Krishna Kumari Kohli smashed three glass ceilings as a woman from a poor family of Pakistani Hindu Dalits when she became a senator on Pakistan People’s Party ticket from a general seat
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Krishna Kumari Kohli’s election to Pakistan’s upper house of parliament in March 2018 was rare on two counts. A Dalit, or so-called lower caste, Kohli, then 39, contested from a general seat to become the second Pakistani Hindu woman senator after Ratna Bhagwandas Chawla (March 2006 to March 2012).
Chawla, an upper caste from an established business family, represented a reserved seat for religious minorities. Her nomination to Pakistan’s Senate was not unusual like Kohli’s. In 2018, all but one of around two dozen mostly upper caste Pakistani Hindu lawmakers in parliament and four provincial assemblies, Mahesh Kumar Malani, was elected from a general seat in Sindh’s Tharparkar.
The rest of the Hindu lawmakers were nominated under Pakistan’s proportional representation system. Parties nominate members of parliament and provincial assemblies from minority communities based on seats they get in direct elections.
Against All Odds
Kohli and her brother, who was PPP’s elected chairman of Sindh’s Berano Union Council, rose from a humble background. They belonged to a poor peasant family and reportedly spent around three years in a landlord’s captivity in the Hindu-dominated Umerkot.
Kohli continued her studies after being married off at 16. A post-graduate in sociology, Kumari worked for the rights of marginalised communities before becoming a senator. She told Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper that PPP set a new precedent in empowering women from remote areas and minority communities by giving her the ticket.
Kohli smashed three glass ceilings as a woman from a poor family of Dalits, who are believed to account for 70 percent of Pakistani Hindus. Except for Khatu Mal Jeewan, Kanji Ram, Giyan Chand, and Poonjo Bheel, all other Hindu lawmakers were upper caste in 2018.
Dalit rights activists have long complained that quotas in jobs and the legislature for minorities at the national, as well as provincial levels, have largely benefited the upper caste.
Karachi-based Hindu activist Pirbhu Satyani told me that things have changed over the last few years. He said Dalits have begun to organise themselves and lobby for their rights.
Satyani said that the rich and well-connected would buy tickets for reserved minority seats. He said political parties have become more responsive to these realities since military ruler Pervez Musharraf scrapped a separate electoral system for minorities in the early 2000s.
Key Vote Bank
The Hindu and Christian vote is crucial to electoral outcomes in 15 districts of Sindh and Punjab, where the two communities are concentrated in. A majority of 1.39 million out of 1.49 million Hindu voters live in Sindh.
One million out of 1.32 million Christian voters are concentrated in Punjab. Mirpurkhas, Tando Allahyar, Umerkot, Tharparkar, Tando Mohammad Khan, and Matiari in Sindh have between 49 and 13 percent of Hindu voters.
Three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who cultivated a liberal image by championing pro-women legislation, executed Governor Salman Taseer’s assassin, and helmed the anti-terror National Action Plan, wooed the Hindus.
He chose the Katas Raj temple complex in Punjab to warn hardliners against preaching animosity. Sharif pledged minorities’ welfare and reaffirmed his resolve for equal citizenship while denouncing hate-mongering as unlawful.
Sharif’s government had the long-delayed Hindu Marriage Bill passed. In November 2015, Sharif participated in Diwali festivities in Karachi and told his largely Hindu audience he would be on their side if they are oppressed.
Parliamentarian Ramesh Kumar Vankwani emerged as one of Sharif’s principal primetime spokespersons on national TV when the former prime minister battled for political survival after his disqualification and ouster.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan, who hopes to be reelected as the prime minister after his ouster in April 2022, attended Diwali celebrations in Hindu-dominated Umerkot ahead of the 2015 local polls in Sindh. Khan promised to take care of minorities and make them equal citizens.
PPP leader and foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has been a regular feature at Diwali festivities since he joined politics. In 2016, a video of Bhutto-Zardari attending a Diwali service at a Karachi Shiv temple went viral.
Bhutto-Zardari offered flowers and milk to Shiva’s idol at the temple amid the recitation of mantras and loud applause. Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah and other PPP leaders also attended the celebrations. ‘Whether Muslim or Hindu Pakistani, we are all one. We want democracy and peace,’ Bhutto-Zardari said while posing for selfies.
Kohli’s nomination enhanced PPP’s image as a progressive party, which counts the Hindus among its committed voters. The party has given Pakistan its first women prime minister Benazir Bhutto, foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, and National Assembly speaker Fehmida Mirza.
PPP nominated Kohli to Senate ahead of the 2018 national election. The party faced reverses in the 2013 elections. Once considered to be Pakistan’s only national party, the PPP was confined to the Sindh province until it became part of the national coalition government following Khan’s ouster in 2022.
Kohli’s nomination was seen as an attempt to keep an important vote bank intact as Sharif and Khan attempted to make inroads into its fortress Sindh. And every vote counts in Pakistan’s ever-so-fluid polity.