‘Christians required only as sweepers’

Asif Aqeel discusses how Pakistan has forced jobless and homeless rural Christians into metropolitan sanitation work after independence

‘Christians required only as sweepers’
On September 28, the Punjab Cardiology Hospital issued a corrigendum stating that both Muslims and non-Muslims were eligible for sanitation-related jobs. Earlier on September 17, the hospital, in an advertisement in several newspapers, had stated “Only Non-Muslims persons [sic] who belong to minorities will be accommodated” for the sanitation work. The corrigendum had appeared after the initial advertisement drew criticism on social media and coverage from BBC Urdu on the treatment meted out to minority communities.

This was not the first time that the government reserved sanitation posts for non-Muslims. The Mandi Bahauddin DHQ Hospital, on September 18, publicised ten vacancies. Sanitation jobs were reserved for minorities. In June, a similar advertisement was issued by the Lady Wellington Hospital in Lahore, requiring only “non-Muslims” for this work.

Ditt's conversion led to low-caste groups embracing Christianity as a way of freeing themselves from stigma and exclusion - Courtesy: Our India Mission by Andrew Gordon
Ditt's conversion led to low-caste groups embracing Christianity as a way of freeing themselves from stigma and exclusion - Courtesy: Our India Mission by Andrew Gordon

The ruling Muslim League found Punjabi Christians a useful substitute for filling jobs left by fleeing Hindus. But the state had to uproot hundreds of thousands of Christians from villages in central Punjab to push them into this occupation

Christians make up most of the non-Muslim minority in central Punjab and account for 1.5 per cent of the total population. Their representation in sanitation work, however, is above 80 percent. Data collected by World Watch Monitor states that 824 out of 935 sanitation workers in the Peshawar Municipal Corporation are Christian. About 6,000 out of 7,894 sanitation workers in the Lahore Waste Management Company are Christian. And 768 out of 978 workers in the Quetta Municipal Corporation are Christian. Islamabad’s Capital Development Authority (CDA) has 1,500 sanitation workers and all of them are Christian. Christians also have a very high representation in Gilgit and Karachi municipal corporations.

The United Nations describes this as “discrimination based on work and descent” because “any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on inherited status such as caste, including present or ancestral occupation, family, community or social origin, name, birthplace, place of residence, dialect and accent … is typically associated with the notion of purity and pollution.”

Historically, the “untouchables’ ranked below the Shudra or kammi (laborer). They were assigned occupations described as “degrading” and “defiling”, that is: collecting carcasses, manually removing human excreta from lavatories, providing cheap labor in fields and executing criminals on the orders of the state. It was Tara Masih, a Christian, who carried out Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s execution in 1979 and Masih’s father had hanged independence movement hero Bhagat Singh in 1931. Masih’s nephew Sabir Masih has executed more than 180 convicts since the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted following the attack on Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16 last year.
60,955 out of 500,000 Punjabi Christians lived in eastern Punjab. For this reason, the Speaker of the Punjab Assembly, SP Singha, favored Pakistan on behalf of Christians before Radcliffe's Boundary Awards in June 1947

The International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) notes that discrimination based on work and descent affects an estimated 260 million people worldwide, the vast majority living in South Asia. “It involves violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Caste systems divide people into unequal and hierarchical social groups. Those at the bottom are considered lesser human beings, impure and polluting to other caste groups.”

The IDSN further notes that the “untouchables” are “often forcibly assigned the most dirty, menial and hazardous jobs, and many are subjected to forced and bonded labour”. There are 3 to 7 million bonded laborers in Punjab and a very high percentage of them are Christians. The couple burned in a brick kiln in Kasur last November was Christian.

The pure (Persian pak) and impure (Persian paleed) dichotomy permeated the Muslim mind in the subcontinent due to their close proximity with Hindus. Afghan, Turk, Arab and Persian Muslims called themselves ashraf (noble) and local converts, especially from lower castes, were called ajlaf (the lowly).

The Aligarh Movement inherited this dichotomy and named the country Pakistan: the “Land of the Pure”. The attitude of forcing Christians into degrading occupations based on their descent continues and owes its existence to this long-entrenched dichotomy of “pure” and “impure”.

Professor Salamat Akhtar, a former professor of history at Gordon College in Rawalpindi, says that as president of the All Pakistan College Teachers’ Association, he met the education secretary in Islamabad in 1980. “Not knowing I was a Christian, he said the government was worried that a large number of Christians were obtaining education… If all Christians were educated, then no one would be left to sweep the roads and pick up the garbage.”

Two men carrying a woman – 1947
Two men carrying a woman – 1947

The education secretary pointed him to Alice Albinia’s book Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River to describe Liaquat Ali Khan’s predicament. Albinia had written that after communal riots started in Sindh in January 1948, the Indian government launched an evacuation operation and 3,000 Hindus began leaving from Karachi every day.

“Within a month of the riots, the government realised, to its alarm, that something entirely unexpected was happening: among the fleeing Hindus were the city’s sweepers and sewer cleaners. Dawn began publishing letters and articles by outraged residents of Karachi, who regretted, cajoled and complained: ‘Asia’s cleanest city’ had become an unhygienic disgrace. The streets – washed every day during the British administration – were littered with stinking rubbish… there were enough jobs for two thousand cleaners, and not enough people to do them.”

