By Isambard Wilkinson
August 19. 2009
A Hindu girl prepares flat bread at her home in Master Alana Hasan Pantwar Goth, a village slum in Karachi. Muzammil Pasha for The National
Karachi // The plight of a small community of Hindus festering in poverty in Karachi underscores the vulnerability of Pakistan's minorities.
Passing behind a factory on the outskirts of the port city, the sight of sari- and dhoti-wearing Hindus signals the beginning of Master Alana Hasan Pantwar Goth, a ramshackle and fly-ridden slum even by Karachi's standards.
Drains that flood the breeze-block and tin houses during the monsoon rains carry toxic waste and dye from the nearby factories.
Gopal Chand, a social worker and member of the several thousand-strong community panchayat, or council, described the lack of opportunities for local Hindus.
"There is no permanent livelihood for us. We are not educated as nobody has guided us in that direction," he said.
Each house had a shop selling paltry wares: a few fish, a few baskets or a small pile of vegetables.
The village lies on rough ground, sandwiched between the ostentatious mansion of the local vadera, or landowner, who claims control of the land on which the Hindus reside, and a textile factory.
Alice Albinia, in the recently published and highly acclaimed book, Empires of the Indus, recorded how after its creation in 1947, Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, asked the Hindu community to stay on as Karachi lacked people willing to carry out low-caste menial tasks.
The descendants of these low-caste Hindus clean the sewage system and, along with Christians, sweep the streets.
"At Partition, our elders decided to stay on because we have always lived here. We were businessmen and traders but things started to worsen during the rule of General Zia," said Mr Chand.
"Now we have less opportunities. We have become the target of religious and ethnic bias; the police take advantage of us because we are Hindus. So we feel now that our elders' decision was wrong," he added.
The slum's Hindus are from the Marwari tribe that originated in Rajasthan.
There are roughly three million Hindus living in Pakistan, according to the 1998 census.
Communalism has long blighted the Indian subcontinent but in Pakistan it has never taken place on the scale of the anti-Muslim purges that have occurred in neighbouring India.
Persecution, however, became worse for minorities under the 11-year military dictatorship of Zia-ul Haq in the 1970s and 80s, who supported hardliner Islamists.
The 1993 communal violence in India, sparked by the destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu extremists, led to anti-Hindu rioting in Pakistan.
That history of oppression remains, and Pakistan's minorities continue to face persecution and exploitation.
This was brutally reinforced this month when more than 200 people attacked a Christian neighbourhood in the eastern city of Gojra, killing eight Christians.
The head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Asma Jahangir, said in a statement that announcements made from mosques by the banned Sunni group Lashkar-i-jhangvi the day before called upon Muslims to "make mincemeat of the Christians". Human rights and minority rights groups have called, and continue to call, for the repeal of blasphemy laws that they said are used to persecute non-Muslims.
The Hindu community in Karachi has not forgotten the case of Kumar Jagdesh, a young Hindu who was brutally murdered in April last year in Karachi.
Jagdesh had been warned about his relationship with a Muslim girl and a rumour was spread in the factory where he worked that Jagdesh was making blasphemous remarks.
A group of workers then beat him to death. He was stabbed and had his eyes gauged out with screwdrivers. The case has still not come to court.
In one of Master Alana Hasan Pantwar Goth's shanties, Sonia Mal, 22, told a tale of abduction that underscored the vulnerability of both the poor and Pakistan's minorities.
She described how a Hindu youth who had converted to Islam had kidnapped her and her son and, with a gang of friends, raped her over the course of six weeks.
"My mother heard from the woman who had heard my screams and rescued me ... from a town a hundred kilometres away," she said.
"Hindu girls are kidnapped in every part of the province," said Mr Chand.
Officials at the office of the Pakistan Hindu Council in Karachi were reluctant to talk for fear of retribution.
"We and other minorities are supposed to have a five per cent job quota for government posts but that is never fulfilled," said an official who asked not to be named.
Behind his desk were files and newspaper cuttings recording acts of persecution against Hindus.
They contained evidence of women being abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and married to Muslim men.
Not all of Karachi's Hindus are from low castes, and conditions were much better at a small middle-class settlement around the striking 19th century Swami Narayan temple in the centre of the city.
The community is cared for by high-caste Hindus who have reached senior positions in Pakistan, such as the former Supreme Court judge, Rana Bhagwandas.
A middle-class Hindu mother, who did not want to named, said she encouraged her daughters to wear a shalwar kameez instead of a sari in public to hide their religious identity.
She professed that Pakistan was "my country", but like so many other Hindus, feared what sort of future it will offer her children.