When Pakistan conducts its upcoming National Census, Pakistani low-caste or sub-caste members are strongly urged to register themselves as Dalits rather than Hindus. For while they may be considered ‘untouchable’, they must not also be made invisible, when the population is counted and divided into categories that will determine what reservations, development initiatives and means of political participation will be made available to them.

Photo: Jakob Carlsen – Pakistan

Dalits in Pakistan, referred to as ‘Scheduled Castes’ by government,  fall victim to double discrimination, being both a religious minority in an Islamic society, while at the same time suffering inhumane discrimination, including practices of ‘untouchability’, within the Hindu community itself.  Dalits are therefore not only the ‘poorest of the poor’ in Pakistan but also the ‘lowest of the low’,  making them painfully vulnerable to human rights abuses such as physical and psychological abuse, modern day slavery, human trafficking and other severe limitations to development and the achievement of basic human rights.

While it may seem like just a question of labels to many, it is pivotal to ensuring benefits and rights to the marginalized Dalits in Pakistan, that they are registered as Dalits, rather than as part of a larger group of Hindus.

Current statistic do not reflect reality

Families who are not registered with National Database & Registration Authority cannot benefit from government facilities like education of their children. The Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network (PDS-N) underlines that most individuals of the scheduled castes don’t possess national identity cards and urges the scheduled castes to register themselves with their original caste recognition.

A similiar observation was made by The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) when it reviewed Pakistan in February 2009. In the Concluding Observations the Committee recommended that Pakistan provide data on the ethnic composition of the population, preferably based on self-identification. The Committee also urged Pakistan to broaden its constitutional definition regarding minorities to take all the grounds of discrimination into account, including on the basis of caste, as recognized inCERD General Recommendation No. 29.

Official statistics from the previous Pakistani census claim that Scheduled Castes consist of 0,25% of Pakistan’s total population which amounts to approximately 330,000 persons. This number, however, has been widely contested. Representatives of ‘Scheduled Castes’ claim that numbers have deliberately been made lower and that the divide between upper and lower caste Hindus is incorrect, thus suggesting that numbers may be as high as 2,000,000. This problem was also recently brought to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council in their Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Pakistan, which in turn urged the Pakistani government to recognize and deal with the issue. The CERD Committee also recommended the Government to adopt legislation aimed at the prohibition of caste-based discrimination. It is therefore vital that the Dalits of Pakistan stand up and be counted, if the results of the next census are to reflect the reality in the country.

Not just a Pakistani problem

The problem of Dalits not being counted and registered properly is not isolated to Pakistan. Across South Asia the official numbers of Dalits registered are routinely lower than the estimates by experts and Dalit NGOs. Coordinator of The International Dalit Solidarity Network, Rikke Nöhrlind, therefore stresses that it is important that the international community, as well as nationally based activists, pay particular attention to this issue in future country census exercises in South Asia. For example, says Ms. Nöhrlind, “The upcoming census in Bangladesh presents many of the same problems associated with the census in Pakistan, and Bangladeshi Dalits, just like the Pakistani Dalits, deserve to be registered properly and thereby given a better chance to break out of the oppression they are subjected to on a daily basis.”

Read more about caste discrimination in Pakistan here