Pakistan’s caste system: The untouchable's struggle

Published: March 31, 2012

LAHORE: Sabir Arif, a student of finance and cost management in one of Lahore’s private institutions lives in a hut made of wood, cloth and plastic sheets. His only source of income is the private tuitions he provides to others to keep his makeshift home intact.

The son of a daily wager, Sabir is not a typical victim of abject poverty in the city. Reminiscing about how he read Russian literature when he came across old story books while picking garbage in class seven, Sabir says his great challenge in life has been his caste – that he was born a Deendar Changar – Pakistan’s version of the ‘untouchables’.

Contrary to popular belief, caste in Pakistan has been a means of systematic discrimination. The lower castes here are Pakistan’s downtrodden, including Massalis also known as Muslim Sheikhs, Choorahs who are majority Christian and Chamars or Changars who are also called Deendars if they practice Islam. In Punjab and Sindh these include the scheduled Hindu castes that serve as farm workers and bonded laborers.

Sabir admits that he faces greater discrimination than most of his “biradari” because he refused to stick to what is the generally acceptable position and career path of his caste. Living in the slums, and being considered lowest of the low in a society fixated on high and low birth, Sabir was always at the periphery, but his decision to pursue education did not sit well with the local community.

Muhammad Arif, his father who gets labor jobs with the help of his donkey cart, says he struggled with the decision of sending his children to school, “People of our biradari said that education was not for our people, that I should make Sabir help me with daily work, but I decided against it and have not sent my younger children to work as live-in domestic helpers like others in our community or forced them into working only.”

Discouraged, discriminated against and lacking any political identity, the city is now Sabir’s home, as it is easier for people of lower castes to access schooling and get odd jobs in urban hubs as compared to rural settings, where discrimination is far higher.

Abdul Rasheed Dholka, a political activist of Mazdoor Kissan Party in Sargodha has worked with lower caste farm workers, and says that in rare cases when young men from these communities are hired as peons or clerks, they try to cut off ties with their community and hide identity to avoid discrimination.

“Decades of oppression have led to circumstances where these people don’t even know how to stand up for their rights, because there is no representation,” he adds.

Dholka’s words reflect in Sabir’s thoughts, as the young man says he sometimes feels “like the Africans in South Africa or the Jews in Nazi Germany”. However, despite the twin challenges of poverty and his birth into the bottom of the social rung, Sabir manages to remain hopeful, and talks of changing the country into a better home someday.

Haris Gazdar, Director and Senior Researcher, Collective for Social Science Research in his paper “Class, Caste or Race: Veils over Social Oppression in Pakistan” argues that caste based marginalization is common in Pakistan.

“The trouble is that the biradaris and quoms are not all equal, and public silencing of the issue is very much about perpetuating existing hierarchies. The inequality is so severe and deeply embedded in parts of the country that it is hardly even noticed.”

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Reader Comments (61)

  • Faesal
    Mar 31, 2012 - 3:03PM

    Pakistan’s caste system?
    Apart from few places, How does that make up Pakistan’s something? I’m certainly sure its not in Balochistan Sindh and northern areas. Some areas in Punjab and sindh inherited some hindu customs due to their proximity to hindu majority areas. Its sad to see its still prevalent but kind of discrimination prevalent in the society is not just only religiously motivated, all poors whether Muslims are not are discriminated so firstly stop making it sound like only minorities are discriminated.


  • lamees
    Mar 31, 2012 - 3:18PM

    totally condemn caste culture
    first came as shock to me when I was having my proposals….I didnt know my CASTE till then…..
    Almost every woman irrespective of religious or otherwise, asked me or my family this core question: WHAT IS YOUR CASTE???, the matter would not go beyond that answer if not of appropriate caste….


  • MBN
    Mar 31, 2012 - 3:20PM

    In a country where even the majorities are discriminating against EACH OTHER, I think the problem runs deeper, and is a fundamental flaw rather than an issue of discipline.


  • kaalchakra
    Mar 31, 2012 - 3:42PM

    Caste is not a discrimination that Islam endorses. Hence we must oppose it. Can’t explain it away!!


