Hong Kong Democracy Protests: Written Interview

Interviewer and Editor: Sarah Khan, Social Development and Policy 2021
Habib University, Karachi
Date (December, 30th 2020)


This interview is on the democracy movement currently ongoing in Hong Kong. For this interview, we spoke to a university professor from a higher education institute in Hong Kong. They have chosen to remain anonymous due to China’s repressive laws in dealing with political dissent. For the purposes of this interview, we will use their pseudonym Xiao Hu.

The interview has been published with no changes to the interviewee’s answers to the questions posed except where words or phrases have been added in square brackets, or information provided in endnotes to explain the terms and bridge gaps in the interview. This has been done to make the interview more legible to an audience unfamiliar with the circumstances of the Hong Kong democracy protests. The interview does not provide a complete account comprising all facets of the protests. It offers only a concise overview of the present situation in Hong Kong from the perspective of the interviewee. The opinions shared in the interview do not necessarily reflect those of the Tezhib Journal or those of Habib University.


As a British colony, Hong Kong followed a different historical trajectory than China. When China became a Communist State in 1949, many Chinese fled to Hong Kong to seek refuge from persecution. Following the formal handover of Hong Kong by the British to the Chinese government in 1997, Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) for China. It was granted its own mini-constitution known as the Basic Law that came into effect in 1997. This also granted the people of Hong Kong basic democratic rights including free speech and freedom of assembly. By the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement, Hong Kong was to gradually be granted complete political autonomy from China, and by 2047 become independent. However, the Chinese central government has been involved in the curtailment of the political freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. This has sparked widespread protests in Hong Kong.


Khan: What are the Hong Kong democracy protests about? Could you give us a bit of background about the Hong Kong and China political crisis?

Xiao Hu: According to the Basic Law [that was] stipulated before 1997, agreed [upon] by the Chinese and British governments, [and] consented [to] by the majority of Hong Kong locals, Hong Kong [would] gradually have direct election of its Legislature and the Chief Executive. But after 1997, the people of Hong Kong did not see much progress in terms of related discussion and legislation [towards gradually granting Hong Kong political autonomy from mainland China]. That is why a group of educators and lawyers initiated the Occupy Central Movement in 2013 in order to peacefully persuade the governments (of both Hong Kong and China) to start consultation and legislation of universal suffrage[i] in Hong Kong. In 2014, because the government wanted to impose a ‘national’ education curriculum into the high school syllabus [in Hong Kong], young students began protesting. They gathered in the Civic Plaza outside the government headquarters. This later kick-started the Occupy Central Movement, in which major roads of Central, Admiralty, and Mong Kok became blocked by thousands of protestors for 78 days. The government did not react to the movement at all and [instead] let it die out. On August 31 2014, the Beijing government made the decision that even though Hong Kong people could have election rights, the candidates must be vetted by the Central Government [in China] beforehand. [As a result,] HK people become very disillusioned and disappointed. Meanwhile, more mainland Chinese tourists made the city even more unaffordable. [Owing to this,] some youngsters became more radical and they started another protest in 2016 called the FishBall Revolution.  Most of these youngsters were arrested and given severe sentences. Some started to go in[to] exile [to escape penalties]. The 2019 Anti-Extradition Bill Movement[ii] is a continuation of this bigger movement to fight for universal suffrage.

Khan: What is happening in Hong Kong right now and is it linked to the Extradition Bill?

Xiao Hu: The turning point was June 12, 2019 when Carrie Lam said she would continue to push for the legislation of the Extradition Bill after 2 million people came out [to protest] on the streets [demanding the Bill’s complete withdrawal].  On July 1, some young protestors got so angry and disappointed that they broke into the Legislature Building and graffitti[ed] the meeting rooms. No one was hurt. The police became very violent and many protestors were arrested. [As a result of these arrests,] people became even more agitated.

Khan: What is the age demographic participating in the protests? Universities became a center of political dissent… are a majority of the protestors young?

Xiao Hu: Yes, people of all ages. I know of many above 65 who participated [in the protests]. Since the police have arrested more than 10,000 people, it has intimidated [the protestors’] families and friends. More people are not happy with the government.

Khan: How have the authorities in Hong Kong and China reacted to the protests? Specifically, how has the Chinese central authority reacted to the protests? Have they become more fearful of a loss of authority? How is the National Security Law[iii] related to all of this?

Xiao Hu: The people of Hong Kong were hoping that the central government [in China] would understand the corruption (for instance, all these land developers have reaped so much profit with more mainland visitors) in Hong Kong, but in vain.

The Hong Kong government instead accused protestors of “wanting HK independence” instead of reflecting our hope for democracy, and [bringing] more social reforms in HK. Perhaps the central government did not want things to go down this way. But after seeing how Carrie Lam failed to manage things, it entirely took over control and stopped all autonomy promised before.

