The forced conversion of people to Islam is not a new occurrence in Pakistan, but the recent conversion of a Hindu boy on a live TV program has given the issue a new dimension.
To the shock of Pakistani rights activists and progressive people, a 20-year-old Hindu boy, who goes by the name of Sunil, was recently shown being officially converted to Islam on a live TV show aired by the ARY Digital, a private TV channel. It was a special live transmission marking the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Though the conversion of Hindus and Christians is not a new phenomenon in the Islamic republic, it was the first time it was presented live on TV in Pakistan.
Though Sunil said he was not forced to convert, the issue sparked a renewed debate in Pakistan about conversions, religious privacy, media ethics, and more significantly, the role of religion.
Earlier this year, the forced conversion of Rinkle Kumari and two other Hindu girls from the southern Sindh province also angered Pakistani activists.
Rights organizations report widespread legal and cultural discrimination against minorities in Pakistan.
Media critics allege that private TV channels in Pakistan are responsible for promoting intolerance towards non-Muslims through their programming.
Living in fear
Hindus make up 2.5 percent of the 174 million people living in Pakistan. The majority of them, over 90 percent, live in Sindh.
Rights organizations say Hindus are feeling increasingly insecure living in the Islamic republic.
According to the Pakistan Hindu Seva, a community welfare organization, an average of around 10 families have per month migrated away from Sindh, usually to India since 2008. Within the last 10 months, however, the number has increased top 400 families per month.
Amarnath Motumal, vice chairperson of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission's Sindh Chapter, and also a member of the minority Hindu community, told DW he suspected religious extremism as the main reason behind the forced conversions. He added that the Pakistani Hindus were "very scared and not getting any help from anywhere."
"In the case of Rinkle Kumari, she was forced to convert and then pressured to write a statement of consent, which is used in the court under article 164 of the Pakistani constitution as a justification for her conversion," said Motumal, implying that Sunil's conversion could be forced.
In Sunil's case, his employer Ansar Burney, former human rights advisor to the United Nations, denied claims by the TV channel's administration and the show host Maya Khan that Sunil had become a Muslim by choice. Burney said he planned to sue the program's host Maya Khan and the TV channel.
"The Burney Legal Solicitors of London is going to send legal notice to Anchor Maya Khan and TV owners of 10 million pounds sterling," he tweeted.
The show's host was not available for comments when contacted by DW.
Many cultural and sport celebrities in Pakistan have turned to religious preaching
"I think religion is a personal matter and it should not be publicized on television," said Sadia Baloch, a rights activist, adding that the issue was not about whether Sunil was forcefully converted to Islam. She said that for a long time private media channels in Pakistan had been acting "holier-than-thou and preaching Islam."
Peerzada Salman, a Karachi-based cultural critic and journalist, said religion had become a commodity and the TV channels were trying to cash in on people's religious sentiment.
"TV channels are only interested in ratings. Every channel is trying to surpass other ones in this rating race. Religion sells in Pakistan. TV pays a huge amount of money to anchors who host religious shows, so I am not surprised if they thought live conversion would get them good ratings," Salman told DW.
Salman emphasized the need of a proper code of conduct for the Pakistani media, which should not only be restricted to current affairs programs but also apply to religious shows.
"It is also ironical that corporate organizations, which claim to promote liberal values, are sponsoring these religious shows that promote intolerance and extremism in Pakistan. But then, at the end of the day, they are out there to make money," he said.
Author: Shamil Shams
Editor: Sarah Berning