  • Mar 31, 2012 - 3:49PM

    Vienna,March 31,2012
    Very interesting. How come Muslims traced to Hindu Rajput/brahmin
    etc origins can discard their caste taste by praying looking at westwards?
    Besides money washes all castes.
    Taravadu Taranga Trust for Media Monitoring TTTMM India
    –Kulamarva Balakrishna


  • Concerned
    Mar 31, 2012 - 4:05PM

    It is completely un-Islamic, in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and actually, quite outrageous!:(


  • Ilyas Hussain
    Mar 31, 2012 - 4:54PM

    You spoke you heart out!! I think that this is one of the things overlooked by our system. The other major overlooked issue is the issue of eunuchs.


  • Saba
    Mar 31, 2012 - 5:12PM

    Although it sounds bad, the truth is that the caste system works well in South Asian societies. Have any of you ever wondered that most of the corrupt in this country are low castes. The low castes have absolutely spoiled the civil services and other government departments. The only thing they care about is buying land as big as the choudhry and will do anything to achieve this aim. Recommend

  • Achmad
    Mar 31, 2012 - 5:28PM

    I don’t see any problem with the comfort level associated with going into the same caste as yours, as long as you are not stepping on merit. It’s nothing out of the ordinary in Pak and its almost the same all across the world. Hell, if anything, caste/families also matter globally, may it be Italians, Russians, Americas (North & South). If anything, its less of a problem in Pakistan. Infact, apart from the cases stemming from feudal, in urban areas, looking down at someone due to his caste is highly frowned upon.


  • Mar 31, 2012 - 5:34PM

    We are many things but not this .. seriously keep this to india pls


  • Danny
    Mar 31, 2012 - 6:03PM

    Another bad custom people of Punjab inherited from India’s culture. A girl talking to me in the chat room asked my cast. I couldnt stop laughing. I told her I am khutree lol. By the way She didnt know what khutree is so she didnt find my joke too amusing. It is the parents who still living in cave times.Recommend

  • unbeliever
    Mar 31, 2012 - 6:11PM


    madam had you said any thing like this in my country in public, you would be booked under non-bailable offense…. and the problem runs deeper….. how many at the top in your country are from lower caste, none i think…but they have made the system corrupt beyond description….or is it that you have you never seen any corrupt upper caste?


  • Singh
    Mar 31, 2012 - 6:52PM

    In India if you call some body Choorah, you can be imprison for at least two year.


  • Lion Heart
    Mar 31, 2012 - 7:30PM


    Sorry Sir, i cannot let your comment go Unanswered. Simply because its resentful. Do you mean to say that the so called upper castes are not corrupt!! You need to wake up and have some coffee. People are corrupt because of their greed and it has nothing to do with Caste.


  • Pradeep
    Mar 31, 2012 - 7:36PM

    @Saba – What you say in atrocious. I will oppose anyone who supports caste even if they are not from my country.


  • Lion Heart
    Mar 31, 2012 - 7:36PM


    The Article talks about the caste discrimination in Pakistan. It has nothing to do with India. If all you could learn from India is its caste system then don’t put that blame on India’s doorstep. When shall this country learn to stop being a coward and face reality like it should.


  • usmanx
    Mar 31, 2012 - 7:38PM

    why is this disgusting, dehumanizing and inherently unjust system of caste exist in any corner of our country? How about Mullahs take this on as a social service?


  • let there be peace
    Mar 31, 2012 - 8:17PM

    Is Pakistan a Hindu nation? or even a secular nation?
    No, it is an Islamic nation. So you don’t have option to blame anyone else. You have to take full responsibility.
    If Caste exists in Islamic republic, that proves is allowed by Islam and not forbidden. If you disagree , quote one verse from Holy Quran or sahih Hadith that says caste system is forbidden in Islam. And please do not give vague arguments or misinterpretion of holy books.


  • Salim Ansari
    Mar 31, 2012 - 8:29PM

    There is some rationale behind the caste system I think. All long as all castes are consider equal – we should be ok.


  • Sajjad
    Mar 31, 2012 - 8:31PM

    I am really proud of you Sabir! A lot of people needs motivation from you and i must say we Pakistani’s are the most racist people in the whole world.