In Hong Kong, on July 1, 2020, which was the 23 anniversary of the handover [of Hong Kong by the British to the Chinese,] about 200,000 people came out on the streets to protest. The National Security Law was passed on the same day, and the police began to arrest 300 people on a daily basis. By now, no one dares to protest anymore.

Khan: Protests began in a pre-Covid, normal world, now after almost a year, how has the pandemic affected the protests?

Xiao Hu: No public gathering is allowed ever since the outbreak of the pandemic. The government uses the pandemic as an excuse to take away all our rights of assembly and expression. The bans have dealt a blow to the Movement. The government wants to use an app to check our whereabouts in the name of pandemic control but almost no citizens use that app. Now, we fear that the government would make the app compulsory when we enter public service buildings such as universities, libraries, or hospitals.

Khan: The movement is a leaderless one – what are the possible consequences of that?

Xiao Hu: It could die out as people are massively leaving the territory, but people do know what is going on.

Khan: Is there any agreement or consensus on ‘what next’?

Xiao Hu: No…

Khan: So it is not a united movement… there are disagreements within?

Xiao Hu: Yes, [there is] always a lot of disagreement. But now even peaceful pro-democracy legislators who have condemned the violent approach had been arrested, the divide is less important. In other words, both the radical protestors and the peaceful legislators are going to jail. That is Beijing’s shock and awe approach. It also does not care too much about the reputation damage of Hong Kong as an international financial city.

Khan: How big of a concern to Beijing is the American threat of retaliation?

Xiao Hu:  Very little concern, as far as I think, as the American is now in crisis. The retaliation is targeting individual officials anyway.

Khan: And what about the souring of China’s relations with Britain?

Xiao Hu:  Very little concern as well as Britain needs China ever more in the post-Brexit and post-pandemic national crisis.

Khan: So US and British condemnations do not act as a deterrent for the clampdown by the Chinese central government?

Xiao Hu:  Not that I can see.

Khan: And finally, where do you see these protests going in the future?

Xiao Hu: We are trying to survive first.  Hong Kong people have never been through violent rule before, and now we are looking at many other lessons in other countries and in recent histories for reference.

[i] Universal suffrage refers to the right of the people of Hong Kong to elect their government officials through election without the meddling of Chinese central government.

[ii] The Extradition Bill proposed in 2019 would allow Hong Kong to be tried in mainland China and Taiwan. Notably, China did not have any extradition agreements with either Taiwan or China. Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong Chief Executive, maintained that the bill was necessary to prosecute a man guilty of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan in 2018. He could not be prosecuted for murder in Hong Kong as the act had been committed in Taiwan. Taiwanese officials said they did not have the authority to prosecute the man either due to the absence of any extradition agreement between the two territories. However, critics pointed out that the Extradition Bill would allow for an increase in influence of mainland China over Hong Kong. The bill was criticized as a pro-Beijing policy that would compromise the autonomy of Hong Kong.

[iii] Under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the local government in Hong Kong was to put into place laws against acts including sedition and subversion of Chinese central authority. However, attempts in the past by the Hong Kong government to enact these laws were met with protests and were unsuccessful.








Editor’s Piece: The Ideological Roots of the Ethnic Cleansing of the Hazara – A Historical Perspective

Sarah Khan – Senior Managerial Editor

In this essay, I view the recent tragedy involving 11 Hazara Shia coal-miners and their families through a historical perspective. I show how extremist intolerance against religious minorities in Pakistan is rooted in an exclusionary ideology of what constitutes the Pakistani ‘nation’.

On January 3rd 2021, 11 coal miners from the Hazara Shia community were kidnapped and barbarically murdered near Mach, Balochistan. The Islamic State – Khorasan (IS-K), that maintains a presence in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack. The IS-K is a province of the IS (Islamic State), a jihadist-Salafi militant organization, whose declared objective is to establish a caliphate in Iraq, Syria and the Khorasan (Central Asia and South Asia), and expand its authority globally, over the Muslim ‘Ummah’ (CSIS, 2021). The Salafist movement is a branch within Sunni Islam that subscribes to a purist, literalist interpretation of Islam and calls for a reversion to the traditions of the Salaf – the first generations of Muslims. Part of the Salafists’ guiding ideology is takfir i.e. excommunication (declaring as apostates or infidels) of Muslims that have strayed from ‘true Islam’ – this includes both Shias, and Sunnis with beliefs divergent from Salafism (Kadivar, 2020). The targeting of the Shia by Sunni terrorist organizations is guided by the takfiri ideology to rid Islam of its ‘impure’ elements.

The incident of terrorism in Balochistan– needless to say, a monumental tragedy – did not itself sound alarm bells in the national media. Rather, it was its aftermath, in which the persecuted and hounded Hazara minority staged a sit-in, and refused to bury the slain miners until Prime Minister Khan met them and the terrorists were held to account, that made headlines. A protesting woman lamented that her family had been bereaved of all its men and breadwinners in the attack; there was no one left to shoulder the funeral procession.

