Mukhi, the panchayat headman of Oad [Dalit] community begged in the name of holy Gita and even threw his turban at Seetal’s feet, but Seetal just didn’t care much and replied:
“Mukhi! Do whatever you like, but I shall change my religion.
Mukhi: “But why after all you do, you want to change your religion?
Seetal: My choice, my wish simply.
Mukhi: Even then?
Seetal: I just don’t like my religion. That’s it.
Mukhi: Alas! Why on earth don’t you like your religion?
Seetal: Alright Mukhi. Tell me who are we?
Mukhi: We are Hindus.
Seetal: Why then Hindus cremate the dead, whereas we bury them?
Mukhi: It’s our ritual.
Seetal: Alright, Why do we eat goat after butchering it (like Muslims)?
Mukhi: This too is our ritual—since the times of old ancestors.
Seetal: But these are the rituals of Muslims!!
Mukhi: These are theirs. But ours too!!
Seetal: Then how can you say, we are Hindus?
Mukhi: Then what the heck are we, crank?
Seetal: Half-Half Hindus, half Muslim. Body of sheep, head of goat.”
(Excerpt translated from Kafir, a short story by a renowned Sindhi writer, Naseem Kharal1)
This fictitious exchange of persuasive dialogue depicts many such events that have actually happened in the history of Sindh and brings out the dilemma of being an ‘untouchable’ Sindhi. Oad is a Dalit caste having the tradition of building mud houses by loading mud on donkeys. In this conversation, Seetal stands accused before the Oad community of betraying it by proclaiming that the Hindu religion is based on falsity. It infuriated all Oad attending that panchayat but they remained calm believing that Seetal has been bewitched by a Mullah (Islamic cleric). Mukhi just threw the final blow and said “Remember Seetal! No matter how lavishly you harness donkeys like horses, they will remain donkeys, and never become horses.”
Seetal’s story ultimately ends up with Seetal’s realization that in case his ailing wife dies, he cannot marry from any Muslim caste, because he is considered as mean as any of his non-Muslim, lower caste Oad relatives. Realisation comes as a revelation in a dramatic dialogue between Mukhi and a Muslim, that caste is stronger than religion, Seetal converts back to his indigenous religion. The story, however, ends with the bigoted disappointment of the Molvi (religious) at the re-conversion of Seetal, who says the ‘Infidel is after all infidel’. This short story depicts what continues to hold true of Sindhi society for decades, although its emphasis on religious fanaticism in the final words of Mullah, eludes many to take interest in its religious aspect, and be indifferent to the casteist one. It proves that caste reigns supreme overriding syncretism and commonality of religion or faith. It brings to relief the syncretic religion of Dalit communities, religious bigotry and the craving of Mullahs to convert non-Muslims particularly Hindu-Dalits, and the violence of caste.
This socio-religious polity continues to hold true of much of Sindhi society today as it was decades even centuries ago. This story written in 60s by Naseem Kharal, the renowned upper caste landlord (wadero), and one of the leading Sindhi progressive writers of the 60s and 70s is the rare piece of fiction in the Sindhi language that brings the caste divide in Sindh so sharply. Although most of the readers and interpreters of it pay less attention to its content on casteism and more on religion, which is the default thinking approach of the civil society in Sindh. Another short story often referred to is by Manik: ‘Haveli jaa Raaz’ 2(Secrets of Sayed’s bungalow) brings to relief the polar opposite case of casteism and patriarchy. In it, the writer shows how strict caste endogamy and patriarchy prevalent in Sayed families creates conditions of celibacy for women and sexual relations outside of wedlock. Equally interesting is to mention the reaction of the Sindhi community against Manik’s story that traversed the tabooed sacred space of Sayedism, the sanctified order of Sindhi society of which it is jealously proud of. Manik was abused, ridiculed and even socially boycotted and pressured to such limits to eventually commit suicide.
