TALKING to a member of a scheduled caste from Sindh means talking to the utterly wretched of the earth, whose tale of woe will fill any conscious Pakistani’s heart with feelings of shame and outrage.
The group identity (scheduled castes) given to several untouchable communities in the colonial period has unfortunately survived in Pakistan though it carries none of the concessions that are referred to in the Oxford Dictionary. In India, they now call themselves Dalits and Pakistan too should recognise them by a non-derogatory title, because these marginalised communities do want to be treated as a special category and entitled to affirmative action for their uplift.
Those from the Kohli, Bheel or Meghwar families who have acquired an education and established themselves as teachers, lawyers or social activists recall the discrimination they suffered at school. Barred from sitting in the front rows and from drinking water from the common glass often made them feel the pangs of untouchability. What continues to hurt them is that such discrimination is not a matter of the past; the young ones are its victims to this day in institutions maintained with public resources.
But their minds are now seized of more consequential forms of deprivation and the list begins with the denial of possibilities to manage and order their affairs.
The scheduled castes claim that they constitute 80pc of Sindh’s Hindu population and allege that they have never been counted correctly in any census. They are becoming increasingly uneasy about not getting their share of jobs in state services. They also seem united in rejecting the system of filling the seats reserved for religious minorities in the federal and provincial assemblies with nominees of political parties.
Discrimination against this group of people is not a thing of the past.
According to them those elected on this basis are more interested in serving their benefactors than in looking after their own communities. All of them do not stand for revival of separate electorates but they do want guarantees of their representation in all elected bodies in proportion to their numbers and through direct election.
They also have their grievances against the Muslims who are elected on general seats. Following the revival of joint electorates, the Muslim candidates for general seats no doubt started contacting the scheduled castes voters but once elected they hardly ever notice them. Many of them deny any responsibility for the scheduled castes by pointing to the latter’s small share of the votes received by them. The more outspoken legislators claim to have won their seats with their money and hence feel indebted neither to the scheduled castes voters nor to the Muslim members of the electorate.
The scheduled castes’ pressure for due representation in the elected bodies will increase, particularly when the local government elections are held. Thus the time to find ways to address their grievance is now. The political parties should not be content with nominating a few candidates from the scheduled castes, they must allow them space in their decision-making cells.
More than anything else the scheduled castes are getting worried at the speed with which Sindh’s rural society is becoming more and more intolerant of religious diversity. Partitioning of common graveyards into Muslim and non-Muslim sectors and the incidents of expulsion of the bodies of non-Muslims from the common graveyards have made them extremely bitter and apprehensive of what will happen next.
In several cases, Muslims caught for attacking Hindu temples/shrines have been offered relief by being declared mentally challenged persons while no mitigating factor is accepted if a non-Muslim is accused of an offence relating to religion. This is often cited as an example of abuse of the law to cover up discrimination.
A good number of scheduled castes’ members own land in Tharparkar and Nagarparkar districts. They exercise a stabilising influence in inter-community affairs. Their attachment to land was an important factor in sustaining their allegiance to Pakistan when Nagarparkar was occupied by the Indian forces. But the new land disposal policies are threatening to destroy whatever is left of the fabric of religious harmony.
The scheduled castes of Sindh have long been protesting against the government’s failure to allot the lands taken over by the Enemy Property Board and the Evacuee Trust Property Board to the landless haris from among them. Had a rational policy been adopted, the rural economy could have been improved years ago. Now some of these lands are alleged to have been allotted to madressahs that their hard-line sponsors are setting up amidst all-Hindu settlements.
The government must probe the charges of the administration’s complicity with this kind of land-grabbing. If the extremist religious parties’ expeditions in Tharparkar and Nagarparkar districts are not checked, Pakistan should be prepared to face the charge of not only altering the area’s demography to the disadvantage of its non-Muslim population but also of the state’s collusion in a mass conversion drive.
Some of the development activities such as the Thar coal project also are having an adverse effect on the rights and interests of the scheduled castes, but more of this some other time.
The situation in Nagarpakar in particular is getting more and more alarming. It has been turned into a no-go area for Pakistani citizens. There are no hotels where visitors can stay. You are not allowed to take your camera or laptop into Nagarpakar. But conversion syndicates and preachers of hate are fully free to enjoy the freedom of the area.
The authorities have decided not to benefit from the attraction the picturesque land has for tourists. The magnificent temples, especially those built by the Jains, and historical/cultural monuments are decaying fast. It is difficult to see how Pakistan will face indictment at the bar of history for becoming a party to the destruction of its people’s precious heritage.
Much more than the rights and dignity of the scheduled castes is at stake. A crash programme for the protection and uplift of these communities must not be delayed.
Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2015