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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Pakistan’s Religious minorities: The significant “Other”

A prominent writer and researcher in the area of marginality & exclusion of religious minorities presents a comprehensive history of Pakistan’s different minority groups and covers the invaluable contributions made by them in Pakistan’s emergence and subsequent history. Did you know that around 1000 Jews still live in Pakistan?

It was around 3 p.m. when two suicide bombers almost simultaneously entered the men’s and women’s campus of the International Islamic University in Islamabad on October 20, 2009. The first one, wearing a burqa and women’ sandals, shot the guard at the gate and then raced towards the cafeteria to cause maximum damage where about 150 girls were chatting and having lunch.

Sensing the danger, Parvaiz Masih, who had started work there only two weeks earlier, rushed towards the bomber and overpowered him only 10 feet outside the entrance of the cafeteria. Masih had no relatives inside the building and the students whose lives he was attempting to save, had never given him another look.

He fitted into the discriminatory stereotype in Pakistan, a Christian working as a janitor, an occupation despised in the Indian subcontinent and assigned only to an outcast, yet it was he who responded bravely to the call of humanity.

The Kalasha retain their ancient culture and their religion. Many in the closely-knit Kalasha community believe that they descend from the soldiers of the Alexander the Great who were left behind.

Despite all the social, cultural and religious differences and repeated warnings from the bomber that he would blow himself up, Masih stood firm, insisting that he would not let him enter as “there were girls inside”. Masih’s bravery cost him his life, as the bomber triggered an explosion scattering both of their limbs all across the hall.

Two minutes later, the second bomber blew himself up outside the room of Shariah Law Department Chairman Prof. Dr. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. It was the first time in Pakistan, the terrorist’s specifically targeted women. The incident claimed five lives and Masih saved dozens.

Bani Israel graveyard in Karachi, located South-East of the Haji Camp area

The tale of religious minorities, especially of Christians, is no different from that of Masih. Religious minorities have made invaluable contributions to the life of Pakistan, far greater than what they are recognized forgiven their percentages in Pakistan’s population.

Engineer designer James Strachan and architect Moses Somake are known for designing the beautiful buildings of Karachi. Similar expressions are noted by Mahim Maher when she wrote ‘how the Jews built Karachi, but we built shopping plazas on their synagogue’.

Pakistan’s People Religious Minorities

Only seventy-one years ago, the part of the subcontinent, now known as Pakistan, had a large number of Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Jain. It had a large number of western, Anglo-Indian and Goan and Punjabi Christians as well. The partition of the subcontinent dramatically changed demographics of the area, especially of Sindh and Punjab.

The upper caste Hindus and Sikhs migrated to India and a large number of Muslims migrated to Pakistan. Thousands of Hindu, Sikh, and Jain temples, Shamshan-ghats (crematoriums) and colonial-era churches can be seen across the country. Still, so many places have Hindu, Jain, Sikh or Christian names that remind Pakistan of its culturally rich history.

Read more: Safeguarding Islam and Minorities: Rulers finally acting?

Today, Pakistan is a 210 million strong nation, with roughly 3.43 percent religious minorities. The latest data on religious minorities has not been released by the Census Bureau yet. However, the data released by NADRA shows that there are 3.63 million registered voters and the projected population is over 7 million.

The census data records minorities as Hindus, Christians, Scheduled Castes, Ahmedis and “Other Religions”. The “Other Religions” includes Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Baha’is. The 1998 census included Jews as well. And then there are people of the Kalasha Valleys who observe a religion close to ancient Hinduism.

Jews and the Ten Lost Tribes of Ancient Israel in Pakistan

The 1941 census shows that there were 1,199 Jews living in what is now Pakistan and 1,051 live in Karachi alone. According to one report, there were some 809 Jews in Pakistan in 2013 and a Jewish graveyard, Mewa Shah Graveyard, is still preserved in Karachi.

