Scheduled Castes or Hindus? Digital Census Sparks Debate Among Minority Communities

Scheduled Castes or Hindus? Digital Census Sparks Debate Among Minority Communities
For the first time in the history of Pakistan, a fully digital census was started on the 1st of March by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.

Nand Kumar Meghwar, 28, was perplexed when he examined the column on religion on the given form.

Illustrating his reason, he says that in the form, Hindus have been shown separately, and the term Scheduled Castes has also been used, which has caused widespread confusion.

Nand Kumar belongs to a marginalized community in Tharparkar district, which has a 70% population of Hindus and around 30% are Muslims. There are tens of thousands more like Kumar who are not clear on how to register themselves in the census.

Even when the sixth census was being conducted in 2017, the people of these communities could not make a clear decision. Now the seventh digital census has been started in 2023, but this problem is still the same.

Currently, there is a hot debate and controversy over this topic on social media. The followers of Hinduism are divided into two major groups. Some people want to have themselves counted as Hindus, while others are in favor of being counted as Scheduled Castes.

At the time of the birth of Pakistan, minorities were more than 25% of the population, but after partition this proportion has shrunken. According to the 2017 Census, religious minorities make up only 4% of the whole country’s population. The data indicated that Muslims make up 96.47%, Hindus 1.73%, and Scheduled Castes are 0.41%.

Historically, during British rule, the rulers constructed a schedule for the backward castes to stand on their feet in a united India, which comprised about 40 castes including Meghwar, Kolhi, Bhil, Oud, Bagri, Balmiki, etc. The ambition of the British rulers was to provide opportunities for the people of these castes to be included in the mainstream. But today some people of the same communities are seen slamming the term Scheduled Castes.

Atam Meghwar, a working professional says that in today's era, the tag of so-called scheduled castes is of no use, our youth are progressing through hard work. Whatever progress we are getting is not due to affirmative action for schedule castes, but through education and awareness.

“The Scheduled Castes term has become a sign of hatred. It affects self-respect and dignity. I believe that today, in large numbers youth are getting jobs on merit, they have the long-lasting weapon of education. They don't need to run after a label.”

He shared the example that the people of the Meghwar community have convinced themselves through education, similarly, Kolhi and Bhil are also coming forward. If the Scheduled Castes would have benefited, then the Bagri community would also have benefited, but this is not happening. Without naming some political people, he says that the Scheduled Castes term is being reinforced by so-called people who are scared of merit. Meghwar insists that such a list that affects the self-esteem of people should be removed.

Rajesh Kumar Hardasani is the coordinator of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Minority Wing Sanghar district and a member of the Pakistan Hindu Council. Similarly, he is not in favor of bifurcation. “We have no caste-based discrimination. However, if the Constitution has given space to uplift certain downtrodden communities and the term has been used in the census, then it is the right of these castes whether they count themselves Hindus or Scheduled Castes.”

Hardasani says that all of us Hindus are followers of the same Sanatan Dharma. "I personally believe that we are all Hindus so we should show the strength of Hindus in the census. Because only with collective power do we get our political rights."

He added and clarified that at the party level, there is no discrimination in PPP. “From Kohistani Banyas to Meghwar, Bheel, and Kolhi - all are represented in the Parliament. Even today, in our district leadership in Sanghar, the people of the Jandwara and Bhil castes are the members and central officials.”

Sajan Permar is a Mithi-based activist. He does not agree with Atam Meghwar; he insists on counting himself as a scheduled caste by appealing to the marginalized status of their communities. Parmar says that "schedule" is a recognized constitutional term (under the 1957 Presidential Ordinance of Pakistan), under which backward castes are guaranteed their specific rights i.e. job quotas, education quotas, government scholarships, and the right to vote too.

"There is no misconception in the scheduled caste name. Those who criticize must understand that the purpose of the Scheduled Caste distinction is to deliver better chances to economically and socially deprived people. As earlier, the 6% quota was reserved for Scheduled Castes only by the government, which is now being reserved for all minorities."

Permar determines the past and articulates that our forefathers saw social and economic slavery for centuries. "The upper classes (Hindu) or upper caste people (Brahmins and Thakurs etc.) treated us as untouchables. Unfortunately, society and the system were kept alive and we were badly exploited. These Brahmins portrayed the Dravidian kings of suppressed castes as monsters,” says Permar.

"The fact is that 95% of the population belongs to the backward castes who are the genuine inheritors of this land and the Indus civilization, known as the Dravidians or Adivasi tribes”

In addition, Permar points out, people belonging to upper castes with only 5% of the population are being imposed on us. They are usurping our rights from legislative houses to everywhere. But oppressed people are still living by hard labor.

