Camera: Ahmed Saeed and Umer Bin Ajmal
Producer: Garvita Khybri
Editor: Purnendu Pritam
A rented vehicle stopped at the suburbs of Mirpur Khas city and a middle-aged woman, dressed in all white, stepped out of the car.
She was followed by another old woman, holding the loose end of her brown sari with her hand. Both women distributed some pamphlets to the bystanders and stood on a pile of gravel rocks to gain height in order to address the people gathered there.
The woman in white is Radha Bheel, while the sari-clad lady is Lelan Lohar. Both Bheel and Lohar are contesting the 2018 Pakistan general election as independents from the Mirpur Khas district of Sindh.
The duo belong to the Dalit community, the majority of which lives in the Sindh province under harsh living conditions. In 2016, Bheel, with some other members of the Dalit community, started a movement called Dalit Sujaag Tehreek (DST) to highlight the issues and plight of the backward classes.
We decided to contest elections because no party focuses on the issues that we are facing. Dalits are in majority but tickets are always given to upper caste Hindus. We jumped in the political arena to claim our due political share.
The DST is primarily focusing on the social upliftment and political empowerment of Dalit women. Three out of five candidates contesting elections under the DST banner are Dalit women. Lohar, who is eyeing a seat in the National Assembly, termed the child marriages and forced conversion of Dalit girls as the biggest problem for her community.
I got married at the age of 11 and all my four daughters got married at a tender age. One of my daughters died on account of ill-treatment from her in-laws and pregnancy complications.
The DST uses a pencil as their election symbol as Bheel believes only education can bring real change. Their slogan reads, “Ilmsaanmunjhonpyaar; qalammunjhonhathiyar”, meaning education is my love; pen is my weapon.
The ratio of Muslim and non-Muslim voters in Mirpur Khas is almost equal.
We went to the Muslim areas but got a cold response from them. They were not willing to vote for non-Muslim candidates.
Lack of resources and threats from the rival candidates are other major obstacles the DST has been facing in their election campaign. Lohar said she was asked to withdraw her candidature or be ready for “grave consequences”.
My actual fight is with feudal lords. I am not afraid of them. Why should I be afraid of them? All of us have to die one day.
Lohar vowed to challenge the feudal lords in the next local government elections, in case she failed to win this time. “We have taken the big step, there is no fear now. We will only move forward, there is no option of going back.”
Bheel said she was confident of winning if influential candidates were discouraged from rigging the ballot. She supported the decision of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to deploy the Pakistan Army’s personnel inside and outside the polling stations. “We have full faith on our armed forces that they will not allow anyone to cast bogus votes.”
This is the first election of the DST and both Bheel and Lohar are positive with the response their campaign received and plan to register the DST as a political party after the elections.
With the election promises of equality, education and fundamental human rights for all, Bheel is quite optimistic that they will deliver good results on 25 July despite all the roadblocks.
Tribha Satyani, a Sindh-based political analyst, terms fielding Dalit candidates a positive development. He said movements like DST will help voice issues regarding scheduled castes in Parliament. “Although DST candidates winning their constituencies seems highly unlikely, it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.
Once the elections are behind them, Bheel says, they will register DST as a political party with the ECP. “This is just the start of our struggle. After the elections, we will target the next local bodies’ election as well, and will do so with the same spirit,” Bheel said.
According to the 2017 population census, Hinduism is the second largest religion in a predominantly Muslim majority country. Of the total population of 207 million, there are about 2.5 million Hindus.
Bheel said contesting election itself was a victory for them.
We have created ripples by challenging the status quo and we will continue to fight, come what may.