  • ZYX
    Mar 31, 2012 - 9:05PM

    Ahmadis, Chitralis, and now lowers castes….wow…5 days of strikes and now ET is firing on all the sensationalist cylinders!


  • Rajeev Nidumolu
    Mar 31, 2012 - 9:31PM

    Caste is an institution which is peculiar to to Subcontinent. This originated in ancient Indian society . It is not a peculiar institution confined to Hindu society as some would like to claim. No religion including Islam in subcontinent has been able to destroy this institution . We have endogamous castes in Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity and Islam. We also have Dalit Hindus, Dalit Muslims, Dalit Sikhs and Dalit Christians . Islam just like any other religions despite its claim as all encompassing homogeneous community has never been able to overcome Tribalism, Nationalism,Racism and Casteism . This is the result of human longing to assert sub identity and not be merged in an amorphous larger identity.
    People of Subcontinent except for urbanized educated people still follow caste structures . This is a reality.
    We know that dictator Zia Ul Haq belonged to Arain caste. This identification of caste origins of Zia would not have been possible if Zia’s family had lost its caste identity by conversion to Islam few centuries ago.
    Dominant role played by caste in Pakistani elections was a subject to an article In New York Times


  • dasmir
    Mar 31, 2012 - 10:07PM

    Caste in Pakistan ? Not true.It is Hindu- Zionist conspiracy.RAW + CIA + Mossad have planted Blackwater/Xi as untouchables to take Pakistan’s atomic Bum .

    Signature Difa e pakistan
    Hamid Gul
    Zaid hamid
    Mubassar Luqman
    Gen Pasha
    Hafeez saeed.


  • cric fan mani
    Mar 31, 2012 - 10:09PM

    this video made me cry. what a hero


  • let there be peace
    Mar 31, 2012 - 10:20PM

    For a moment I thought I’m reading a comment of some forward caste Hindu apologists. They make EXACTLY the same argument as you did. They twist words saying ‘caste system is not bad but caste based discrimination is bad’. It is like like saying ‘slavery is not a bad system but discrimination of slaves is bad, so let’s continue and glorify slavery’ or ‘Fascism is not bad but fascism based discrimination is bad, so let’s celebrate fascism.’
    Italian, Russian, American are not castes. Caste is something unique to infantry subcontinent. If there is caste, there will be caste based discrimination in some form. Your playing with words will not make any difference. No wonder elites if both religions ruled the majority hands in gloves for last few centuries.
    Everyone loves slavery when they are not on the receiving end.


  • Arsalan Ahmad
    Mar 31, 2012 - 11:27PM

    thats one awesome guy with an iron will


  • BackBencher
    Mar 31, 2012 - 11:31PM

    If some one is highly qualified, they asked qualification when search boy/girl for marriage. If some one has business, then they ask business. if some one has land, they ask land. We look for people of our level in wealth, land, qualification. Same is the caste. I don’t think that asking caste is some thing bad.


  • Beenish
    Mar 31, 2012 - 11:49PM

    Are you people for real? this is for the commenters who have no issue with caste discrimination, the ones who think its only happening in Punjab, or Sindh… Wow, do you realize that you are being ignorant yourself? This is a disgusting habit of taking an existing issue and trying to diverge your attention to something that will create worst issues. Discrimination in Pakistan is not just with caste… There is the skin color, language, provincial discrimination and you can’t fight discrimination by discriminating. First, open your hearts to the possibility that that what you or your ancestors have done or are doing can possibly be wrong! Like the way people treat the little kids they hire to clean their homes. Most Pakistanis, even the most educated, well off families treat the hired help with such disrespect that it is unbareable to witness. So don’t even say its an issue in rural communities. We are taught from the very begining to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves but unfortunatelu, lessons are learned only to pass exams but to be better human beings. These are basic Human morals we are talking about, regardless of religion, country or money! Uff the article should open your heart and mind to start the change in your self, inspire it in your friends and family not to start pointing fingers or defending how the society works better this way!


  • James
    Mar 31, 2012 - 11:50PM

    Caste is a reality of India and its not religion specific, its like the tribal system of Mid-East
    Even muslims of Pakistan have castes like Jats, Gujjars, Arains, Chamars, Dalits, Khatris and some foreign castes like Syeds, Zaidis, Mirzas, Sheikhs, Siddiqi etc


  • Arif Iqbal
    Mar 31, 2012 - 11:56PM

    @Saba: What the heck are you talking about?