“The monumental tragedy in Balochistan did not itself sound alarm bells in the national media. Rather, it was its aftermath, in which the persecuted and hounded Hazara minority staged a sit-in, and refused to bury the slain miners until Prime Minister Khan met them and the terrorists were held to account, that made headlines”

This, however, was not the first incident of terrorism perpetrated against the Hazara Shia in Pakistan. In the past, the Pakistani Hazara have been the target of systematic ethnic cleansing. In Pakistan, the Hazara are scapegoated on three separate counts – being Hazara, identifying as Shia, and belonging to Balochistan.

An exhaustive list of the number of times that the Hazara Shia have been targeted by Sunni extremist militant outfits is not possible here. However, for a rough estimate, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) documented that almost 3000 Hazara have been killed in murders, suicide attacks, and car bombings in only the last 20 years.

Nor is the persecution of the Hazara Shia limited to Pakistan. The Hazara, who belong originally to Hazarajat, Afghanistan, have been subjected to persecution particularly at the hands of the Afghan Taliban in the later 20th century. Escaping this torture, they crossed the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and emigrated elsewhere including to the US and Australia. In Pakistan, the Hazara found no respite, and became the targets of extremist Deobandi[1] outfits operating in the country.

The prime perpetrators of anti-Shia violence in Pakistan

In Pakistan, the Lashkar e Jhangvi (LeJ) and Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have been at the forefront of orchestrating terrorist violence against the Shia. For readers unfamiliar with the operations of these groups – the LeJ , who have perpetrated terrorism particularly against the Hazara Shia, persistently and with indemnity, sprung from the SSP (Sipah e Sahaba Pakistan), which was declared a terrorist organization and banned by Musharraf in 2002. They act as proxies and counterparts of the IS in Pakistan. The TTP emerged in the aftermath of the Afghan War in 2007, and maintains close ties with the Al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban (Stanford & CISAC, 2021). The TTP have targeted the Ismaili Shia in the Gilgit-Baltistan province of Pakistan (Hunzai, 2013). Notably, both TTP and LeJ are Sunni Deobandi outfits.

While the Deobandi are distinct from Salafists, both share in common the objective of the implementation of the Sharia and the snuffing out of ‘apostates’ and ‘infidels’. We shall see later how such extremist outfits became major actors in Pakistan’s political landscape, and over time, strayed into militancy.

One of the declared aims of the LeJ is to “cleanse” Pakistan of the “impure” Shiites all of whom it views as “liable to be killed” and to “rest only upon flying the flag of ‘true Islam’ over the country”. This is expressed in LeJ’s public threat to the Hazara Shia issued in 2011 (HRW, 2014), following the release of their leader, Malik Ishak, from prison, and his acquittal from charges of murder by the Rawalpindi ATC (anti-terrorism court) (Dawn News, 2014). Ishak’s case is only one from a list of 2,000 acquittals by ATCs of Pakistan[2] since 2007.

As Madiha Afzal shows in her book Pakistan Under Siege (2018), the State has maintained an obfuscated narrative with regards to the very existential threat that the terrorist outfits pose to Pakistan. Regarding the groups that were to form the TTP, the State under Musharraf, while engaging with them in successive peace deals (from 2005 – 2007), advanced the narrative that they were “our brothers” who could be contained, to the public (p. 50).

It appears that the Pakistani State adopts a hardline approach only as the last resort, to stifle or counter a direct and urgent threat, or to mollify public outrage. This is evidenced by the Lal Majid crackdown, the Operation Zarb-e-Azab in South Waziristan, and the resumption of the death penalty for Islamist militants following the 2014 APS massacre (Afzal, 2018). Otherwise, it appears that the military – that commands Pakistan’s domestic and foreign security policy – waits for these extremist elements to fall into line. This begs the question of why there is so much tolerance –among State institutions – for such terrorist and extremist outfits that obviously pose an existential threat to Pakistan, and are destabilizing for the State? To answer this, I must make inroads into Pakistan’s complicated entanglement with Islam and the complex politics of national identity.

The problem with the exclusionary ideology of Pakistan

Commonly, the rise of Islamist extremist violence in Pakistan is attributed to General Zia’s regime. However, while being cognizant of the seminal role played by Zia in cultivating a culture of violent, militant Islamism in Pakistan, I want to detract from the view that it was Zia who set this process in motion. I argue that Zia enacted his draconian Islamization in a milieu that emerged as a result of a series of events beginning with the conception of Pakistan as a state for the Muslims of India, imagined as a homogenous community, “a nation, a people” (Jan, 2010, p. 280).

