Dalits and the Senate elections

Letter January 17, 2012
NA & 4 provincial assemblies have a total of 30 seats reserved for minorities. Of these, one Dalit holds a seat.

KARACHI: On March 12 of this year, when Senate elections will be held, Pakistan will become one of a handful of countries in the world where the upper house of parliament will also have seats reserved for members from minority religious groups.

Despite a surge in fundamentalism and extremism in Pakistani society in recent years, the ruling PPP remains the major representative of both the majority Muslim and different religious minorities. The addition of minority seats was brought about by the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and for that the PPP must be thanked. The process of election will be that each provincial assembly will elect one senator to the upper house on a minority seat. This means that the PPP will probably get two senators elected, from Sindh and Balochistan, while the PML-N and the ANP will get one each from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa respectively.

Of course, while a good step, this does not mean that the discrimination face by the country’s minorities will disappear overnight. A case in particular is of the Dalits, or Scheduled Castes, who make up around 80 per cent of the country’s Hindu population but the country’s Hindu politics tend to be dominated by those from the upper castes. Even within the Hindu community, the Dalits are marginalised and end up suffering from discrimination from members of their own community.

The National Assembly and four provincial assemblies have a total of 30 seats reserved for minorities. Out of these, only one Dalit holds such a seat, despite the fact that Dalits constitute an overwhelming majority among Hindus in Pakistan.

Recent research by the Pakistan Institute for Labour Education and Research showed that 74 per cent of the Dalit population of over two million is illiterate and that 68 per cent has no access to health, drinking water and other amenities. In addition to this, age-old discriminatory practices such as being served in separate utensils and crockery continue. Also, many Dalits are refused by barbers so that poses a problem of its own.

When Partition happened many Dalits had the option to cross the border and live in India, a Hindu-majority state. However, those who chose to stay did so because they thought that India’s caste system would hold them back and that they would have a better chance for social advancement in this country.

We hope that the political parties, especially the PPP, will consider this when they decide on awarding tickets for minority seats in the Senate elections that are now less than two months away. This would be one step towards making them feel as if they are part of mainstream Pakistani society.

Scheduled Castes Federation of Pakistan

Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2012.