Pakistan's first Hindu Dalit senator, Krishna Kumari Kohli. was elected from Sindh last week. Photo: Courtesy Twitter

On Saturday, Krishna Kumari became the first Hindu Kohli woman to become a senator in Pakistan, after contesting the election  as a representative of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Kumari was elected to one of the two Senate seats reserved for women from the province of Sindh.

Kumari, a human-rights activist from Dhana Gam village in Nagarparkar city, Tharparkar district, is the second Hindu woman to be elected to the Senate after Ratna Bhagwandas Chawla. But she is the first from the “untouchable” caste, also known as “Dalits” in India.

A sizable number of Hindus stayed in Pakistan, just like their Muslim counterparts in India, after the subcontinent was partitioned on religious lines in 1947. In many ways, Kumari’s election is historic for Pakistan and the Dalit community in South Asia. But she is clear that she does not identify herself as a “Dalit.”

After Kumari’s election win, local and international media were abuzz with headlines underscoring her as the “first Dalit woman” to be elected to the Pakistani Senate.

However, talking exclusively to Asia Times, Kumari has emphasized that she did not want to be associated with Dalit or scheduled caste labels. “We are not Dalit in Pakistan. These discriminations exist in India but not among us indigenous Hindus in Pakistan,” she said.

Dalit, a lower caste in orthodox Hinduism, has historically been subjected to untouchability and oppression in the South Asian subcontinent. In modern India, they still face discrimination, and even violence, at the hands of the far-right Hindu extremists. The Indian constitution has classified them as “Scheduled Castes” to ensure positive affirmation through various government schemes.

However, Kumari maintains that the caste dynamics in India do not affect the Hindu community across the border.

“The issues in India are not directly related to us, because we are indigenous Pakistanis. I am from Nagarparkar, Tharparkar, so I can’t say much for what is going on in India,” she said. “But what I can say is that these lines don’t exist in Pakistan – even though some members of the local community do want to establish them.”

Dalit tag ‘disrespectful’

Kapil Dev, a Hindu activist from the same area as Kumari, says the new senator abhors the Dalit tag. “Krishna is a very good friend of mine. And she never calls herself Dalit. She says ‘Dalit’ is like zillat [disrespect]. She says this is an Indian tag, not Pakistani,” he told Asia Times.

Journalist Aakash Santorai says the media flaunting the Dalit label for Krishna Kumari is condemnable. “In fact, she does not even believe in [the caste system]. The Kohli community never calls itself Dalit in Pakistan.”

Santorai has strong views on this. “I categorically condemn her being labeled as Dalit. Indigenous Pakistani Hindus do not need any Indian labels. We don’t want to be called Dalits, or scheduled castes,” he told Asia Times.

“Please don’t call [Krishna Kumari] a Dalit. She is an educated woman from an economically backward area, who has worked hard to reach where she is. Calling anyone Dalit is an insult – it means untouchable, lower caste.

“According to the constitution of Pakistan, we are a non-Muslim religious minority. Yes, we are Kohlis, Bheers, Meghwars – we accept that. But we don’t want any degrading classifications.”

Hindus persecuted

The local Hindu community has suffered persecution at the hands of radical Islamists, with many women forcibly converted to be married off to Muslims. The state’s acquiescence to groups behind kidnappings, killings and desecration of Hindu temples, most notably in Sindh, has meant that Hindus have been fleeing Pakistan – often to find refuge in India.

According to Senator Ramesh Kumar, a member of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), “around 5,000 Hindus leave Pakistan every year” because of the persecution.

Dev says the Kohli community is marginalized even among the Hindus. “This is why a Kohli woman joining the Senate is a positive development. For we have had parliamentarians from the Meghwar community, but never Kohlis,” he said.

Santorai says Kumari should use her political success to help the plight of not just her community, but other marginalized groups as well. “The onus is now on Krishna Kumari to make use of the international limelight to not just highlight the plight of her community and the indigenous Hindus, but to be a role model for all women and help them progress like she has,” he said.

PPP election strategy praised

Dev also lauds the PPP’s Senate election strategy, which brought Kumari forward. “The PPP always does well in the Senate, and this move will also give the party political mileage. They often give the Senate ticket to people who can’t buy the nomination,” he said.

Sources within the PPP revealed that party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari strongly backed the move to give the Senate ticket to Krishna Kumari, keeping in mind the work done by her brother Veerji Kohli for the party.

Veerji Kohli, PPP chairman for the Berano union council of Tharparkar, was jailed last year for a murder committed in March 2011. He was released a day before the Senate elections, with the party maintaining that he was falsely accused. “Bilawal was approached by Veerji’s friends who are close to the party leadership, and hence Bilawal wanted to reward that sacrifice,” a PPP insider told Asia Times.

PPP leaders and rights activists maintain that false charges of murder against Veerji, an activist himself, epitomize the discrimination against local Hindus.

However, for Senator Krishna Kumari the task is beyond merely the Kohlis, Hindus or other Pakistani minorities.

“Being elected to the women’s [seat], I represent all women, and most of the issues related to gender discrimination are common for women all over Pakistan,” she said.

“Moreover, being the first Thari female senator, I want to work on the educational and health backwardness of my own area and improve its conditions for all Pakistani communities.”

For now, Krishna Kumari represents a new generation and perhaps a new hope for Pakistan.

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