Friday, October 17, 2008


Dalit Pakistan

A peek into a settlement in Sindh inhabited by dalits, neglected and looked down upon by both Hindus and Muslims alike


Tando Allah Yar is a small town, a little less than an hour by train from Hyderabad, in Pakistan's southern Sindh province. There is nothing particularly attractive about this chaotic and run-down place, but I spent a week there recently with a friend of mine, Khurshid Kaimkhani, a noted writer and social activist. In his 70s, Khurshid resigned from the Pakistan Army more than four decades ago. Thereafter, he got involved with various social movements and causes, including the communist and nascent Dalit movement in Sindh and a health centre in Skardu, in Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

'There's little to do in this backwater town, and I spend most of my time with my Dalit friends and their children' says Khurshid, who has authored what is probably the only full-length book on the Dalits of Pakistan, who belong to some forty different castes and number almost three million. Most Pakistani Dalits, like most Dalits in India, are impoverished landless labourers, subjected to various forms of oppression and discrimination.

Jogi Basti is a Dalit settlement on the outskirts of Tando Allah Yar. The narrow lanes leading to the locality are lined with open drains, and heaps of garbage lie strewn all over. A forlorn board outside a police station announces 'City Development and Beautification Committee'. Khurshid grimaces and says, 'There's hardly any development happening here. It isn't Tando Allah Yar alone. Most of Sindh has simply slipped into chaos and the state is virtually absent in large parts'.

We pass by the Shiddhi locality. Shiddhis are descendants of African slaves. A clutch of young men with distinct African features—dark-skinned, with fizzy hair and snub noses—gather at a tea-stall. 'There are some five hundred thousand Shiddhis in Pakistan, mainly in Sindh and Baluchistan', Khurshid tells me. 'Most of them are desperately poor and are often looked down upon for being of African origin'.

We pass the last houses of Tando Allah Yar and, at the edge of the town, enter a vast slum. Tiny hutments, made of bundles of straw, plastic packets and sticks strung together, serve as homes for several dozen families belonging to various Dalit communities. A dozen children run towards us as they see Khurshid. 'These children and their parents are my only friends in town', Khurshid explains. He asks them if they have done their homework and if they are regular in attending school. They laugh and tug at his trousers and he gives them all a warm hug. 'Dalit children generally drop out of school early, because of poverty and because they often have to face the taunts of their classmates', Khurshid explains.

The Jogi Basti lies a hundred metres ahead. A dozen thatched mud huts built in a circle with a small shrine on one side. A board announces the 'Goga Pir Jogi Colony'. 'We put up the board and built the shrine so that the Jogis could have some claim to the land and not be easily evicted', Khurshid says. Goga Pir, he tells me, is an ambiguous cultic figure, a Hindu who died a Muslim, converting to Islam towards the end of his life. Because he is associated with snakes, the Jogis, whose ancestral profession is snake-catching, regard him as one of their patron saints.

An elderly Jogi man comes out and gives Khurshid an enthusiastic embrace. Khurshid introduces him as Jivaji. We sit on a cot in the mild evening sun, and the man tells me about his people. There are several thousand Jogi families in Sindh. 'The Jogis are Naths, traditionally followers of Shiva, who is nearly always depicted with snakes ', Jivaji says. Most Naths in Sindh are Hindus. Some have become Muslim but they still enjoy cordial relations with other Naths. Jogis in general, he goes on, carry on with their ancestral profession. They are a nomadic people, and travel for days searching for snakes and curing cases of snake bite.

Just behind the Jogi Basti are several other huts. These belong to another Dalit community, the Gurgulas. Like the Jogis, they are desperately poor. Most of them are daily wage earners, while their womenfolk sell knick-knacks, such as bangles, cosmetics and toys. Jivaji grimaces and tells me, 'Although they are also Hindus, we don't sit or eat with them. They are lower than us'.

'That's a major problem we face in bringing Dalits to struggle for their rights', Khurshid says despairingly. 'The caste system has so divided them that they simply refuse to work together'. 'By and large', he continues, 'the so-called upper caste Hindus in Sindh, like many Muslims, are simply not concerned about the Dalits'.

'Yes, brother', Jivaji sighs. 'That is the same in India, too, so I hear'. Distant relatives of his who live across the border in Rajasthan, whom he met two decades ago, when visa arrangements between India and Pakistan were far easier, had told him that life for fellow Jogis, like other Dalits, was equally harsh on the other side of the border.

Jivaji leaves us and crouches low as he enters his hovel. He returns with a three-string instrument, a local variant of the violin, which is played with a bow made of a thick wisp of bamboo. It is dark now. Only a few faint streaks of pale orange litter the sky towards the horizon. A family of storks flies close above us, brilliantly silhouetted against the twilight sky. Jivaji tucks the folds of his dhoti between his legs, clears his throat and breaks out into a bhajan.

'Oh God! God with a million and more names! Neither mosque nor temple contain You, but You live in the hearts of all your creatures.', Jivaji sings, the stringed-instrument letting out a long-drawn out plaintive wail that trails behind him. 'Hindus, Muslims, the rich and the poor, all belong to you', he goes on. 'From You all come and to You they all will return'.

I see Jivaji's tired eyes, crinkled with age and labour, well up as he passionately cries out, shaking this way and that, overcome with emotion. And then I discover a watery film swim above my own eyes. I sob into my kerchief. Oblivious to the world around him, Jivaji carries on with the bhajan, gazing at the pale moon that peeps behind a clump of slowly-moving clouds, thinking who knows what thoughts.

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