“Zia enacted his draconian Islamization in a milieu that emerged as a result of a series of events beginning with the conception of Pakistan as a state for the Muslims of India, imagined as a homogenous community, “a nation, a people””

The ideology of Pakistan is based on the fictitious idea – rooted in the colonial divide and rule policy – of Muslims and Hindus as two separate civilizations who could not intermingle or coexist in harmony. Jinnah, founder of Pakistan and at the helm of the Muslim League, had fully imbibed this idea[3]. On the basis of this idea, being Muslim became, rather than “a private inner disposition towards the divine”, a “racial identity marker” (Jan, 2010, p.281). It must be noted that the clash of civilizations between the Hindus and the Muslims ignored the various other religious and ethno-linguistic minorities in India.

Importantly however, the Muslims of India, a panoply group composed of different sects, did not conceive of themselves as a unified, undifferentiated mass. As early as 1907, All India Shi‘a Conference had been set up, that challenged the League’s claim of being the sole Muslim representative in India[4]. Muslims Against the Muslim League (2017) provides an excellent account of the critiques of the idea of Pakistan – a political project of the League – by Muslim political actors in India.

The idea of a Muslim nation became imbued with a majoritarian definition of Islam that was only representative of a certain denomination within Islam: Sunnism. The Isna Ashari Shia, Hosseibhoy Laljee, president of the Shi‘a Political Conference, warned in the 1940s, “with an element of prescience” (p.350), that Pakistan would fall under Sunni Sharia fail to offer its Shia citizens freedom of worship or protection from discrimination. This is explored in deeper depth in Justin Jones’ (2017) essay “The Pakistan that is to be Sunnistan”.

Indeed, with the making of Pakistan, a particular (Sunni) interpretation of Islam – masquerading as representative of all Muslims of India– became cemented as the national, official definition, and acquired political and cultural dominance.

My exposition above has shown that Pakistani national identity is anchored in two related and defining variables: a state in opposition to (‘Hindu’) India formed based on Islam. The negative identity, from the very onset, has instilled deep-seated paranoia of India as a threat. It has also given Pakistani nationalism a defensive character that is preoccupied with a search for threatening ‘Others’ against which to defend, and reaffirm, Pakistani identity. The State and national security establishment have turned this to their advantage, and appropriated Islam as a tool for nation-building. However, the state appropriation of a certain definition of Islam as a tool to forge an assimilative national identity has led to its becoming a divisive force. The cry of defending Islam is used to justify war (under the banner of jihad – ‘holy war’), and scapegoat groups and identities – religious ‘Others’ – which do not subscribe to the majoritarian definition of Islam.

“The state appropriation of Islam as a tool to forge an assimilative national identity has led to its becoming a divisive force. The cry of defending Islam is now used to justify war (under the banner of jihad – ‘holy war’), and scapegoat groups and identities – religious ‘Others’ – which do not subscribe to the majoritarian definition of Islam.”

The constitutive role of (Sunni) Islam in Pakistani national identity is what has, at least in part, emboldened Sunni Islamist groups to vie for political power and dictate their will to the State. These elements operational within Pakistan weaponize Islam as an excuse to wage jihad against those they condemn as ‘apostates’ or ‘infidels’. It is noteworthy that these (entirely manufactured) rivalries have further been fanned by the glorification of jihad in national security discourses.

Since the very inception of Pakistan, a tussle for sovereign authority has been underway between the politico-religious elite (Islamist parties)[5] and the State. Most notably, this can be observed in the case of the Jamat e Islami (JI) whose leader Abul Ila Maududi rejected the idea of Pakistan as a modern, secular (la dini) nation-state and envisioned the establishment of an Islamic state in the country (Qasmi, 2017). It makes sense that he, although initially against the Pakistani State, later allied his party with Zia’s Islamist regime.

As Qasmi (2010) points out, successive administrations have practiced their own version of a ‘politics of Islam’ to appease Islamist parties and for the purposes of crafting and solidifying a Pakistani national identity. How this has been done, we shall see in the next section.

The politics of Islam and the Pakistani State

As early as 1949, the State yielded to pressure by Islamist parties to pass the Objectives Resolution that expressly declared Pakistan an Islamic state. The name change of Pakistan was effectively formalized in the 1956 Constitution as the Republic of Pakistan became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (Syed & Pio, 2016).

By 1953, Islamist parties had turned Pakistan into a theatre for the enactment of sectarian politics and began to demand the declaration of the Ahmeddiya as heretics. The State clamped down against these elements fomenting identity based hostility and violence. Interestingly, in the Munir Report that probed into the causes of the 1953 disturbance stated that the Ulema (religious scholars representing different schools of thought from within Islam) were asked to provide a definition of Muslim – none could agree (Qasmi, 2010). This shows that in Pakistan, due to the presence and influence of Islamist parties (subscribing to different schools of thought) in political affairs, sectarian hostilities are endemic. By the definition of one, all others will be kafirs (apostates and infidels).

Notably, the movement against the Ahmeddiya community found its culmination in 1973 when the Ahmeddiya were declared non-Muslims in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, passed under Z.A. Bhutto. Bhutto, for political expediency and opportunism parroted and bolstered the discourse of Islamic national identity that forms the core of the Pakistani identity.

