Tahir Mehdi in The Dawn
A group of Pakistani Dalits in Mirpurkhas gathered at their town hall recently. They vowed to initiate a movement to assert their distinct political identity, and fight for their communities’ rights.
The word ‘dalit’ literally means ‘oppressed people’; it has been in use since the 19th century to describe communities that fall outside of the four-caste Hindu hierarchy. These ‘outcastes’ or ‘untouchables’ have been subject to horrendous discrimination, in all spheres of life, for at least the past 2,000 years.
As political consciousness in undivided India arose towards the end of the British Raj, a number of Dalit leaders emerged to formulate and push forward their own political demands.
Most prolific among them was Dr B.R. Ambedkar, who did not trust the upper-caste-dominated Congress with the political interests and aspirations of his communities. He made a strong case for a separate electorate for Dalits in the 1930-32 Round Table Conferences. The Muslim League had also made the same demand the centre of their politics.
The Communal Award of 1932 accepted the positions of both, but Gandhi persuaded Ambedkar to agree to reserved seats for Dalits within a joint electorate system, rather than having Dalit voters elect Dalit parliamentarians separately.
The Government of India Act, 1935 included a schedule of castes that were subject of its specific clauses. The term ‘Scheduled Castes’ thus replaced ‘Dalits’ in official parlance. In Pakistan, the government also notified 40 castes as ‘Scheduled’ through an ordinance in 1957, which included Bheel, Kohli and Menghwar.
Dalits did establish a distinct identity — but their mobility within politics continued to remain restricted due to entrenched caste barriers.
Dr Ambedkar made it to the Constituent Assembly of India only with the help of fellow Dalit leader, Jogendra Nath Mandal.
Mandal, from East Bengal, belonged to the Namahsudra (an ‘untouchable’) caste. He was long associated with the Muslim League, and had served as a minister in the Suharwardy-led government of Bengal in 1946. Being a Dalit leader, he had found common cause with poor Bengali Muslims fighting against landlords and moneylenders, the majority of whom were upper-caste Hindus.
He supported the creation of Pakistan, and was made temporary chairman of the first Constituent Assembly. He served as a federal minister in the first cabinet.
Mandal’s elevation was perceived as a gesture towards Dalits, indicating that Muslim Pakistan would treat them better than the caste-plagued Hindu Congress. This gesture proved short-lived — and soon turned into a tale of betrayal.
In March 1949, a Dalit member of the first Constituent Assembly motioned to amend the Objectives Resolution to include ‘Scheduled Castes’ in the language which vowed to safeguard interests of minorities. Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar defended the original phrasing, arguing that specificity was not required; whether Muslim or Hindu, any marginalised community would be protected.
The amendment was turned down, which was a denial of the everyday realities of our society, where oppression is encoded into the caste system.
It became evident that Pakistan divides its population into two groups only — Muslims and non-Muslims — and that when it comes to sharing state resources and privileges, Muslims would benefit from their preferential status at the expense of non-Muslims.
Mandal resigned in 1950. If one is to trust the veracity of his resignation letter available online, he offered a scathing indictment of Pakistan’s failure to safeguard its minorities. He accused the rulers of extreme forms of discrimination against Dalits — including forced conversions and even mass murder. A dejected Mandal moved back to Kolkata. That is how Dalits’ dream of Pakistan turned into a nightmare. But the worst was yet to come.
Gen Zia introduced the separate electorate system, and allotted seats in elected houses to ‘Hindus and Scheduled Castes’. This collating of Dalits and caste Hindus not only stripped Dalits of the distinct political identity they had struggled for, it also pushed them back into the same Hindu fold, against which Mandal and the Muslim League had sided. Zia’s system was later changed, but the succeeding scheme continued to prefer upper-caste Hindus.
This resulted in rich caste Hindus obtaining ruling positions by using Dalits as their ladder. While there is little doubt that the rich in majority communities also get most party posts and parliamentary seats, in the Dalit context this has additional ramifications.
For example, the well-educated, upper-caste, Sindhi Hindus get admissions in higher education institutions on merit, and happen to occupy more seats than their proportion in the population. It makes sense for them not to demand quotas.
The absence of a quota, however, is against the interests of Dalits, who have a poor educational profile and seldom get good jobs. Their quota demands cannot make headway as long as their representatives belong to the upper-caste.
In matters of personal laws, the positions of Dalits and caste Hindus diverge on issues as important as divorce. Marriage cannot be dissolved according to the upper-caste code, but this is not so with Dalits. Upper-caste insistence that Hindu marriage law should not include a divorce clause has been a major impediment in its enactment.
The upper castes are a minuscule minority within Pakistani Hindus, and the vast Dalit electorate is all that democratically legitimises their politics. Yet, no sincere attempt to reach out to them has been made.
Community organisations formed by the upper castes have primarily charitable goals which, of course, do not include ‘annihilation of caste’. Their membership fees are often more than what most Dalits of Thar could ever pay, even with a loan guarantee taken for a lifetime of bonded labour.
Dalits complain bitterly that when an upper-caste girl is forcibly converted, caste Hindus parade the length of Sindh in protest, making headlines. Dalit women, on the other hand, suffer the same ordeal every day, but all they get from their community ‘leaders’ are empty promises.
The Dalit gathering in Mirpurkhas featured a large poster of Dr Ambedkar. Perhaps Mandal’s decision to call it quits on Pakistan was wrong. Pakistani Dalits will have to pick up the pieces of their broken dream, and start from where Mandal left off.