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Plight Of Dalits In Pakistan

By Yoginder Sikand

06 March, 2004

Pakistan's miniscule 2 million Hindu population is
concentrated largely in Sindh and southern Punjab. The
vast majority of the country's Hindus belong to
various Dalit or so-called 'low' castes. The
Declaration of Scheduled Castes Act 1956 identifies 36
different Dalit castes in the country. Most Pakistani
Dalits work as landless labourers and artisans, with
only a small minority being literate and in government
service. In addition to the Dalits are the numerically
much smaller although considerably more influential
'upper' caste Hindus, some of whom are rich merchants
in Karachi and landlords in southern Sindh.

Pakistani Hindu politics is dominated by the 'upper'
caste Hindus. Most Hindus elected to the provincial
and national assemblies have been from the 'upper'
castes. According to Sadhumal Surendar Valasai,
president of the Karachi-based Scheduled Castes
Federation of Pakistan (SCFP), the Dalits in Pakistan
continue to be subjected to considerable
discrimination by 'upper' caste Hindus as well as
'high' caste Muslim converts. In an online petition of
the SCFP through its recently launched website
( Valasai notes that unlike India
there have been no large-scale massacres of Dalits in
Pakistan. Yet, he writes, the Dalits are treated by
the 'upper' castes in Sindh no differently from their
fellow Dalits in India. 'In Pakistan', he claims, 'the
common Dalits know nothing about Hinduism except
Manu's words that they are born to serve the caste
people to improve their status in their next life'.
'They are a lot of confused people who don't know why
they are Hindus and why they are still attached to
"vulture-culture" Hinduism', he adds.

Valasai's online petition provides chilling details of
the oppression of the Dalits by caste Hindus in league
with local Muslim landlords and politicians. He claims
that in the district of Thar Parkar in Sindh, where
some 35 per cent of the population belongs to various
Dalit castes, 'Incidents of atrocities and caste-based
discrimination against Dalits are increasing day by
day [.] because of growing awareness and assertiveness
of the Dalits'. He cites the instance of a young Dalit
political activist named Gianchand who contested the
elections against a candidate supported by 'upper'
castes for a provincial assembly seat in October 2002.
This enraged the 'upper' castes, who exercise
considerable influence in the local administration. In
revenge, they arranged for several hundred Dalit
government employees to be transferred to far-flung
areas under different pretexts. Cases were initiated
against Dalit political activists. The Dalits were
even forbidden to graze their livestock on government
lands Many Dalit political workers were beaten up and
harrassed in order to prevent them from voting for
Dalit candidates.

In Thar Parkar, which has the highest concentration of
Dalits in Pakistan, violence against Dalits, primarily
by 'upper' castes, is normally treated as a very minor
and marginal issue', says Valasai. 'Upper' caste,
mainly Rajput, landlords wield considerable influence
among local bureaucrats and judges. As a result, many
crimes against Dalits go unregistered. Valasai cites
numerous such instances to stress his claim. In
Babrario village, a Dalit boy, Sadhu Meghwar, was done
to death and thrown into a village well by 'upper'
caste Hindus. The relatives of the boy were threatened
and forced to keep away from the case, which was
dubbed as a suicide by the police and hushed up. In a
village in the Diplo tehsil, a boy who defended his
sister from being raped on gun point by a politically
influential caste Hindu was severely tortured. In the
village of Kaloi, a Dalit teacher, Nanak, who helped
the Jama'at-i-Islami's relief distribution efforts in
the wake of the recent heavy rains was beaten up and
severely injured by local 'upper' caste Hindus.

Valasai admits that these sporadic incidents might
'look small when compared to the atrocities being
committed against Dalits in India'. But, he adds, in a
society whose overwhelming majority are followers of
Islam, a religion that preaches human equality, 'such
incidents based on caste prejudice' are particularly
galling. He claims that 'common Muslims have sympathy'
for the Dalits, but notes that no Muslim organisations
are working among them, not even Islamic missionary
organisations. He sees the plight of the Pakistani
Dalits as a direct result of caste Hindu chauvinism,
claiming that Dalits face caste oppression 'in places
where there are caste Hindus or their shadows'. 'The
roots of all the discrimination against Dalits in
Pakistan emanate from Hindu caste system', he argues.
Many Muslims whose ancestors had converted to Islam at
some point in time continue to discriminate against
the Dalits. They may have changed their names through
conversion, he says, but not their minds.

