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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Suicidal Sindh: Why are so many poor Pakistani Hindus killing themselves?

Sixteen-year-old Sooraj Meghwar seemed to be a regular young man – his likes and dislikes, his mood swings – they were all as ‘normal’ as in any other young man from his community in Samaro, Umerkot. Nothing about Sooraj seemed out of the ordinary, so when on May 8, 2022, he was found hanging from his neck from the branch of a tree, his village people were shocked and saddened.

His body was taken to the taluka hospital, where he was pronounced dead. And yet even after the funeral rites were over, his family could not understand any reason for his suicide.

Sooraj’s suicide did cause dismay among his community, as he was just a young boy. But his suicide is not the first in the area. In fact, for some years now, Sindh has been seeing a rising trend in the number of suicidal attempts and deaths. And numbers reveal that the hardest hit are the Scheduled Castes the lowest socio-economic strata of the Hindu community – also sometimes known as Dalits – who have been historically associated as ‘untouchables’ and live life on the fringes of society.

While suicide is not specific to any group in society – it can and does take place across the board. But there must be something wrong for so many of these incidents to occur within one community more than the others. Members of the Scheduled Castes community claim that these desperate measures are happening mainly because of the extremely distressing economic situation in the province – and they are the most affected.

Data compiled by the Sindh police reveals that 681 Muslims and 606 Hindus ended their life between Jan 1, 2014, and June 30, 2019.

Sooraj Meghwar, son of Eshwar Meghwar was found hanging from a tree, May 8, 2022 in his village in Umerkot. – Picture courtesy Narain Das Bheel.

According to Advocate Sarwan Bheel, a human rights activist, lawyer, and coordinator of the Pakistan Scheduled Castes, around 590 suicide cases have been recorded only among the Scheduled Castes during this time period.

Bheel says that he sent an application on February 14, 2022, to the Shoaib Suddle Commission that was originally constituted by the Supreme Court in order to monitor the implementation of the 2014 suo moto judgement by then Chief Justice of Pakistan Tasaduq Hussain Jillani. This judgement aimed to provide protection to all religious minorities living in the country and it came about in the aftermath of the Peshawar Church blast in September 2013.

Sarwan Bheel says he had also raised the same issue during the hearing of a case on November 11, 2021. Following that, the CJP who was also heading the bench gave an order.

“As the matter pertains to that of minorities, the Additional Attorney General of Pakistan, so also the Advocate General of Sindh and the One Man Commission as appointed by this court shall respectively submit their reports regarding the grievance raised, and give proper suggestions as to how the demands and problems of the Scheduled Castes can be addressed amicably.”

Grim numbers

Pritam Maharaj felt confused and distressed as they lowered his brother Ravi’s hanging body. “Last I saw him he was having his tea and then went to his room,” says Pritam who belongs to the Maharaj caste, and lives in a small village in District Umerkot.

Ravi Maharaj, who killed himself by hanging earlier this year – Picture Courtesy Aneel

When Ravi did not emerge from his room the next morning, Pritam went to call his younger brother out. Eventually, he had to barge in, only to find the gruesome sight of his brother who had taken his own life. He could not believe his eyes and staggered back shouting.

“I was in shock and despair, but it was nothing compared to what my 80-year-old mother was going through as well as Ravi’s wife and two children,” says Pritam, adding that Ravi had left behind two little girls, aged two and four years. His brother had been unemployed for months before he gave up trying to live life. He used to work in a factory in Karachi but he had been laid off and could not find any work since then.

“Expenditures are sky high and so are unemployment rates,” says Aneel a family friend. “We are worried and miserable all the time now and some of us cannot cope with this stress.” Both Pritam and Aneel point out that most of the other cases of suicide are also happening because of the prevalent issue of intense poverty and the scheduled castes are the poorest of the poor they say.

“Ravi was the only breadwinner of his family. I work as a tailor and I don’t earn enough to support his family as well.
But we share food with them. What else can I do? I have my own family to look after.”
For this reason, Ravi’s widow and her two daughters usually barely have enough to eat even once a day.

Not all cases are prompted directly by poverty, but economic reasons are an underlying cause. And men and women are both victims.