Both these stories show how Sindhi society is divided into castes with Sayeds at the one end and the Dalits on the other, with various Muslim and Hindu castes falling all along the hierarchical continuum. Sindhi progressive movements have had anti-pir, anti-sayed, anti-patriarchal, pro-peasant or anti-landlord and feminist liberating elements in it, reflected in the writings of Amar Jaleel, Noorulhuda Shah, Manik and Khairunnisa Jafferi, all upper caste writers. But the anti-caste aspect, despite the equal pervasiveness of castiesm, is not prominent in their writings, showing the level of caste hegemony. This neglect of casteism by the Sindhi writers is rooted in their Sindhi nationalist agenda glossed over in Hinduised Sufism, the greater influence of the literate class of caste Hindus, the state narrative that divides society on religious lines, and the dominant culture of Islam that continues to believe in the superiority of the descent in case of Sayeds and Ashrafia castes, and the inferiority of Dalits.
To identify the progressive Sindhi Muslim class as either Sufi Muslim or Sindhi Muslim may be a bit misleading. The Sindhi class that holds the hegemony over so called progressive, secular knowledge production is, in fact, crypto-Hindutvadi in terms of political ethos that either blinds them to casteism or proposes to tolerate it for larger pan-Sindhi trans-caste union tyo be restored.
This inherent tendency to find common grounds with caste Hindus, is buttressed by two other factors, i.e. the state narrative of Hindus as a minority, and the 1960’s and 70’s progressive Sindhi nationalist movement’s re-assertion of Sindhiness as Hinduness justified on the rediscovered narrative of syncretic Sufi culture of Sindh. This post-partition shaping up of the political culture of Sindh developed among socially ambitious Dalits an urge to Sindhize themselves while claiming Hindu minority status within Sindhi society. Sindhisation was a process similar to Sanskritsation that was going on even before partition, but differed in that while Sanskritised Dalits upheld Indian nationalism, Dalits of Sindh praised Sindhi culture, preferred to speak Sindhi language instead of their mother tongue, and upheld Sindhi nationalism3. Certain others, followed both Sindhianising and modernizing route supporting state and its ideology as the majority of Sindhis did (or were made to do so by the state).
Education and merit was, and is still believed by them, the major modus operandi to become part of society, to develop and progress. They argue that casteism and untouchability can be defeated primarily through education, not through religious conversion or by politicizing casteism. This tendency to depoliticize any emerging movement within Dalits is there since the rise of Sindhi nationalist movement. Some Sindhi nationalist progressive writers agree that caste discrimination has been there, yet simultaneously they maintain that it is dissipating and can be further eradicated through education. As a proof of it they persistently quote examples of individual educational achievements of certain Dalits. Taj Joyo, the caste Muslim nationalist writer, the product of Sindhi progressive movement wrote in Hemandas Chandani’s (Scheduled Caste activist and poet) book Humerche Hoongar published in 2017, said:
I remember for sure that it was the night of December 11, 1977, when I met at Hemandas’ home I had a chit chat with Kanji Mal (officer national bank), Ganesh Balani, Bhani Mal, Sarvan Kumar, Naraern and Heaman. If I remember correctly, either Ganesh Mal (or any of the friends present) put up a proposal that ‘we Meghwar are considered as lower class Hindus, by caste Hindus. Therefore, our survival lies in converting to Islam’. There, I opposed that thinking that it is not the solution. Because (caste-based) class discrimination also exists among Muslims. No Sayed Muslim will allow marry his daughter into any other caste, not to mention of Machi Muslim (fisherman caste considered the lower among Muslims). Although the days have muchchanged now, but even then I narrated them the fiction story (based on social reality of casteism among Muslims) of NaseemKharal. Finally we came to a consensus that the solution of social discriminations lies in ‘education and only education’. Today I feel proud that it is the effect of my ideas and the fiction story of NaseemKharal narrated by me, that Ganesh Balani’s four daughters have now reached the highest educational achievement:Shabnam Rathore made Sindh famous by doing PhD from Germany in ‘Underground Saline Water’. Another Pushpa Kumari has done M.Sc from Agricultural University Tando Jam. Third daughter Nimrita, is a lecturer in Sindh University’s microbiology department. Fourth Sushhma Devi who did M.Sc from botany and serving as lecturer in Karachi.”
