Pakistan's Forgotten Dalit MinorityYoginder Sikand
Of the roughly 3 million officially classified 'Hindu' population of Pakistan, some 80 per cent are Dalits. There are 42 different Dalits castes in the country, the most numerous being Bhils, Meghwals, Odhs and Kohlis. Most Pakistani Dalits live in Sindh, with smaller numbers in southern Punjab and Baluchistan. Like their Indian counterparts, they are pathetically poor and largely illiterate and eke out a miserable existence mainly as agricultural labourers, menials and petty artisans.
A recent visit to Pakistan took me to lower Sindh, home to a large number of Dalits. Land ownership patterns are enormously skewed in this part of Pakistan. A small class of landlords, or waderas, owns most of the land, and some estates run into tens of thousands of acres. The conditions of the Sindhi peasantry or haris, who include both Muslims as well as Dalits, are pathetic. Many haris do not even own the mud huts in which they live. One can travel for miles at a stretch in rural Sindh without seeing a single habitation. The reason: much of the land is owned by absentee landlords who live in mansions in Hyderabad and Karachi, Sindh's largest cities.
In much of lower Sindh, Dalits constitute up to 70 per cent of the agricultural workforce. According to Khurshid Kaimkhani, a leftist activist from Sindh, and author of what is probably the only book on the Pakistani Dalits, local landlords prefer to employ Dalits instead of Muslim haris because the former are less vocal and more docile. Hardly any Dalits own any land, he says, and they are entirely dependent on the landlords for their survival. Women earn a pathetic 60 rupees a day and men twenty rupees more than that. As in some parts of India, in parts of Sindh Dalits work as bonded labourers, prevented from escaping by private armies of powerful landlords. There are no special government development schemes for Dalits. This is hardly surprising, for the only significant presence of the state in large parts of rural Sindh appears to be roads, electricity poles and tall minaret-like police stations named after various 'martyrs', these being mainly policemen gunned down by dacoits.
Dalits in rural Sindh face other forms of oppression similar to their counterparts in India. Village eateries have separate utensils for Dalits, and small towns have separate Dalit restaurants. Generally, 'upper' caste Hindus and Muslims do not eat food prepared by Dalits. Cases of Dalit women being kidnapped by landlords are common. Often this results in the women being converted to Islam against their will. Dalit students routinely complain of being taunted in school by their classmates, which, in addition to their poverty, forces most of them to soon drop out. The perception that they would be discriminated against in the job market makes higher education too expensive a choice for many Dalit parents to consider. In the wake of the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the consequent massacre of Muslims in India, the conditions of Pakistan's Dalits have become even more precarious. Some Dalits, as well as caste Hindus, were killed by mobs in Sindh and numerous temples were destroyed. To add to this is the influence of radical Islamist groups who are vehemently anti-Hindu and anti-India. All this has made Dalits even more scared to speak out. Says Himmat Solanki, a Dalit from Moenjodaro, 'Our future here depends critically on how Muslims are treated in India. Each time there is an attack on Muslims there, we Pakistani Dalits and Hindus have to face the brunt. Our future critically depends on harmonious relations between India and Pakistan and Hindus and Muslims in south Asia as a whole'. Solanki tells me of how growing insecurity among Pakistani Dalits has led to an increase in migration to India. 'Many Pakistani Dalits are originally from Rajasthan, having migrated to what is now Pakistan before 1947. So, naturally they want to join their relatives in India, and the growing fears among the minorities here has further exacerbated this trend'.
In Pakistan's only Hindu majority district of Thar Parkar, bordering Rajasthan and Gujarat, the conditions of Dalits are equally pathetic. According to Pirbhu Lal Satyani, a local social activist, 'upper' caste Hindu Rajput landlords, Brahmins and Banias routinely subject the Dalits, who form the overwhelming majority of the population, to various forms of discrimination. They are not allowed to enter Hindu temples, and, as in other parts of Sindh, are also often used as bonded labourers. At election time, Dalits who have dared to contest against caste Hindu candidates are routinely harassed and some have even been killed. As a protest against continuing discrimination, a number of Dalits have converted to Christianity, foreign-funded missionary groups being active in the area. Interestingly, there are no Islamic missionary organizations working among the Dalits.
