Having lived a life of exploitation, from a humble beginning in extreme poverty to the corridors of lobbyists raising the grievances of his community, Ramesh Jaipal is in double jeopardy both as a Hindu minority and a sub-sect of Hindu community. As a Dalit, he is the founder of the Scheduled Caste Rights Movement. Resistance to such minority demands in the power-circles is due to fear of affecting and disrupting constituencies that have remained unchanged in favor of current electoral status quo. Jaipal has been mobilizing and raising awareness for his community on the need for political representation in parliament, which has long been denied constitutionally to the satisfaction of those in influential positions.
The constitution of Pakistan brackets the Dalits under Scheduled Castes of Pakistan, bringing a total of 41 castes in the list. Official figures of their population are hard to come by, as a correct demography cannot be ascertained. Figures are thus based on a decade old census, from the registered voter lists from the Election Commission of Pakistan, and the independent surveys of the Hindu Council of Pakistan. Estimates of the population fall at roughly 7.5 million. According to the Hindu Council of Pakistan, among the entire Hindu community, only 3% are upper caste Hindus whereas the rest are scheduled castes. However, most scheduled communities remain oblivious or disinterested in the political process, owing to low or nil democratic awareness and outreach in their remote areas, as well as a lack of interest of the mainstream political parties in the plight of these communities. In comparison to the Hindu upper-caste populations, the scheduled castes stand in majority, but ironically, they don’t get nominated unless they are from the upper-caste Hindu. Thus they never have their problems solved and the majority remains robbed of a voice.
They also demand the right for land holdings, especially for those communities that are living within the stronghold of big landlords. These people live ostracized lives and are denied fundamental rights to reside and own properties there. They also complain that despite millions of Rupees allotted to their representatives, who come into power through their votes, their development needs are neglected. Recently, there has been an increase in the number of reserved seats in National and Provincial Assemblies, but this has been of little benefit. In Rahim Yar Khan alone, there are 63500 registered voters, dispelling the misperceptions propagated by the politicians about a nominal presence of Hindu Dalit communities. They exist in the biggest numbers in South Punjab, which caters to 191000 registered voters. There are about 272 constituencies in the National Assembly. Out of these there are 98 constituencies where there are 10,000 or more scheduled caste minorities as registered voters. Likewise, in Provincial Assemblies, out of a total of 577 constituencies, there are 191 constituencies, which have 5000 or more registered voters from scheduled caste communities. With the voter potential of this numerical value, it is ironic that not a single mainstream political party gives an opportunity to members from this community to stand a chance in the parliament.
The vulnerabilities and the grievances of the scheduled castes are unique as compared to other minorities. Being the biggest minority, they’re kept away from participating in politics to voice their concerns on feudalistic oppression, societal discrimination and persecution based on their caste and religion at the hands of Muslims and the upper caste Hindus. It is noteworthy that their grievances may be found similar to Muslims in pre-Partition India, where the Muslim League struggled for political representation of the Muslims. A majority of Dalit communities decided to remain in Pakistan at the time of this country’s inception, so as to avoid discrimination they felt they would face in India. But the status quo has remained.
The struggle for the scheduled caste communities is beginning to gain momentum. On January 10, 2013, there was a gathering of the All Pakistan Scheduled Caste Hindus conference where approximately three to four thousand members of the Dalit community gathered under the auspices of Scheduled Caste Rights Movement. This meeting was the first of its kind for the Dalit communities. It held major significance as a political movement in a democratic set-up, despite challenges and political manipulations of the well-established feudalistic lobbyists trying to undermine their struggle. However, the news of this event hardly got any coverage in the media.
Principles of democracy cannot stand true in spirit unless much needed reforms in the electioneering process are made that can ensure representation of all segments of society. Without their voice, the election process remains dubious, despite the fact that it has been enshrined in the writ of the land and strategically designed ballot protocols are being followed.
The writer is a freelance columnist.