For lower-caste Hindus, a Soneri cup symbolises deep-rooted bigotry

Hotels and restaurants in Sindh refuse to serve lower-caste Hindus, or use separate 'soneri' cups.
Published February 1, 2016

KOTRI: Marked by its vibrant interior of red and blue walls, Hajiri Kohli’s modest hotel is popular with communities living on the outskirts of Kotri and Hyderabad. As one enters, the smell of chai fills the air and the exuberant laughter of men is heard over the din of sewing machines from the tailor shop next-door.

These customers are mostly lower-caste Hindus — Kohlis, Oads, Meghwars and other scheduled castes — who frequent the hotel for chai after a long day’s work. They choose this hotel day after day because it does not discriminate against their caste, and because here, they can discuss everything from religion to business without thinking twice.

Most other hotels in the area are run by Muslims. “Whenever we visit them,” Kohli says. “They serve us tea in distinct soneri cups or glass plates.”

Commonly found in Sindh, these ‘soneri’ cups, glasses and plates are symbolic of the marginalisation that underscores the lives of lower-caste Hindus.

“In other hotels, I am served in utensils different from the ones offered to Muslim customers," Kohli says.

Frustrated and humiliated, Kohli opened his own 'hotel' — the name given to streetside restaurants — for members of his community. Although the hotel is open to everyone, Kohli says it sees few Muslim and upper-caste Hindu customers, despite the fact that it is located in the city's bustling vegetable market.

Kohli's hotel in Kotri's vegetable market. — Photo by the author
Kohli's hotel in Kotri's vegetable market. — Photo by the author

According to Kohli, there is only one other hotel run by a scheduled-caste Hindu in Kotri, which is the headquarters of Jamshoro district and about five kilometres away from Hyderabad. All other hotels in Kotri — where so many scheduled caste Hindus live — either openly refuse the community members, or serve them in soneri cups.

Here, Kohli says, he can easily sit and have tea or a snack, without worrying about the behaviour of others towards him.

Different religions, different rules

Muhammad Amin, a restaurant owner whose eatery is built on government property, admits the use of separate cups, glasses and plates for lower-caste Hindus.

Amin’s eatery employs a colour-based system. “The cups which are half brown and half white are meant for serving tea to lower-caste Hindus,” he explains.

Soneri cups at Amin's hotel. — Photo by author
Soneri cups at Amin's hotel. — Photo by author

Red glasses, similarly, are used when lower-caste Hindus are served water.

Amin’s restaurant is named after Malik Muhrab Khan, grandfather of sitting PPP MNA Malik Asad Sikandar from Jamshoro district. Amin himself is a councillor and was elected from Union Council 2 (UC-2) of Kotri City. Interestingly, of the 67,000 votes registered in UC-2, more than 1,300 were from lower-caste Hindus.

“The majority of the Hindus in my constituency, all voted for me,” Amin says proudly.

But he maintains that it is important to be cognisant of the issue of soneri cups. “If cups and glasses served to Muslim customers are used by lower caste Hindus it would impact my business in a negative manner,” he says.

Amin at his hotel. — Photo by author
Amin at his hotel. — Photo by author

Amjad, a vegetable vendor parked near Kohli's hotel, says that since the hotel serves a 'certain' class of Hindus, he neither visits nor orders tea from it.

“I am not the only one,” he adds. Apparently, other Muslims frequenting the market do not like to have tea from Kohli's hotel as well.

A hotel of their own

Lower-caste Hindus choose Kohli’s hotel because it welcomes them, instead of humiliating them by serving them in soneri cups, or worse, forcing them to sit away from Muslim customers.

Mithy Kohli, a 22-year-old farmer, walks to the hotel every day after an exhausting day of working on the fields some five kilometres away. For him, this is the only place where he can sit down comfortably with his community members to discuss various issues or spend leisure time.

Two men lounging at Kohli's hotel in Kotri's vegetable market. — Photo by author
Two men lounging at Kohli's hotel in Kotri's vegetable market. — Photo by author

“Hindus take issue with drinking tea at Muslim hotels because we are served tea and water in soneri cups,” Mithu explains. Often, he says, he is not allowed to sit on a chair, or near a Muslim, just by virtue of being a lower-caste Hindu.

“But here,” he gestures around the small room that is Kohli's hotel. “We don’t have to face such issues.”

The hotel is packed with Hindus belonging to scheduled castes. Many are employed on agricultural fields where they harvest crops, while others run small businesses or work as cobblers.

The hotel earns most of its money by selling tea. After a tiring day, men come for a hot, freshly brewed cup of chai. They are likely to run into familiar faces, and end up sitting for hours to discuss various social issues. More cups of tea are ordered.

25-year old Chetan, Kohli’s son, manages almost all the hotel's affairs, including serving tea and collecting money from customers. He easily makes Rs10,000 a month. With his father, he recently installed a cable television in the hope of providing some entertainment to the customers.

Men sit around Kohli's hotel, watching television. — Photo by author
Men sit around Kohli's hotel, watching television. — Photo by author

There are similar communities and hotels in other parts of the province, including one in Kohli’s native town, Tando Allahyar. But Kotri and Hyderabad are largely devoid of hotels and restaurants that welcome lower-castes.

