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Caste in Pakistan: A lived reality

Caste in Pakistan: A lived reality
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The legacy of caste-based exclusion in Pakistan has deep historical roots that existed in the sub-continent centuries

Written by Rimsha Shahid, Purkho Essir Bheel

Caste or varna is certainly not the creation of God; the privileged class created it for their own selfish gains. Caste is not specific to India, and no country, regardless of whether it is fundamental to its reality, should be limited to a single social group. However, comprehending caste in Pakistan requires an understanding of the demography of caste, the intricacies of which are undeniably complex. While it may not be one of Pakistan’s most visible social aspects, it underlies many of the country’s historical and contemporary challenges.

The Hindu population in Pakistan is a small minority, making up around 1.2 per cent of the total population. A significant proportion of Hindus in Pakistan belong to the Scheduled Castes. Approximately 40 distinct castes exist in Pakistan, with 32 of them formally designated as Scheduled Castes under the November 1957 Presidential ordinance. Scheduled Castes are mainly associated with Hindu communities, reflecting the influence of the supremacy of upper-caste Hindus. The challenges of discrimination against Dalits are primarily prevalent in rural areas, where a significant portion of the population lacks literacy and awareness about human rights. These discriminatory practices are primarily carried out by local feudal lords and sections of the upper-class Hindu population residing in rural areas.

The legacy of caste-based exclusion in Pakistan has deep historical roots that existed in the sub-continent centuries before the country came into being. While the Constitution and legal frameworks were established to protect the rights of religious minorities and marginalized communities, discrimination persists.

Approximately 40 distinct castes exist in Pakistan, with 32 of them formally designated as Scheduled Castes under the November 1957 Presidential ordinance

The story of Basanti Meghwar’s family is heart-wrenching. For more than two decades, they have been victims of bonded labor, trapped in brick-making to pay off the debt incurred when they borrowed money from a kiln owner to cover a hospital bill. Due to the absence of clear documentation, they are vulnerable to exploitation through such practices of modern-day slavery. However, civil society has been trying to help and influence government decision-making. Pannu Fair, a bonded laborer since the age of eight, was freed and his debt cleared through a court order. The intervention of SPARC, a local NGO, helped him to find a way to freedom.

Dalits are disproportionately affected by bonded labor, primarily due to factors such as poverty, their caste status, and being non-Muslim, which further contribute to the challenging socio-economic conditions faced by the very segment.

While the intensity of discriminatory activities against Dalits in Pakistan may not be as extreme as in some other countries, these practices still exert negative impacts on their lives, contributing to their social marginalization and exclusion. The discrimination they face lead to their curtailed participation in political processes, including discouragement from contesting elections or freely exercising their voting rights. Forced conversion in Pakistan is yet another distressing issue that highlights the vulnerability and challenges faced by marginalized communities.

Despite ongoing challenges and systemic exclusions from mainstream society, some determined individuals of the Dalit community have managed to rise high and make an impact on society. Sono Khangharani, with over three decades of experience in microfinance and development, has made a significant impact on society by leading and developing organizations that work with diverse groups. His commitment towards transformative change has created opportunities for marginalized individuals in the community.

Additionally, Krishna Kohli’s journey from being a bonded laborer to becoming the first Hindu Dalit woman to be elected to the Senate, from Nagarparkar in Sindh province, is a remarkable story of resilience. Growing up in a deprived village, she faced poverty, hunger, and was subjected to forced child labor. However, her determination enabled her to break free from this cycle and be an inspiration for others. These success stories highlight that individuals from Dalit communities have resilience and potential for growth and if given equal chances, they can rise to higher positions, contributing to a more inclusive and equitable society.

Some other influential figures have called attention to issues faced by Pakistan’s Dalit population. A local Dalit, Radha Bheel, CEO of RADHA (Rural Advancement Development Human Rights Association) and Chairperson of Dalit Sujag Tehreek, has emphasized the lack of political participation and economic disparities faced by Dalits in Pakistan. Another human rights activist, Pushpa Kumari, has pointed to the intersecting factors of gender, caste, and social position. Pirbhu Satyani, a human rights advocate from Sindh, has often spoken of the limited public discourse on caste discrimination in Punjab.

To tackle these concerns, the Government of Pakistan, particularly the Sindh government, has undertaken a range of laws and programs to address the difficulties experienced by minority communities. Despite the presence of legislation aimed at protecting minority groups, efforts are needed to effectively implement these laws. Dalits in Pakistan aspire to bring a transformative change where systems and authorities that support and promote such exclusionary practices for personal gains can be challenged. Only then can a future that guarantees greater security and safeguards their rights be attained.


Shahid is Senior Research Analyst, South Asia Research Institute for Minorities (SARIM) and Bheel is Research Associate, SARIM

Courtesy: Indian Express (Posted on October 29, 2023)


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