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MC3.4 Negotiating Religious Identities among Hindu Communities in Pakistan

Negotiating Religious Identities among Hindu Communities in Pakistan – A study at "multi-religious"

Koordination: Hans Harder


(July 2013 - October 2015)

The project MC 3.4 “Negotiating Religious Identities among Hindu Communities in Pakistan” dealt with the question of how Hindu communities engage with citizenship and national identity within the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.


The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is home to an estimated 6 - 8 million Hindus. Only in recent decades, as a result of certain political and infrastructural changes, did Hindu communities begin to engage openly in cultural and religious activities across the country. Such changes triggered a growing search for a Pakistani-Hindu identity on the local as well as global levels. Over the course of the research period, this project engaged with diverse yet mutually interdependent topics such as Pakistani-Hindu ritual, the community’s engagement with the Islamic Republic’s various public spheres (linguistic, class or gender based, etc.), and Hindu migration to India. The results of this research period have been disseminated not only through academic publications, but also through the production of documentary films.

At the outset the project studied the rituals of the Devipujak-Vagri community, a disempowered, low-caste Hindu group, living on the fringes of Lyari, one of Karachi’s most notoriously dangerous neighborhoods. Through a focus on Vagri ritual, research has shown how their ancestral home in Gujarat, India, features commonly within Devipujak ritual practice and cultural memory. The study drew particular attention to the Devipujak’s spiritual and political leader – the bhopa – who skillfully secures a stable financial income for the community by working as a ritual healer. The Vagris’ annual navaratri celebration, when the bhopa’s healed patients – Hindus as well as Muslims – donate sacrificial goats to the Goddess Kali, is visually documented in “Mother Calling. Kali in Karachi,” a film that has been shown at universities and film festivals in Canada, Germany, Pakistan, and the United States. With the help of this qualitative micro-study, the project was able to provide an insight into the everyday life of an impoverished Hindu community in urban Pakistan.

In a further step, MC 3.4 studied general Hindu engagement with Pakistan’s various public spheres. In this arena, the project took as an example the alleged practice of forced conversion and marriage (FCM) of Hindu women to Islam. Studying several reported cases, the project found each individual incident to form part of a complex phenomenon located at a nexus of religion, politics, honor, and patriarchal denial of female agency. In this regard the research looked at the work of non-governmental organizations (particularly the Pakistan Hindu Seva) and highlighted their role as an important link between the nation-state, the media, and the country’s disempowered minorities. Focusing on one particular case study, the 2012 events revolving around the alleged forced conversion of the Hindu women Rinkel Kumari, the project described how rightwing religious parties, such as the Jamat-e Islami, but also leftist nationalist groups, such as the Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party, organized well-mediatized protests, in which they not only made their opinion on Rinkel heard, but also connected the case with their overall political agenda. Such protests also proved advantageous for religious minorities and NGOs, as they too became briefly a matter of public concern. The project further developed how the common discourse around cases of forced conversion, inside Pakistan as well as internationally, approaches the phenomenon in a reductionist way, which implies two things: on the one hand such a simplification obscures the real complexities behind many cases; on the other hand, this populist approach to FCM also helps non-Muslim communities to unite their struggle and to claim recognition within Pakistan’s public spheres. The aftermath of alleged cases of forced conversion, hence, are significant moments for the Hindu community, in which new alliances are formed, new spokespersons found, and new subjectivities created.

Finally, the project looked at narratives of belonging and national identity among Hindu refugees in Jodhpur, India. Fieldwork has shown how Pakistani Hindus often dream of a better life in a romantically distorted image of India, which they deem as their “Hindu-homeland.” After their arrival, however, many of their fantasies are soon shattered as they find that, in the absence of any law regulating their immigration or asylum status, they are not judged according to their religious identity and welcomed as lost Hindu brothers, but rather rejected and discriminated against on the basis of their Pakistani citizenship. Once in India, Pakistani Hindus find themselves in a betwixt and between situation in which they feel alienated by governments on both sides of the border. This part of the research was also produced into a documentary film, which has been screened at various film festivals, for example in Austria, Canada, and Kyrgyzstan.

Project Results 


2015                                       “The Devipujak Vagris of Karachi: Multi-religious Rituals and an Economy of Sacrifice.” In: Studies on Karachi, ed. Sabiah Askari. Karachi: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 

(forthcoming)                      “Forced Conversion and (Hindu) Women’s Agency in Sindh.” In: Zeitschrift für Indologie und Südasienstudien. Band 32. Bremen: Hempen Verlag. 

(forthcoming)                      “Pakistani Hindus’ Engagement with the Public” In: Pakistan. Parallel Narratives of the Nation-State. Christina Oesterheld & Jürgen Schaflechner. Karachi: Oxford University Press.

(forthcoming)                      Pakistan. Parallel Narratives of the Nation-State, eds. Christina Oesterheld & Jürgen Schaflechner. Karachi: Oxford University Press.

Documentary films         

2015                                      Thrust into Heaven                  
(forthcoming)                       (90 min)

2014                                      There they call us Hindu, here we are Pakistani                                                              (52 min)

                                             Selected at:
                                             FIFEQ, Quebec, Canada 2014
                                             Bir Duino Human Rights Film Festival,
                                             Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 2014
                                             Ethnocineca, Vienna, Austria 2015

2013                                   Mother Calling. Kali in Karachi
  (45 min)

                                             Selected at:
                                             FiFEQ, Quebec, Canada 2014
                                             One with a movie camera,
                                             Marburg, Germany 2013
                                             Music Mela, Islamabad, Pakistan 2015
                                             I am Karachi, Karachi, Pakistan 2015


16th – 18th December 2013 “Putative Purities. Transcultural Dimensions of Master Narratives in Religion”
(organized jointly by the Minicluster 3 “Negotiating Religion”) 

1st – 3rd December 2014 “Pakistan. Parallel Narratives of the Nation-State”
(in cooperation with the SAI Heidelberg) 

11th – 12th December 2014 “Uneven Margins. Transcultural Dynamics and Religious Violence in South Asia and the Himalaya Regions”
(together with MC 3.2 and MC 3.3)

Working Groups:

The project MC 3.4 organized a working group on “Political Theory and Transculturality” in cooperation with MC 7 “Political Legitimation” and the junior research project “Transcultural Dynamics of Pentecostalism.” This joint effort resulted in a workshop with Prof. David Howarth (University of Essex) who also gave a lecture at the Cluster on May 5 2014 called “Nature, Culture, and Agency. ‘Immanent Naturalism’ and ‘New Materialism’ in a poststructural perspective.” 



Over the whole research period the project worked closely together with the Pakistan Hindu Seva, an organization dealing with the rights of Hindus in Pakistan. The documentary films were produced pursuant to long-term cooperation with Kara films and MO productions in Karachi. Finally, lectures at Pakistani universities such as The Indus Valley School, The Karachi University, and The Institute of Business Administration presented the project’s topic and methodology to an academic audience in Pakistan.


Documentary films:

SAI staff




Hans Harder


Jürgen Schaflechner