  • Arif Iqbal
    Mar 31, 2012 - 11:57PM

    I mean seriously?


  • Azad
    Apr 1, 2012 - 12:03AM

    Caste consciousness is alive and flourishing in Subcontinent including Pakistan. 90% of the sweepers in major cities In Pakistan are from caste “Churas””Bhangis” who converted to Christianity mostly after partition. They face daily insults and discrimination’s-street-sweepers-are-mostly-christian-considered-‘unclean’-16602/
    Ancient Sanskrit word for caste is Varna which is equivalent to color of skin.People in subcontinent still look down upon their dark skin brethren and equate fair skin with superior position in social hierarchy


  • s shah
    Apr 1, 2012 - 12:06AM

    @Saba: @Achmad: Shocked and disgusted at your posts. This is blatent and overt racism. Shameful.


  • Apr 1, 2012 - 12:42AM

    Unfortunate circumstances ofcourse, but this guy’s determination and struggle should serve as an inspiration for young people.


  • Cynical
    Apr 1, 2012 - 12:56AM

    So nearly 1300 years (since Bin Qasim) of familiarity with the best and the greatest religion could not end caste system in the land of the purest.
    Hindoos would like this for sure.Shame.


  • Mandeep Vaid
    Apr 1, 2012 - 12:57AM


    Prejudices are what fools use for reason.
    Voltaire (French Philosopher and Writer)

    Have you not read the biography of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar also known as Babasaheb? He was posthumously awarded India´s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna? Babasaheb was an untouchable!

    Apropos here in Europe either you a high caste Brahman/Syed-zadi or a untouchable, for the European people and law you are all alike……moreover the smell of our spices and the yellow tarnished walls of our kitchens from haldi, chilli powder are in the meanwhile well-known.


  • Jamal
    Apr 1, 2012 - 3:06AM

    This guy will certainly do something big! InshAllah. I have a message for him, bro keep up the good work and fight for your rights. Its just sad to see teachers and other fellow students acting like ignorant and illiterate people themselves despite of education. Recommend

  • Rajendra Kalkhande
    Apr 1, 2012 - 8:37AM

    All Muslims may be equal in theory but not in day to day life. Pakistani Islam is nothing but an Islam with imprints of Hinduism. Where as caste system is getting weaker in India, in Pakistan it remains as regressive. Sikhism also face the same problem. Low caste Sikhs are not allowed to mix with High caste Sikhs. In India calling some one “Chamar” or “Churah/ Bhangi” will invite imprisonment. Our scheduled caste people have made it to highest possible offices like President, Chief justice etc. Ofcourse we have to go a long way to bring them at par with others. Interestingly all great Hindu books were written by the fore fathers of these so called untouchables. There can not be bigger hypocrisy than this.


  • Deepwater
    Apr 1, 2012 - 9:51AM

    Pakistan was supposed to be the best of all worlds. Instead, it has become the worst of all worlds. 1947 did not turn you into pure descendants of Arabs or into the self-appointed moral guardians of Islam. Instead, it turned you delusional.

    As someone said earlier in he comments “money washes all castes”. So if you want progress, return to development and not dependence. Or else stay on this tread mill forever.


  • Saba
    Apr 1, 2012 - 10:18AM

    Sir, most people in my country who claim to be from higher castes are nothing more than a bunch who sided with the British against their own countrymen and were rewarded huge amounts of land in return. They owe their fortune to Pakistan and sadly, they do not acknowledge it.

    Regarding the non-bailable offence in your country, its nothing more than a way to attract votes of the low-castes.


  • Adam
    Apr 1, 2012 - 10:45AM

    @ Saba. What caste are you? A Rajput?


    Apr 1, 2012 - 11:10AM

    Land of pure has become land of Untouchability, terrorism, sectarianism, ethnic cleansing, etc. etc. etc. You pakistanis need to introspect.