On May 24, 2022, a resident of Nagarparkar and a mother of five, 35-year-old Jheni Meghwar hanged herself from the ceiling, after she could not face financial and social pressure exerted on her family by an influential doctor of the area. The doctor was bullying Jheni’s husband to give back a loan they owed him, (Rs500,000), an amount which had been used to set up a shoe shop, but which had to be closed down due to the lockdown. After this, they returned some of the loans but Rs300,000 was still pending.

Because of personal reasons for the family, the doctor began bullying them and using his influence, he persuaded a village of 400 families to socially ostracize Jheni and her husband. No one would talk to them; the children were not taught lessons in school; even the local vegetable seller was ordered by the influential doctor not to sell anything to this family. The children often went to bed hungry.

“They kept saying we will kill her husband,” says Suresh Meghwar, Jheni’s brother. “They also made threats that they will pick up the children. All because a loan was not fully returned. It was all a personal issue of enmity rather than anything else,” he adds, saying that the issue had begun when the doctor’s daughter and Jheni’s brother in law had eloped together. They even cut the water supply line to Jheni’s house.

Slowly Jheni began to feel more and more scared and less able to cope with it. On May 24, she hanged herself from the ceiling, leaving behind three daughters and two sons.

Sadly few of the women whose lives are lost have any photographs from when they were alive. “It is not the culture or environment here to have women’s picture’s taken that often,” explains Narain Das Bheel, a social activist. “Even if families do have pictures, they are not willing to share them.” Even in death, the women are invisible.

Advocate Sarwan Kumar Bheel doing community work in Tharparkar.

After the Supreme Court took notice of Sarwan Bheel’s complaint, it ordered a district-wise data report of suicide cases among the members of the Scheduled Castes. The Chief Secretary Sindh and the IG Sindh released the report, where 300 men and 290 women were said to have committed suicide from 2015 to 2021 – a total of 590 people.

In District Umerkot, 109 men and 77 women committed suicide due to various reasons; in District Mithi 51 men and 70 women; in District Mirpurkhas 26 men and 36 women; in District Badin 15 men and 22 women; in District Tando Allah Yar 20 men and 15 women; in District Matiari nine men and 12 women and in District Hyderabad three men and four women. These are the number of suicidal deaths that have taken place. The number of suicide attempts are still not fully known except for those cases that are brought to the hospitals.

The local community openly blames the government’s weak and short-sighted social and economic policies that have resulted in the suffering of people.

“Sadly those that talk about democracy, have done absolutely nothing to take notice of what we are going through, while we face the worst of economic distress,” says Sarwan Bheel.

Background

Bheel highlights that the Scheduled Castes are a highly marginalized section of an already marginalized Hindu community. Because of this, they face multiple issues.

“These suicide cases emerge from a lot of districts and areas and every area has its own issues,” he says. “The biggest problem is probably the economic crisis that we are being crushed under. But another huge issue is that of the feudal system that we have – we say that we have taken independence from the British, but have we really? The truth is we are still living under this kind of tyranny.”

Bheel says the haris or peasants who work under the local waderas are not given their due compensations, they work as bonded labourers, often even suffering the darkness and torture of private jails.

“There are no land reforms, which is why there is ‘wadera shahi’,” he says. “The unemployment rates are high. People’s issues which are our basic rights are not being given. We have no access to clean water, we are starving due to famines, and our women and children do not have access to basic health services. If the State gives anything, it is the feudals who are gaining from it. Then they exploit us and suppress us.”

Bheel also complains that they used to be able to nominate their own representatives before General Musharraf brought about the joint vote. This he says was a better deal. Today there are no representatives in the National Assembly who can speak for the Scheduled Castes.

‘We have been always discriminated’

According to the 2017 state census, the number of scheduled castes in Pakistan is 849,614, but the community argues that they remain undercounted. Scheduled Castes are lower caste Hindus or Dalits – unofficially ‘untouchable’ people and they say they continue to face discrimination in almost every walk of life from the provision of basic facilities to employment opportunities.

In 1956, the Pakistan government declared about 32 castes and tribes as Scheduled Castes in the country. These included Kolhi, Meghwar, Bheel, Bagri, Balmaki, Jogi and Oad, among others.

