Christian Street Sweepers Abused in Pakistan

by | Jul 8, 2011 | Charisma Archive

pakistanprotestThe often unseen or
unrecognized abuses suffered by Christians at Pakistan’s lowest level of
society—street sweepers—have come into sharp focus this year.

While
one Christian sanitation worker in Lahore has been suspended and
criminal charges filed against him for objecting to discrimination
against fellow workers, another was killed the same month for not
tending to a shopkeeper’s command fast enough.

Anayat
Masih Sahotra, who has worked as a street sweeper for Lahore’s Solid
Waste Management department for 24 years, said he is facing
baseless charges of forgery and fraud from his employers because of his
work as a labor leader for area sweepers, who are nearly all Christians.
He was suspended and accused of the crimes on May 14 after he asked SWM
Managing Director Wasim Ajmal Chaudhry to fulfill a promise to make 400
Christian workers regular employees with full benefits, he said.

Sahotra
said when Chaudhry refused his request to make the Christian sweepers
regular employees according to the requirements of Pakistani law, he
told the managing director that he could expect protests. Protest
against injustice was their civil right, he said, and plans for a
demonstration were underway when he received the suspension order
alleging forgery and fraud.

When he went to Chaudhry’s
office again on May 26 to object to the injustice of the suspension
order, he said Chaudhry referred to him and other Christian workers as Chuhras,
an offensive term of contempt for street sweepers, an occupation
assigned only to those of such low “untouchable” social standing that
they are below the remnant caste system predating Pakistan’s
predominantly Islamic society.

“I know you low-born Christian Chuhras, and I know how to deal with you,” Sahotra said Chaudhry told him.

Sahotra
left Chaudhry’s office, he said, only to receive a phone call a few
minutes later from SWM Assistant District Officer Faiz Ahmed Afridi
telling him to come to his office. Sahotra went to Afridi’s office in
the evening, where he was offered to sit and have a cup of tea, he said.

“While I was taking tea, police entered the office and
arrested me,” Sahotra said. “I was shocked how cunning Faiz had been to
me.”

Charges were filed the same day at Islampura police
station, accusing Sahotra of criminally intimidating Afridi, though
Sahotra said he was calmly taking tea when police arrested him.

The
next day Sahotra was granted bail, but a few days later Anarkali police
called him, saying the superintendent of police wanted to talk to him.

“The
police of Anarkali are tricking me into meeting them,” he said. “They
want to arrest me on any other charge in order to mount pressure on me
to withdraw my support to the Christian employees who are not being made
regular despite having worked there for several years.”

As
temporary or “work charge” employees, the sanitation workers’ contracts
expire every 88 days, and they are hired every third month. This goes
on for decades, with the employees working until they are too feeble to
do so without any benefits or pension. They get no days off–no
weekends, no holiday, no sick leave.

Their morning shift
begins at 6 a.m., but the general public does not want them working when
they are awake, so the sweepers prefer to clean streets beforehand.
Starting at 4 a.m., they work until 7 p.m. for $100 per month, leaving
them no opportunity to work any other part-time job. Thus they are kept
poor, with no opportunity to provide quality education to their
children, who perpetuate the cycle as they too become sweepers.

Murdered Sweeper
The
deep, culturally-rooted disparagement Christian sanitation workers
suffer was apparent in another incident in May. Abbas Masih, 36, was
cleaning the streets when he was murdered for not picking up trash
quickly enough, human rights advocates said.

Eyewitnesses said Masih was cleaning streets in the Pir Maki area of Lahore on May 21 when Muhammad Imran, an Arain
or agricultural caste member who worked at a flower shop, told Masih to
pick up dried leaves and flowers from in front of the shop. Masih told
him that he would gather them up when he came back from the end of the
street.

“How can a Chuhra argue with me?” Imran
said, and he took out a knife used at the flower shop and shoved it into
Masih’s heart, according to the witnesses. Masih fell. He was taken to a
hospital, where he died.

Two brothers who own the shop,
Muhammad Tariq and Muhammad Shehzad, told Compass that Imran had opened
the store that morning. Imran asked Masih to pick up a small pile of
dried leaves and flowers and take them away with the garbage, they said.

As witnesses also noted, they said Masih told him that he
would pick up the trash upon his return from the end of the street.
Imran insisted that he pick up the pile immediately.

“Imran
called him names and then took out the knife and stabbed the heart of
Masih,” Shehzad said, adding that he was at home at the time but heard
about it from another who came home from the scene of the incident. “I
rushed to the spot, picked Masih up, put him in a rickshaw and rushed
him to the Mayo Hospital. I also phoned the emergency police, Rescue 15,
and informed the shop that Muhammad Imran must not be allowed to go, as
Masih had passed away in the hospital.”

He said that Masih was “a very good person.”

The Lower Mall police station registered a First Information Report only after several Christian leaders protested.

Although
Masih had worked with SWM for 16 years, he remained a work-charge
employee, so his family was not eligible for financial assistance upon
his death. Several Christian leaders protested to the Chief Minister of
Punjab Province, whose office in turn wrote to the SWM.

Based
on feedback from the chief minister’s secretariat, in a June 9 letter
the SWM responded to the Christian leaders: “It is the policy of the
government to grant financial assistance to the family of deceased civil
servants, and work charge employees do not fall under the definition of
civil servants. However, on the death of work charge employees during
their engagement, it is the practice to pay financial assistance after
getting the approval of the Chief Minister as a special case.”

