Opinion: Is it Dalits or Christians being persecuted in Pakistan?

Have Muslims failed Islam in dealing the caste discrimination issue in Pakistan? It is shocking that Pakistan’s human rights organisations, as well as Dalit organisations, have rarely spoken about the issue. The whole case of untouchability and caste discrimination is often missed in the entire debate of blasphemy.

Pakistan Minorities
Image Courtesy: AFP

Pakistan is in turmoil at the moment. In a historic judgment, Pakistan Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Dalit Christian woman who was sentenced to death by the lower courts on the charges of blasphemy. The court judgment has created an unprecedented crisis in Pakistan as the Mullahs and other Islamic fanatics have taken to the street and are asking the government to pressurize the court to rescind the judgment. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan initially showed some spine but has now surrendered to the fanatic elements who are threatening Asia Bibi and her family for the alleged blasphemous act committed nearly a decade ago.
Pakistan’s long-serving Dictator, General Zia ul Haq damaged the institutions there and brought new changes in the constitution. The old Indian Penal code used to protect an attempt to ‘hurt’ religious sentiments, but now Zia has added specific provisions under Section 298A  which state, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of any wife [Ummul Mumineen], or members of the family [Ahle-bait], of the Holy Prophet [Peace be upon him] or any of the righteous Caliphs [Khulafa-e-Raashideen] or companions [Sahaaba] of the Holy Prophet [Peace be upon him] shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine or with both.”
This became the biggest instrument in the hands of Muslim fanatics which could be used against ‘Christians’ and Ahmedis. It was easier because people have to just complain against a non-Muslim saying that he heard him ‘abusing’ or defiling or writing, speaking things against the Prophet and soon the entire shouting brigade would band together, baying for the blood of the accused. According to a research report in Pakistan’s prestigious newspaper Dawn, over 75 persons, which include 39 Muslims, 23 Christians, 9 Ahmedis and 2 Hindus, have been killed extra-judicially on the charges of blasphemy.
Ahmedis are not even considered Muslims and are the most tortured communities in Pakistan. The Christian community, which is being targeted extensively are originally Churas and Bhangis who continue to live in fear and face discrimination at all levels. Internationally, when blasphemy cases from Pakistan come under the spotlight, the international media mostly talks about Christians but the fact is, this is a big lie. The people in Pakistan face blasphemy charges not because they are Christians but because they are Bhangis and Churas.
It is also shocking that Pakistan’s human rights organisations, as well as Dalit organisations, have rarely spoken about the issue. The whole case of untouchability and caste discrimination is often missed in the entire debate of blasphemy. We must not forget that Pakistan’s elite leadership wanted the Bhangis and Churas to remain in Pakistan otherwise who else would clean their sewage lines and toilets. Secondly, most of them had been converting to Christianity from Lahore to Delhi and one factor was that the high caste Muslims never wanted to sit beside them or have any relations with them. Therefore, most of the Churas or Bhangis actually embraced Christianity, though their occupations remained the same. It has to be understood that Christians in Pakistan are not the white or high caste Christians but hail from the Bhangi and Chura communities who continue to face caste-based discrimination. Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission has been speaking about the violence and oppression of minorities, particularly the Christians, but I don’t know why their caste factor is not discussed.
One of Pakistan’s leading organization, Sir Ganga Ram Heritage Foundation has been inviting lectures on Dr. Ambedkar every year and invite many Indian scholars and activists. If we go by their website, we only find stories about Dalits in India. There is not a single mention of Dalits in Pakistan or what needs to be done. In the success stories, one PPP Member of National Assembly is portrayed. Pakistan’s Dalit movement, in Sind Province and under the leadership of Dalit Sujag Tehreek, is doing wonderful work but the issues of Chura and Bhangis are left here too. Maybe they are engaged in their own struggles and the issues of the sweeper community are mostly relegated to Punjab. I have not come across a single case where Sir Ganga Ram Heritage Foundation is fighting for the rights of the Dalits in Pakistan. Sadly, not a single statement about the humiliation of Churas and Bhangis is being said by them. Just being a propaganda material of the state would not work. It can give them some brownie points but at the end, Pakistan must be held accountable on the Dalit question and international human rights group must start focusing on the Dalit and tribal issues outside India also.