In a study by the Indian Dalit Society, it was recorded that by the 2008, an overwhelming majority of 79 per cent of the Scheduled Caste population said that they faced discriminatory treatment of one or another kind.

They say the worst treatment comes from Muslims, feudal landlords, elites, upper-caste Hindus, and restaurant/shop owners.

Two Kolhi brothers from tehsil Chamar, District Tando Allah Yar hanged themselves at the same time, after they requested their landlord to pay them their share of the crop but were instead called to his house and beaten up and humiliated. The social humiliation became too much for them. Picture courtesy Sarwan Kumar Bheel

Information gathered from four districts of Sindh revealed that a large part of their population was denied barber services and 90 per cent are served food and tea in separate crockery at hotels and restaurants, which they have to wash, by themselves. Almost 70 per cent said that their upper-caste Hindu and Muslim neighbours either do not invite them to their social gatherings like weddings or if invited they are served food separately.

In schools, Scheduled Caste students are obliged to sit in the back seats, leaving front seats for students from non-Scheduled Castes. Though they are not asked to do so on regular basis, the practice is in place for so long that it has become a custom. Scheduled Caste students are also made to clean the schools.

Bheel complains about the mistreatment from the upper-class Brahmins who he says enjoy much more power and influence in society than they do and so have always exerted this power on them.

“In the National Commission for Minorities, there are 12 members in total, in which even Muslim clerics are included, and two Sikhs, but none from the Scheduled Castes despite having a sizable chunk of the population. Even the Chairman is an upper-class Brahmin.

“We have no personal enmity with anyone,” he says. “But why are we not present on any of these platforms? Our lack of representation is laughable. We are not even involved in the mandir administration: the Pakistan Hindu Mandir Management Committee president and general secretary are both Brahmin; the Hindu community in the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) is also again represented by only Brahmins, and acres of our land is under them. Even the Hindus that are part of political parties are only upper class and not Scheduled Castes – from PTI to PML-N to PPP, they are all Brahmin. It seems as if we don’t even exist.”

If Scheduled Castes are represented properly in the political system, they could deal better with their issues, but Bheel says instead businessmen of the community end up ‘cashing on the Hindu name’. “They don’t even let us inside their mandirs,” he says. “For example, people travel miles on foot to go to the Ramapir mandir in Tando Allah Yar – the tradition is important to them. But for ‘prasad’ (food as a religious offering), the scheduled castes are given only rice in recycled paper, while for the upper class, there is ‘VIP service’, and tables laid with food where we are not allowed.”

It is this attitude of discrimination that breeds resentment and hopelessness among those who are worse off, he adds.

But Chairman of the National Minority Commission (NCM), Chela Ram denies any injustice at the hands of the upper-class Hindus. While he concurs that emotional reasons, including ‘unrequited love’ especially among young people, forced marriages or domestic violence may be some of the reasons that suicides take place, the main reason is poverty.

“I don’t agree with blaming Brahmins for discrimination,” he says. “They say they are not represented, but what about Krishna Kolhi, Kathu Mal Jeevan, Virji Kolhi, Gyan Chand Meghwar among others? The NCM has been under discussion for 27 years but no one spoke about representation then; only when it has now become functional does everyone want to be represented. Also, Hindus have many sects and communities – we can’t represent them all. If we bring a Meghwar on any platform, the Kolhis will say they are unrepresented. This is a never-ending battle.”

Chairman NCM Chela Ram Kewlani

Chela Ram says that the NCM Act needs to be passed so that it becomes a practically functional commission rather than a toothless one. Regarding the representation of the Muslims on a minority commission, he says that it was important to include them there as they are from the religious majority and their listening to the minorities’ problems would have much more impact.

When asked about what he is doing to help solve the poverty crisis in Sindh, he says that he has been ‘in talks with the Chief Minister of Sindh and other authorities and that the Sindh government listens well and has always given him a ‘positive response’. However, he gives no solid plan for the future.

“We cannot deny these things will take a long time to be fixed,” he says. “There is no education, there is no water supply system, and there is inflation and intense poverty. But right now we must appreciate the fact that there is an NCM working and we must focus on passing the Act that is related to it so that it gains more practical power.”

It was also recorded in the report by IDS that one of the other problems faced by the Scheduled Castes is that of landlessness and not getting their fair share in crops.