In order to fill these jobs, the government attempted to stop them from leaving Pakistan. The Interior Ministry published a three-page review of its administrative policies in the daily Dawn on February 23, 1948:

“Lately, in view of the apprehended blow to the social and economic structure of the province as a result of the wholesale migration of depressed classes, the government of Sind have [sic] been compelled to take legal powers to slow down the migration of such persons who in their opinion constitute the essential services of the province.”

‘Depressed classes’, according to Albinia, meant Hindus and Christian converts. She further says:

“Sri Prakasa, the Indian high commissioner, scheduled a meeting with the prime minister of Pakistan to complain [about this]. ‘Surely God did not create the Hindus ... to clean the roads and latrines of Karachi!’ ‘But who,’ the prime minister purportedly replied, ‘would clean the streets and latrines of Karachi in case they did not come back?’”

The ruling Muslim League found Punjabi Christians a useful substitute for filling jobs left by fleeing Hindus. But the state had to uproot hundreds of thousands of Christians from villages in the central Punjab to push them into this occupation.

Most Christians in Pakistan come from an ‘untouchable’ background. The 1855 census shows there were no native Christians in Punjab. With the efforts of missionaries, by 1881 there were only 3,912 native Christians who had come from various religious, social, economic and urban backgrounds.

The urban and heterogeneous landscape of Christianity in the Punjab changed to homogenous and rural after a man from an ‘untouchable’ background, identified only by a single name, Ditt, converted in the village of Shahabdike in Narowal in 1873. Ditt invited others to convert to Christianity to get rid of untouchability and caste disabilities. Ditt’s caste rapidly responded to the call and the number of Christians dramatically swelled in the central Punjab. The number increased from 3,912 in 1881 to 511,299 by 1941: mainly in rural areas. By the 1920s, the “sweeper” appellation was substituted with a more decent caste identity “Isaee,” which means “followers of Jesus”. These converts were virtually landless peasants, called seipi and atharhi (village servitor), and were dependent on Sikh landlords for their livelihood.

Only 60,955 out of 500,000 Punjabi Christians lived in eastern Punjab. For this reason, Speaker of the Punjab Assembly, SP Singha, favored Pakistan on behalf of the Christians before Radcliffe’s Boundary Awards in June 1947.

Ayesha Jalal, in her book Self and Sovereignty, says the practice of untouchability and the “Muslimized” culture of the Christians also played an important role in their support of Pakistan:

“They (the Christians) trust the Muslim more, pronounced Singha ... In their dress, poor economic status and religious beliefs, Christians in the Punjab were closer to the Muslims. The widespread practice of chhut or untouchability against Christians was ‘a great sore in their hearts’ and they had ‘suffered a lot from social prejudices’... Singha had seen villages where there were no Christian graveyards... and social sanctions against drawing water from certain wells.”

But in the newly created Pakistan, Singha complained in his January 20, 1948 speech about how Christians in villages were treated. They were being forced, beaten and even killed for not doing the cleaning work after the Hindu untouchables fled to India.

The other most notable aspect of Partition that Singha stressed was the joblessness and homelessness of Christians in villages:

“Respected sir, kindly pay attention to the nonsense done by Sikhs who, after living for years in this province, have at once left it and created a gigantic problem for us (Christians).  The government might know better but our estimates show that about 60,000 families or 2 lak (200,000) people of our community, who worked as sepies or atharis (village dependents) for Sikhs in this province, have become homeless after the partition commotion,” he said.

The number of homeless Christians had further increased by April 1952. C.E. Gibbon, another member of the Punjab Assembly, stated, “I beg to ask for leave to make a motion… to discuss a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the grave situation arising out of the policy of the government in respect of the wholesale eviction of Christian Sepis, Athirst (atharhis) and tenants from their home holdings, thus rendering nearly 300,000 Christians homeless and on the verge of starvation, the consequences of which are too horrible to imagine.”

The land left by the Sikhs was distributed among Muslim migrants arriving from India and Christians living on this land were being evicted. Singha stated in the assembly that the minister for refugee settlement and the revenue minister had approved three to four acres of land for each homeless Christian family in villages but the file containing these state documents had disappeared from the secretariat:

“The Governor (Sir Robert Francis Mudie) even enquired regarding what was being done for these Christian villagers but still no clue was found of the file. Anyone who says that the file would only appear after the entire (government) land would be distributed then he would be very right to say that.”

After being internally displaced, the only option these 300,000 Christians had was to move to cities and work as sweepers, the jobs that were already waiting for them. Over the years, they migrated to metropolitan areas where they illegally settled on government land without any basic amenities: giving birth to hundreds of illegal settlements from France Colony in Islamabad to Joseph Colony in Lahore.

During the Universal Periodic Review of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2008, Pakistan stated that it is a Muslim-majority country, “and does not have the concept of Dalit… it is free from such kind of prejudices, and the existing norms do not contain discrimination on the basis of caste or creed”. However, in practice, Pakistan has pursued a caste-based policy to force Punjabi Christians into the occupation of sweeping. This state policy needs to be revisited and the government needs to take extra measures to mitigate the disadvantage caused to poor Christians over decades.

This article is based on Asif Aqeel’s thesis Post-Partition Mass Displacement and Subsequent Illegal Settlements of Punjabi Christians in Pakistan to be submitted for M.A. Public Policy and Governance in Forman Christian College University