The chief minister has not responded to the request, and Christians said there is little possibility that he will consider it.

Though
Christians account for 90 percent of sewage workers and an even high
percentage of sweepers, they make up only 2.45 percent of Pakistan’s
population, which is more than 95 percent Muslim, according to Operation World.
Masih’s widow, Rukhsana Masih, said that she and her family members had
feared filing a police report about the case–Pakistani police are
notorious for falsely charging or otherwise harassing marginalized
minorities like Christians–and that they were too poor to retain a
lawyer. The Community Development Initiative, an affiliate of European
Centre for Law and Justice, has since allayed her fears about the legal
process and offered to assist her, and she has agreed to pursue justice.

Overlapping Religions
When the Indian
subcontinent was divided in 1947 and Pakistan was carved out in the
name of Islam, ultimately there was a merging of Brahmanic Hinduism’s
ritual impurity with Islamic ceremonial uncleanness in regard to
sweepers–almost all of whom were Hindu “untouchables” who converted to
Christianity in the late 19th century.

This synthesis,
however, came about over time. Initially the founding father of
Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had no notion of bringing religion into
the sphere of political life. He was also an advocate of ending
caste-based discrimination. With Jinnah’s early death and the use of
Islam for political gain by migrating, Urdu-speaking leaders who
previously had no political bases here–in particular the first prime
minister, Liaquat Ali Khan–over six decades Islam permeated every
aspect of life: social, political, economic and legal.

After
Pakistan became fundamentally Islamic, Muslims confused the notion of
ceremonial uncleanness–considered temporary in nature in Islamic
jurisprudence–with the Brahmanic notion of ritual impurity, considered
innate and permanent. Islam forbids eating and drinking with a kafir
or infidel, but it allows it with the “people of the Book.” But as
caste-based “untouchability” became confused with the Islamic notion of
ceremonial uncleanness, Christians also came to be seen as ritually
polluting a person or a thing.

Thus contempt toward
Christians is deeply rooted, and there is no legislation to arrest this
hatred. Rather, the state appears to want to keep Christians in this
degrading occupation. Several job advertisements from government
departments clearly state that sweeper candidates must be non-Muslim;
some even specify that they must be Christians.

The
Pakistani government hasn’t evolved any modern system of maintaining
hygiene in metropolitan areas, so Christian sweepers are forced to
collect and discard garbage under filthy conditions. Rotten and stinking
garbage is a source of several contagious diseases, and most of the
sweepers have respiratory and skin problems. A large number of them
suffer from tuberculosis and hepatitis B.

One reason
Sahotra is struggling to get these workers full employee status is that
as temporary workers they are not entitled to any Social Security
Hospital. They are not considered government employees and hence are not
entitled to treatment in hospitals for government employees.

The
same situation prevails at the Water and Sanitation Agency,
which maintains the sewage system, where about 90 percent of workers are
Christians. They face extremely dangerous work conditions. When sewer
lines clog because they are too small, these workers are not provided
any protective gear as they sometimes dive 30 to 50 feet below ground
into manholes filled with dirty and toxic water. When a sewer line gets
unclogged, the strong flow sometimes carries away the worker.

Several
sanitation workers have lost their lives due to toxic gasses in
manholes. Overall, hundreds of people have lost their lives working for
WASA, but their families do not receive the benefits that other
government employees get because the workers do not have regular status
despite working decades for the department.

Caste-Based Blasphemy
One
reason missionaries had such success in converting area Hindus to
Christianity in the late 19th century was that conversion offered the
community a way to socioeconomic as well as religious emancipation.

Although
a large number of Christians managed to escape the bondage by attaining
education, still an overwhelming number of Christians were caught in an
occupation that society rendered humiliating and degrading.

Several
cases of Christians falsely charged under Pakistan’s “blasphemy” laws
have been rooted in such caste-based discrimination.

Asia
Noreen (also known as Asia Bibi), sentenced to death in November 2010
for allegedly insulting the prophet of Islam, was working in the fields
picking fruit when she took water from a bucket for all workers. Her
co-workers argued that she had polluted the water by touching it, and
that the water would be drinkable only if she converted to Islam. When
she answered, they ensnared her in a blasphemy case.

Remnant
Hindu Brahmanic notions of untouchability combined with Islamic fervor
for conversion in Pakistan also figured in accusations of blasphemy
against Rubina Bibi in Alipur Chatta, Punjab Province. She had bought
ghee, an Indian oil used for cooking, but when she felt it was
adulterated, she told the shopkeeper to return it and give her money
back. The shopkeeper argued that the oil had been polluted for having
been poured into the bowl of a Christian, so it could never be returned.
The ensuing argument veered into religious issues that ultimately
invoked Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

The hierarchical sense
of superiority that marked Imran’s alleged murder of Abbas Masih was
also present in the ransacking of Christians’ homes in Bahmaniwala,
Kasur, in June 2009. Trolley driver Sardar Masih asked Muhammad Hussain
to remove the motorbike that he had parked in the middle of the road.
Hussain refused, asking how a “Chuhra” could give him an order.

The
argument grew into a brawl between two families, with the inevitable
accusation from the Muslims that the Christians had committed blasphemy.
The entire Christian population of the village fled, and Muslims
ransacked their houses.

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