Pakistani Hindus: Saga Of Struggles And Resilience

Pakistan’s discriminatory constitution bars non-Muslim citizens from holding the top two political posts but they have quotas in jobs and legislature and Pakistani Hindus have excelled in different spheres of life

Pakistan's discriminatory constitution bars non-Muslim citizens from holding the top two political posts but they have quotas in jobs and legislature and Pakistani Hindus have excelled in all spheres of life

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In November 2021, a court in the western Indian state of Rajasthan was forced to intervene to ensure Pakistani Hindus awaiting Indian citizenship there were vaccinated against Covid-19 when a deadly second wave of the pandemic overwhelmed India.

These Pakistani Hindus were left out of the immunisation programme for the want of national identity cards. The matter came to light amid a series of reports about the plight of the community, which has prompted many of them to return to Pakistan over the last few years. The reports again brought the community under the spotlight—though for entirely different reasons than usual: their plight in India rather than Pakistan.

The situation of Pakistani Hindus has been an integral part of Indian political discourse since Pakistan’s creation in 1947. It has become more salient since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in 2014 with a full parliamentary majority and began working on its goal of transforming India.

A shift from civic to ethnic nationalism has been an important part of the transformation. India amended its citizenship law in 2019 as part of the shift. The change allowed fast-tracking of the citizenship process for non-Muslims (essentially Hindus) from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, who had come to the country before 2015.

It was seen more like a fresh attempt to target India’s Muslim minority—BJP’s bogeyman—that the party has long targetted and otherized to successfully win elections. Its critics have cited its non-implementation as proof of this and questioned how it helps those it is meant for with its 2015 cut-off year.

The amendment is unlikely to achieve much except for solidifying the BJP narrative of being the champion of the Hindu cause and the need to reinforce the idea of showing Muslims their place. Many in India have long argued against equal citizenship to Muslims citing the condition of Hindus in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s discriminatory constitution bars non-Muslim citizens from holding the top two political posts of the president and prime minister. But non-Muslims in Pakistan, including Hindus, have quotas in jobs and legislature and many of them have excelled in different spheres of life despite their struggles.

Lawmaker Ramesh Kumar Vankwani has over the years emerged among the most recognisable Pakistani Hindus. He was a spokesperson for Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf on national TV before it lost power.

Vankwani is among the prominent Hindu politicians from Sindh, where most Hindus in Pakistan live. The community’s participation in politics has increased over the last two decades. The liberal Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has sought to give it political representation, particularly in its stronghold of Sindh, the country’s second-largest province, which it has ruled since 2008.

Hindus have had a role in Pakistani politics since the country’s creation in 1947 when Sodha Rajput patriarch Rana Arjun Singh was a member of the Muslim League of the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Arjun Singh’s son, Chander Singh, an influential parliamentarian and a former federal minister, was a founding member of the PPP. Chander Singh famously facilitated Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s landmark Lahore trip in 1999 for the launch of the Delhi-Lahore bus service that eased tensions between the two countries after their nuclear tests.

His son, Rana Hameer Singh, later became a lawmaker and a minister following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps. The family has maintained its influence in their native Thar desert region since Rana Prasad, one of their ancestors, gave refuge to Mughal emperor Humayun and his pregnant wife when Sher Shah Suri ousted them in 1540.

Humayun’s son, Akbar, who went on to become the most prominent Mughal emperor, was born when they lived under Rana Prasad’s protection. Akbar would expand the Mughal Empire and take it to its zenith. The Hindu-Muslim affinity in syncretic Sindh endured despite the violence that the subcontinent’s division triggered in 1947.

The worst violence took place in Punjab and led to a virtual exchange of population between the divided parts of the region. Muslims dominated places like Amritsar, Gurdaspur, and Ferozpur in terms of numbers before 1947. Gurdaspur had over 51 percent Muslim population in 1941, which was down to 1.20 percent in 2011.

The Muslims had a substantial presence elsewhere in the region. Only Muslims of Malerkotla in the Sangrur district remained untouched in East Punjab during the Partition. East Punjab has since been divided into three states: Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh. Punjab and Himachal have two percent Muslims while the community accounts for five percent of Haryana’s population.

