Yoginder Sikand


In the previous part of this article I had summarized some of the findings of probably the first-ever in-depth study about Pakistan’s Dalits, the country’s most dispossessed and vulnerable religious minority. Zulfiqar Shah’s alarming report, titled ‘Long Behind Schedule: A Study on the Plight of Scheduled Caste Hindus in Pakistan’, strikingly summarizes the harrowing conditions of Hindu Dalits in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. If caste and religious prejudice account in large measure for their harrowing plight, Shah argues that the attitude of the Pakistani state towards the Dalits is no less responsible.


Shah notes that the Pakistani state continues to refuse to recognize the very existence of caste and caste-based discrimination, which makes it virtually impossible to compel it to address the specific problems of Dalits. Ironically, he argues, caste is alive and thriving in Pakistan, even among the country’s overwhelming majority Muslims. Most Pakistani Muslims, he says, belong to and identify with one or the other caste and are acutely conscious of caste differences and hierarchies among them. Often, even entirely Muslim localities are specific to a particular caste group. The vast majority of poor Muslims in Pakistan belong to ‘low’ caste groups, and it is rare, almost impossible, he says, to find ‘high’ caste Muslims among the poorest of the poor. Yet, the reality of caste and caste-based discrimination, even among the country’s Muslims, are denied by the Pakistani state by regularly invoking the claim that caste is un-Islamic, and that, therefore, it simply does not exist in Islamic Pakistan, which, it rhetorically insists, is a society based on ‘Islamic values’. Consequently, the Pakistani state has made no legal provisions to empower the oppressed ‘low’ castes, whether Muslim or Hindu or to criminalize caste-based discrimination and untouchability, that remain widespread, the report says, across Pakistan.


Being Hindu and ‘low’ caste, Pakistan’s Dalits have been most badly hit by this denial by the state of caste. Since caste-based discrimination is not recognized by the state, the report says, there is no legislation against it. Nor is it possible to take legal proceedings against discrimination based on caste. ‘And, as a consequence’, the report adds, ‘impunity is widespread. Abuse of Dalits, from forced labour to rape, is considered a free-for-all.’


Being pathetically poor and illiterate, relatively small in number, divided into various castes, and, moreover, non-Muslim, the report explains that the Dalits of Pakistan are politically powerless. They have almost no presence in the country’s parliament or state legislatures. In any case, their acute poverty rules out the possibility of Dalit candidates standing for elections, which is expensive business in Pakistan, as in India. Additionally, it is unlikely that political parties would offer tickets to non-Muslim candidates, especially Dalits, for that is a sure way to lose elections. Since political parties rely heavily on the support of powerful landlords, mostly Muslims but also, in some places ‘upper’ caste Hindus, whom they cannot dare displease, and most Dalits work as landless laborers for such landlords, they are reluctant to address Dalit issues, many of which have to do with the oppression that they are subjected to by their masters. Addressing Dalit concerns such as forcible conversions to Islam is also politically risky for political parties who fear a violent backlash from mullahs and their supporters.


Pakistan’s Dalits have no effective organizations to lobby for their rights. Political parties do not take them seriously, and their minority wings are dominated by Christians and ‘upper’ caste Hindus. Hindu organizations in the country are dominated by rich ‘upper’ castes, who are indifferent, if not hostile, to Dalit advancement, and so Hindu political representatives rarely, if ever, take up Dalit concerns. Another reason for their political marginalization is that the population of the country’s Dalits, so the report says, has been grossly under-estimated in the census records, which put their numerical strength under 400,000 while their actual population may be more than two million. Hence, the report argues, nine-tenths of Pakistan’s Dalits have either been ignored in the census or else wrongly marked as ‘upper’ caste Hindus or put into other categories, thus further marginalizing them in a system where access to development schemes and political power is determined by a community’s population. This deliberate downplaying of their numbers, the report says, owes, in part, to discriminatory attitudes of Muslim and ‘upper’ caste Hindu census enumerators who wish to underestimate Dalit numbers. Additionally, due to neglect or deliberately, vast numbers of Dalits are denied voter identity-cards, and so elected representatives simply ignore them. This also leaves them unable to access the few government-funded development projects that exist.