Suicides

Representatives of the Scheduled Castes argue that the statistics released by the police are only a portion of what the real numbers are.

Some of the districts have distinctively higher rates, including Nagarparkar, Umerkot but especially Tharparkar where poverty levels are the highest. In Tharparkar district almost half the population – 43 per cent – are Hindus. This is also where the suicide rates are the highest.

A report by a local organization, the Association for Water, Applied Education and Renewable Energy (AWARE), says that 443 people from Tharparkar have committed suicide between 2014 and 2020; of these, 79 suicides were recorded in 2020 alone, topping the list among districts.

But these numbers do not denote the number of attempted suicides, and because suicide is criminalized, it does not necessarily give the correct number of completed suicides either.

Loans and debts

With a poor economic situation, there has been an increase in loans and microcredits. But nothing comes without a cost.

In February 2021, Harji Kolhi’s wife killed herself after she could no longer cope with the fear and misery of being in debt.

Harji, 40, a shopkeeper in Nagarparkar had taken a loan from a local microfinance organization in Nagarparkar with which he set up his general store. But with drought, many of the Tharparkar residents migrated out to other areas including Badin, Mirpurkhas, etc.

Facing a loss, Harji Kolhi was unable to repay the bank as agreed. But with the loan officers visiting Harji’s house, pressuring him to pay back the rest of the family was immensely distressed. He had to resort to selling his wife’s dowry items to pay the loan, but when she refused because they were their only savings, they ended up having an argument. Finally, she gave in, and he went to sell the jewellery.

When he returned home, though, he found his wife hanging from a rope. She left behind two young daughters and a son.

Emotional Reasons

A local journalist from Umerkot says he still cannot get rid of the sight of Vikram and Ganga’s bodies – 18 and 16 years respectively – swinging from a tree, hanging so close, they seemed to be hugging each other. The incident took place in October 2021.

The two cousins who lived in Kheri village in Tharparkar’s Islamkot area were forbidden to marry each other. This Vikram explained in a suicide note that was later found in his pocket which said, “We are in love with each other. But we are cousins and our family and religion have stopped us from getting married. So we have chosen to commit suicide.”

Meanwhile, a ‘Psychological Autopsy of Suicide Cases Registered at District Tharparkar’ – a unique initiative by the Sindh Mental Health Authority and the Thar Foundation launched afor the first time in the medical history of the country, has revealed that 60 per cent of the suicide victims in Tharparkar were teenagers. The research recommended the abolition of Section 325 of the Pakistan Penal Code by decriminalizing suicides and introducing the Suicide Prevention Act.

Other information revealed by the report, included that 24 per cent of the victims already had different natures of mental illnesses, while nine per cent of the victims had been under a loan burden.

Class 12 student, and vegetable seller, Bheroo Kolhi had been missing since June 1. Two days later, he was found dead with a rope around his neck, and his shalwar stripped off at Kunri Rd, near Chelhar, Tharparkar. Despite the strangeness of the circumstances, doctors said he had died of suicide.

According to the report, 60 per cent of the victims were between the age group of 10 to 20 years, and 36 per cent were in the age bracket of 21 to 30 years. Around 45 per cent of females and 15 per cent of males had no formal education, whereas 60 per cent of females were homemakers and 40 per cent of victims belonged to low-income groups and were unskilled labourers, peasants, daily wage workers, and small-scale business owners.

Seventy-three per cent of the victims opted to hang themselves, while 36 per cent had previously expressed the wish to die earlier. The report has also noted that 15 per cent of suicide victims had attempted suicide previously before completing suicide with the female to male ratio being 4:1.

The study found that 52 per cent of suicides were pre-planned and 48 per cent of suicides were sudden and impulsive acts as described by the family members. The month of April and May were crucial during which high numbers of suicide cases were recorded, said the report.

Some mental health experts say that climate change is a huge factor and the consequently increased frequency of prolonged droughts in Tharparkar. The local economy in the desert area is heavily dependent on rainfall and erratic weather patterns are having an impact on livelihoods and pushing much deeper into poverty.

“There is so much heat here in the desert area, on top of it all there is no water,” says Narain Das Bheel. “Women have to walk for miles on foot in this hot sand, just to fill water and then carry the full containers back. Often their children are in tow including babies because there is no other place they can leave them. It’s depressing to live life in a place like Tharparkar.”

