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Children of a lesser god

In India and in Pakistan, being a minority often comes with guaranteed marginalisation

By Ali Ousat |
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PUBLISHED May 16, 2021

On the busiest street of old Karachi, between small houses and littered garbage, there rests a large and imposing black iron gate. The gate, not only solely exists for the protection of the hundreds of residents dwelling inside, but it also symbolises a great big divide between the minority and majority of this city. It represents the fears and anxieties of the Hindus, Sikhs and Christians of the city who know that they are not completely safe here. The Narain Pura minority compound commonly known as Bhangi Para’ - where the majority is always reluctant to enter - in reality is the worst expression of ordeal faced by the minority living in this country. The area that predates partition, is located next to Civil Hospital Karachi.

Alongside the Hindu temple inside the Bhangi Para, there is a tiny one-room house. Inside the dark and dismal room hangs a smell that can only be described as despondency. Inside the 10 feet room, deep in the corner of the room, Lakshmi bai and Kishore Mohan are sitting idle by themselves. There are some broken pieces of a computer littered around, the dust settled on them. The shattered pieces of metal tell the story Kishore’s fragmented dream of training as a computer operator in an effort to secure respectable job however, his ordeal has resulted in him employed as a sanitary worker in the education sector.

Lakhsmi Bai, who is a 68-year-old, retired sweeper of the health department, is the owner of the room and shares it with 27-year-old Kishore, who she considers a son.

“We as minorities, suffer a lot,” comments Lakshmi. Lakshmi, whose studied till 8th grade, is considered an educated woman in the community. According to her, no one thought about going to school at that time. “My father enrolled me in the school so I would get a respectable job,” she says, adding that “As an educated woman, I was considered to be a confident and bold girl in the community.”

“I tried my best to find a respectable job but social anxiety and prejudices barred me from freely being able to get a respectable job,” Lakshmi said. “People think that as a Hindu, the only job I am eligible for is to clean the toilets,” she says.

As you go deeper into Bhangi Para, some happy moments can also be witnessed. Loud and boisterous celebrating can be witnessed in the crown. People seem to celebrating a religious holiday; some were taking out a religious procession. Sound systems were buzzing with famous Indian Bollywood songs. The doors of houses wide open – an invitation to all - and pets could be witnessed roaming the neighbourhood freely.

But if you look closely, there is a deep pain, lurking right beneath the surface. The compound itself is not a usual sight for the majority population of this country as most of them avoid mingling with other faiths - the sweepers and sewage workers that they consider beneath them.

However, the colours of Bhangi Para are a beautiful reflection of interfaith harmony. In the other parts of the sub continent, it would be hard to imagine that Hindus, Sikhs and Christians would share the same meals and residential places. However, in Pakistan they are all considered a minority. They face the same difficulties and prejudices; their oppression binding them together to face a common threat to their safety.

Bhangi Para is also expression of the most neglected part of the society. There are some 90 apartments that are in dilapidated condition and can fall down and collapse at anytime. Many of the flats are abandoned but few families do still reside there. The residents say their fate hangs in a limbo and they have nowhere else to go.

Like in India, many Muslims and other minorities such as low caste Hindus share the same fate and live peacefully. Across the border, there are also some compounds where minorities share the same meals together and bond together in their times of suffering and joy alike.

In fact, Muslims in India and Hindus in Pakistan, share the same fear and sense vulnerability; a knowledge passed down by generations of marginalised communities that teaches their off spring to hide in the shadows from fear of attracting hate and revenge should their success and prominence bring them from their majority-ruling oppressors. Their opportunities are limited and but their problems infinite.

In the Bhangi Para, the most interesting sign, which is hidden from common sight, is the sign of Shia Muslim Alam (religious flag) which is placed atop the roof of the house of a Hindu community member.

On the night of Aashura Muharam, the Hindu community take out processions and mourn the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain. According to a resident, Mola Ali (Hazart Ali) also a otar (Bhagwan) that is why Hindu commemorate the sacrifice of Hazrat Imam Hussain, the grandson of Hazrat Ali (a.s).

What does the constitution say?

The Constitution of Pakistan, in article 25 (1), guarantees that “all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law.” Article 5 provides that “adequate provision shall be made for the minorities to freely profess and practice their religions and develop their cultures.

However, the reality reads a bit different. Peter James is the resident of Phar-Gunj Christian colony which is considered city’s most remote residence, where hundreds of minorities people says as our Muslim brother live in constant fear in India, so do were here. According to him, the religious fundamentalism on both sides of the sub content has ruined the lives of innocent people.

“This not the dream what Quaid-e-Azam had dreamed of, I don’t know why people hate us,” he laments, adding, “The Pakistani constitution however, has given us full rights to live but religious extremism constantly threatens us.”

All changes begin with the mind

Rafiq Sharif, who was union leader of Karachi Water and Sentry Board (KWSB), fought to have the name of his workers from ‘bhangi’ or ‘kundi’ men to ‘health workers – in order to earn respect for the minorities performing these jobs.