A bulk of Hindus were similarly forced to leave the Pakistani side of Punjab, which accounts for Pakistan’s 60 percent population. Sindh remained largely untouched by the Partition violence. Places such as Mithi have a Hindu majority and other parts of Sindh have between 49 and 13 percent Hindus.

When Rana Hameer Singh was anointed as his father’s successor in May 2010, Hindus and Muslims joined his grand coronation in a procession in Mithi. Hameer Singh, who arrived for his coronation in a motorcade of hundreds of vehicles, sat on a decorated chariot.

Two girls performed a Hindu ritual while his supporters in traditional headgear lined the road. The ceremony was held amid Hindu chants as part of an 800-year-old tradition.

Sobho Gianchandani, Pakistan’s best-known Communist of Hindu heritage cut from a different cloth, was also from Sindh. He died at 94 in December 2014, ending his seven-decade struggle against dictatorship and unjust society.

Gianchandani, who belonged to a landed upper-caste family, was repeatedly jailed after his Communist Party of Pakistan was banned in the 1950s. An alumnus of Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan University, Gianchandani was known as one of Pakistan’s best-known Marxists.

His mobilisation of peasants and industrial workers helped Zulfikar Ali Bhutto win the 1970 national election two years after the latter formed the PPP. Gianchandani, who was a leading voice of dissent against military dictator Zia-ul-Haq and his alliance with the US, became the first Sindhi to be awarded the Pakistan Academy of Letters Award of Excellence in 2004 for his contribution to literature.

Suneel Munj, Pakistan’s best-known auto expert, is a Hindu. He heads the country’s largest online marketplace for car shoppers and sellers, PakWheels.

Deepak Perwani is Pakistan’s best-known fashion designer from the landed elite section of the community mostly based in Sindh’s Karachi and Hyderabad. A symbol of the country’s soft power, Perwani has been the face of Pakistani fashion globally and its cultural ambassador to China and Malaysia.

His brother, Naveen Perwani, a snooker player and Asian Games medallist, has represented Pakistan globally. Cricketer Danish Kaneria is Pakistan’s highest wicket-taking test spinner. His cousin, Anil Dalpat, represented Pakistan in the 1980s.

Ashok Kumar, a Pakistani army soldier who died fighting the Taliban, too, was from Sindh. Hindu-owned Chawla International, which is one of Pakistan’s biggest agricultural products firms, is also based in the province. It is among the country’s highest taxpayers and largest suppliers of pesticides.

The company also owns Pakistan’s biggest rice mill. Bhagwan Das Chawla, who came from a family of tobacco, coal, and beverages traders, set it up in December 1999. His business earlier involved octroi and tax collection nationally for the government with an annual turnover of one billion.

Rana Bhagwandas, Pakistan’s first Hindu chief justice, came from Sindh too. Bhagwandas, who headed the country’s Federal Public Service Commission after his retirement, was a follower of Sindh’s most-venerated saint Ishtadeva Uderolal Jhulelal or Darya Shah.

Both Sindhi Hindus and Muslims venerate mystics such as Jhulelal. A mosque and a temple are located cheek by jowl on Jhulelal’s mausoleum complex in Sindh’s Sukkur.

Over 90% of Pakistani Hindus live in Sindh and a majority of them belong to the so-called lower castes. All well-known Pakistani Hindus are upper caste. The lower castes have been unable to make the most of the benefits of the quota systems in legislative bodies and jobs. The Pakistani state sees the Hindus as a monolith and the quota benefits are not exclusively for marginalised lower castes.

Krishna Kumari Kohli, a lower caste, was elected to Pakistan’s upper house of parliament in March 2018 on a PPP ticket. She contested for 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 the established Chawla business family, represented a reserved seat for religious minorities. Her nomination to Pakistan’s Senate was not unusual like Kohli’s. In 2018, one of around two dozen Pakistani Hindu lawmakers in parliament and four provincial assemblies was from a lower caste.

The Hindu minority irrespective of disparities among the status of lower and upper castes are entitled to up to a five percent job reservation in government services including the Central Superior Services, Pakistan’s equivalent of Indian Administrative Services.

The disparities have persisted for the underprivileged Hindus, who chose to leave their country of birth for promises of a better life in India. They are the ones struggling to rebuild their lives in India. The least that the powers that be can do is avoid using their plight as a stick to beat an already beleaguered minority at home.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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