But suicides have become such a trend, now that he says nobody knows how to make it stop.

“We don’t know what to say or do,” says Narain Das Bheel. “Young people do it without even giving it a thought. Just yesterday a 12-year-old girl Wakhtoo was scolded by her parents and she went and hanged herself. I don’t even know how these children know how to tie a noose.”

Women at risk

Because of the intersectionality of poverty and gender, the women of the Scheduled Castes are most vulnerable – often even considered sexually available by ‘outsider’ (Muslim) men. Because they have little backup economic support or political security, women are often the victims of forced conversions.

Faqir Shiva Kacchi, Chairman of the Pakistan Darawar Ittehad, says that not every suspicious death is a suicide – there are some cases where the victim is made to appear as if he or she has killed themselves.

Faqir Shiva Kacchi Chairman of Pakistan Darawar Ittehad – Picture Courtesy Facebook.

“They are often posed as suicides, but in reality, there can be other causes such as women being killed as a result of domestic violence,” he says matter-of-factly. “However despite that, it remains true that suicides are rising. From women to children to the elderly – all are at risk.”

Kacchi says that the main reasons are unemployment, domestic disputes (also mostly due to economic reasons), overall hopelessness, and also blackmailing and exploitation faced by the scheduled castes by others more powerful than them.

“In a large number of cases, women are the victims. They could be survivors of rape or abduction, after which they are left in the lurch by their families. They end up killing themselves,” he says, pointing out some incidents. The Tharparkar area has also registered the most number of female suicides in the province between 2015 and 2021, with 48 women ending their lives compared to 31 men.

“Then there is severe starvation, much of the time because of so much change in weather patterns, and climate change – drought or floods cause serious issues of food insecurity, especially in desert areas like Tharparkar and Nagarparkar. For many families there is nothing in the house, there is no water, no food, and of course then domestic disputes ensue, there is simply no help from the government.”

To make matters worse is the wadera shahi culture, adding an extra layer of pressure.

“Most waderas force the people who live under them, to vote for a particular political party,” says Kacchi. “People have seen the same rulers rule them for decades but they see no changes in their own lives by voting for them every time. For us they do nothing.”

Mannu Bheel has been searching for his family since they were abducted in 1998 – Picture courtesy International Dalits Solidarity Network

Cruelty imposed upon the people is a separate case. The case of Mannu Bheel stands out. In 1998, Mannu Bheel’s nine family members were kidnapped allegedly by a feudal lord of Sanghar, Abdul Rehman Marri and his henchmen. The family members included his father Khairo, who was then 60; his mother Akher, 60; brother Jalal 20; wife Bootan, 35; daughters Moomal, 9, and Dhaili 18 months; sons Chaman 7, and Kanji 5; and a guest Kartu Bheel, 45. To date, Mannu Bheel has been holding strikes and protests and yet no one knows his family’s whereabouts, even whether they are dead or alive.

This is an extreme case, but cruelty is commonly imposed through the feudal system and with impunity.

For example, Kacchi says that there is little water in Sindh’s rivers but whatever comes through the supply lines, the feudal lords suck it up, despite the fact that there are families dying of heat and thirst.

Among the scheduled castes, though, Kacchi says that the level of violence against women is lower than it used to be. However, he gives no evidence around this statement.

“Yes there is violence against women, but in our community, it has become less. It used to be more common to beat up women, and there were many cases of karo kari too, but now more people are getting educated and aware. Now we think violence is decreasing.”
But human rights activist Radha Satram Bheel, head of Radha Development and Human Rights Association says education among scheduled castes is zero and violence against women is still rampant.

“People will give us examples of someone from the community becoming a judge, or excelling in some other profession, but that’s not enough to say that we have become educated,” she says. “We receive no religious or practical education. In the eyes of the state and the Hindu community at large, we are just inferior.”

Radha says that there is a huge population problem within the community as well.

“Our community is not satisfied until they have at least 10 or 12 children,” she says sarcastically. “Then how does one breadwinner who only earns Rs100 to 200 on daily wages feed them? When the kids ask for food, parents especially mothers often cannot bear it and end up killing themselves when they can’t provide. Na main hongi na main apnay bachon ko tarapta hua dekhoongi.” (Neither will I be alive, nor will I see my children in such misery).