The fire-spitting fanatics in the streets of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi want to punish Asia Bibi, mother of five children. Her husband Ashiq Maseeh has already appealed to the international community to help them. Their lawyer, who defended them in the Supreme Court has already left Pakistan fearing attacks and has taken shelter in the Netherlands. Imran Khan’s government did not do a great favour to anyone by saying that it won’t allow Asia Bibi to go abroad. This is disgraceful, given the nature of threats. She was secure in the jail but what about her safety now? There is a risk to her life and that of her family.
The government is pressurizing the courts like the political parties. The bloodthirsty hate mongers are just waiting to hand her to death without shame. We haven’t heard the issue clearly and the local and international media only focus on the blasphemous angle of the story and not about caste apartheid and justice for Asia Bibi.
I am quoting the story from an Australian news-site news.com:
“Aasiya Noreen “Asia” Bibi is a mother-of-five from Ittan Wali, a small rural village in central Pakistan.
In her biography, Blasphemy: A Memoir, Bibi describes the moment that would radically alter her life forever.
On June 14, 2009, she set out to the fields near her house to take part in a berry-picking harvest, for which she would be paid 250 Pakistani rupees for a day’s work — the equivalent of just under $A3.
She described a climate of open hostility towards her from the women she worked with because she was part of the country’s Christian minority, which makes up less than 2 per cent of Pakistan.
Around midday, dehydrated and sweltering in the sun, Bibi walked to the nearby well to have a drink of water.
But after she refilled the bucket a second time, a woman screamed: “Don’t drink that water, it’s haram!”
According to Bibi’s account, the woman who screamed then turned to the dozen other women working in the fields and said: “Listen, all of you, this Christian has dirtied the water in the well by drinking from our cup and dipping it back several times. Now the water is unclean and we can’t drink it! Because of her!”
The argument intensified, with the women calling on Bibi to convert and “redeem herself”.
It was one sentence she fired back with that would seal her fate: “What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind?”
After this, Bibi said the women started screaming, spitting at her and physically assaulting her. She ran home in a fright.
Less than a week later, she went fruit-picking in another field when she was confronted by a rioting crowd, led by the woman who had initially shouted at her.
The crowd surrounded her, beat her and took her to the village, screaming: “Death! Death to the Christian!”
The village imam said: “I’ve been told you’ve insulted our Prophet. You know what happens to anyone who attacks the holy Prophet Mohammed. You can redeem yourself only by conversion or death.”
She protested: “I haven’t done anything. Please, I beg you, I’ve done nothing wrong.”
It is clear that Asia Bibi was a victim of the untouchability when the women who saw her drinking water told others that the water has become ‘haram’. Any self-respecting person would respond the way Asia Bibi did but the Islamic zealots actually converted it into a blasphemous act. There is so much talk that Islam treats everyone equally and there is no untouchability and now you want to oppress and suppress people’s voices because you fear getting exposed. In India, Asia Bibi would have got protection under the SC-ST Act even when we know that the implementation is the worst part.
I am not writing this article to deride Muslims or Pakistan as I believe in everyone’s fundamental right. As a nation, Pakistan has every right to exist as any other country in the world but I wonder whether this Pakistan is the one from Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s dream. One similarity that I found in Pakistan and Jinnah with Nehru was his secularism and democratic approach, but neither Nehru or Jinnah understand caste discrimination and untouchability nor did they make any assertive effort to eradicate it. They wanted to be secular but not radical change makers.
Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly chief was Joginder Nath Mondal who became the first law and labour minister there, very much like Baba Saheb Ambedkar here. Baba Saheb Ambedkar got fed up with the Nehru government which did not give him the Ministry he would have loved like Planning and Finance. Jogindernath Mondal became fed up with Pakistani leadership within the two years of the state coming into existence as East Pakistan, which was the Bengali dominated area was being severely discriminated and the condition of minorities was horrible. The resignation letters of Baba Saheb Ambedkar from Nehru cabinet and Jogindernath Mondal from Pakistani cabinet needs to be explained to the people to understand the conditions of Dalits and minorities in our respective countries.
