By Jan Khaskheli
Dalits representing 40 ethnic groups in the country have decided to launch a pervasive campaign to convince the community to register their votes by recognising their religion as Dalits rather than as Hindus, as the previous practice marginalised low-caste communities while privileging upper-class Hindus.
Urging scheduled caste activists to register themselves for the upcoming census, Dalits have urged the government to revise the Hindu personal law and provide basic rights to scheduled caste communities.
Bhooro Mal, an advocate, claimed that there are more than seven million low-caste people in the Sindh province. “We do not belong to Hindu Dharma (faith) but belong to Sanatan faith,” he said, adding that in 1954 the government recognised six seats in the assembly for the low-caste individuals, which were later denied. He said that the previous figure in the census were erroneous so they believe it should be corrected.
The Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network (PDSN), an alliance of organisations and professionals and individuals working against discrimination based on religion or race, has invited all the groups to take part in the upcoming census campaign to recognise their faith accordingly to save their rights through the electoral process.
Zufiqar Shah, striving to unite the scattered groups under one platform, told The News: “Given the socio-political environment of the country, it is difficult to talk about low-caste communities like the Dalits,” adding that the indigenous population has generally been marginalised and excluded from all developmental strategies.
He said that Rs235million have been reserved for the upcoming national census along with the training of 200,000 people, but activists have complained that not a single person from the Dalit community has been contacted in this regard. In this regard, activists have urged the government to take actions for the fair representation of Dalits in the next national census.
Advocate Bhagwandas Bheel said that the forced conversion of religion is a major concern for scheduled castes. Girls from scheduled castes are kidnapped by “certain elements” and then forcibly married, after they have been compelled to convert. He said that it is the government’s responsibility to devise a law that permits a converted woman to appear before the court to justify whether she was not converted forcibly.
Dr Sono Khanghrani, chief of Thardeep Rural Development Program (TRDP) said that at this stage, we all must know the ‘interests’ of the government. According to him members of the scheduled castes are caught in a government “trap.”
The census, he asserted, is designed to marginalise minorities. Dr Sono added that in this way, authorities can prevent minorities from reaping the benefits of development.He supplemented his argument by giving example of Umarkot and Sanghar districts, where 55 per cent and 33 per cent population is scheduled caste but political representation is very low.
Citing another example, Sono said that a family which is not registered with NADRA (National Database & Registration Authority) cannot benefit from government facilities like education of their children. He lamented that most individuals of the scheduled castes don’t possess CNICs (Computerised National Identity Cards), but urged the scheduled castes to register themselves with NADRA with their original caste recognition.
The representatives of low-caste people have demanded that the government should launch a caste-wise and even sub-caste-wise census operation to enumerate the different castes and sub-castes of the different scheduled castes. They said that separate seats should be allocated in the Parliament for scheduled castes as per their population ratio to ensure that their voices are heard at the national level. Four seats in National Assembly, four in the Sindh Assembly, two in the Punjab Assembly, and one each in NWFP and Balochistan Assemblies must be reserved exclusively for scheduled castes, they advised the government and major political parties.
The representatives also said that the government should constitute a National Commission for Scheduled Castes to hear the complaints of caste and racial discrimination, and take necessary and required action, they also emphasised. The also urged the government to protect the scheduled castes from being threatened, exploited, victimised, and trapped in debt bondage, as majority of bonded families belong to the scheduled castes in Sindh.