THARPARKAR, Pakistan – Long accustomed to discrimination, Pakistan's Hindu Dalits are fighting a new form of harassment that is driving them from their ancestral villages in the Tharparkar District of Sindh.
About 70 Dalit families have left to protest the growing incidence of kidnapping of their young women. The kidnapping typically leads to rape or forced conversion to Islam and marriage.
That fate befell a 15-year-old Dalit girl, Daya, recently, the Dalits say. Kidnappers snatched and forcibly converted her, after which a local Muslim landlord, Mumtaz Hangorio, married her, said Arjan Meghawar, a Dalit.
"Daya ... was kidnapped when the entire family was asleep", he told Central Asia Online. "They were told that she converted to Islam in a local madrassa".
Her family have been unable to see her, he said, calling that situation typical for the families of such kidnapping victims.
"The kidnappers have ordered the Dalit community to stay quiet; otherwise, they will abduct more girls", Meghawar said.
He rejected the claim that the girl converted voluntarily.
"First, Daya is only 15", he said, "which means she is not legally eligible to marry; second, she was not produced in any court to record her statement in this regard". The minimum age for marriage in Pakistan is 16.
Daya was the second Dalit girl victimised by men from the majority community, according to the Dalits. Local men kidnapped and gang-raped Kasturi, 17, on January 24, said Veerjee, head of the Kohli Association.
The abductors are "local bigwigs belonging to the ruling Pakistan People's Party, who are now issuing threats to keep the Dalit community silent", he said.
Kasturi's parents have paid a price for disregarding such threats and complaining to the police, he said; even the police are now harassing them.
"Even though (rape) is a nonbailable offence", Veerjee said, "the local court granted bail to the accused". Kasturi and her family had to flee their village because the suspects threatened them, he added.
Section 365-B of the penal code allows only higher courts, not local ones, to grant bail to those suspected of "kidnapping ... any woman" with forced marriage or sexual intercourse in mind, Arshad Malah, a legal scholar, told Central Asia Online.
Fed up with injustice and fearful for their safety, the fleeing Dalit families (about 400 individuals) have abandoned the village of Aakli and relocated to the plains near Mithi, said Hot Chand Toghani, a social activist with the Thardeep Rural Development Programme.
The government could do more to help them, he said. It has only "distributed 100 application forms for the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP)", he told Central Asia Online.
The government is doing its best to protect the Dalits, replied Shaarjeel Memon, a member of parliament representing Tharparkar from the ruling party.
"The district government has been directed to establish houses for them and provide food and water", he told Central Asia Online. "They'll be receiving aid money from the BISP very soon. We are trying to convince them to end their protest and return to their villages".
That idea doesn't sit well with some aggrieved Dalits.
"No one can imagine how difficult it is to leave one's ancestral village", said 70-year-old Mehendero Meghawar. "But we've decided not to go back".
Kidnapping brides from the Dalits and forcibly converting them are common abuses, said Sono Khangharani, a Dalit social worker who pins the blame for such acts on local landlords and other influential residents.
"The Dalits are the poorest of the poor and are discriminated against daily, even though the Pakistani constitution promises equal rights to all", he said.
Khangharani is the first Dalit to receive a governmental award. President Asif Ali Zardari named him a recipient of the Thamgha-e-Imtiaz civilian honour in August 2009.
Pakistan has nearly 4m Hindus, 75% of whom are Dalits.
Dalits encounter discrimination from both Muslims and higher-caste Hindus, Khangharani told Central Asia Online. The Dalits' "untouchability" bars them from accessing public places.
"Neither Hindu nor Muslim barbers will shave Dalits or give them a haircut", he said. "Hindus and Muslims won't eat food prepared by the Dalits, either. Such practises concerning untouchability are very common in Sindh".
Islam not only forbids forced conversion and forced marriage, it mandates equal treatment of all religious minorities, said Mufti Wali Khan Almuzaffar, a prominent Islamic scholar. Islam has no concept of untouchability and the idea of an untouchable social class comes entirely from tradition and myth, he added.