The extreme political disempowerment of Pakistan’s Dalits, added to deep-rooted prejudices against Hindus, account, in large measure, for the virtual absence of any state-sponsored development programs for Dalits, the report contends. Unlike in India, there are no specific development schemes for ‘low’ castes (whether Muslim or Hindu) in Pakistan, nor is a share of government jobs reserved for them. The Pakistani state, the report laments, has undertaken no affirmative action measure to address the pathetic lives of the Dalits, the country’s most vulnerable minority. Indeed, it alleges, Dalits are ‘being discriminated against in [the] government’s development policies.’ Money given to elected representatives to spend on development activities in their constituencies rarely, if ever, reaches the Dalits. This neglect is also replicated in international donor-sponsored poverty-alleviation schemes in the country. The report notes that in various parts of southern Pakistan, where the bulk of the country’s Dalits live, Dalits, far from gaining at all from the development process, have turned into victims of development schemes, being displaced from their lands as a result of mega projects.


Like other religious minorities in the Islamic Republic, Pakistan’s Dalits, who are additionally discriminated against on account of their extreme poverty and ‘low’ caste status, suffer the pangs of being non-Muslim. The country’s Constitution itself discriminates against all non-Muslims, as it does against women, the report stresses. The Constitution, the report contends, provides no protection to minorities in general, and to Dalits in particular. Basic rights, including protection of minorities and the promotion of social and economic well-being of citizens, are included in the non-binding ‘principles of policy’, rather than the legally enforceable section on fundamental rights, and, moreover, are overshadowed by religious provisions that call for all laws to be in conformity with Islam. The Federal Shariat or Islamic Law Court has the right to turn down any law it considers repugnant to Islam. This, the report says, ‘has further weakened chances of seeking justice against any discrimination’, particularly if the victims are non-Muslims. All these discriminatory provisions, the report insists, are a complete violation of various international human rights agreements to which Pakistan is a signatory.


Like other non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan, Dalits are sometimes targeted  by Muslims under the country’s draconian blasphemy laws, being falsely accused of traducing Islam and its prophet (an act punishable with death or life imprisonment) in order to settle personal scores, the report reveals. Even trivial acts, leave alone major forms of defiance or protest, can lead to hapless Dalits being hounded under these laws. The report cites some such cases, including one involving a Dalit man who was threatened with trial under the blasphemy law if he did not beg an apology from the entire village for having slept with his feet pointed westwards, in the direction of the Muslim holy city of Mecca!


Although many of the forms of dispossession and discrimination that Pakistani Dalits suffer from are similar to those faced by their brethren in India, there are no legal mechanisms in Pakistan to address them. Thus, untouchability is not regarded as a punishable offence, and there is no legislation at the provincial level to protect the rights of Dalits who are routinely denied entry to public places, and access to water sources or common utensils in eateries on account of their caste and religion, which remains a pervasive practice.


The report concludes with a long list of recommendations, directed particularly at the Pakistani state, to act on to address the manifold problems of its Dalit citizens. These include proper and accurate enumeration of the country’s Dalit population; recording data broken down by caste and other relevant categories gathered by the government; criminalizing caste-based discrimination through a law that allows prosecution of perpetrators and banning untouchability by law; instituting programs to economically empower Dalits, including through a quota system in jobs and educational institutions; providing Dalits legal possession of their homes and arranging interest-free loans for them; distributing state land to landless Dalits; providing scholarships and other forms of assistance to Dalit students; ensuring that all political parties involve Dalits in decision-making, possibly through a law making representation of Dalits mandatory; reserving seats in all levels of government, including the judiciary and law enforcement departments, for Dalits; eliminating all religious biases from school textbooks; implementing the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act and ensuring immediate rehabilitation of released bonded laborers; instituting a commission to investigate incidents of rape, kidnapping and forced conversion to Islam of Dalits and punishing their perpetrators, including Islamic clerics who abet such cases; ratifying relevant international human rights treaties, complying with reporting obligations and inviting international rapperteurs; and taking effective measures to stop targeting Dalits as ‘Indian agents’.


In all, an impressive list of what seem absolutely necessary demands, but given ground-level realities in the ‘Land of the Pure’, we may be sure that this well-meaning report and the recommendations that it proffers will meet with deafeningly loud silence, if not thunderous opposition.

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