Not surprisingly, the SCFP has not been overly
enthusiastic about the growing thaw in relations
between India and Pakistan. In a recently issued
statement, the Federation expressed its concern about
the opening of the Khokhrapar-Munabao border between
Pakistan and India in the Sindh-Rajasthan sector. It
claimed that the Pakistani Dalits, many of whom live
in this region, are 'disturbed' about reports that the
border crossing might soon be reopened, fearing that
this might 'import in this region a fresh [.]
Brahminical Social Order and inhuman caste system from
India'. The statement detailed the cruel oppression of
their fellow Dalits in India by caste Hindus, noting,
for instance, that Dalit students are segregated in
schools and that Dalits are forbidden to fetch water
from common wells and ponds in neighbouring Gujarat
and Rajasthan. Stressing that 'such caste
discrimination had no place in Pakistan', the
statement claimed that the discrimination practised by
caste Hindus against Dalits in Pakistan might gain a
'fresh impetus' with the opening of the border with
India. The Federation asserted that while the
Pakistani Dalits were not against friendly relations
between India and Pakistan, they would oppose any move
that could lead to a further entrenching of caste
discrimination against them by 'upper' caste Hindus as
a result of cultural influences emanting from India
with a more open border.

Meanwhile, the SCFP is now actively engaged in
mobilising public opinion within Pakistan and aborad
to highlight the plight of the Pakistani Dalits. In
its online petition, it asserts that 'Dalits under
Muslim rule should be more dignified and prosperous,
enjoying equal rights as human beings in Pakistan as
compared to Brahmin-ruled India'. However, it laments,
the Pakistani government has so far little to help
ameliorate the pathetic conditions of the country's
Dalits. The petition lays out a list of demands that
it makes on the government of Pakistan:

1. Including "Treatment of Dalits" as a barometer to
judge SAARC members' commitment to human rights.

2. Allocation of separate seats in the Pakistani
parliament and provincial assemblies for Scheduled
Castes in accordance with their population to ensure
that their voice is heard. (It asks for four seats in
the National Assembly, four in the Sindh Assembly, two
in the Punjab Assembly and one each in the NWFP and
Balochistan Assemblies exclusively for Scheduled

3. The constitution of a National Commission on
Scheduled Castes to hear complaints of caste and
racial discrimination and take necessary and required

4. Adequate representation of Dalits in national
institutions and departments and jobs in both the
Federal and Provincial government services.

5. Allocation of land to landless Dalit peasants on a
priority basis, including arranging for ancestral
lands of the Dalits in Tharparker district
'fraudulently occupied by caste people' to be given
back to them.

6. Creation of a separate fund for helping the
destitute, orphans, widows and poor people belonging
to the Scheduled Castes under the Pakistan Ba'it-ul
Mal in accordance with their population.

7. Legal protection of the Scheduled Castes from being
threatened, exploited, victimized, and dislodged from
their ancestral lands on any pretext which is directly
or indirectly connected to caste prejudice, by
providing them easy access to legal remedies.

In a second online petition addressed to the
President, Prime Minister and Parliament of Pakistan,
the SCFP appeals for the official recognition of the
Scheduled Castes as a separate minority community from
the Hindus. It argues that the clubbing together of
the Scheduled Castes as part of the Hindu community
has only helped the small 'upper' caste Hindu
minority. It insists that protective discrimination
for the Dalits is essential to realising the dreams of
the founders of Pakistan. It approvingly quotes
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, as
having publicly declared:

'I can tell my friends of the Scheduled Castes that at
no time have I overlooked their interests and position
and I may claim that in the past I have done all I
could to help them, and I always stand for their
protection and safeguard in any future scheme of
constitution for I think that the wrongs and
injustices inflicted on them should not be allowed to
continue under any civilised form of government'.

The SCFP's online petitions seem to have generated
considerable debate in Dalit circles, and several
messages of support have been received from Indian
Dalit groups. For Indians and Pakistanis looking for
ways to work together, this perhaps is an appropriate
way to start. Building alliances across borders on
issues of common concern, the Dalit movement in India
and Pakistan could possibly show the way forward.