The Jews arrived in India because of invasions and mass migrations from Jerusalem. This land, on the crossroads of three continents Asia, Africa, and Europe often played a role as a buffer zone among ancient Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires and it remained under Byzantine, European and Islamic rulers much of time.

The greatest feature that distinguishes them from their Muslim neighbors is that ‘their women are free.’ Kalasha woman does not wear a hijab or headscarf; nor are they confined to the home in purdah.

But then the Israelites got divided into two states: the tribes of Benjamin and Judah became a Jewish state called the Southern Kingdom of Israel and the rest of the ten tribes became an Israelite state called the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In 722 BC, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was ransacked by the famous Assyrian king Sargon II who deported many of Israelites to various parts of the kingdom.

Although Jerusalem, the capital of the southern Jewish kingdom was also besieged and destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BC and Jews were deported to Babylon, the Jews returned to Jerusalem after 70 years. Since then, they believed they are the “pure” Israelites and any other Israelites people were “impure” and are strongly segregated communities.

Three main Jewish groups had arrived in the Indian subcontinent: Baghdadi, Bene Israel, and Cochin Jews. The Bene Israel mainly lived in the Bombay presidency which includes current-day Sindh. These folks believed that they were a part of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Read more: Pakistani in viral Pope selfie speaks of ‘heartache’ for minorities

Hebrew University Prof. Shalva Weil believes that they started arriving in the subcontinent no less than two thousand years ago through sea routes and landed at Konkon Coast, south of Bombay. They were absorbed into the indigenous culture and adopted the Brahmanic caste stratification system in villages.

They were called Shanwar Telis, or “Shabbat-observing oilmen”, “because they did not work on the Sabbath”, Weil tells. Weil in the Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora, notes down the chronology of the Bene Israel people. Around 175BC, these people arrived on the shores of India.

In the 19th century, they settled in the “the western part of Maharashtra to nearby cities, chiefly Bombay but also Poona, Ahmedabad, and Karachi, the latter in present-day Pakistan.” In the 20th century, they build synagogues in New Delhi, Karachi, Pune, Ahmedabad, and Aden.

In 1893, Bene Israel’s build famous Magen Shalom Synagogue or “The Bene Israel Masjid”, locally called “Yahoodi Masjid” in Karachi in the area that is now Ranchore Line. The community set up the Young Man’s Jewish Association in 1903and build a Hebrew school and Nathan Abraham Hall in 1918.

There was a small Jewish community living in Peshawar, the community also had a prayer facility with two halls, which was shut down after the first anti-Jewish riots. Moses Samuel Reuben, a foreman in the North-Western Railways, was attacked in July 1947 after which he migrated to Karachi. Demonstrators attacked Jews and their synagogue in Karachi after Israel was declared an independent state in May 1948.

Some members also migrated to Israel or the UK via India. On July 17, 1988, the Magen Shalom Synagogue was demolished by the orders of President Zia-ul-Haq. The official documents in 2013 mentioned that there were 809 Jews living in Pakistan – 427 women and 382 men. However, the latest documents do not show any Jewish people living in the country.

The Kelasha of Chitral

The culture of the Kalasha community is in danger of being forgotten. The three Kalash valleys in Chitral district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountain range, covered in snow most of the year, are inhabited by about 4,000 Kalasha people. Unlike their Siah-Posh (black-robed) neighbors in Kafiristan, known as Nuristan today in Afghanistan, the Kalasha people have not converted to Islam.

The people of these valleys speak Kalashamun, a Dardic language of Indo-Aryan group that falls under the broader Indo-European group of languages. The Kalasha retain their ancient culture and their religion. Many in the closely-knit Kalasha community believe that they descend from the soldiers of the Alexander the Great who were left behind.

However, their animistic religion is closer to ancient Hinduism, recognizing multiple gods and spirits rather than following the faith of the Greeks in Alexander’s army. Regarding the Kalasha women, the Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania notes that “the greatest feature that distinguishes them from their Muslim neighbors is that ‘their women are free.’