  • Apr 1, 2012 - 1:21PM

    Vienna,April 1,2012
    To all young readers who are not aware. There you all can see
    in the morning with a row of seven stars, one untouchable
    MOTHER, her name “akshamala ARUNDHATI ” that is from
    where Arundhati Roy inherited her name. She was married and
    inseparable companion of her husband Guru Vasishta,the sage
    of sages whose single cow fought and defeated that time´s
    king Gadhi´s son (sunu) Vishvamitra´s army.That king humiliated
    then discarded armed might to become a brahmin meaning man
    of knowledge.He became eventually.Since then in Indian subcontinent
    that DNA is shared by all.The story is embeded in RAMAYANA.
    I would suggest Pakistani friends approach Prof.Brian Sykes of
    Oxford University. I am sure he has Arundhati´s DNA sample.
    If he does not have I have my cousin, he can reconstruct from
    his mama Arundhati´s DNA. No Indian woman is allowed to marry
    without watching Arundathi in the sky with her would be husband.
    Taravadu Taranga Trust for Media Monitoring TTTMM India
    –Kulamarva Baalakrishna


  • MBN
    Apr 1, 2012 - 1:52PM

    What an unbelievably stupid thing to assume and then even say. And the CHOUDHRYS themselves have NO corruption or oppression in their system right? Please. How pathetic.


  • Human is image of God
    Apr 1, 2012 - 5:02PM

    Dear All,
    Recently in India, the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (NCRLM) or the Ranganath Misra Commission observed: ” We recommend that the caste system, should be recognised as a general social characteristic of the Indian society as a whole, without questioning whether the philosophy and teachings of any particular religion recongise it or not-since the Indian brands of certain faith traditions like Christianity and Islam have never assimilated many puritan principles of those religions, posing this question in respect of the caste system only and singling our for a differential treatment is unreasonable and unrealistic.”

    It is an observation made in the context of denying benefits of affirmative action to Christians and Muslims of Untouchable communities (legally Scheduled Castes) in India.

    It is very unfortunate that our sisters and brothers carried along with them the caste attitudes and untouchable practices during the Partition. We need to consciously overcome and create a society of fellowship and solidarity.


  • Saba
    Apr 1, 2012 - 7:06PM

    India is not much different. I have been there and sadly saw more people living on the streets than in Pakistan.


  • s shah
    Apr 1, 2012 - 7:24PM

    @saba: why should we use India as an excuse to justify our own delusions and sins. I cannot convey how appalled I am at your racist thinking and the other comments of people who think categorising people in castes is no big deal. All human beings are equal. That is basic morality. Please try and live in the 21st century and not in the dark ages.


  • Apr 1, 2012 - 8:29PM

    It is indeed very hard-hitting and eyeopner article on aeold caste system that is the legacy of hindu religion. In fact India-Pak are politically seperate entitities but culturally we are tremendously prototypes of each other. It was a mis-carriage of history done by tw towering politicians of the sub-continent1
    India was immensely fortunate to have leadr like Dr.Bhimrao Ambedkar, who brought the marginalised into mainstream!


  • Shah Of Blah
    Apr 1, 2012 - 9:20PM

    I don’t think this is a general problem…hating based on sect rather than caste is wayyy more popular


  • Ilyad
    Apr 1, 2012 - 9:38PM

    Pardon the cynicism – but the definition of untouchables for us should change to include all those people who are above the law and not vice-versa….


  • Anuj
    Apr 1, 2012 - 9:52PM

    OMG….pakistanis will get massive heart attack….all the while they were busy showing empathy to the dalits in India….they didnt know they are even worst…..Coz in India, dalits are in almost all the sectors of education, govt jobs and even Head of states…But its a dream for Pakistani Untouchables….as if Baloch rebels, NWF troubles, their own strategic assets, unsafe nukes, Nation for the Army, down-trodden people in all the spheres, pathetic state of minorities, and above all a failed economy and a failed state was not enough….they have their own disgusting caste system……WHAT and HOW THEY WILL EVER COMMENT ON INDIA now….tch tch tch…..Recommend

  • Lars
    Apr 2, 2012 - 6:32AM

    @ Saba Hussain – which country do you live in? India, Pakistan or elsewhere?