As I have mentioned above, the ideology of jihad has been valorized and formed part of national identity and security discourse. In Pakistan’s confrontations with India, in 1947, 1965, and 1971, Islamist militants, or “irregular forces”, have been enlisted by the military to fight alongside them. Their conviction to fight has been animated by an ideology of waging jihad against the enemy. Particularly, the 1965 and 1971 wars  against India have been styled as jihad by the military[6] (Afzal, 2019). Jihad, in fact, also constitutes the Army’s official motto — iman, taqwa, jihad (faith, piety, holy war). The valorization of jihad pervades Pakistani textbooks still that form part of the enterprise of national identity as Madiha Afzal (2018) has shown.

Such was the political terrain in which Zia fully embraced Deobandi ideology, and entered into an enduring tryst with the JI . This included bestowing state patronage on JI members by instituting members in government positions, and consulting the JI on matters of legislation (Ahmed, 2018).

During the Zia years, there was a surge in the number of Deobandi madrassahs (religious seminaries) funded by Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Iraq (Syed & Pio, 2016), towards the end of containing the influence of Shia Iran, by building a “Sunni wall” around Iran (Nasr, 2000). Due to this, Saudi Wahhabism – a puritanical interpretation of Islam – seeped into the Deobandi madrassahs. These religious seminaries became the breeding ground for Islamist militants, particularly those that joined the US sponsored ‘jihad’ against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that the Zia regime participated in. It was during this time that the Pakistani Deobandis forged close ties with the Afghan Taliban that were inducted in these Deobandi seminaries[7], and the Al-Qaeda, whose leaders had pledged allegiance to the Taliban[8] (Syed & Pio, 2016). While Afghanistan was under Taliban rule, LeJ militants received training at al-Qaeda-run training camps. As such, both LeJ and the TTP became integrated into the global nexus of Islamist terrorist organizations. (The entry of the ISIS in the web of Islamist terrorist organizations further complicated an already complex arena). Furthermore, with one fell swoop, i.e. the notorious clauses 295-B and 295-C of the penal code, Zia criminalized the questioning of, or debate about, interpretations of Islam. These murderous laws have legalized arbitrary allegations of blasphemy and encouraged violence against anyone accused of having blasphemed.

The consequences of the manipulation of Islam as a national ideology

The version of Islam that is wielded as a tool by the State and national security establishment to forge an assimilative national identity has becomes a divisive force in Pakistan. The centrality accorded to Islam in the construction of a national identity, defined negatively, has allowed extremist elements use the justification of ‘defending’ and ‘protecting’ Islam to persecute minorities and those they consider deviant elements. It must be noted that what constitutes ‘Islam’ as a category is a matter of subjective interpretation. Any attempt to raise a particular interpretation of what Islam really is as the standard must be problematized as this is an exclusionary project and denigrates approaches and interpretations other to itself.

As I have stressed above, while Islamist terrorist outfits operating in Pakistan are distinct in the schools of thought that they subscribe to, they share in common the ideological strain guiding their operations. That is, they are animated by an obsession to eliminate who they consider apostates and infidels and establish the Sharia over geographies in which they operate (including Iraq, Syria, and the region known as referred to as Khorasan). In Pakistan, the extremist ideologies of these groups find fodder in the State and national security establishment’s politics of Islam: educational curricula, laws, and national security rhetoric.

To rid itself of these elements, the State must identify outfits such as LeJ and TTP (who openly and brazenly adopt an anti-State narrative) outright as an existential threat to itself and the possibility of a pluralistic Pakistan. Disappointingly though, Prime Minister Khan’s recent accusation of India’s complicity in the Hazara massacre towed the same stale line of blaming Pakistan’s ills on India’s ‘sinister intentions’. If Pakistan insists on defining itself negatively – that includes its obsession with India – that is the root cause of the festering Islamist extremism in the country, little is likely to change.

“If Pakistan insists on defining itself negatively – that includes its obsession with India – that is the root cause of the festering Islamist extremism in the country, little is likely to change.”

[1] A Sunni school of thought that emerged in late-nineteenth century colonial India, advocates a revivalist sort of Islam.

[2] Only in 2015 was Ishak killed by the Pakistani police.

[3] In 1940, Jinnah opined that “The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literatures. They neither intermarry, nor dine together. They belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conception”(Islam, 1981).

[4] It is ironic that Jinnah would be the one to lead the League’s mission for a separate homeland for the Muslims of India as initially, at the time of its formation in 1906, Jinnah opposed the idea of the League as a separate political entity to represent the Muslims.

[5] The Islamist parties operating in Pakistan must not be viewed as a homogenous group and have differences and rivalries among them as well. The main Sunni schools of thought operating in Pakistan are the Deobandis, the Ahl e Hadith, the Barelvis, and the Ahrar, all of whom have at some point browbeaten the State into submitting to their demands.

