena “want to become Muslims.”
"There were many Muslims in our village and, seeing them, I wished I was a Muslim too," she said, adding that there were tensions at home with her parents.
“At first I missed them, but not now,” she said. “[My husband] lets me speak to my parents on the phone, but I don’t want to. They’re not creating problems for us anymore.”
Lal, 60, and his wife say they now have no contact with their daughters. Since their disappearance, he raised the wall surrounding his two-room house to nearly three meters for security reasons.
A Question Of Force
The rapid-fire conversion and marriage of young Hindus like Reena and Raveena follow a pattern at Dargah Bharchundi Sharif.
Within the span of a few hours upon arrival at the seminary, they recite “Kalima,” a short Arabic verse in the Islamic declaration of faith and are given a Muslim name. This is followed by their “nikah,” an Islamic marriage ritual.
Once the girls and women have converted to Islam, Mitha and his family members assume financial and legal responsibilities for them -- and sever their links to their families.
The conversion is often followed by brief litigation that typically ends in favor of Mitha and his converts. His team of lawyers files a petition under which the converted young woman formally seeks protection from her Hindu parents, many of whom accuse Mitha and the Muslim husbands of abduction and forced conversion of their underage daughters.
Prove a single case of forced conversion against me, and I am ready to accept any punishment."-- Mian Mitha
The court ruling usually hinges on the young woman’s statement that she converted and married of her own free will.
“Prove a single case of forced conversion against me and I am ready to accept any punishment,” Mitha told Radio Mashaal.
Rights activists and minority Hindu representatives admit that there are no proven cases of conversions at gunpoint or through flagrant use of physical force.
But any conversion, they argue, involving a powerful family or cleric falls under the category of forced. There is no known case of a young woman returning to her family from Mitha’s seminary once she is brought there and converted. Parents must receive permission for a meeting, which cannot take place without the presence of guardians or seminary representatives.
“If a girl converts to Islam, she is free to see her family. But there is no question of whether the Hindu community will get her back and reconvert her to Hinduism,” Mitha told Radio Mashaal. “We protect them.”
Activists say members of the vulnerable Hindu minority are powerless to take on the politically and religiously influential Mitha and his disciples.
“If the girls convert of their own free will, then why do they need to go all the way to Bharchundi? They may simply recite the ‘Kalima’ by visiting any cleric at any mosque in their neighborhood,” Kapil Dev, a Karachi-based Hindu rights activist, told Radio Mashaal. “Why do they keep the girls incommunicado?”
The family of Simran Kumari provided Radio Mashaal with a video of their meeting with the young woman shortly after she disappeared from her aunt’s home in August 2020. They found her in Mitha’s seminary.
Simran’s brother, Sunny Kumar, says he received a call from Mitha’s son, who told him: “Your girl is with us and she wants to accept Islam.” Kumar says he believes his sister, who was 17 years old at the time, was abducted and forced to convert.
They went to meet Simran, but she was escorted at all times by seminary officials. A video of the meeting shows her mother holding Simran close, gently squeezing her cheeks, as a man at the seminary says: "Tell them you have converted to Islam of your own free will."
"She was being pressured. See the video; they were coaching her," Kumar said. He says Simran suffers from psychological problems.
After returning home from the meeting, the family received a video message informing them that Simran had a new Islamic name, Ayesha, and a Muslim husband.
"They issued a video [showing] that she converted to Islam and that she was married, all within two hours," her brother says.
In a later video, Simran is seen sitting next to her husband and is asked by someone off-screen what message she wants to send to her relatives.
"I want to tell them not to bother me,” she says. “I want to live with him in happiness."
The following morning, a judge issued a court order protecting Simran from her Hindu family, legally blocking them from getting her back. Police have refused to investigate the case.
"It felt like we were swallowed up by the ground," Kumar said. “You won't believe it, but we were ready to poison ourselves."
The entry showing Simran’s conversion and marriage is on the second-to-last page of Mian Javed’s logbook. Her age is listed as 21 and her date of conversion as August 17, 2020 -- the same day she vanished from her aunt’s house:
That same day, a video appeared on social media showing Simran, wrapped in a black shawl, sitting beside Javed in a chair on the lawn of his house.