Kalasha woman does not wear a hijab or headscarf; nor are they confined to the home in purdah.” It is for this reason, the Pakistani state endeavored to convert them to Islam in the 1950s because “Kalasha women were seen as immoral and tempting to Muslim men”. But now they are constitutionally protected people who cannot be legally forced to convert.

It is said: “O Parsee, their second name is philanthropy!!!” Their presence proved this in Karachi.

Within the Kalash culture, it is still believed that Kalasha women are “inherently polluted”. When in the summer the snow melts and leaves behind rich fields of grass, men move to high elevations with their herds. But in winter, men bring their herds down to lower elevations and live with their wives and children. “Even in winter when herds and families are in the same location, the men’s sacred goats must be protected from the polluting influences of women and from possession by evil spirits.”

Since the 1970s, the government had made roads that link the Kalasha valleys with the rest of the country. From Upper Dir through to Lowari Pass provides the easiest access. But these developments have benefitted the timber companies more than the Kalasha people.

Read more: Oppression of minorities in India

A report by the Human Rights Commission in 2017 says that the conversion of Kalasha women by Muslim men is the greatest threat to this culture and may cause it to go extinct.

The Philanthropist Parsees

In Pakistan, Zoroastrians are the most affluent and influential minority. Despite being no more than 5,000 in number, they have made their name in politics, media, business, and education. The most prominent Parsee name that comes to mind is of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s wife Rattanbai, the daughter of Sir Dinshaw Petit.

Also, Dr. Mistry from Bombay was in the medical team that sought to save Mr. Jinnah “towards the end.” Parsees are the Zoroastrians who came to India after Iran was invaded by Arab armies between AD 636-AD651. The word means “Farsi” or “Persian”. Most of the Zoroastrians marry among themselves. They have a strong nucleus family structure, with low divorce rates.

Untouchability in India, like the racial discrimination issue in the West, rested upon the idea of the superiority of one section of people over others on account of their birth.

Hormusji Dadabhoy Ghadialy and Burjorji Nanabhoy Bilimoria were amongst the first Parsees to arrive in Karachi. They worked with the British forces as contractors in the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) and made a fortune. The Parsees supplied general goods including liquor as merchants and many worked at the docks. But there were also a few Parsees who developed the interest in medical science and engineering.

The major developments in Karachi were opening up of the port in 1853. Ardeshir Wadia, a government employee at the Bombay dockyard, started the Indus steam flotilla to develop Indus trade. Byramjee Eduljee arrived in Karachi in the 1850s and developed the liquor trade. Another name was Byramji Pirojshah Minwalla who became an owner of the fishing vessels. Dinshaw Maneckji established the first native press in the region.

Hormusji Jamshed Rustomji was the first to develop “extensive European trade” and imported wine but also had business in insurance and real estate. In 1884, Rustomji started Karachi Tramway Company with the help of the Europeans. The Parsee firm, Ardashir & Co. Parsis was one of the important founders of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce in 1860.

It is said: “O Parsee, their second name is philanthropy!!!” Their presence proved this in Karachi. In the second Afghan War (1878 – 1880), some of the Parsees, including Seth Edulji Dinshaw, made fortunes. Dinshaw was the biggest single donor to the Sindh Arts College in 1883. In the middle of the nineteenth century, he owned almost half of the Karachi city.

When the “Vicerene, Lady Dufferin, collected funds to build a hospital in Karachi in 1884, she collected Rs 10,000 from the whole population of the city. Edulji Dinshaw, personally, gave Rs 85,000”. Lady Dufferin Hospital is where the late Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto gave birth to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

Read more: Rising tides of intolerance and Hindu extremism in India

The British founded a university in 1921, to train the engineers in charge of building the Sukkur Barrage. The Dinshaw family provided the main funding, which is why it was named after Seth’s son Nadirshaw Edulji Dinshaw (NED) University of Engineering and Technology. The two white statutes of the Dinshaw’s were placed in the city of Karachi, but now they are nowhere to be seen.

