NOVEMBER 1, 2014 BY ASIF AQEEL
Confusing untouchability with Islamic purification rites
The legal case of Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, is a powerful reminder of how common perceptions and prejudices mislead even the informed and the educated. Local and international media have projected her case as a struggle between two mindsets without questioning the underlying Hindu caste system that runs deep in Pakistan.
The book titled Blasphemy – A Memoir: Sentenced to Death Over a Cup of Water by French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet – though Noreen is described as the co-author – has totally misconstrued social realities of the present-day Punjab. Tollet tells us that Christians are treated as untouchable in Pakistan because Muslims disapprove the fatherless birth of Jesus Christ. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Noreen was accused of blasphemy in June 2009 when she was working picking fruit in the fields of Ittanwali village, Sheikhupura. In the scorching heat, she drank water from a common bucket and offered it to her Muslim co-workers. Some of them refused the water saying it had become ‘unclean’ after handled by a Christian. She was told that her state of ‘impurity’ could be lifted if she converted to Islam. A verbal clash broke out between Noreen and her co-workers after which she was accused of blasphemy and handed to the police.
Noreen’s case came to the limelight after she was handed death sentence by a trial court in November 2010. Pope Benedict XVI appealed to Pakistan for clemency for her. In the following days, countrywide protests were held against any change in Noreen’s conviction and in this connection two prominent politicians were murdered for supporting her. During the court hearings and public debates, only Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were heatedly discussed but not the caste prejudices.
After four long years, Noreen’s appeal against death sentence was heard by the Lahore High Court on Oct16. Her lawyer, Naeem Shakir, argued in the appeal that the crux of the matter was untouchability rather than a clash between Christian and Islamic faiths. Referring to the trial court judgment, he argued that the judge wrongly believed the conflict was purely of religious nature.
The trial court did not discuss the role of untouchability in the case. Islam permits Muslims eating and drinking with the “People of the Book”, e.g., Christians, Jews and Sabians. The Holy Qur’an emphatically declares that “The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them” (5:5).
The trial court did not discuss the role of untouchability in the case. Islam permits Muslims eating and drinking with the “People of the Book”, e.g., Christians, Jews and Sabians. The Holy Qur’an emphatically declares that “The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them” (5:5)
There is a possibility that Noreen got provoked and sarcastically retorted after being humiliated over her courteous act, but the question arises: From where did her co-workers get the notion of ritual impurity in the first place?
The concept of untouchability as means of keeping certain people at distance emerged with the arrival of Aryans in India about 4000 years ago. The word varna used for caste in the Sanskrit language primarily means “colour”. The light-skinned Aryans declared the dark-skinned aboriginal people untouchable through these laws to keep them out of social, political and economic spheres.
Christians in Punjab are sometimes treated as untouchable because many of them trace their origin to these aboriginal inhabitants of the land. During the colonial period they converted to Christianity to escape this social stigma. These Christian converts were still treated as untouchable by high caste Hindus. Renowned scholar Aysha Jalal in her bookSelf and Sovereignty suggests that Christians sided with the Muslims in the independence movement in Punjab because they thought they would be treated with dignity in Pakistan as both were monotheists. Noreen’s case shows that the treatment of Christians as untouchable continues unabated; now at the hands of Muslims, instead of Hindus.
The Indian Muslims learned caste disabilities through close proximity with Hindus over almost a millennium. The light skinned Muslims of Arab, Turk, Persian and Afghan descent called themselves ashraf (noble-born) and they called local converts to Islam ajlaf (lowly-born). The ashraf maintained a distance from the ajlaf, put them in low occupations, and did not marry with them as dictated by the Hindu caste system but was against the egalitarian nature of Islam. It is in this context that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Aligarh University admitted only high caste Muslims while banned admission to low caste Muslims. The Aligarh movement gave birth to All India Muslim League that struggled for a separate homeland for Muslims of India.
It would be no wonder if Pakistan’s name owes to the caste dichotomy of pure (Persianpak) and impure (Persian paleed). In order to ridicule the Muslim League independence movement, Maulana Abul Ala Maududi called Pakistan (land of the pure) as Paleedistan(land of the impure).
The founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah was well aware of the deeply ingrained caste biases in Indian Muslim minds. In his inaugural speech before the constituent assembly on August 11, 1947, Mr Jinnah clearly identified casteism, racism and religious discrimination as causes of hindrance to progress:
“If you change your past and work together in a spirit that everyone of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this state with equal rights, privileges, and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make”.
Mr Jinnah’s words, however, slowly vanished from the political landscape of the country. The 1956 Constitution of Pakistan and 1974 Constitution of Azad Jammu and Kashmir state:
“Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form forbidden and shall be declared by law to be an offence”.
Christians in Punjab are sometimes treated as untouchable because many of them trace their origin to these aboriginal inhabitants of the land. During the colonial period they converted to Christianity to escape this social stigma
No such law was ever enacted to penalise the practice of untouchability. The 1962 Constitution of Pakistan watered down the real intent of Mr Jinnah by removing the aim of criminalising the practice:
“No law should permit or in any way to facilitate the introduction into Pakistan of the practice of untouchability in any form”.
Secession of East Pakistan in 1971 had the skin colour based dichotomy, a basic feature of casteism. Stanley Wolpert suggests that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Yahya Khan could not hand over the country to the Bengalis “whose small, dark-skinned physiques neither of them believed worthy specimens of Pakistani stature”. The Islamisation agenda after the fall of Dhaka totally silenced the new constitution on untouchability. Since then the topic is totally withdrawn from public debate.
Answering a question raised by Denmark over the treatment of outcaste Hindus in the Universal Periodic Review of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2008, Pakistan stated:
“It is a Muslim country and does not have the concept of Dalit… it is free from such kind of prejudices, and the existing norms do not contain discrimination on the basis of caste or creed”.
Intrusion of religion in every sphere of life, persistence of caste prejudices in society and no public debate on the subject have given way to confusing untouchability with Islamic purification rites.
Islamic jurisprudence requires removal of physical contamination, which is of temporary nature and is to be washed away before the observance of religious rites.
Unlike Islam, Hinduism believes ritual impurity is innate, nonphysical and permanent. One can only improve on the scale of purity by being born in a higher caste in the next incarnation. It is possible if one’s good karma of his previous life outweighs the bad karma.
Hindu religious philosophy has lost relevance in Pakistan as more than 95 per cent of the population consists of Muslims, but untouchability as a social norm is very much alive. Ordinary Muslims have uniquely put untouchability into the mould of Islamic concepts of purification. Some believe that conversion to Islam can remove inborn impurity of untouchables as Noreen’s co-workers suggested her.
The Pakistani state is responsible for this mess because it ignored Mr Jinnah’s instructions. Though the concept of untouchability is pivotal to Hindu religious philosophy, India abolished it through the 1950 Constitution and punishes for preaching and practicing it through the 1955 Protection of Civil Rights Act. Millions of low caste Hindus and Christians would have been saved from being treated as untouchable if Pakistan had enacted a law against untouchability. Also, this way Pakistan would not have been put to shame on international forums and media, two of our politicians would not have been murdered and the conflict between Noreen and her co-workers would not have turned into a religious one in the first place.