In the parliamentary system of Pakistan, reserved seats are allotted for minorities and women. Ten seats are reserved for all minorities in the National Assembly, while 9 seats are reserved in Sindh Assembly, 8 seats in Punjab, 3 seats each in Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Also, 4 seats in the Senate are reserved for minorities, one for each province.

Radha Bheel, the chairperson of Dalit Sujag Tehreek, says that every person’s religious identity is their own. According to our economic, class, and social status, oppressed castes are considered Scheduled Castes, which is also determined by the Constitution. But some people have made considerable noise, and are suggesting that scheduled castes should not be registered separate and should be counted as Hindus instead. Although the number of marginalized communities is indeed the highest among all minorities, these communities are still deprived of fundamental rights.

"Our ambition is that a distinct column should be given by the government for the registration of scheduled castes, we should be counted for the scheduled castes as per the rule".

She pointed to enumerators and urged that they should also register a person as Scheduled Caste if he or she belongs to Scheduled Castes. So that the actual population of these people can be counted.

In addition, Radha said that caste-based discrimination has significantly reduced among the lower and upper castes with the passage of time, but in reality, hate and social disparity are still found in society today.

"If someone says that there are no Dravidians, Dalits, or Scheduled Castes in Pakistan, they should declare in the coming elections that Hindus, whether rich or poor, should all come to the House on equal ground, and convince their political parties to do the same. That everyone should be given rights in the House based on equality".

"Scheduled castes do not mean they are mean and untouchable," said Mukesh Kumar Khatwani, Associate Professor and Director of the Area Study Centre, Far East & Southeast Asia, and University of Sindh. He admitted that the caste system is a bitter part of the social order of the subcontinent. Khatwani admits that although there is some improvement, Sindh still has rampant discrimination on the basis of caste.

In Khatwani’s view, “upper caste Hindus got the benefit of making us untouchable and now when they have lost their influence, they want to call us Hindu so that they can get benefits too. These Seths and upper castes Hindus take political advantage by showing majority and to get reserved seats, while the rest of the communities are disregarded.”

Khatwani clarified that “for centuries, Hindu society never accepted Dravidian people, so why do we merge ourselves into a system that has destroyed our ancestors and their offspring?”

"The term SCs was used for the economic, social, and political uplift of socially excluded and marginalized communities. In today's Pakistan, this means reserved seats for women, minorities, and disabled in Parliament, as well as employment opportunities."

He described and added, like the rural-urban quota in Sindh, it does mean rural people are untouchable and they say no to a quota system. Secondly, the ways of living of SCs are altogether different from those of Hindus, even their gods and goddesses are different. Thirdly, Hinduism itself is not a religion. We SCs have no religion, but we believe in Dharma which is 'Sanatan Dharam,” which doesn't force us to worship a unified God or goddess.

In Khatwani’s view, “upper caste Hindus got the benefit of making us untouchable and now when they have lost their influence, they want to call us Hindu so that they can get benefits too. These Seths and upper castes Hindus take political advantage by showing majority and to get reserved seats, while the rest of the communities are disregarded.”

Although in terms of population, the majority of Hindus belong to Scheduled Castes, they should get more reserved seats in Parliament. In contrast, upper castes members carry certain benefits including job quotas, government funds, and development schemes as well.

“Socially, they have not accepted us, but politically they do it all for their benefit. For instance, upper and lower caste people do not eat and drink together, there are no inter-caste marriages, and even the temples are separate, where lower castes Hindus are not allowed to worship.”

“Ideally, it indeed seems like a charming slogan that we are Hindu and Sindhi and all are equal but realistically we are not. We should accept this bitter truth and take responsibility for our people rather than as a whole,” Khatwani said.

“I have not seen any Hindu politician or social worker who has raised his voice against forced conversions of SCs, and suicide in SCs. But they do when it happens to them ... for example, in the Rinkal Kumari case, an upper caste girl who was reported as forced conversion.”

"Genetically, culturally, and socially we have nothing to do with each other. Marginalized communities are discriminated against by caste in society. Those who call themselves Hindus do not marry among backward castes. There is no relationship between upper and lower caste peoples. Even their customs and traditions are entirely different from ours," clarified Sajan Permar while smiling. "Interestingly, most of the backward castes have been nomads. They do not run after religions. They worship what they like."

Permar mentioned and stated that these people are not followers of Hinduism but of Sanatan Dharma. Aryans came and constructed Hinduism, Hinduism is actually a deteriorated form of Sindhu.

On the other hand, Sindh Assembly MPA and Special Assistant on Human Rights, Surendar Valasai, in one of his social media posts, has appealed to the people of the backward communities that the Scheduled Castes people should use that label for themselves for the political, social, and economic wellbeing of their future generations. “Prove your numerical strength by registering yourself in the Scheduled Caste column in the enumeration.”