[6] In both 1965 and 1971, the Pakistani Army enlisted the services of Islamist guerilla type fighters in their wars. Religious tropes inspired the insurrection in both Kashmir and in Bangladesh. For example, the mission in Kashmir was termed Operation Gibraltar, a reference to Gibraltar’s eighth-century conquest by the Muslim general Tariq bin Ziyad (Syed & Pio, 2016).

[7] Mullah Omar (d. 2015), the head of the Taliban, was a product of a Deobandi seminary.

[8] Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Al Zawahiri pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar.


Afzal, M. (2018). Pakistan Under Siege. Brookings Institution Press.

Afzal, M. (2019, October 14). Imran Khan’s incomplete narrative on the Taliban. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/10/14/imran-khans-incomplete-taliban-narrative/

Ahmed, Z. S. (2018). Political Islam , the Jamaat-e-Islami , and Pakistan ’ s Role in the Afghan-Soviet Citation : Zahid Shahab Ahmed ( 2012 ). ‘ Political Islam , Jamaat-e-Islami , and Pakistan ’ s Role in the Afghan-Soviet War ,. July 2012, 1979–1988. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv16758xt.17

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Qasmi, A. U., & Robb, M. E. (2017). Muslims against the Muslim League: Critiques of the Idea of Pakistan. In A. U. Qasmi & M. E. Rob (Eds.), Cambridge University Press. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316711224

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Whether in India or in Pakistan, a Dalit is a Dalit

Damisha Salim

The mob dragged Surekha, Priyanka and the two boys, one of them partially blind, out of the house. The boys were ordered to rape their mother and sister; when they refused, their genitals were mutilated, and eventually they were lynched. Surekha and Priyanka were gang-raped and beaten to death. The four bodies were dumped in a nearby canal, where they were found the next day. 

Quoted above (p. 19) is a heart-wrenching excerpt from The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste, the Debate Between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi penned by Arundhati Roy. It was originally published in 2014 as an introduction to the annotated edition to Annihilation of Caste, the text of a presiding speech written, but never delivered, by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in 1936 for the Annual Conference of Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (Forum for Break-up of Caste), Lahore. It was published as a separate book in 2017. Seeking to examine the public-political debate between Ambedkar and Gandhi on the practice of caste, Roy analyses the caste system in India in the context of both the present and the past. And, in doing so, she also reveals horrific details about this system; a system of institutionalized persecution and injustice.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, the caste system, as Ambedkar calls it, is “‘an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt’” (Roy, 2014, p. 24). In Hinduism’s founding texts, the system is known as chaturvarna (the system of four varnas). Explaining what it means, Roy (2014) writes,

The approximately four thousand endogamous castes and sub-castes (jatis) in Hindu society, each with its own specified hereditary occupation, are divided into four varnas—Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (soldiers), Vaishyas (traders) and Shudras (servants). Outside of these varnas are the avarna castes, the Ati-Shudras, subhumans, arranged in hierarchies of their own—the Untouchables, the Unseeables, the Unapproachables — whose presence, whose touch, whose very shadow is considered to be polluting by privileged-caste Hindus. (p. 24)

At this point, it is important to clearly articulate that, in this article, I use the word ‘Dalit’ to refer to the people who, according to the caste divisions, belong to the avarna castes – the outcastes, the untouchables. The term has its roots in Sanskrit (Dalit Christians, n.d.) and means ‘broken’ or ‘oppressed’ (MRGI, n.d.). In the 19th century, it was adapted to refer to the people who did not belong to any of the four varnas; the term rightly reflecting their downtrodden status in the society (Dalit Christians, n.d.).

Dalits, owing to their ‘polluted being’, were and are subject to discrimination in the Indian society. They constitute the lowest rank in the economic pyramid, taking up low paid jobs including their ‘hereditary’ role as manual scavengers. Providing a vivid description of their ordeals, Roy (2014) notes,

In addition to being forced to live in segregated settlements, Untouchables were not allowed to use the public roads that privileged castes used, they were not allowed to drink from common wells, they were not allowed into Hindu temples, they were not allowed into privileged-caste schools, they were not permitted to cover their upper bodies, they were only allowed to wear certain kinds of clothes and certain kinds of jewellery. Some castes, like the Mahars, the caste to which Ambedkar belonged, had to tie brooms to their waists to sweep away their polluted footprints, others had to hang spittoons around their necks to collect their polluted saliva […] In many parts of India, much of this continues to this day. (pp. 24-25)

Moreover, the crimes perpetrated against them by the people belonging to the upper-castes include unapologetic physical assault, butchery, molestation, and rape. Treating Dalits with basic human decency is polluting, but molesting and raping their women is pure.

I remember being deeply disturbed when I read Roy’s account of the perpetual oppression of Dalits; my insides burning with a sense of utter disgust and sorrow. “And this is presumably the world’s largest democracy,” I scoffed angrily. Of course, caste is just a ‘Hindu thing’; it only belongs in India. Of course, this is the Islamic Republic; there is no caste here.