By 1911, when their population was around 2,000 the Parsee community had set up their temple, Bai Virbaiji Sopariwala (BVS) Parsi High School, Karachi Parsi Gymkhana, three charity dispensaries, charity flats, a home for Parsee widows, Parsi Maternity Hospital and Young Men’s Zoroastrian Association.

In 1859, the first school was opened for Parsee students to teach them Gujrati. It was later moved to a larger house donated by Shapurji Soparivala and the school was named after his wife Bai Virbaiji Sopariwala. In 1918, a separate premises was arranged for girls named the Mama Parsi Girls’ Secondary School. After partition in 1947, “on the personal request of the Quaid-I-Azam, the elders of the Parsi community immediately opened the doors of the school to all Muslim and other non-Parsi children of the new nation.

The flood of migrants to Karachi changed it from a Hindu majority city to a Muslim majority city. In 1951, about 57% of residents of Karachi were refugees. However, the new minorities continued to influence Karachi’s lifestyle and culture. Bapsi Sidhwa, a Parsi novelist wrote the “Ice Candy Man”, which was later adapted into a movie, capturing the trauma of partition.

The Marker’s family has played a prominent role in politics. Kekobad Ardeshir Marker’s (1896–1984) father started off as a supplier to the British and both of them served as senior civil judges. Kekobad’s son Jamsheed Marker served as an ambassador in the United States from 1986 to 1989.

Sidhwa’s father Mr. P.D. Bhandara was a member in the first constituent assembly who supported the separate electorates for religious minorities. She writes that Mr. Bhandara had a liquor shop on the Mall in Lahore. Her brother, MP Minocher Bhandara (MP Bhandara) was a seasoned politician.

His son, Isphanyar Bhandara, is the current CEO of the largest liquor company in Pakistan, the Murree Brewery, and was a National Assembly member in the most recent PML-N tenure. Supreme Court Justice Dorab Framrose Patel (13 April 1926 – 24 November 2012) was a Parsee who is famous for his minority decision “in a split decision of 4–3 that upheld the decision of Lahore High Court that handed down death penalty to former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.”

Christianity in today’s Pakistan was brought by western Protestant missionaries in the middle nineteenth century.

Justice Patel was also the founding member of the Asian Human Rights Commission in 1987 and co-founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Justice Patel’s contemporary Rustam Sidhwa (1 September 1927 – 31 March 1997) was also Supreme Court Justice from 1989 until 1992.

After partition, the number of Parsees increased to 5,018 in 1951 but then their population began to dwindle. In 1961, they were 4,685 and by 1995 there were only 2,824 Parsees in Pakistan. Knells identifies two reasons: “the common Parsee demographic reflects a pattern of an aging population, preference of interfaith marriages and having smaller families”. Many Parsee families have also migrated to western countries.


Only 20,000 Sikhs live in Pakistan but they have an extensive heritage in current day Pakistan. Sikhs mostly inhabit the Nankana Sahib, Peshawar and Hasan Abdal districts. A small number of Sikhs were living in the formerly known area of FATA, but they left from there and migrated to one of these three areas after the Taliban threatened them and ordered them either to pay jizya or convert.

The Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (PGPC) represents this small community. Gura Nanak, the founder of Sikhism was born in 1469 in what is now Nankana Sahib. There are hundreds of Sikh places of worship in Pakistan, called Gurudawara (the Door of the Guru).

Read more: Khalistan 2020: UK rejects Indian demand to ban Sikh demonstration

Most of the Sikhs do business and run their shops of clothes and other general merchandise, while few of them are inducted into public service. However, they were barred from entering the armed forces until 2005 when the first Sikh, Harcharan Singh, was inducted into the Pakistan Army.

The Baha’is of Pakistan

Although we have more Parsees and Sikhs in politics, the largest number of people after Hindus and Christians are the Bahai’s in Pakistan, but because they live a quiet life, so many of us do not realize their presence amongst us. The Baha’is community is the 3rd largest minority in Pakistan.