Just 10 days earlier, Simran was smiling as she fastened an armband on her younger brother in a ritual known as “rakhi,” in which the armband signifies a sister’s love for her brother.
Sitting in their fourth-floor, two-room apartment in the Hindu-populated village of Mirpur Mathelo, Kumar’s mother, Janta, and his younger brother wept as he played a video of the ritual on his phone.
“This was only a few days earlier and she was as happy as this,” he sighed.
Caste, Clarity, And Clerics
Some Pakistani Hindus say they have good reason to leave their faith, citing discrimination and the poverty in which a vast majority of Hindus in Sindh Province live.
"We were having some hard times. For example, when my first child was coming, I didn't have money for the delivery," Ajay Kumar, who converted to Islam in exchange for a job at a fertilizer company, told Radio Mashaal.
Many Pakistani Hindus are born into a life of bonded labor. They inherit their parents' debts and are destined to work for landlords. But some Muslim clerics offer them a way out.
“We provide them jobs, housing, we arrange a marriage if it’s a man and find husbands for girls,” Mitha told Radio Mashaal.
The Hindu caste system also plays a role, leading to discrimination and leaving lower-class Hindus struggling to find employment and spouses, according to Krishan Sharma, a Hindu member of parliament for Pakistan's ruling Tehrik-e Insaf party.
“Intercaste marriages are not taking place. As a result, our choices shrink in terms of marriages for our children," Sharma said.
Khushal Khan Khattak of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, one of the country’s oldest rights watchdogs, says most Hindus who convert to Islam “tend to be from much lower economic backgrounds.”
“In most cases they don't have the resources or the means to sort of fight back, or to resist these attempts on their women, their daughters, their children," Khattak, the organization’s program coordinator in Islamabad, told Radio Mashaal.
Following the controversy over the conversion of Reena and Raveena, Khattak’s group released a 30-page report in which it proposed measures aimed at combating forced conversions, including better birth records in rural areas, raising the legal age for conversion to 18, and taking the process out of the hands of Muslim clerics.
Whenever there is a hint of coercion...then those matters need to be criminalized."-- Khushal Khan Khattak, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
"It should be the provincial government authorizing the conversion. That process needs to be regulated, and whenever there is a hint of coercion...then those matters need to be criminalized," Khattak said.
A Pakistani government commission is looking into the issue of forced conversions.
Commission member Lal Chand Malhi, a Hindu member of parliament, told Radio Mashaal: "I am insisting on two things: One is defining forced conversion; No. 2: a law on conversions."
Malhi added: “If Hindus and Christians have the liberty to convert or change their religion, that liberty must also be extended to Muslims.”
Clerics, however, have pushed back against earlier legislative attempts to put age limits on conversions.
"We will not accept such laws in a country that was founded in the name of Islam. They tried this and did not think they were polluting their faith by introducing these laws," Javed said.
Mitha’s role in the conversion of Hindu girls is widely seen as having cost him politically.
He was elected twice, once as member of the Sindh provincial legislature and then to Pakistan’s lower house of parliament. He quit -- or as many believe, was forced to quit -- the progressive Pakistan People’s Party of the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto following his involvement in the high-profile conversion case of a Hindu girl named Rinkle Kumari in 2012.
Following his 2018 meeting with Imran Khan, he nearly joined Khan’s Tehrik-e Insaf party just before parliamentary elections that year. But Hindu minorities staged protests and Khan spurned him.
Mitha ran in those elections as an independent and captured 91,000 votes despite losing the race. Like other opposition politicians, he says the election was rigged.
“I lost because of the blessings of our friends,” he said with a wink while looking up at the photo of himself shaking hands with General Bajwa, the Pakistani Army chief.
He continues to deny allegations that he and his adherents are involved in forced conversions and claims those making these accusations “are getting paid” to do so, though he offered no proof.
"If the Prophet [Muhammad] says not to convert people by force, then who am I to do it?” Mitha said.
Muhammad Zawar and Yasin Junejo contributed to this report.