‘Muslims as sanitary workers’

We are a society that is religiously biased to the core and is caste ridden as well  

‘Muslims as sanitary workers’

Birmingham in the 1960’s was a growing city with a lot of industrial activity, prosperity and development. Hence it was a natural magnet for low skilled and unskilled migrants from Commonwealth countries who were looking for better opportunities abroad. Pakistan and India, being the largest Commonwealth countries of the time, counted for the bulk of these new economic migrants and some local Brits had begun to wonder that their country was being ‘flooded’ by these brown people. Soon Pakistanis were being pejoratively called ‘Pakis’ and race relations became tense. In the midst of all this progress, the cleanliness of the city began to suffer greatly and the City Council had a hard time keeping the streets clean and the neighbourhood rubbish contained. They also had the reality of several thousand newly arrived immigrants from Pakistan to absorb. Therefore, the City Council, in all its wisdom, issued an advertisement in the local newspapers: ‘Muslim immigrants from Pakistan invited to apply for street cleaning and sanitary work.’ Imagine what a newly arrived Muslim immigrant from Pakistan would have felt after reading such an advert?

The above advertisement example is obviously fiction, but I have used it to illustrate a point. Even in an otherwise ‘practical’ sounding advertising — after all, the city had unskilled labour and a rubbish problem to resolve, the fact that the advert specifically asked for ‘Muslims’ and that too from ‘Pakistan’ was outright offensive, degrading and, for a newly arrived migrant full of hope, a devastating blow to their self esteem, confidence, and perhaps even future. I am sure that if such an advert were ever printed it would be used as an example of racial and religious discrimination and prejudice for a long, long, time.

So while such an advertisement in the UK would be unimaginable, why is it that such advertisements are practically the norm in Pakistan? Over the past year or so, advertisings in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and now Sindh, have all asked for ‘Non-Muslims’ to apply for positions of ‘sweeper,’ and ‘sanitation worker.’ Why is it that despite a hue and cry everytime such ridiculous adverts come out, they still keep appearing — and that too all over Pakistan, and no one is sanctioned for exhibiting such clear prejudice? Why is it that most of us, while thinking it’s a bit ‘odd’ don’t really care about rooting out such biases?

For non-Muslims, life in Pakistan is a double whammy. Not only are they second class citizens due to the mere fact that they are not Muslim — even though the founder of the nation would have never wanted that — but also because a large number of them belong to lower castes 

The answer of course is plain and simple: we are a deeply religiously biased society and are extremely caste ridden. When my students point out that India is a ‘caste society,’ I often point out to them that Pakistan too is very caste conscious and that we are simply, and deliberately, oblivious of it. A large number of Muslims even don’t marry outside their ‘caste,’ and largely familial and friendship relations rely on caste — biradari — networks. Caste consciousness has become such an integral part of our society that we don’t even feel it, or even think that it is wrong.

Therefore, for non-Muslims life in Pakistan is a double whammy. Not only are they second class citizens due to the mere fact that they are not Muslim — even though the founder of the nation would have never wanted that — but also because a large number of them belong to lower castes. When the partition of 1947 happened, most of the Hindus of Sindh, about 30 percent of the population, left. Those who didn’t leave were either too well settled, or were too poor and weak to leave. Hence out of the 6-7 percent of Sindhi Hindus who remained a large majority were lower castes or ‘dalits’. They perhaps stayed behind since their prospects in India were not so bright either, but little did they know that the supposedly more egalitarian Pakistan will end up being much worse where they were will persecuted both for their religion and caste.

For the Christians, the partition of 1947 was an odd phenomenon. Since the division was between Muslims on one side, and Hindus and Sikhs on the other, they were caught in between. But since they were religiously closer to Muslims — as the leader of the Punjabi Christians SP Singha claimed, they preferred living in Pakistan because they thought that this country would treat them better. Therefore, in a little known fact, some Christians also migrated to Pakistan in hope that this new Muslim majority country would be fairer to them.

But little did both the Hindus and Christians know that living in Pakistan would become a constant reminder of their inferior status as citizens and also as humans in a stringent social hierarchy.  The advertisement of the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation has come and gone, and no action has been taken by the Sindh Government — just like other authorities in Pakistan. No one cares, and no one will.


The writer teaches at IT University Lahore and is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK



"Published in Daily Times, June 20th, 2017."