According to media reports, there are at least 33,734 registered voters belonging to the Bahai community in Pakistan. The roots of the Bahai faith go back to 1844, when Baha-ullah, born Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, founded the Baha’i faith in Iran. Baha’i faith preaches that all religions are good and teaches unity and equality of humankind.

During Baha-ullah’s lifetime, Shaykh Sa’id Hindi from Multan adopted the Baha’i faith. Baha-ullah himself visited Lahore, Sialkot, Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. The Local Spiritual Assembly of Quetta and Hyderabad were formed in 1943.

Christians celebrating Easter in Pakistan

In the late 1970s, the Bahai’s of Pakistan expanded their services in the educational sector by establishing a Montessori School in Karachi, today is known as “New Day Secondary School”. By 1974, there were Baha’i converts from the Bheel community in Thatha.

An influx of Baha’is came to Pakistan after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. According to an unconfirmed report, President Zia-ul-Haq declared them non-Muslim in 1981. Most migrated to western countries.

In 2004, there were at least 250 Baha’i families in Lahore with their house of worship. However, their major challenge has been, obtaining a place for an exclusively Baha’i graveyard.

The Baha’i encyclopedia says that Baha’is in Pakistan are free to hold worship ceremonies but they are not allowed to travel to Israel. Last year, Baha’u’llah’s 200th birthday was celebrated around the world. A program was arranged in Islamabad which was attended by the then Christian National Assembly member Asiya Nasir.


You may not have met a single Buddhist in Pakistan, but government statistics consistently show that a very small number of Buddhists live in Pakistan. A 2012 media report says that 1,500 Pakistanis declared Buddhism as their religion. By 2018, this number has increased to 1,884.

Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world. Like Sikhism and Hinduism, Buddhism is a dharmic religion, which believes that all behavior should be according to the order in the universe. Buddhism has a long history in the areas, which is now Pakistan. It took roots in these areas over 2,300 years ago during the Maurya Empire of Ashoka.

Read more: Brutalized Dalits leave Hinduism for Buddhism

Gandhara, what is now south of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was once predominantly a Buddhist stronghold. There are several historical sights of Buddhism in Taxila, Mingora, Swat, and Peshawar. According to Emi Foulk, Buddhists now only live in Azad Kashmir and the only operating Buddhist temple is in the Diplomatic Enclave in Islamabad.

Buddhist temple in Islamabad’s Diplomatic Enclave

Christians make up about 1.5 percent of the total population and their highest concentration is in central Punjab. Those living in other parts of the country also have their roots in Punjab. Tradition dictates that Jesus Christ’s Apostle Thomas, evangelized as far as Taxila, but Christianity in today’s Pakistan was brought by western Protestant missionaries in the middle nineteenth century.

They were joined by the Catholics a few decades later. With the British rule extending to the Punjab and Sindh in the middle of the nineteenth century, American and European missionaries also strengthened their presence in Punjab with a Catholic Church in Karachi. Sometimes they were helped by the British and other times they were at odds with them.

In order to initiate conversion, especially among high classes, these missionaries set up schools, colleges, and hospitals. The most prominent among them was Dr. Rev. Charles William, the founder of the Christian Mission College in 1864, later named after him, the Forman Christian College.

Dr. Forman setup the Rang Mahal School in Lahore in 1849. St. Patrick’s School in Karachi was set up in 1861, St. Joseph’s Convent School in Karachi in 1862, St. Denys School by the Anglican Bishop of Lahore in Murree in 1882, Murray College in Sialkot in 1889, St. Anthony’s High School in Lahore in 1892, Gordon College in Rawalpindi in 1893, Kinnaird College in Lahore in 1913, and many more prestigious institutions were set up.

When the British Indian Empire was partitioned in 1947, 4.7 million Sikhs and Hindus left what is today Pakistan for India, and 6.5 million Muslims left India and moved to Pakistan.