“I had to fight really hard to change these prejudices however, it didn’t achieve much. We can only abolish this mindset through education,” he said. “People still believe that Christians and Hindus are untouchable. Whatever they call them, we are still Bhangi or Chora.”

According to Rafiq, the workers contract several diseases including Hepatitis C. “We have to go deep in the gutter, where the water comes into our ears and mouth, and some times we end up gulping the gutter water,” he laments. “Believe me this is the actual lifestyle of minorities in the country.”

“We have no health benefits and resources to educate our children,” he says “That is why our children, even if we save everything we have just to educate them, the only jobs they are offered afterwards, is of a sweeper.”

“Our people are professors, doctors, and engineers, and prove themselves in every part of the society but people still consider us ‘choras’ or ‘bhangis,” he adds.

Brewing crises

Head of Psychotry department Sindh Government Hospital Dr Beenish Shoro, the, says, “Social anxiety is most common among minorities, as they believe that people observe us and are judgmental toward us.”

She adds that Psychiatric illnesses in Pakistan are widespread but consequences are often worse and more severe and longer in minority groups. “The stigma associated with seeking help is also higher among them,” she further adds.

According to studies minorities are more prone to develop negative emotions like isolation, repression, fear, guilt, pity, low self-esteem, sense of uncertainty and therefore they are more likely to suffer from severe depression and anxiety disorders than their majority counterparts. There is also scarcity of mental health services in rural areas where majority of the minorities live. This discrimination and deprivation of basic rights makes them more vulnerable to psychological problems.

“People usually abuse them and make fun of them that is why their personalities become distorted,” says Shoroo. “They have a lot of negative emotion and anger against the majority that make them more vulnerable.”

Successful story

Senator Anwar Laal Din also belongs to Christian community and became a senator three years ago with the help of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

He says actually God has chosen us to serve humanity. “As a minority we have all resources and equal right to live what the constitution of Pakistan has given us,” he says.I was born and brought up in the slum area of Karachi, called Natha Khan Goth, which is considered a highly deprived area of the city. Now God has chosen me to serve my people, I am a senator now which proves that minorities in Pakistan do have equal rights to live.

“I have a message for my community: Get education and prove yourself as fortune is waiting for you. Struggle, work hard, and prove yourself, and success will find you.”

Situation in India

B Vijay Murty, senior journalist from India while talking to The Express Tribune said the minorities in India are in larger numbers and hence their presence is not restricted to any specific province, state or localities. They are scattered all over the country and live at their will.

“Their rights and duties are equal and each community has the freedom to practice their religion without any fear or apprehension like Pakistan,” he says. “However, there are incidences of discrimination and clashes between the communities but those stray incidences cannot be completely attributed to bias or prejudice against the community by any majority group.

He adds that by and large Muslims, the largest of all religious minorities in India, face the stigma of indulging in anti-national activities because of the handiwork of few miscreants, who can be just termed as criminals without any religious bias.

“Many of them pay a price for carrying the religion which has, of late, gathered much hatred due to political polarisation,” he said.

“A few years back, Zomato, a multinational food delivery company, exposed the subtle discrimination against the community by refusing to offer job to a Muslim man. The issue later picked up a storm forcing the company to apologise,” he said. “Indian constitution gives liberty for inter-religion marriages but the pro Hindu BJP government in some states consider this as an offence. In an order to check inter-religious marriages, the government in India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh enacted an anti-inter faith marriage law, popularly known as Love Jihad.’ The law is primarily aimed at preventing forcible religious conversions of Hindu girls by professing love.

He says once highly protected and patronised by the state, Urdu and Persian has very few takers in other communities today. In fact, Urdu and Persian is now confined to religious books among Muslims only.

He points out that attacks on Christians, who constitute 2.3 per cent of India's population, and churches have reached a low in the recent past. However, the community leaders often face the allegations of indulging in religious conversions of the poor and gullible masses, especially in tribal hinterlands.

He further adds that though they constitute barely 1.9 per cent of the total population, Sikhs in India considered a ‘martial race,’ and remain the most preferred minority community for selection in defence forcesdue to a long enduring history of Sikh bravery and heroism in wars both during pre and post-independence, which has earned them respect in society. Though majority Sikhs live in Punjab and Delhi, their miniscule population is scattered all over the country and they live in utter peace and harmony. Reports of attacks or racial discrimination against them has been negligible post the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

Of late, post the farmers protest against the Indian government's Farm Laws that originated from Punjab and spread to different states leading to violent protests in Delhi's Lal Qila (Red Fort), Sikhs in some places were called traitors and anti-nationals but the fiasco soon fizzled out.

Thus,despite the bloodiest division of the two states that were created with the sole intention of proving its inhabitants religious freedone, prejudices on both sides leave the minorities feeling vulnerable and unsafe. As the famous subcontinent writer Saadat Hasan Manto once wrote, “Hindustan had become free. Pakistan had become independent soon after its inception but man was still a slave in both these countries - slave of prejudice, slave of religious fanaticism, slave of barbarity and inhumanity.”