The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at:
Talking about minority rights is essentially an attempt to change the world for future generations; how societies treat their minorities often reflects their ideals for the future. We can mimic developed countries in talk, but we can’t do the same in practice unless we improve the lot of the marginalized.
Every year International Minorities Rights Day is observed on Dec 18 to uphold the right to freedom and equal opportunities for minorities across the world. In 1992, the United Nations declared this day and adopted the statement on individuals’ rights – for ethnic, linguistic, national, or religious minorities. The day tries to promote dignity and respect for minority groups and highlights the challenges and issues the minority communities of diverse origins have been facing.
When Prof Sagar Samejo and Chandar Keswani called from Karachi inviting me to speak at the festival-and-seminar they were organizing, I was a bit reluctant due to my other commitments, but they would accept no apologies. The Forum for Rights of Marginalized Communities (FRMC) has been trying to highlight the issues minority communities have been facing in Pakistan. This year the topic of the seminar was ‘Rights of marginalized communities – issues and challenges’. Sagar Samejo and Senator Gianchand were the coordinator and organizer of this timely seminar whereas Khushhal Premee moderated it. Sagar himself is a son of the Thar desert where life can be both adorable and pitiful. Like most other children in that area, Sagar received his primary education from his village’s open-air school. Through sheer hard work, he went on to acquire an MSc in chemistry from Sindh University.
This background helps us understand how some people overcome all obstacles to achieve academic excellence, and then do not confine themselves to personal gains. Sagar has been an activist from his college days and thanks to his love for democracy and progressive politics he could join the ranks of those who challenged Gen Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship. He ended up in jail and endured hard imprisonment from 1978 to 1982. His active participation in the Movement for Restoration of Democracy in the 1980s is exemplary. His literary quests also groomed him as a fine Sindhi poet and short-story writer.
Through the efforts of Gianchand and Sagar Samejo – with full support from Culture and Education Minister Syed Sardar Ali Shah and senior PPP leader Nisar Khuhro – the festival and seminar became a huge success. Gianchand himself is an engineer from Umarkot and was only the second Dalit to become senator of Pakistan on a PPP ticket in 2015. Credit must go to the PPPas it sent the first Hindu woman Ratna Bhagwandas Chawla to the Senate of Pakistan in 2006, and then the first Dalit woman Krishna Kohli in 2018.
Though minority issues get some highlights here and there, the most marginalized seldom get any attention. Many of their leaders – not all – puff up their chests and strut around in the corridors of powers while not doing much for their communities. Only some of them are able to develop a measure of personal trust with their own people while becoming well-heeled and developing an intimate knowledge of politics. It is not only religious minorities alone that face such situations; cultural, ethnic, and linguistic minorities also face nearly the same or similar challenges.
To be able to eliminate all forms of discrimination against minorities is an uphill task, as full equality and freedom for minorities calls for creating awareness about the respect for minorities that is hard to come by. A policy of non-discrimination at all levels that the state must enforce and every tier of government must implement is perhaps the only way forward. The theme by the UN for 2022 was ‘All in 4 Minority Rights’. Though some people take exception to the use of the word ‘minorities’ for cultural or religious communities, this is an accepted term by the UN.
Though there is no universal definition of minority, a community that lacks influence economically, politically and socially, and whose population is negligible is usually called a minority. This definition leaves much to desire as a minority at the national level may not be a minority at the provincial level. If we define less than five per cent population as negligible at the national level, all non-Muslim groups combined having less than four per cent share in Pakistan’s population we can subsume under the definition of minorities. But at the provincial level it may be different.
In Sindh nearly five million people are non-Muslims, making them almost 10 per cent of the province’s population – so in any way they are neither negligible nor a minority unless you further divide them into diverse religions or religious groups. This is where another problem creeps in about the definition of Hindus whose major population centres are Hyderabad and Mirpurkhas divisions where nearly half of them reside. Many Dalit community members identify themselves as a distinct group of scheduled castes which they claim is different from Hindus.
At the seminar, Chief Guest Sherry Rehman took strong exception to the words ‘minority’ and ‘scheduled castes’. Though this remains a debatable issue, the word ‘minority’ is acceptable to the UN and ‘scheduled castes’ are also constitutionally recognized even in India. In Pakistan, the Dalit community is the most marginalized not only by the majority but by upper caste Hindus too. Increasing incidents of kidnapping and forced conversions of their girls has become a major issue for them. Various civil society organizations such as the Dalit Sujag Tehreek have raised their voice against such incidents and demanded protection for the community. Balmiki, Bhagri, Bheel, Gowari, Jogi, Kolhi, Meghwar, and Oad are among the most oppressed people in this region.
So far both the federal and provincial governments have been unable to take appropriate measures to check the injustices that take place against and within the community. This is an issue of grave economic and social backwardness and just by declaring equality in the constitution and other legal documents, it will not get resolved. The Sindh government especially must do much more than just nominating advisors, assistants, legislators, and ministers; improving their conditions of living and working should be a priority. Despite the passage of the Hindu Marriage Act-2016, Dalit families are still facing harassment and feeling insecure.
There are a number of Scheduled Caste Organizations such as the All Sindh Kolhi Association, Bhagri Welfare Association, Bheel Intellectual Forum, Oad Samaji Tanzeem, Pakistan Meghwar Council, and Sindh Kolhi Ittihad. Unfortunately, many of these organizations are at loggerheads with each other and some within. For example, the Sindh Kolhi Ittihad is divided into the Nemdas group and the Ranshal group.
Though Scheduled Caste Hindus claim to form the majority of the Hindu population, their representation in the political sphere is minimal. For example, the Pakistan Hindu Council has thousands of members but only dozens of them are from the scheduled castes. They demand that in the census they should be registered as scheduled caste Hindus rather than just Hindus.
The same applies to the National Commission of Minorities in which Dalit names were not proposed. It is worth recalling that in 1956, Pakistan government had declared up to 32 castes and tribes as scheduled castes in the country. Now they are victims of double discrimination from within and outside of their religion. A majority of Dalit population works as farm help or does menial jobs while also enduring discrimination, exploitation, harassment, humiliation, and even violence on various pretexts.
The festival and seminar succeeded in highlighting these issues but unfortunately the mainstream media in Pakistan does not pay much attention to such events and issues.