Around the Lahore Central Railway Station, narrow alleys are like a maze, with hotels and restaurants for passengers coming in from across the country. The visitors from Cholistan were staying in one such building. Their common attire said nothing about their significance. The assertiveness is in their eyes spoke of the hardships they face in the middle of the uninhabited deserts. Through the music they make, they bring their world to life with songs of love, mysticism and sad partings.
A group of singers from the Bheel community were my hosts in one of the rundown hotels where they were staying. A few moments after I entered the room and greeted them, there was music all around, the sadness of the room shattered by the elaborate melodies they made from the stringed Yaktara and the colorful Raanti instruments. Such was the beauty I found in that tiny, unfamiliar room that came to life with music and lively stories, in spite of interruptions by the hotel manager who kept asking us to tone it down.
The members of the Hindu Bheel community are mostly landless, and they are known for their melodies and beautiful traditional musical instruments, ornamented by elaborately embroidered bright colored fabrics. They make their stringed instruments with animal hides and wood, hollowed pipes that are magic for the ear. They are known for their distinctive voice quality and the art of story-telling. Their women wear glass bangles all over their arms and wear colorful Cholis and Ghagharas.
The singers among them are very particular about their diet and the effect different foods have on their vocal chords. To them, singing is the medium that brings them closer to God, and it is their love for music that has made them so well-versed with the expression of mystical love. They hold great reverence for Sufi saints. They mention them and sing their poetry with as much devotion as they have for their Devtas and the bhajjans glorifying them. To them music represents universal love, a language through which they converse with the mortals and the divine. They speak Marwari, Koli and other dialects. They don’t have much written literature in their languages except for a few fragments. However, they have adapted the local dialects to make a common language.
Bheels are a sub-sect of the Hindu minority in Pakistan, commonly known as “Dalits” or “untouchables”. They mainly live in Tharparkar and in the Cholistan desert of Southern Punjab, and are recognised as a scheduled caste under Pakistani law. Many Bheel families decided to stay back in Pakistan at the time of partition because they felt that in a new country that came into existence on the principle of rights for minorities, they would not face the discrimination they did among upper caste Hindu compatriots.
Constitutionally, the Dalits were given the status of a scheduled caste under the Scheduled Castes Declaration in 1957, which ensured them certain privileges like a quota in jobs for scheduled castes. But no serious effort was made to implement the declaration and give the rights that were due to them. The presidential ordinance was later repealed in 1998 during Nawaz Sharif’s tenure, when the quota for scheduled castes was converged in the general quota for minorities. The effect of this deliberate negligence and marginalisation created problems for the Bheel community in terms of exercising their rights as Pakistani citizens, marriage registration and a lack of representation in the Parliament.
According to official statistics, there are approximately 3 million Hindus residing in Pakistan. Of these, 2.5 million belong to scheduled castes. However, the Scheduled Castes Federation of Pakistan disputes the figures presented by the state. The growing orthodoxy, a harsh feudal environment in areas home to the community and lack of education, have pushed the Bheel community to poverty. Under the strict influence of the waderas, these landless people are kept marginalized, with no health or education facilities in their remote and inaccessible villages. There are countless stories to be heard, the most shameful one about their mass migration to India for better lives. It triggered a prompt response from the government, directing authorities to keep a record of Hindus leaving the country and asking the Indian Government to repatriate them back to Pakistan.
‘We are a Dervaish people, we do not indulge in the lies of politics,’ Krishan Lal Bheel, a renowned Bheel singer explained to me. ‘However, we do have our shortcomings, and we ourselves are to be blamed for these shortcomings as we keep giving in to our own vulnerabilities,’ he said referring to the sad reality of his marginalised community and its exploitation.
Forced conversions have been taking place over the years in Sind, and such incidents are increasing. Punjab is comparatively better on that count. The landlords take their women who are kept as wives after their conversion, but after the passage of a few years, they are sent back to their villages where these women are viewed with mistrust by their own community. These women cannot revert back to their religion for the fear of the clerics. There have also been incidents of kidnappings for ransom and demolition of their worship places and houses. But the grievances are never addressed. The powerful feudal lords manage to suppress the news in the mainstream media and easily manipulate the police and courts to deny justice to the victims.
Bheels face intimidation from the Muslim clerics and their fundamental rights are violated. They have no faith in politics which they consider to be corrupt. However, lately there has been an awakening of sorts, as many scheduled-caste communities are beginning to protest the gross injustice they face, and are beginning to form a political movement to address their grievances. In September last year, a demonstration was organised by the Bheel community in Mithi, in liaison with Sindhi nationalist parties, against the demolition of their houses and temples. The Scheduled Castes Rights Movement is spearheading their cause, but it needs to be seen how much impact it could have given the nexus of political power with feudal lords. If nothing is done immediately to address the plight of the Bheel community, then a beautiful voice that gives soul to Pakistan’s diversity might fade away.
Zeeba T. Hashmi is an