Hindus of upper Sindh: a bruised community carries on
In the little town of Reharki in Ghotki district, a sprawling multi-acre complex sits among fields just off the main road.
Known as the Reharki Darbar, it houses the Sant Satram Das temple and is just a few kilometres from the Bharchundi Sharif shrine, which has become the focal point of allegations that Hindu women are being forced to convert to Islam.
At one end of the Reharki Darbar, an enormous hostel is being constructed for visiting pilgrims, while a recently completed causeway donated by the federal government provides easy access to temple sites at either end of the massive grounds.
In mid-April, according to caretakers at the darbar, tens of thousands of visitors will gather at the complex for a festival marking the death anniversary of Bhagat Kanwar Ram, a popular Sufi poet and singer who was killed in communal riots in 1939, allegedly by the then-custodians of the Bharchundi Sharif shrine.
“It’s a great event and people come from all over, even outside Pakistan, from Dubai and India,” said Aneel Batra, a local community leader.
The large Bharchundi Sharif shrine in Daharki, the source of much consternation among the Hindu community in recent days, and the even-larger Sant Satram Das temple complex in adjacent Reharki symbolise the contradictions of the lives of Hindus in upper Sindh.
In the districts of Jacobabad, Shikarpur, Ghotki, Sukkur, Khairpur and Larkana, a mixture of lower-caste peasants and well-to-do businessmen, traders and professionals do suffer sporadic violence and must contend with a strain of intolerance evident since the Zia era.
However, the Hindu communities’ ancient ties to the land, their integration into Sindhi society and their wealth allows them to work and live in northern Sindh relatively free from the systematic repression that Christians in south Punjab or Ahmadis across Pakistan suffer.
Discrimination against and outright repression of Hindus is far more pronounced in south-east Sindh, where the vast majority of Hindus in the province, many of them lower-caste peasants, live in Tharparkar, Mirpurkhas, Umerkot and Sanghar.
The violence that the Hindus of upper Sindh have faced in recent times does have community leaders feeling vulnerable and scared.
“We feel like there is a plan to get us out of here. That because we are well-to-do, there is envy and people want us gone,” according to Dr Hari Lal, a community leader whose home was targeted in violence in Pano Aqil, Sukkur, last year.
That fear was echoed by Eshwar Lal, president of the Sukkur Hindu Panchayat: “Periodically kidnapping Hindus, entering our homes, picking up our children, it’s all meant to prevent the community from growing, to keep us under psychological pressure.”
In addition to commonplace extortion and somewhat less frequent kidnappings, Hindus have also been attacked and killed in low-level communal violence in upper Sindh lately.
In November 2011, for example, three Hindu doctors were killed in Chak, Shikarpur, after a dispute involving a Muslim girl belonging to the local Bhayo community snowballed.Two months earlier, in Pano Aqil, the hometown of Dr Hari Lal, police had to be called in to quell small-scale riots after the local Kalhora community accused a Hindu employee at a school run by Dr Lal of having molested a female student from Kalhora community.
According to Shakir Jamali, head of the Sukkur Taskforce of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the violence against Hindus is rooted in local factors and not necessarily linked to religious extremism:
“In the Pano Aqil case, the JUI tried to give it a religious hue via the Kalhora community but it didn’t work. In Shikarpur, too, the killers tried to give the matter a religious dimension but the local civil society prevented that.”
Jamali added: “Because Hindus are weak and vulnerable as a community, justice is often not served. Local politicians, waderas and sardars urge them to hush up the matter, telling them they are too weak to take on Muslim tribes and biradaris.”
A weakened community
Across upper Sindh, Hindus point to the Zia era as the time when the modern-day marginalisation of the ancient Hindu community began.
Mahesh Kumar, the owner of a cotton-ginning factory in Ghotki district, explained: “Before Zia, we had as many votes as the other communities and the local MPA needed our support to win. Zia’s separate electorate marginalised us. Although joint electorates have been reintroduced, those 12-15 years put us under pressure. And once you’re put under pressure, it`s hard to recover.”
With their political influence somewhat eroded , “ though still significant via alliances with local politicians, local analysts suggest,” the Hindu population’s sizeable wealth in upper Sindh makes them choice targets of kidnappers, extortionists and petty criminals.
“In Ghotki, the cotton ginning factories are owned by Hindus. In Sukkur, half the trade in rice, grains and dates is conducted by Hindus. In Khairpur, Hindus have a big role in the date trade. In Jacobabad and Kashmore, rice milling and trading are Hindu domains. In Larkana, Hindus have a big role in the rice trade. All of this makes them a target,” said Eshwar Lal.
Hindus are also prominent among the professional classes. A doctor in Sukkur city, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is a government employee, said: “25 per cent of the doctors in the medical college here are Hindu. We educate our children and they compete for the best jobs. Some in the Muslim community, especially the poorer ones, look at us with envy. And sometimes they act on it and get away with it because of the religious card.”
Leaving not an option
While Hindu victims of violence and other crimes do sometimes migrate to India and other countries, emigration is no more than a trickle. The difficulty in obtaining an India visa is part of the problem but an uncertain future in a new country and the tug of home tend to dampen enthusiasm for migration.
“I have 200 to 250 patients here. If I moved to even Mirpur Mathelo, a few kilometres away, I wouldn’t have a practice,” according to Dr Shivak Ram, speaking at his large family compound in Daharki.
“If I sell off my businesses and move to India, with the currency exchange rate being what it is, I`ll only have half as much money to invest there. Who can suffer that kind of loss?” asked Mahesh Kumar, the affluent factory owner in Ghotki.In Sukkur city, a lawyer, Mukesh Kumar, suggested that if visas to India were easier to come by “a hundred families would leave every week”. But Kumar admitted that he had no intention of relocating his family, “Leaving your place of birth is difficult. Our roots, our temples, our spiritual links are all with this land. In India, we’ll always be called mohajirs.”
The long history of inclusion in the social, political, economic and even religious fabric of upper Sindh appears to have prevented a rush for the exit by Hindus.
Hindu acceptance of Sufism, as evident in the Bhagat Kanwar Ram festival in Reharki Darbar, and embracing of Sindhi nationalism has allowed the community to brand itself as Sindhi first and made it easier to find common ground with the Muslims of upper Sindh.
“There’s a saying in Sindhi ‘Hindu goth je soonh ahi “a Hindu is the beauty of the village or town,”according to a former resident of Jacobabad who spoke on the condition of anonymity for professional reasons. “Hindus were considered integral to life in Sindh.”
He added: “The situation may have changed somewhat over the last 20 years, but it hasn’t erased the long history of Hindu influence in upper Sindh.”