“We are not even allowed to sit on the chairs or the areas where Muslims sit,” Kohli says. “Which is why we have been forced to set-up a hotel for our own community.”

'Double discrimination'

Muslims do not visit Hariji Kohli’s hotel. Upper-caste Hindus, too, avoid the premises, and prefer to travel further for a hotel run by Muslims, rather than drink tea at Kohli's hotel.

“We face double discrimination,” Kohli remarks. “Muslims discriminate against us on the basis of religion, and upper-caste Hindus on the basis of caste.”

Most upper-caste Hindus are economically and socially sound, and commonly work as doctors, engineers and business people. Of the total Hindu population in Sindh, 80 per cent are lower-caste or scheduled-caste Hindus. The rest identify with the upper-caste, and also hold 95 per cent of the seats allocated to minorities in the assembly.

Punhoo Bheel, president of the Sindh Batha Mazdoor Federation, believes that upper-caste Hindus are privileged and treat lower-castes with resentment.

“Upper-caste Hindus are rich,” he points out. “They do not have to face the discrimination we [lower-castes] do, and discriminate against us as Muslims do."

Historically oppressed

Ghulam Hussain Mehaser, an academician, explains that the word scheduled caste was coined by the British in India, to refer to lower-castes. “In Pakistan, the name is given to castes of the Hindu community which are considered socially disadvantageous," he says.

In 1956, the Pakistan government declared about 40 castes and tribes as scheduled castes, also called lower-caste Hindus or Dalits. The word Dalit is derived from Sanskrit. It means ‘oppressed’ and is commonly used as a derogatory term for lower-caste Hindus.

The majority of these Hindus are Kolhis, Menghwars, Bheels, Bagris, Balmakis, Jogis and Oads.

In December 1965, the United Nations adopted the historical International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Pakistan was among its signatories, but so far, it has not developed any mechanism for the convention's implementation.

In 2012, the Supreme Court (SC) gave a detail verdict for the protection of minority rights by developing mechanisms for implementing such conventions. A committee was formed in compliance with the SC’s verdict, but it is yet to be functional.

A man brews chai for customers at Kohli's hotel. — Photo by author
A man brews chai for customers at Kohli's hotel. — Photo by author

Veriji Kohli, chairman of Union Council Baharano in Taluka Nagar Parkar says that discrimination against lower-caste communities is particularly rampant in Sindh. Even though there is a Directorate Minority Affairs, not a single cell is dedicated to eliminating the discrimination faced by lower-caste Hindus.

“In a city like Karachi, lower-caste community members have changed their names to get jobs and secure themselves,” he notes. “In rural areas, the situation is worsening every day.”

A divide between the castes

Pushpa Kumari, a coordinator with the Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network, feels the issue cannot be resolved without the support of upper-class Hindus who hold considerable political and social clout.

“But despite their tall claims of working for all Hindus, including lower-caste Hindus, they are not supporting us,” she complains.

In 2015, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) organised a meeting of expert groups on the challenges of scheduled castes. It was a good opportunity to discuss the issue of discrimination, but they were unable to put forth their concerns.

One advocate, Neel Kanth, had rejected the point of discrimination raised by scheduled castes in a meeting.

“It [discrimination] has been eliminated from the major areas of Sindh province,” he had claimed, shutting down the discussion.

According to Pushpa, a majority of the forums where the matter is brought up, such as the HRCP meeting, are dominated by upper-caste Hindus. “We cannot discuss the issue openly. If we get the opportunity, they reject our claims," she says.

The Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC) is another platform for Hindus, but it has poor representation of lower-caste Hindus. “Even membership is not being granted to lower-castes,” Pushpa adds.

However, Pakistan Hindu Council chairman Ramesh Kumar Vankwani tells he has worked hard to eliminate caste differences.

“This used to be a reality. But it is no longer the case," he says. "A Hindu is a Hindu, regardless of caste."

Everyday discrimination

The president of Sindh Batha Mazdoor Federation, Punhoo Bheel, feels that soneri cups are only one example of discrimination against lower-caste Hindus. “The majority of hotels in Hyderabad do not serve food and tea to lower-caste Hindus,” he alleges.

Often, the discrimination is subtler and exists on an every-day level. For example, Bheel has noticed that when a woman belonging to a scheduled caste and clad in traditional Thari clothes boards a bus, no seat is vacated for her to sit on. “But such things are not done with women in more fashionable attire,” he continues. “Especially those belonging to the Muslim or upper-caste Hindu communities.”

Even the conductor, he says, has to nudge the men sitting around to help make room for the women.

The signboard posted at Malik Muhrab Khan Restaurant, Amin's hotel. — Photo by author
The signboard posted at Malik Muhrab Khan Restaurant, Amin's hotel. — Photo by author

“Buses, schools, hotels, and other public areas also commonly discriminate against lower-class Hindus,” Pushpa says, echoing Bheel's sentiments.

There are two temples important to the Lohana community in Mithi. “We are not allowed to enter these places,” Pushpa says. The same holds true for places in Salam Kot and other areas in Sindh.

Meanwhile, there are two hotels in Mithi run by Meghwars and other scheduled caste communities. But both spots are avoided by upper-caste Hindus and Muslims.

Kohli's hotel in Kotri's vegetable market. — Photo by author
Kohli's hotel in Kotri's vegetable market. — Photo by author