However, the plight of Dalits, it is very important to understand, is neither about a country nor about a certain religion. It is only about being a Dalit. A Dalit is a Dalit, no matter which region of the world they reside in and what religion they practice. The oppressive and discriminatory treatment of this section of the human (emphasis added) population transcends all boundaries of religion, culture, and space. Dalits do not live in India only, there are Dalits in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. There are not only Dalit Hindus, there are Dalit Muslims, Dalit Christians, Dalit Sikhs. Surekha and her family were Dalit Buddhists. They had converted to Buddhism to escape the discrimination and oppression practiced against the outcastes, but how did they end up? Butchered. Raped. Surekha had a dual crime: she was a Dalit and a woman.

Let us talk about Pakistan now. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, to be precise, has never really acknowledged caste-based discrimination. But, remember the case of Aasia Bibi? The woman who had been sentenced to death for allegedly criticizing the Prophet (p.b.u.h). Who was she? A Christian. And, a Dalit. What sparked the altercation that led to her supposedly blasphemous remarks? She, an untouchable, polluted Dalit Christian, drank water from a communal cup that was exclusively Muslim (Zakaria, 2018).

Pakistan’s first minister for Law and Labor, Jogendranath Mandal, was a Dalit Hindu. He is considered to be one of the most influential figures in the Pakistan Movement. He had joined Muslim League in 1943 and worked in the Bengal Legislative Assembly. His support for Muslim League was based on the fact that he saw the interests of the Bengali Muslims to be broadly similar to those of Dalits in Bengal, both the groups being victims of the upper-caste Hindu chauvinism (Mandal, n.d.). Despite his reservations, he remained loyal to the struggle of Pakistan, primarily on the account of the League’s promise of equal treatment of minorities in the new state. His support for the League indirectly brought with itself support from Dalits. However, disillusioned by the discriminatory attitude of the newly established Islamic state towards the Hindu minority in general, and Dalit Hindus in particular, in both East and West Pakistan, he resigned (Mandal, n.d.), and subsequently migrated to India, in 1950. His detailed resignation letter to then Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan is an insightful read on the matter.

In Pakistan, like India, Dalits are officially classified under the category of ‘Scheduled Castes’. In 1956, the Government of Pakistan had officially recognized scheduled castes in the country (Rehman, 2020). In November 1957, the Ministry of Law had released a list of about 40 castes and tribes[1] designated as scheduled castes and tribes (Jaipal, 2012). Majority of Dalits belonging to these castes are Hindus and Christians. According to the 1998 census, the number of scheduled caste people in the country is 332,343 (PBS, 2011). This, however, only accounts for Dalit Hindus, who complain of census-based discrimination against them i.e. deliberate underreporting of their actual numbers. They claim to constitute a much larger portion of the Hindu population (approx. 2.4 million) residing in Pakistan: approximately 2 million (IDSN, n.d.). What do you do when you do not want to acknowledge discrimination? You make those you discriminate against non-existent. The estimated Christian population of the country is 4 million, majority of them are Dalits who had converted to Christianity in hopes of escaping the horrors of caste, but in vain (Jacobsen, 2011). In the provinces of Sindh and Punjab, majority of Dalits are forced into bonded labor, primarily in the agriculture and brick-making industry (IDSN, n.d.). Though bonded labor has been outlawed in the country, but the neglect of law is nothing new and the downtrodden are seldom cared about. Moreover, about 80 per cent of manual sewers, sweepers, and cleaners in Pakistan are specifically Dalit Christians (Rehman & Abi-Habib, 2020).

Sexual abuse of Dalit women is rampant (IDSN, n.d.). How interesting it is to note that Dalit women are untouchables because they are Dalit, but, in ‘special’ instances of molestation, abduction, and rape, they are undisputedly touchable because they are women. Dual discrimination against Dalit women because they have committed a dual offence: they are both Dalit and women. And, let me add a third variable to this oppression equation for them. Religious majoritarianism. In Pakistan, Dalit girls and women, including those who are married, fall victim to forced religious conversions under the guise of marriage of choice or, in other cases, are conspicuously forced into marriage, after being converted, to settle unpaid debt of their families. They are abandoned after sexual exploitation, sold off, or are forced into prostitution (Arantes, 2018).  Google “Aarzoo Masih” for the most recent case of abduction and forced conversion and marriage of Dalit girls and women in Pakistan.

