By Siddique Humayun
August 1st, 2011
When one talks about minorities in Pakistan the usual impression is that they are Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis. However, there is, as Sono Khangharani, a low-caste Hindu from Sindh who rose to prominence from humble origins, put it, a minority within this minority. They are the Dalits of Pakistan – the low-caste Hindus. There are six million of them, and while Hindus do not consider them Hindus, the State simply classifies them as a Hindu minority. Thus they are subjected to discrimination from both sides.
Although the Dalit community has come a long way in Pakistan and there is relatively less discrimination against them, there are various issues that underline the social life of this community. Some of the important issues are identity and recognition, less economic opportunity, no support mechanism, and because majority of Dalits are tenants on other people’s land, most of them do not have a permanent address, and thus are not issued the Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC).
Something the low-caste Hindus in Pakistan, as well as in India, look forward to, is identity and recognition, which is perhaps one of the most important aspects of a human life. Three per cent of the population of Pakistan is classified as a minority, out of which, 50 per cent are Hindus. Interestingly, nine out of 10 of these Hindus belong to the Dalit community. Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah had installed a Dalit Federal Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, but that was the first and only instance when a Dalit occupied such a position in the government of Pakistan. Since then, the six per cent job quota of the “scheduled castes” in the federal services of Pakistan was changed into a “minority quota” in 1998. Dr. Meghwar and Krishan Bheel (Dalit MNAs at the time) found it futile to raise any objection to such a conversion. This further aggravated the recognition issue of Dalits as they were now part of a minority that refused to accept them as their own.
Lack of economic opportunity is another grave concern for the Dalits. As majority of the low-caste Hindu population present in Sindh and southern Punjab does not own any land. Rather, they are tenants for the big landlords of the area. As a result, they are not only subject to harsh working conditions on the whims of their landlords, but can end up in bonded labour to pay off petty debts.
Sono Khangharani shared one such story, where a Dalit acquired a loan of approximately Rs 5,000 and was forced along with his whole family to work for the landlord for years to come to try to pay off his debt, only to end up with an increased debt of around Rs 100,000. In such a scenario, the already uneducated low-caste Hindu tenants lose any economic opportunity that they would otherwise be able to avail. This coupled with no support mechanism makes life hard for the minority within a minority.
The very few people who have come up from within this community of Dalits in Pakistan are the only support structure for their own community. While the State simply puts them under the three per cent minority, they barely find any emancipation among influential caste Hindus or Christians. Thardeep Rural Development Program is one of the few programs that cater to the needs of the rural population of Tharparker, where over 35 per cent of the population forms the low-caste Hindus. As most of the minority seats of government, even in districts such as Tharpakar, are won by caste-Hindus, government support and sympathy for this downtrodden sector of the society remains negligible.
As I mentioned earlier, low-caste Hindus face an identity crisis. This is not only because of the fact that caste Hindus refuse to acknowledge the Dalits as their brethren in faith, but because a majority of Dalits are tenants with no land ownership at all. They live in make-shift houses made of wood and mud, and can be forced to migrate to other places on the convenience of landlords as well as the harsh natural environment of the desert areas they usually live in. This means they do not have a permanent address in Pakistan and are not even counted in the national census. As a result, they are not issued Computerized National Identity Cards (CNICs). Somewhat resonating the Palestinians, the Dalits become stateless. Even though, some are being issued CNICs, majority remains without an identity.
Education is the way forward. For the low-caste Hindus present in Pakistan and elsewhere, it is important that education be provided to them. Despite the discrimination that is prevalent in educational institutes against low-caste Hindus as I was told by SonoKhangharani, who represents his community in the United Nations every year, it is the only way Dalits can come out of the darkness they currently find themselves in. Self-awareness, self-help and community recognition coupled with government recognition and support for educating the larger masses of low-caste Hindus will result in many more successful empowered leaders from this community.
The approximately six million Dalits in Pakistan have come a long way from where they stood only a generation ago, but for true emancipation and empowerment, there is a long road ahead. While acceptance of Dalits is still not where it should be, some have come out of bonded labor and availed economic opportunities to make their lives better and become a support structure for their community.
Whereas, the State may recognize and issue identity cards in the future, true empowerment can only come once the caste Hindus accept Dalits as Hindus, and once the government realizes that how this community in Pakistan has become a minority within a minority.
The author is a policy analyst and a social worker from Islamabad who believes that the glass is half full. The views expressed by this blogger do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.
Source: The Dawn, Karachi