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