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Slavery in the Land of the Pure: Pakistans Two Million Dalits (Part Two) By Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.

com In the previous part of this article I had summarized some of the findings of pr obably the first-ever in-depth study about Pakistans Dalits, the countrys most dis possessed and vulnerable religious minority. Zulfiqar Shahs alarming report, titl ed Long Behind Schedule: A Study on the Plight of Scheduled Caste Hindus in Pakis tan, strikingly summarises the harrowing conditions of Hindu Dalits in the Islami c Republic of Pakistan. If caste and religious prejudice account in large measur e for their harrowing plight, Shah argues that the attitude of the Pakistani sta te towards the Dalits is no less responsible. Shah notes that the Pakistani state continues to refuse to recognize the very ex istence of caste and caste-based discrimination, which makes it virtually imposs ible to compel it to address the specific problems of Dalits. Ironically, he arg ues, caste is alive and thriving in Pakistan, even among the countrys overwhelmin g 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 hiera rchies among them. Often, even entirely Muslim localities are specific to a part icular caste group. The vast majority of poor Muslims in Pakistan belong to low ca ste 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 discri mination, even among the countrys Muslims, are denied by the Pakistani state by r egularly invoking the claim that caste is un-Islamic, and that, therefore, it si mply does not exist in Islamic Pakistan, which, it rhetorically insists, is a so ciety 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 cri minalise caste-based discrimination and untouchability, that remain widespread, the report says, across Pakistan. Being Hindu and low caste, Pakistans Dalits have been most badly hit by this denial by the state of caste. Since caste-based discrimination is not recognized by th e 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 conse quence, the report adds, impunity is widespread. Abuse of Dalits, from forced labo ur 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 count rys parliament or state legislatures. In any case, their acute poverty rules out the possibility of Dalit candidates standing for elections, which is expensive b usiness in Pakistan, as in India. Additionally, it is unlikely that political pa rties 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 sup port of powerful landlords, mostly Muslims but also, in some places upper caste Hi ndus, whom they cannot dare displease, and most Dalits work as landless labourer s 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. Addr essing Dalit concerns such as forcible conversions to Islam is also politically risky for political parties who fear a violent backlash from mullahs and their s upporters. Pakistans Dalits have no effective organizations to lobby for their rights. Polit ical parties do not take them seriously, and their minority wings are dominated by Christians and upper caste Hindus. Hindu organizations in the country are domin ated by rich upper castes, who are indifferent, if not hostile, to Dalit advanceme nt, and so Hindu political representatives rarely, if ever, take up Dalit concer ns. Another reason for their political marginalization is that the population of

the countrys Dalits, so the report says, has been grossly under-estimated in the census records, which put their numerical strength under 400,000 while their ac tual population may be more than two million. Hence, the report argues, nine-ten ths of Pakistans Dalits have either been ignored in the census or else wrongly ma rked as upper caste Hindus or put into other categories, thus further marginalizin g them in a system where access to development schemes and political power is de termined by a communitys 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. Addition ally, due to neglect or deliberately, vast numbers of Dalits are denied voter id entity-cards, and so elected representatives simply ignore them. This also leave s them unable to access the few government-funded development projects that exis t. The extreme political disempowerment of Pakistans Dalits, added to deep-rooted pr ejudices against Hindus, account, in large measure, for the virtual absence of a ny state-sponsored development programmes for Dalits, the report contends. Unlik e in India, there are no specific development schemes for low castes (whether Musl im or Hindu) in Pakistan, nor is a share of government jobs reserved for them. T he Pakistani state, the report laments, has undertaken no affirmative action mea sure to address the pathetic lives of the Dalits, the countrys most vulnerable mi nority. Indeed, it alleges, Dalits are being discriminated against in [the] gover nments development policies. Money given to elected representatives to spend on de velopment activities in their constituencies rarely, if ever, reaches the Dalits . This neglect is also replicated in international donor-sponsored poverty-allev iation schemes in the country. The report notes that in various parts of souther n Pakistan, where the bulk of the countrys Dalits live, Dalits, far from gaining at all from the development process, have turned into victims of development sch emes, being displaced from their lands as a result of mega projects. Like other religious minorities in the Islamic Republic, Pakistans Dalits, who ar e additionally discriminated against on account of their extreme poverty and low c aste status, suffer the pangs of being non-Muslim. The countrys Constitution itse lf discriminates against all non-Muslims, as it does against women, the report s tresses. The Constitution, the report contends, provides no protection to minori ties 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 enfo rceable section on fundamental rights, and, moreover, are overshadowed by religi ous provisions that call for all laws to be in conformity with Islam. The Federa l Shariat or Islamic Law Court has the right to turn down any law it considers r epugnant 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 violati on of various international human rights agreements to which Pakistan is a signa tory. Like other non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan, Dalits are sometimes targeted by Muslims under the countrys draconian blasphemy laws, being falsely accused of tra ducing Islam and its prophet (an act punishable with death or life imprisonment) in order to settle personal scores, the report reveals. Even trivial acts, leav e alone major forms of defiance or protest, can lead to hapless Dalits being hou nded 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 w estwards, in the direction of the Muslim holy city of Mecca! Although many of the forms of dispossession and discrimination that Pakistani Da lits suffer from are similar to those faced by their brethren in India, there ar e no legal mechanisms in Pakistan to address them. Thus, untouchability is not r

egarded as a punishable offence, and there is no legislation at the provincial l evel to protect the rights of Dalits who are routinely denied entry to public pl aces, and access to water sources or common utensils in eateries on account of t heir 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 countrys Dalit pop ulation; recording data broken down by caste and other relevant categories gathe red by the government; criminalising caste-based discrimination through a law th at allows prosecution of perpetrators and banning untouchability by law; institu ting programmes to economically empower Dalits, including through a quota system in jobs and educational institutions; providing Dalits legal possession of thei r homes and arranging interest-free loans for them; distributing state land to l andless Dalits; providing scholarships and other forms of assistance to Dalit st udents; ensuring that all political parties involve Dalits in decision-making, p ossibly through a law making representation of Dalits mandatory; reserving seats in all levels of government, including the judiciary and law enforcement depart ments, for Dalits; eliminating all religious biases from school textbooks; imple menting the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act and ensuring immediate rehabili tation of released bonded labourers; instituting a commission to investigate inc idents of rape, kidnapping and forced conversion to Islam of Dalits and punishin g their perpetrators, including Islamic clerics who abet such cases; ratifying r elevant international human rights treaties, complying with reporting obligation s 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-mean ing report and the recommendations that it proffers will meet with deafeningly l oud silence, if not thunderous opposition. URL: Forward to a friend Print

COMMENTS 7/19/2011 3:32:29 PM Ghulam Mohiyuddin It is horrifying to learn of the plight of Dalits in Pakistan, and even more hor rifying to realize that no one in the Pakistani establishment is going to pay th e slightest attention to such injustices. And to think that Islam is supposed to be a religion of justice and compassion!