(Taj Joyo, Preface to Hemanda Chandani’s Humerche Hoongar, pg 12)
As it is evident, Taj Joyo suggested Dalits to get Sindhised, instead of converting to Islam, and that he made them believe, through his peculiar narration of Naseem Kharal’s fiction (the excerpt shared in the beginning of the section) that the eradication of casteism is possible only through getting education. But the Dalit activists whom he met, although they abide by his suggestion of getting education, and did not convert to Islam, most of them continued to struggle against untouchability and caste discrimination. Conversions of individual Dalit families, particularly the most poor families continues till today, at a slow pace though, with the relative caste discrimination among ‘Hindus’ being one of the major reasons for such conversions.
Taj Joyo’s attempt shows that , despite all the personal and social good of a ‘Sindhi’ patriot, how upper caste Sindhis continues to have control on knowledge production, and the construction of the narrative for Dalit consumption thus disallowing them to come up with their own alternative ways of tackling with issues that matter to them the most. Upper caste Sindhi very artfully depicts the true picture of Sindhi society, but leaves the oppressed in the paradoxical state of indecision. He sympathizes with the oppressed (Dalit and the women) but leaves her alone in the blind alley. Flattening of caste discrimination as an equally distributed social identity, hides the hierarchy of oppressions. This Sindhutvadi approach is incapable to see that the decision by the Dalits to convert is not simply a social but a political one. It is just one of the ways to get free from the caste based humiliation which is more deeply entrenched in Hinduism than in Islam.
Education is the necessary condition, but not the ultimate condition for the eradication of caste discrimination and untouchability. It is the medium that enables the person to raise his/her voice and chalk out a personal or public program for the reformation of society. Gopal Guru argues that caste discrimination and untouchability can be eradicated through the combined effort of Dalit and non-Dalit anti-caste activists for the moral-ethical reformation of society. Here, the Dalit’s concern for education and the post-education attempts to reform society and struggle against caste discrimination can be evidenced. If education does not enable them to politicize caste or generate momentum in the society, it then fails in its prime social goal. Dalit persons that Taj Joyo mentioned, although they did not convert to Islam, most of them continued to strive against caste discrimination through their writings and public protests. In reality, as far as religion of the majority of Dalits is concerned, they are neither Hindus nor Muslims, yet they are both. The politically charged section of Ambedkarites and Dalit activists, however, are, in fact, crypto-Buddhists and Sufis without having a radical association with any religion.
Religion or the lack of it did not and does not seem to affect the existential reality of Dalits in Pakistan. Ganesh Balani wrote in his biography how, despite being so highly educated, his family and their Dalit community continued to be persecuted and oppressed throughout their life. His daughter Pushpa, the president of Dalit Sujaag Tehreek, Sindh, and member of several minority forums talked in an interview of several incidences where she personally continued to be the victim of caste discrimination. Hemandas Chandani, in whose praise Taj Joyo wrote that preface to his book, did not go by the spirit of suggestion given by Joyo and continues to be a staunch defender of Scheduled Caste rights. Hemandas Chandani, in a personal interview, told me how up till now caste Hindus of Mithi and other regions of lower Sindh continue to practice untouchability and discriminate against Meghwar and other Dalit castes, and how in various subtle ways they practice untouchability at temples, at their homes, and in public when they come to interact with Dalits.
Works Cited G. Guru, “Liberal Democracy in India and the Dalit Critique,” Social Research: An International Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 1, pp. 99-122, 2011.
1. Source: ‘Naseem Kharal Joon Kahariyoon’ (2007) complied by Danish Nawaz. Roshini Publications, Kandiaro. URL: www.sindhsalamat.com
2. See: “Haveli JaaRaaz, (1967) first published in Sindhi digest ‘Shuni’.
3. Sindhisation is not just a language dependent process. Considerable majority of Sindhis, even Sindhi nationalists’ mother tongue is not Sindhi but Balochi, Brahvi or Siraiki. These linguistic groups still cherish their mother tongues and prefer to use it instead of Sindhi in their homes and also when they meet in public with any Siraiki, Brahvi or Balochi speaking person. Cultural hegemony of the Sindhi language and Sindhi nationalist narrative compels them to identify as Sindhi in public to uphold Sindhi nationalist sentiments. Dalit communities, too, in such a political and social milieu, feel pressured to follow the dominant.
Credit: Sufi Ghulam Hussain is a PhD scholar at Bielefeld University, Germany. He is doing research on caste politics and Dalits assertions in Pakistan.
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