In order to improve lives of these new converts, more than a dozen Christian villages were founded: Martinpur and Youngsonabad villages in Nankana district (1899), Khushpur in Faisalabad (1900), Clarkabad in Kasur (1868), Ransonabad in Harappa, Mariamabad in Sheikhupura (1892), Montgomery wall in Toba Tek Singh (1898), Batman bad in Toba Tek Singh (1900), Francisabad in Jhang (1904), and Stuntzabad in Khanewal (1916), Shantinagar in Khanewal (1916), and Amritnagar in Khanewal (1916).

Christians were the only religious minority in the region, who unanimously stood side by side with the local Muslim communities at the time of independence from British. Their leader Dewan Bahadur S.P. Singha was the speaker of the Punjab Assembly who supported Pakistan at the time of partition.

The Punjab Education Minister Sheikh Karamat Ali on January 5, 1948, said on the floor of the Punjab Assembly that “We cannot deprive minorities, especially Christians, from their due rights … The Christian minority will be given its due right in policymaking in this cabinet.” Ali thanked the three parliamentarians SP Singha, Fazal Elahi, and CE Gibbon – for voting in Pakistan’s favor.

Pakistan's Religious minorities

He said, “We will hold Christians with respect for what they have done for us.” Because of these services of the Christian community, Fazal Elahi was elected unopposed as the Deputy Speaker in the first Punjab Assembly of West Pakistan. Chaudhry Chandu Lal Sundar Das, a lawyer, was elected Deputy Speaker in the second Punjab Assembly (1951 to 1955).

Cecil Edward Gibbon was elected as the Deputy Speaker of the second Constituent Assembly in 1955, while another Christian Joshua Fazl- ud-Din, the former General Secretary of the Lahore High Court Bar Association, was appointed as the Deputy Law and Parliamentary Affairs in the West Pakistan Assembly (1956 to 1958).

Read more: Aristotle’s God is not different from that of Islam or Christianity

In the Pakistan Army, Major General (r) Peter Julian and Major General Noel Israel Khokhar achieved the highest rank ever awarded to a non-Muslim. Cecil Chaudhry, late Group Captain Pakistan Airforce, not only emerged as a national figure but also made his mark as humanist, educationist and a reformer par excellence.

In the field of music Saleem Raza, S. B. John and A Nayyer earned huge recognition. Benjamin Sisters literally defined an era of Pakistani sound and rhythm. Afia Nathaniel, the director of Dukhtar, and Ashir Azeem Gill, a civil servant turned director-producer of films (famous recently for “Maalik”) all come from the Christian community. Professor Christy Munir, Professor Sara Safdar, Professor Cusrow J Dubash, Dr. Mira Phailbus, Professor Bernadette Dean, and Professor Farzand Masih have made a mark as educationists.

Dr. Mira Phailbus that remained principal of Kinnaird College, Lahore for almost four decades became the symbol of quality education in the country. But naming a few individuals should not divert attention from the larger role Christians have played in Pakistan’s nation-building.

Pakistan's Religious minorities
Parsees celebrating Khordad Sal, the birth of Lord Zoroaster, in Karachi

A sizable Hindu population resides in the district of Tharparkar in Sindh on the South Eastern border between India and Pakistan to Bahawalpur and Rahim Yar Khan in Punjab. A small number of Hindus also live in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Hinduism is a global tradition.

According to the PEW Research Center, Pakistan has the fifth largest Hindu population in the world. The Pakistani Hindus speak a variety of languages including Sindhi, Gujrati, Marwari, Vaghri, and Koli.

The 1998 census says that there is 1.6 percent Jati (upper caste), Hindus who make up about 3,360,000 living in this country while there is about 0.25 percent of 525,000 scheduled caste Hindus live in Pakistan.

Two incidents creation of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh have dramatically changed the demographics of the Hindus.

Pakistan’s total population, according to the 1951 census, was 75.64 million. Out of this, 64.96 million were Muslims 32.73 million of them in West Pakistan and 32.23 million in East Pakistan. The vast majority of the remaining population, about 10.68 million, was of Hindus living mostly in East Pakistan.