On the one hand, girls are told to tolerate domestic abuse at the hands of their in-laws and spouses, which often leads to suicides among women. But on the other hand, they have also become less tolerant of domestic abuse – but this may lead to domestic disturbances between couples and fights and eventually end up in suicide too. Girls are told they can never leave their in laws’ home, no matter what they face there. They cannot even complain to their parents about the abuse they face.

There is also a big drug problem too, especially concerning moonshine, charas, Mainpuri and gutka that affects the users’ ability to work and earn responsibly and this leads to fights at home. “The wives fight with them saying you aren’t earning for the children’s food, the husbands beat them or act out violently. Suicides are often the result of hopelessness arising from hunger and poverty, or from the frustration from this situation,” she says. “Women are especially vulnerable.”

And then sometimes it is society that pushes a person to end their lives.

“A large part is a fact that we are known as ‘acchhoot’ or ‘untouchable’ and we are treated like that even in today’s world,” she says. “There is a lot of discrimination and injustice towards us and sometimes the youth can’t stand taunts regarding their social status that is why young people often end up killing themselves.”

Sometimes suicides take place because of certain marriage arrangements.

Radha says there are women who convert to Muslims of their own ‘choice’, only in order to gain social status, but they do not really gain anything. They elope, sacrificing their own family’s acceptance so they can never go back again. But the Muslim family never really accepts them. Even after converting they are treated as inferiors and they often kill themselves as a result of violence or ill-treatment.

“In our caste, there are a lot of forced marriages as well, and they do not ask girls and boys about their choice,” she adds. “It only ends up in fights and a life with a mismatched partner.”

Unemployment, financial burdens, and unfulfilled dreams too are big factors. More and more young people are losing their tolerance of carrying any burden on their shoulders. A shocking case occurred on June 2, 2022, when Wakhtoo Kolhi a 12-year-old girl was found hanging in her home. Another 12 year old had also killed himself in Badin just last month in May. The trend among young people is disturbing.

Faqir Shiva Kacchi and Radha Bheel both blame the Sindh government’s negligence and indifference largely for the rising suicide rates.

“Until the government’s intervention, our people will continue suffering,” says Faqir Shiva. “The solution is simple. The Sindh government should form a team that must make detailed visits to each district and town, meet the ordinary people there and see what difficulties they face. We can see NGOs and government hold important seminars in the big cities. But who will include the actual marginalized people in these matters? They are represented nowhere.”

Villagers bring down the body of a woman from a tree where she hanged herself. – Picture courtesy Narain Das Bheel

Nazia Memon, who along with her husband runs The Sindhi Narratives, an organization based in Australia, says that there are several issues that need to be dealt with at once if these suicides and abject poverty is to be addressed.

“First of all the role of the local police must be supervised,” she says. “Most of the time they refuse to file a case. Even if they do, they do not act. Some suicides are due to poverty and unemployment – these can only be handled by the government itself by expanding job opportunities. But some of them are a result of violence against women, especially domestic violence. For this awareness among women and girls is integral.”

Nazia says that lack of education is also one of the big reasons. She adds that there are many cases of suicide that occurred in suspicious circumstances, but there is no proper investigation done because highly influential political people or waderas are involved, and no rules apply to them.”

Narain Das Bheel echoes similar thoughts about the situation.

“The police refuse to file any FIRs; they just end up in calling something a suicide even if it is the circumstances are suspicious. So we never know if something was actually a murder made to look like suicide, or not. Even if it was a suicide, the case must be investigated thoroughly by the police. But until we don’t bring the body out on the main road, the police don’t even think of filing the FIR. They don’t want to do this because of the fear that a wadera may be accused.”

“The Sindhi minority community that comprises mostly Hindus and among those especially the Scheduled Castes are increasingly becoming victims of extremism, negligence, ignorance and the carelessness of our system,” concludes Nazia Memon. “The rising suicide cases among these communities should be a major point of discussion and investigation. Sadly though, our system is asleep as always.”

(This article was published on voicepk.net on June 3, 2022 and has been reproduced here with a modified headline.)

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