With Pakistan’s Hindu Dalits facing increasing violence, a need for reform

Karachi, Pakistan – Long accustomed to discrimination, Pakistani Hindu Dalits in the Sindh Province of Pakistan, located in the southern part of the country, are fighting discrimination on two fronts due to their status as non-Muslims in a Muslim state and their low caste standing. Dalits have also been traditionally regarded as “untouchable” in the Hindu religion.

A recent incident involving the violent exhumation of a Dalit from a Muslim graveyard underscores the discrimination that Dalits face in Pakistan. On October 6, a group of Pakistani Dalits buried Dalit artist Bhooro Bheel, who was killed in a traffic accident, in a Muslim graveyard in the Pangrio area in central Sindh, which has a long tradition of burying Hindus from Dalit communities. After the funeral, an Islamist group meeting at a nearby mosque called for the corpse to be removed. Shortly afterwards, a mob dug up the body and desecrated the grave.

In another incident, a young Dalit woman, Kakoo Kohli, was shot dead on November 28 in the Umarkot district, in northern Sindh. Kohli’s family members and the Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network (PDSN), a network of over 30 organizations supporting the rights of marginalized groups, particularly minorities and lower castes, claimed that she was killed by the same suspects who had allegedly gang-raped her six weeks ago. They also claimed that the suspects were still roaming freely in the area despite an ongoing criminal case against the perpetrators.

“Although marginalized groups generally belonging to minority communities are threatened in many areas in Pakistan, Dalits, who are officially known as ‘scheduled castes,’ are the worst victims of the violence and discrimination, particularly in lower districts of Sindh province,” said Zulfiqar Shah, Secretary General of the PDSN.

According to the country’s 1998 census, there are approximately 333,000 Dalits in Pakistan. However, interviews with Dalit activists and minority rights groups suggest that today, the country’s Dalit population could be as high as two million. There is no formal way of knowing the Dalit population, however, since Pakistan has not taken a population census since 1998. Still, many of the country’s Dalits are concentrated in the Sindh Province, with smaller numbers in the western province of Balochistan and the southern part of the Punjab province.

“Dalits are basically a cluster of 42 castes. The most popular are Bheels, Kohlis, Meghwals, Bagdis and Odhs, with low incomes and low purchasing power. They comprise 85 percent of the total Hindu population,” said Sanjesh Dhanja, the president of the Pakistan Hindu Seva Welfare Trust (PHSWT), a Hindu rights group.

The Dalits’ “untouchability” also prohibits them from accessing public places. ”Neither Hindu nor Muslim barbers will shave Dalits or give them a haircut,” said a Dalit engineer who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Hindus and Muslims won’t eat food prepared by the Dalits, either,” said the engineer. “Such practices concerning untouchability are very common in Sindh.”

Many Dalit women in Pakistan are also victims of sexual abuse, kidnapping and forced religious conversions. During the last few months alone, local newspapers have published over a dozen news stories about sexual violence against Dalit women in the Sindh province. The majority of Dalit families in Pakistan even avoid sending their daughters to school out of fear that they will be abducted and subjected to forced religious conversions, said Dhanja.

According to a survey conducted by the PHSWT, Dalit parents prefer that their daughters work as farmhands, tending to livestock instead of getting an education – even at the primary school level – out of the fear that they will be harassed or worse. Dhanja added that many Dalit women have been victimized not only by Muslims, but also by a small population of upper caste Hindus.

Bonded labor in Pakistan is widespread, particularly in the agricultural and brick-kiln sectors, with the majority of laborers in these sectors coming from the country’s Dalit communities. According to a report from the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research (PILER), a labor rights organization based in Karachi, the combination of poverty, belonging to a low caste and being non-Muslim are the main factors contributing to the harsh conditions and treatment of Dalit laborers in Pakistan.

Dalit activists also complain that Pakistan’s Dalit population suffers for not having any political leadership to vouch on its behalf. Rather, Hindu politics in Pakistan are dominated by Hindus from upper castes, with most elections to the country’s parliament being based on wealth. “Upper class Hindus do not raise their voices against the atrocities of the majority Dalit community in the parliament because in many cases, they are themselves involved in it,” said Faqira Bheel, a resident of Tharparkar, located in the southeastern part of the Sindh Province. Also to their detriment, there are few temples in Pakistan in which Dalits can worship, and they are prohibited from praying in temples that cater primarily to Hindus from upper classes.

However, the recent desecration of a Dalit corpse and the killing of a Dalit woman have sparked a massive campaign by Sindh’s civil society organizations and rights groups to raise awareness of the problems plaguing Pakistani Dalits.

Political parties, civil societies and minority organizations in Sindh have organized protest rallies, denounced the incidents and visited the locations where they occurred in a show of solidarity with the Dalit community and the families of the deceased.

After the incident where Bheel’s corpse was desecrated, Aksaryati Hindu Panchayat, a Hindu rights organization, organized a march against religious militancy in October with the support of Sindh’s political parties and civil society groups. According to local media reports, participants in the march walked from the Mirpur Khas district to Hyderabad district, a distance of approximately 70 kilometers.

Expressing concern over the atrocities against the Dalit community, participants in a December 7 protest held outside the Karachi Press Club said that Dalits were the indigenous inhabitants of Sindh but were being treated as untouchables, harassed because of their religious beliefs.

“Unfortunately, the rape of Dalit women is considered as an act ‘for granted’ because of their low social status in Pakistani society,” said Mahnaz Rehman, the leader of the Aurat Foundation, a women’s rights group that operates throughout the country. “Government is unable to take action against the influential and wealthy landlords involved in raping and other atrocities,” Rehman added.

Experts say that the situation the Dalit community faces is not much different than that facing minorities in other South Asian countries, particularly India. However, two years ago, Nepal adopted the Caste-based Discrimination and Untouchability Bill, a landmark law protecting the rights of Dalits. In a similar move, the British government decided in April that the Equality Act, a set of anti-discrimination laws first enacted in 2010, would protect against caste discrimination to ensure the safety of Dalits in Diaspora communities.

Pakistani rights groups also demanded that Pakistan’s government form a National Commission on Scheduled Castes to hear the complaints of caste and racial discrimination, following up these complaints with the necessary and required action.

There are many steps that the Pakistani government needs to take to alleviate the suffering of Dalits in the country. Unfortunately, it has taken very public and gruesome attacks on Dalits to launch discussion of initiatives designed to improve their living conditions.

A first step towards doing so would be to hold a caste-wide census to enumerate the different groups in the caste system. This should be followed up by providing these groups with proper representation in Pakistani Parliament based on population ratios. Such a move would ensure that the voices of all Pakistanis are heard at the national level, and see that the injustices facing minority groups are acknowleged and properly addressed.

Zia Ur Rehman is an award-winning journalist and researcher based in Karachi, Pakistan. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The National, Central Asia Online, The Friday Times and The News, among other publications.