“When the British Indian Empire was partitioned in 1947, 4.7 million Sikhs and Hindus left what is today Pakistan for India, and 6.5 million Muslims left India and moved to Pakistan,” note Arif Hasan and Mansoor Raza in their report “Migration and Small Towns in Pakistan”. The 1941 census data shows that there was 21 percent Jati or upper caste Hindus and 5.6 percent scheduled caste Hindus in Sindh.

In 1951 census, the number of Jati Hindus dropped from 21 to 3 percent as 7,500,000 Hindus migrated to India but the Scheduled Caste Hindus increased to 6.9 percent which shows that they did not migrate. Unlike West Pakistan, the Jati Hindus did not migrate in such a large number from East Pakistan to India.

According to the 1951 census, there were 369,000 Scheduled Castes and 162,000 upper caste Hindus in West Pakistan while in East Pakistan the Scheduled Castes were 5,052,000 (about 12 percent of the East Bengal population) and Hindus were 4,187,000 (about 10 percent of East Bengal population). So Hindus and Scheduled Castes made up about 22 percent of the total population of East Pakistan.

Pakistan's Religious minorities
Sikhs offering pilgrimage at Gurdwara Panja Sahib

Unique to India, casteism, based on ritual purity, is a millennia-old system of social stratification in the Indian subcontinent. It attaches occupation with descent and affects every person’s life in various ways. In the four castes system, the upper three are considered noble while the fourth is considered serving.

But almost one-fifth of the population in the subcontinent is described as an outcast, “untouchables” who were forced into degrading occupations, not allowed to participate in politics, forced to live outside the village and not allowed to obtain an education.

“Untouchability in India, like the racial discrimination issue in the West, rested upon the idea of the superiority of one section of people over others on account of their birth. A Brahmin might be as poor as the untouchables, but he is not ill-treated by our society on that account,” wrote Paladugu Parvathi Devi in her doctoral thesis for Acharya Nagarjuna University.

Read more: 100 Dalits renounce Hinduism due to BJP

The British described them as the “depressed classes” who deserved special affirmative measures. The India Act 1935 through a schedule identified dozens of such depressed classes and since then they are described as “Scheduled Castes”.

“Of the sixteen districts in East Bengal, they were in majority in nine and in the other four districts, their number was almost equal to that of the Caste Hindus. But they were under the influence of the upper-class Hindus who had higher social status and a better economic position,” notes Muhammad Mahfuzul Haq in his book “Electoral Problems in Pakistan”, published in 1966.

Pakistan's Religious minorities
Hindu woman in Tharparkar, Sindh. The white bangles show that she’s from the Scheduled Caste.

Since the cessation of East Pakistan, the number of Hindus has dramatically dropped because the larger Hindu population was living there. But, interestingly, upper caste Hindus have now encouraged the Scheduled Castes to return as Jati Hindus in the census which is why the number of Scheduled Castes has dropped and Jati Hindus have swelled.

After partition, thousands of Hindu temples were left abandoned across the country. Many of them were confiscated or left unattended while others are run by the local Hindu population. The community in Sindh has long been complaining about the forced conversion of their young women. Every year thousands of Hindus, mostly from upper castes, migrate to India.

Asif Aqeel is a prominent journalist, researcher and writer, and a vocal member of Pakistan’s Christian community. His area of work is “Marginality & Exclusion” with a focus on religious minorities. Apart from Christians, his research includes “Brahmanic Caste System” and its challenges to Pakistan’s poor Hindu minorities. Asif holds degrees in MSc Sociology and MPhil in Public Policy and Governance and his MPhil thesis was “Post-Partition Rural to Urban Mass Migration and Subsequent Illegal Settlements of Punjabi Christians and their Adoption of the Sweeping Occupation in Pakistan.” Asif has worked with the Daily Times and Express24/7 and several non-government organizations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.