Further exasperating is the fact that all the abuses against Dalits, including forced conversions and marriages, are perpetrated with sheer impunity. No protection. No justice, even after years. The unresolved case of Manu Bheel is a testimony in this regard. Manu is a Dalit who was freed from bonded labor in 1996 and, along with his family, had started to work as a wage laborer thereafter. However, in 1998, nine of his family members were abducted by his former Muslim landlord; Manu is still unaware of their whereabouts (IDSN, 2015). Concerning forced conversions and marriages, the police is often reluctant to register an F.I.R. (Ackerman, 2018). Even when an F.I.R is registered and the case is taken to the court, the law against forced marriages doesn’t help, for, now that the woman or girl is a Muslim, it is impossible for her to revert back to her former religion (Arantes, 2018). Certain so-called champions of Islam in the country believe it would bring disgrace to the religion. In the case of young Dalit girls, their age, which, in most cases, is below the official age for marriage, is ignored (Arantes, 2018). The case usually resolves in favor of the perpetrators on the pretext of the girl or woman accepting Islam out of her own ‘free’ will (Ackerman, 2018). Of course, when jannah is awaiting the groom and his family, how is the judiciary supposed to punish them?

A lot more can be written on this topic for the kind of human suffering involved is endless. In fact, a lot more should be written about Dalits in Pakistan because there is little discourse on it, primarily because Dalits are usually associated with Hindus only. Since, based on the popular narrative of two-nation theory, Pakistan is an Islamic country, the pure homeland of Muslims, and India is where the Hindus live, this usual, but incorrect, exclusive association of Dalits with Hindus leads to a perpetual denial of their existence and, consequently, their plight in Pakistan. However, it must be noted that, though the dynamics of discrimination and abuse against Dalits may vary, the persistence of it cannot be denied in either of the countries. Whether in India or in Pakistan, a Dalit is a Dalit

[1] 1. Ad Dharmi 2. Bangali 3. Barar 4. Bawaria 5. Bazigar 6. Bhangi 7. Bhanjra 8. Bhil 9. Chmar 10. Chanal 11. Charan 12. Chuhraor Balmiki 13. Dagiand Koli 14. Dhanak 15. Dhed 16. Dumna 17. Gagra 18. Gandhila 19. Hala-Khor 20. Jatia 21. Kalal 22. Khatik 23. Kolhi 24. Kori 25. Kuchria 26. Mareja or Marecha 27. Megh (war) 28. Menghwar 29. Nat 30. Odh 31. Pasi 32. Perna 33. Ramdasi 34. Sansi 35. Sapela 36. Sarera 37. Shikari 38. Sirkiband 39. Sochi 40. Wagri.


Ackerman, R. (2018). Forced Conversions & Forced Marriages in Sindh, Pakistan. CIFoRB, The University of Birmingham. https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-artslaw/ptr/ciforb/Forced-Conversions-and-Forced-Marriages-in-Sindh.pdf

Arantes, P. L. (2018). Forced Conversions and Forced Marriages in Pakistan: Submission on Early Childhood and Forced Marriage in the Context of Humanitarian Settings, Pursuant to the Resolution 35/16 of the Human Rights Council (WRGS/COW/Res 35/16). International Dalit Solidarity Network.

Dalit Christians. (n.d.). Origin of the word “Dalit”. http://www.dalitchristians.com/Html/dalitmeaning.htm

International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN). (n.d.). Pakistan. https://idsn.org/countries/pakistan/

International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN). (2015, January 19). Pakistan: Manu Bheel, Sindh Province. https://idsn.org/pakistan-manu-bheel-sindh-province-2/

Jacobsen, D. (2011). The World’s Christians: Who they are, Where they are, and How they got there. Wiley-Blackwell.

Jaipal, R. (2012, November 9). In Pakistan, Dalits known as Scheduled Castes. In Pakistan, roughly 3 million is the Dalits Population. The SCs belong to [Post in SCRM: Scheduled Caste Rights Movement Pakistan Facebook Group]. Facebook. https://m.facebook.com/notes/scrm-scheduled-caste-rights-movement-pakistan/who-is-scheduled-caste-dalits/556214234394681

Mandal, J. (n.d.). Jogendra Nath Mandal’s Resignation Letter to Liaquat Ali Khan. Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation. https://www.spmrf.org/book/jogendra-nath-mandals-resignation-letter-to-liaquat-ali-khan/

Minority Rights Group International (MRGI). (n.d.). World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples: Dalits. https://minorityrights.org/minorities/dalits/

Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS). (2011). Pakistan Statistical Yearbook 2011. http://www.pbs.gov.pk/sites/default/files/other/yearbook2011/Population/16-16.pdf

Rehman, Z. & Abi-Habib, M. (2020, May 4). Sewer Cleaners Wanted in Pakistan: Only Christians Need Apply. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/04/world/asia/pakistan-christians-sweepers.html

Rehman, Z. (2020, May 3). Call for Representation of Scheduled Castes on National Minorities Body. The News International.


Roy, A. (2014). The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste, the Debate Between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi. In S. Anand (Ed. & Annot.), Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition, B. R. Ambedkar (pp. 17 -179). Navayana Publishing.

Zakaria, R. (2018, October 16). A Death Sentence Over a Cup of Water?” The New Republic. https://newrepublic.com/article/151723/death-sentence-cup-water