Organising the Pakistani Dalits for their rights is an uphill task, says Satyani. He attributes this to fear of reprisal, the fact of abysmal levels of Dalit literacy, the small Dalit middle-class and the difficulty of bringing the various Dalit castes together. 'They have internalized the Brahminical logic of hierarchy', he says, 'as a result of which each caste considers itself superior to other castes'. Thus, in Tando Allah Yar, where I spent a week, the snake-catching Jogis have no contact with the Gurgulas, a caste that earns its livelihood by hawking cosmetic items to women. Says Sadhu Mal Jogi about the Gurgulas, whose sprawling settlement, hutments made of twigs and plastic sheets, lies just adjacent to his Jogi colony, 'The Gurgulas are lower than us. We have nothing to do with them'.
Another difficulty that Pakistani Dalits face in voicing their demands is the process of Hinduisation. Says Sonu Lal, a Meghwal from Tando Allah Yar, who identifies himself as one of the few radical Ambedkarites in Pakistan, 'Before 1947, caste Hindus dominated the economy of Sindh, and we Dalits could readily identify them as well as the Brahminical religious as the principal source of our oppression. After the Partition, most caste Hindus left for India, so now the direct oppressors are the local Muslim landlords. But instead of mobilizing on the basis of our Dalit identity, many Dalits seek to deny that identity by passing off as super-Hindus. In this context, how can we retain our identity as Dalits, take pride in it and organize on that basis?'. 'Hinduisation', he says, 'is not the answer to our problems because, inevitably, it will strengthen upper caste hegemony and weaken the Dalit struggle by making Dalits deny, rather than stress, their Dalit identity'. In this regard, he cites the case of Pakistan's largest Dalit temple, a shrine in Tando Allah Yar, dedicated to Rama Pir, a Meghwal convert to the Ismaili Shia faith. Every year, during the annual mela of the Pir, several hundred thousand Dalits from all over Pakistan assemble at the shrine. 'The shrine has been captured by a Brahmin priest now', says Sonu Lal. 'All the money that the Dalits give to them temple is taken by the priest and the Banias who dominate the management committee. Dalits have no role to play now in the shrine, which has been converted into a Brahminical temple, with idols of various Hindu gods, alien to the Rama Pir tradition, being installed therein'.
Pakistani Dalit activists routinely point out that caste Hindus take little or no interest in the plight of the Dalits. 'They treat us as Hindus only at election time when they come to us to seek our votes', says Panna Madho, a Dalit activist from Larkana. Madho says that most Hindu members of the state and national assemblies are caste Hindus, who are taken by the Pakistani state as representatives of all Hindus. Like most other caste Hindus, he says, they are 'completely indifferent to Dalits and continue to treat them as untouchables'. M.Prakash, a senior lawyer from Hyderabad, Sindh, himself an 'upper' caste Amil Hindu, admits, 'It is true that caste Hindus are as unconcerned about Dalits as others in Pakistan are, despite Hindus being a minority in the country. They have done nothing to help them organize for their rights'.
Yet, Dalits in Pakistan are no longer silent and attempts are being today to voice their demands, helped in part by non-government organizations and social activists, including some of Muslim background. Aslam Khwaja, a leftist activist, and his friends in Hyderabad have purchased a plot of land, which they have christened 'Himmatabad' ('The Abode of Valour'), where they have resettled some 15 pathetically poor Bhil and Kohli families rescued from landlords and their private armies. Manu Bhil has been sitting on strike outside the Hyderabad Press Club for the last three years demanding the release of nine members of his family kidnapped by a Baloch landlord. Last year, Kishan Bhil, a member of Pakistan's National Assembly, created a major stir when he slapped a Maulvi member of the Assembly for denigrating his religion. And in rural Sindh, some Bhils have even joined up with gangs of dacoits, consisting mainly of landless Muslim peasants.
Recent years have witnessed the emergence of some Dalit organizations in Pakistan. The Hindu Sudhar Sabha in Lahore is one such group, bringing together Bhangis or Lalbegis of the sweeper caste. In Sindh, the Pakistan Scheduled Caste Federation has sought to pressurize the state to reserve jobs for Dalits, treat them as officially separate from the caste Hindus, grant them land, institute special development programmes for them and purge textbooks of contents that are derogatory of non-Muslims. Early this year, the International Dalit Solidarity Network, along with some local Dalit groups, organised Pakistan's first ever Dalit convention that came out with a bold charter of demands. The recently held World Social Forum in Karachi brought together some 400 Pakistani Dalit activists, and provided them an opportunity to interact with their Indian counterparts. This has led to plans for a South Asian Dalit platform, based on the recognition that the plight of the Dalits in Pakistan is no different from that of their fellows in India and other parts of the subcontinent. As Nathu Ram, an elderly Meghwal I met at the dargah of Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, says stoically, 'We Dalits suffer the same plight no matter where we are. India or Pakistan, both are the same for us. We have only God and ourselves who can work to change things for us'.