Long back, many of the leaders felt that Islam was a liberator for the marginalized particularly Dalits and many of them converted into the faith. MN Roy’s book ‘Historical Role of Islam’ is an important document on the role played by Islam in liberating the Dalits and the marginalized in India but today, when we see the conditions of Dalit Muslims, we realize that Muslim elites have failed Islam and have continued with the traditions of their Brahmanical ancestors in following the caste system and untouchability. It is surprising that blasphemy in Pakistan has not been linked to the issues of Churas and Bhangis yet. Our Sanghi nationalists are doing the same. You raise a question about the Dalits and they talk about Ram Mandir and cow protection. The entire cow protection movement in India is actually our blasphemy movement and victims of Indian blasphemy are Muslims and Dalits.
Nearly a year and a half ago, a Pakistani journalist who happened to be a Dalit complained that in his newsroom, he faced untouchability. I contacted him through friends but after the first email, he refused to answer my questions. A number of other Dalit activists are unable to speak up openly as they feel threatened and are being spied on by the state agencies. While many of Pakistan’s top Generals use the Dalit card against India, the fact is their own track record is horrible and perhaps much worse than India. Hindus have legitimized caste system but India’s Dalit movement is an example to be emulated. There is no other movement in the subcontinent which can be compared to it in terms of the liberation of people.
It is not that Indian Muslim do not have castes. Halalkhors, Hellas, Kalandars, Nats and many other communities exist in the system but the Indian state, as well as the upper caste Muslim leadership, rarely speak about them. In Kashmir, there is much talk of Islamic Jihad and other things but they never raise the issues of Wattals, who are the manual scavengers in Kashmir, belonging to Islam. They are treated as untouchables and most of them are landless, homeless and destitute. When the entire country wants to be open defecation free, Kashmir and some of its districts have open toilets and Wattals have to clean them and are humiliated regularly.
The caste system was divinely sanctioned by the Brahmanical system but why are the Muslims and Christians following it? It is in this context, we feel that the upper caste leadership of Muslims in both India and Pakistan kept the issue under the wrap and enjoyed the farzi fight. No Jihadi organization in Pakistan has come out in support of Pakistan’s Dalits. When the Indian Muslims are now making alliances with Dalits, why is that the Pakistan government and its leadership continue to follow the caste system and untouchability?
Pakistan’s religious leaders would have would have gained a lot if they had supported the Supreme Court judgment but the way these fanatics bloodsuckers are crying against Asia Bibi proves that they have contempt and hatred towards Dalits. Who will clean their toilets and sewage systems if the Dalits deny it? International media and Pakistan media must understand that it is not merely the issue of the Christian minority getting targeted.
The main targets are Dalits because they too want to progress and leave their occupation imposed upon them. The fundamentalists want them to continue with this work and therefore most of them are trapped under the allegations of blasphemy. Pakistan leadership must be made accountable for the violence against Dalits and the media must change the narrative now.
People are being persecuted not because they are Christian but because they are Dalits as leaving their occupations and standing with their heads held high is a direct threat to casteist Mullahs and fanatics who want to suppress their voices in the name of Islam.
We hope that the Pakistan Supreme Court as well as the government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan will not succumb to the pressure from the fanatics on this issue and will allow justice to prevail. Any Pakistani Dalit facing untouchability and caste discrimination is the most blasphemous act any country can face. Dalits must get a respectable life and an opportunity to participate in the socio-political-cultural life of their country. Any country practising the caste system and untouchability must come under the international radar and there should be a fight against racism. It is time caste discrimination become part of international agenda. No religious law should be allowed to justify violence against the Dalits. The international community must recognize that violence against certain communities in Pakistan is not because they are minorities but because they happen to be Dalits. Once they understand the issue of caste discrimination, all countries will have to make laws to protect Dalits and eradicate untouchability and caste discrimination. That way, action must be taken against those racists who humiliated Asia Bibi when she drank water from the pot. Will the Pakistani government have the courage to do so? No, it won’t but let it protect Asia Bibi or allow her to leave Pakistan to live in any other country which can guarantee her safety and security.



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