Over 50 Hindus have been kidnapped in Pakistan's restive Balochistan province over the past four years, forcing members of the minority community to migrate to other parts of the country.
Basant Lal Gulshan, the Human Rights and Minority Affairs Minister for Balochistan, said over 50 members of the Hindu community were abducted across the province in four years.
"Among those are two assistants from my own pharmacy, abducted two days ago," he said.
"While Musharraf was in power for nine years, there were only seven instances of kidnapping," Gulshan told The Express Tribune.
The alarming increase in kidnapping of Hindus was confirmed by Balochistan Chief Secretary Ahmed Bakhsh Lehri.
Of a total of 72 people kidnapped in the past few months, 24 were Hindus, he said.
Twenty-one people had either been released or recovered through the efforts of the Hindus themselves, Lehri said.
Balochistan Home Secretary Naseebullah Bazai too said incidents of kidnapping for ransom and other heinous crimes have increased in the province.
The rise in kidnappings has forced Hindus to migrate from Balochistan to other parts of the country, Bazai told the media on Saturday. Balochistan and Sindh provinces have sizeable Hindu populations.
Over the past few years, dozens of Hindus, most of them petty traders, have been kidnapped for ransom in Balochistan. Several cases of forced conversion of Hindus have been reported from Sindh.
Human Rights Minister Gulshan said Hindus were targeted because the community is perceived to be "financially well off but weak". The Hindus are mostly traders and businessmen, and the community comprises two-thirds of Balochistan minority population of 300,000, he said.
Most Hindus live in the Baloch-settled areas of Sibi, Nasirabad, Bhag and Dhadar, said Lehri.
Most of the kidnappings, however, take place in Kalat which is home to a major Hindu temple dedicated to goddess Kali, said the Chief Secretary.
Those abducted are taken to Khuzdar, a tribal district bordering Sindh, which has limited police presence, Lehri said. The district has the Levies militia but they are ill-equipped to confront kidnappers, he added.
Contrary to popular perception, the abductors are not separatists, Lehri said.
"These are common criminals, mostly unemployed men, who demand a high ransom for the Hindus," he added.
Around 50 Hindu families have moved from Quetta to Karachi in the past two months, said Gulshan. More than 150 families across Balochistan have moved out in the past few years. Most of them went to India on a visit visa but have not returned, he said.
"The exodus may still be reversible. Most have left their business behind under caretakers or managers, and not sold them off," Gulshan said.
Besides Hindus, other minority communities who have been the target of crimes are on their way out of Balochistan. Zoroastrians, who are a negligible minority, no longer live in Balochistan, said Tahir Hussain of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Faridoon Abadan, a former provincial minister and owner of Quetta Distillery, was kidnapped over 10 years ago and is yet to be traced. His wife Nilofer was the first woman to be kidnapped in Balochistan in February last year.
She was freed after paying Rs 30 million in ransom and her family is now moving out of the province. After several high-profile targeted attacks, the Shia Hazara community too is quitting the province.
"Around 16,000 people from the Hazara or Persian- speaking community left Quetta last year," Hussain said.
Their plight gained national prominence when a ferry carrying asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan capsized off the coast of Indonesia.
Around 55 young men from the Hazara community of Quetta were among those who drowned.