OVER A COFFEE: From Islam Bibi to Faryal Bibi —Dr Haider Shah
Of late the media has been consumed by the stories of conversion of a Hindu girl Rinkle Kumari to Islam in order to marry a Muslim boy in interior Sindh. In the print and electronic media and on social networking sites two camps soon emerged in the wake of this story. The religious camp sees the story as a victory of good over evil, and is spearheading the campaign to resist the pressure from the local Hindu community. The other camp sees the story as an evidence of forced conversion of people belonging to minorities. This camp is led by the leaders of the Hindu community and many liberal writers seem to be sympathetic to this side of the story.
Who is right or wrong is a question of fact and without access to the realities on the ground, it is very risky to jump to any conclusion on the basis of preconceived notions. The present story, however, has taken me back into the pre-partition era of 1936. If like Pythagoras I believed in transmigration of souls, I would have stated that the soul of Ram Kaur (Islam Bibi) has come back in the form of Rinkle Kumari (Faryal Bibi), along with all the communal tensions that the incident created in Bannu city of the then British India.
According to the story, a 15-year-old Hindu girl Ram Kaur of village Jhandu Khel, Bannu, liked a local lad, Amir Noor Ali Shah. The girl eloped with her lover to village Puk Ismail Khel where she embraced Islam in the village mosque and the mosque imam solemnised her marriage with Noor Ali. In the meantime, the girl’s mother Mansa Devi registered an FIR, alleging abduction of her daughter by Noor Ali and his accomplices. The elders of Noor Ali did not return the girl after initially agreeing to it as they claimed that the girl had refused to return to her family. While Noor Ali was trying to smuggle the girl to Afghanistan through South Waziristan, the Bannu police apprehended the fleeing party and the newly married couple was sent to jail.
The ordinary boy-girl romance soon turned into a communal warfare as the local Muslim community strongly favoured Noor Ali while the Hindu community sympathised with the mother of Islam Bibi. Soon all prominent leaders of the area and lawyers jumped into the fray. Islam Bibi proved a Helen of Troy for Bannu. The temperature of communal strife rose so much that FC and army troops were put on high alert as thousands of local tribesmen chanting Allah-o-Akbar (God is great) slogans encircled the bungalow of Captain E. H. Cobb, Deputy Commissioner Bannu, to demand the return of Islam Bibi after deciding the case according to Shariah. The high-ups of the British Raj had to personally come to Bannu to prevail upon local Muslim notables not to interfere in the case and the army had to be called in to control the situation that was getting out of hand. A girl of 15 had thus ignited a situation that needed a squadron of light tanks at all vital points of Bannu, a show of force of army units on the main roads of the city and imposition of Section 144 in the district for an indefinite period.
Given the tense situation in the city, the DC ordered the retention of Islam Bibi in jail as a matter of public interest. The girl’s personal statement was recorded there, and as she refused to go with her mother she was given under the safe custody of a respected local elder who was a member of the Legislative Council. The DC’s court decided the case on the basis of the girl being a minor as she was not yet 16 years old, hence her marriage was declared invalid and the elopement was seen as abduction. Noor Ali was awarded two years rigorous imprisonment for the offence. Later, when all appeals failed, the girl was handed over to her mother in the presence of tight security of police. The family shifted to Hoshiarpur and the story then turns into a local legend. The Hindu community version is that the girl reconverted to Hinduism and did not want to communicate with Noor Ali. The historians belonging to the local Muslim community, however, asserted that the girl who testified before the commission regarding reconversion to Hinduism was a different girl impersonating as Islam Bibi and that she was kept away, under duress. What actually happened is difficult to establish as the story is now part of the local folklore. Late Abdur Rauf Khalid even made an Urdu movie Laaj based on this love story, with certain twists to the actual events.
In the United Kingdom a white woman marrying a black man or exchanging vows of love with a Pakistani man is a common sight. Choosing one’s life partner is the first and foremost fundamental human right. I do not feel particularly agitated to side with those who want to come between two sincere lovers. All are equal according to our constitution. But, when it comes to matters of personal rights, some communities treat themselves more equally. What perturbs me most is that the stories of Islam Bibi and Rinkle Kumari are a showcase of our national hypocrisy. Ram Kaurs and Rinkle Kumaris have a right to choose their life partners and their faith. If a Muslim woman, however, had converted to another faith in order to marry her lover, what would have been the reaction of the local faithfuls? In the answer lies the crux of the whole matter.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org