  • Yuri Kondratyuk
    Apr 2, 2012 - 9:45AM

    @Krihna Pachegonker:

    India was immensely fortunate to have
    leadr like Dr.Bhimrao Ambedkar, who
    brought the marginalised into

    India is immensely fortunate to have a tolerant culture that allowed Dr.Bhimrao Ambedkar to shine. If I remember correctly, even in Congress, he was antagonist to the majority’s methods (including Gandhi’s) and still Sardar Patel was wise enough to pick him on merit alone and made him the Architect of Indian constitution.


  • Apr 3, 2012 - 12:11PM

    Thank you so much for you kind words, these’re people like you who give me courage and power to face difficulties, which I don’t treat as difficulties any more. I believe that I had to live in different circumstances and it was my response to them which made the difference. Again thakful to you and Ms. Rabia Mehmud for her hardwork and struggle…


  • Sonia
    Apr 5, 2012 - 4:36PM

    @let there be peace:
    I dont have any quotes from hadiths or Quran- coz they are big books for such petty issues!!!
    I do have something for ur conscience- Hazrat Bilal was from the Slave class- i dont think his caste cud have possibly been better than the Quraish- still he was always with the Prophet and use to give the azaan- was freed by the Prophet and lived like any human being!!!!

    I hope that answers ur question- there were many people who said -ISLAM NEVER ADDRESSED THE ISSUE OF CASTE AND CREED- was never able to abolish it- it was ABOLISHED completely Alhamdulillah 1400 years ago. As the religion spread, local influences became more and more powerful with time. In our are we have the Hindu influence- with the mullahs doing little in this area- and people mostly uneducated- they go back to their old ways pretty easily and hold on to them. No matter how educated they are- the caste system is breaking (whoever thinks that in India the CASTE SYSTEM is breaking- news for u- their society stands on it) but it will take another 5-6 generations and many more Sabir Arifs to make it more diminished!!! We can DO this!!!


  • Apr 6, 2012 - 11:03AM

    thanks for your kind words sajjad, these are pepole like you who give me power and courage to keep on moving…..thanks


  • Apr 11, 2012 - 10:35PM

    Did you really just say: “The low castes have absolutely spoiled the civil services and other government departments. The only thing they care about is buying land as big as the choudhry and will do anything to achieve this aim.”

    I can’t believe that an educated (presumably) person like you can indulge in such blatant discrimination! No wonder our country has gone to the dogs! Do you even realise that such intense racial abuse can land you a sentence in most of the civilised world as it stands today??


  • Apr 14, 2012 - 12:26AM

    I met Sabir two days back at an event . He is genius and confident guy and for sure he will reach heights in his life , his vision is clear and he is proud of his being untouchables .


  • Kamran
    Apr 14, 2012 - 2:37PM

    I have friends from these castes and they eat in canteens and do other normal stuff BUT they belong to normal/rich families. So I guess his case is more of a poor guy with caste thing.
    The same goes for chowkidars, drivers, mazdoor,… they cant/dont dine with a normal (rich) person no matter what there caste is.
    Though I agree there is racism in Pakistan, no doubt about that.


  • bmniac
    Apr 28, 2012 - 7:09PM

    Some observations
    Caste based politics is common in India; so is corruption. As a rule many upper caste persons are ashamed of corruption and look down on their caste men if they are corrupt(my experience as a higher civil servant) There are many lower caste officers who are of unimpeachable integrity. It is difficult and unfair to generalise, But most are invertebrate anyway and do not stand up to what they believe in (Dr Manmohan Singh was like that but has grown worse)
    The Sikhs, Christians and muslims all practice the caste system.
    The Somalis discriminate against leather and iron workers.
    The Saudis do practice discrimination and slavery!
    These are verifiable


  • Surender Pruthi
    May 17, 2012 - 1:27PM

    Strangely enough,the main discussion lost its theme and undue wrangling over some personal opinion has assumed a dangerous proportion.Caste is a big factor in South Asia,no doubt about that.But,generalisation of the characters on this single yardstick is excessive.And,to claim the non-existence of it in day-to-day living, is also not living in a real world.We should remain wedded to the idea of a secular,united and a world based on brotherhood,love and goodwill.With regards,Surender Pruthi,Sonipat(India).


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