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As Pakistan votes, 'untouchables' fight for representation

February 05, 2024
tags:#Pakistan, #election, #Dalit
by:Zulfiqar Kunbhar
Pakistan's scheduled castes seek to transform their historical marginalisation into a meaningful political voice.

As Pakistan approaches its general elections on 8 February, the Scheduled Castes - identified as the nation's most marginalised groups, constituting an 85 per cent majority of the country’s largest Hindu religious minority - are seeking parliamentary representation, a goal that has largely eluded them.

Pakistani law lists 40 scheduled castes including Bheel, Bagri, Meghwar, Kolhi and Oad. But despite constitutional provisions promoting equality, many members of these groups report experiencing ongoing marginalisation.

In the 2024 polls, from a total of 266 general seats across Pakistan around a half dozen Scheduled Caste candidates are running nationwide, all as independents. Experts point out that this figure underscores the minimal involvement of Scheduled Castes in the broader electoral system.

Hindu Dalits, often termed "Dalits' or 'untouchables,' historically constitute the lowest social caste in traditional Hindu society and face ongoing discrimination and social ostracism.

The 2023 national census results indicated that Pakistan's population reached 241.49 million, yet no statistics have been disclosed regarding the number of minority groups (Hindus and Christians, among others).

Scheduled Castes Face Challenges in Census Counting

In the 2017 census, Hindus emerged as Pakistan's largest religious minority, totaling 3.6 million (1.73 per cent of the total population). but unlike previous censuses, Scheduled Castes were counted separately from Hindus in 2017, amounting to 850,000 individuals.

The Pakistan Scheduled Caste Alliance, representing 40 castes, believes that the overall Hindu population in Pakistan currently is roughly five million, including approximately 4.3 million who belong to the Scheduled Caste.

"We believe that the new census questionnaire lists Scheduled Caste as a distinct religion alongside Hinduism. This has resulted in a decrease in reported Scheduled Caste numbers, as many, lacking education and awareness, instruct census staff to register them as Hindus," said advocate Sarwan Kumar Bheel, a Sindh-based coordinator of the Pakistan Scheduled Caste Alliance and a minority leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, a political party founded in 1996 by Imran Khan. Sindh province is home to the majority of Pakistan's Hindu community.

Over the last couple of decades, various methods have been adopted in Pakistan to solidify minority representation in parliament, including reserved seats for minorities in the 2002 general elections and subsequent ones.

In the electoral history of Muslim-majority Pakistan, it is uncommon for political parties to nominate non-Muslims for general seats.

Minimal representation of Scheduled Castes in Pakistan’s parliament

The Pakistan Scheduled Caste Alliance reports minimal representation of Scheduled Castes within the country's Hindu population in the electoral college, be it in the National Assembly, Senate or provincial assemblies.

"The responsibility for the lack of representation of Scheduled Caste members in parliament's reserved seats for minorities rests on political parties," said Bheel. "These parties often allocate seats based on financial contributions to their party funds, making it next to impossible for Scheduled Caste individuals, who are among the poorest in the country, to afford parliamentary seats."

Among the 366 seats in the National Assembly of Pakistan, a direct contest is scheduled for 266 general seats on 8 February. After that, 10 seats will be designated for non-Muslims, and 60 seats for women will be allocated to political parties based on their percentage share.

Concerns about the lack of representation extend to Scheduled Caste women, as minority women's rights activist Pushpa Kumari Meghwar highlights the need to boost scheduled caste women’s participation.

"Across all political parties in Pakistan, there is minimal inclusion of minority women, whether in women’s reserved seats, minorities reserved seats, or general elections," remarked Meghwar. "Obviously, the situation is no different for Scheduled Caste women."

The Scheduled Caste community in Pakistan's Hindu minority alleges that political parties sell reserved parliamentary seats for minorities to wealthy candidates. Economic disparities often lead to these seats being acquired by upper-class Hindus, as Scheduled Castes lack the financial capacity to make such purchases.

"Unfortunately, these billionaires typically lack interest in addressing common issues faced by minority women," Meghwar said.

'trading seats'

Political party representatives hold differing views on the issuance of tickets to candidates who, in return, provide funds to the party.

Rajesh Kumar Hardasani, the minority coordinator of Pakistan Hindu Council - a non-profit NGO - and minority leader of Pakistan Peoples’ Party in Sindh, refutes allegations of seat trading on behalf of his party.

"Those who accuse the Pakistan Peoples’ Party of seat trading should provide evidence. The Peoples' Party has consistently advocated for minority rights," Hardasani told FairPlanet.

"For the 2024 general elections, the party has issued tickets for both the National and Sindh Assembly to a minority. Additionally, all minority groups have been adequately accommodated for reserved seats. In the past, the party has also had a woman senator elected."

Mangla Sharma, a former member of the Sindh Assembly and a contestant for the women's reserve seat in the 2024 general elections from the Muttahida Quami Movement – Pakistan (MQM-P), acknowledges that political parties tend to grant election tickets to candidates contributing to party funds rather than those lacking financial capacity.

"Yes, political parties expect funds from winning candidates for tickets. However, for general seat elections, political parties issue tickets to strong candidates, whether from Scheduled Castes, the general minority or even Muslim candidates," she told FairPlanet. 

"There are instances where political parties have consistently issued tickets to minority community members on general seats, and they have achieved repeated success. Therefore, there is no question of neglecting the Scheduled Castes; it ultimately depends on the strength of the candidate."

She added, "I also blame some seasoned parliamentarians from the Scheduled Castes for repeatedly contesting elections and not paving the way for others."  

Advocating Dual Voting Rights for Pakistan's Minority

Sarwan Kumar Bheel suggested that securing the right to dual voting to Pakistan’s minorities could be a viable solution for securing representation in the country's parliament and offering Scheduled Castes an opportunity to contest and win elections.

Bheel from the Pakistan Scheduled Caste Alliance is also a petitioner in Pakistan's courts for dual voting rights and other minority issues solutions.

"Since Scheduled Castes think they are in the majority within Pakistan’s overall Hindu population, dual voting can provide an opportunity for them to contest the elections and ultimately win. This means minorities can vote for general seats as well as for their reserved seats," he added. "The presence of true representatives of Scheduled Castes in the parliament can help in resolving their issues."

Image by My Past.

Article written by:
Zulfiqar Kunbhar
Embed from Getty Images
Pakistani law lists 40 scheduled castes, including Bheel, Bagri, Meghwar, Kolhi and Oad.
Embed from Getty Images
Hindu Dalits, often termed 'Dalits' or 'untouchables,' historically constitute the lowest social caste in traditional Hindu society.
Embed from Getty Images
Among the 366 seats in the National Assembly of Pakistan, a direct contest is scheduled for 266 general seats on 8 February. After that, 10 seats will be designated for non-Muslims and 60 seats for women will be allocated to political parties based on their percentage share.