‘Impure’ Christians: Youhanabad and the Legacy of Caste

Demonstrators protest Lahore church bombing.

Demonstrators protest Lahore church bombing.

On a clear Sunday on March 17th, a woman accompanied her two sons to church. According to her interview on Express News, the Mass began but before it could finish, she was back outside the church gates, surrounded by a panicked crowd. She found herself looking straight into a video camera and speaking into large microphone relating all that she knew, She had heard a loud explosion, and the churchgoers had scattered. Dreading the worst, she had found one of her sons but could not find the other. She feared he was among the dead.

Details soon emerged. During Mass, two suicide bombers, reportedly belonging to the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), had attacked Christ Church and St. John’s Catholic Church in a coordinated attack in Youhanabad, a Christian neighborhood in Lahore. According to Punjab police spokespersons, there were 16 dead and 70 injured.

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The apathy of the police in handling the crime scene drove bereaved Christians to the streets. As the situation worsened, protests emerged in a rare show of anger and solidarity from Christians in Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Karachi, Peshawar, and Sargodha. In Youhanabad, the protesters wept and chanted slogans. Some ransacked 7-Up trucks. One group of protesters took three on-duty policemen hostage, reportedly for watching a World Cup cricket match during the attacks. Meanwhile, the mob walked into traffic lanes where the police tear-gassed and baton-charged them.

Tragically, in the late hours of the demonstration, a group of protesters caught two men they believed were involved in the attacks. They lynched the men before setting their bodies on fire. Whether they were took part in the assault on the churches remains unclear, but they were identified as Muhammad Naeem, a glass-cutter and Babar Nauman a hosiery dealer.

Mainstream media focus on the church attacks had been fleeting. In fact, mere moments after the attack, coverage had shifted to Pakistan’s victory over Ireland in the World Cup. But, as images of the lynching flashed across television screens, a vitriolic discourse focused on the alleged violent tendencies of the Christian minority began to take shape. One senior analyst on a private news channel argued the lynching had hurt the agenda of NGOs trying to attract dollars in the name of minority rights. Instead, it had really shown what ‘these people’ were capable of doing. Television anchors on virtually all stations pointed to incapability of the Punjab Police to reign in and control the protestors. State failure was associated not with the incapacity to protect the churches but with inability to dismantle the protesting crowd.

The protests were a rare outburst of fury from the beleaguered Christian community, which has been the victim of a legacy of caste and class marginalization that continues till today. In the wake of Youhanabad, those histories are proving to be as salient as ever.

‘Our dead have been forgotten’

The complete sordid details of the Punjab police’s dealings with these suspects have yet to emerge, but little good can be imagined. By March 25th, 106 persons suspected of being involved in the protests had been arrested. They are currently being held at unknown locations. On March 28th, Pakistan Today reported that the Punjab police tortured Asher Waseem Bhatti of Youhanabad to coerce him into making a false statement of being complicit in the lynching.

The same article details how, in the days following the protests, police routinely invaded the homes of families in Youhanabad, conducted warrantless searches and arrests and absconded with valuables. The reverend of Christ Church, Irshad Ashknaz, told Pakistan Today that, “I have been saying from day one that whatever happened to the two men was wrong. It was entirely against humanity and we will apologize a thousand times for it. But… Our dead have been forgotten.” From the actions of the police, this indeed seems to be the case.

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The Punjab police has announced that the investigations into the lynching and the damage of public property during the protests will soon be completed. On April 8th, the state presented 11 detained persons accused of the lynching before the Lahore High Court. Several petitions have been filed alleging that the police detained men without evidence and denied them access to family members.

But while the police has moved quickly to apprehend those involved in the lynching, it has done little to investigate, find and arrest those who planned and carried out the assault on the churches. Facial sketches of hundreds of suspects seem to have been drawn up, but it is unclear whether these have led to any definitive clues. In the meantime, Jamaat-ul Ahrar is free to plot its next move.

Moreover, it appears that the provincial government is attempting to obfuscate the state’s gross abandonment and desertion of the Christian community. In a recent statement, the Punjab government spokesperson Zaeem Qadri noted that, “Five policemen were deployed outside the two churches…Their sacrifice has saved the lives of a number of people.” To many in the Christian community, this comment hides the central fact that the government, at both the provincial and the federal level, has entirely neglected the condition of the community.

Days after the attack, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar speaking in the National Assembly deplored the destruction of government property during the protests and called the lynching of the two men by the mob in Lahore “the worst form of terrorism.” He went on to upbraid the Christian community through insidious comparisons, remarking that, “A similar incident occurred right in the heart of Paris where a synagogue was attacked. But the minority Jews did not react violently in the French capital.” Nisar went on: “Shias were attacked in Shikarpur and Quetta, but no reaction was witnessed like the one in Lahore — what message did the burning of two men send to the world?”

Nisar then proceeded to throw up his hands on the whole security business, freely confessing that authorities were unable to secure each mosque and place of worship in the country because of a lack of manpower — a deeply ironic comment given that the government is liberally waging war in various parts of the country with the seventh largest army in the world. Even more troubling, however, is Nisar’s implicit denial of the fact that religiously inflected political violence disproportionately affects religious minorities.

The whole sordid affair speaks to the ways in which Christian community continues to be marginalized, a dismissal that is underwritten by a longer history of caste and social hierarchies in India as well as Pakistan. Caste continues to play an extensive role in shaping occupational, residential and social hierarchies. To understand Youhanabad and the state’s response requires acknowledging the salience of caste in the present moment.

Caste and Christianity

In June 1873, Rev. Samuel Martin played host to an interesting visitor from a village in northern Punjab to the city of Sialkot. The reverend was one of the missionaries of the American United Presbyterian Church, the headquarters of which were housed in Sialkot. The visitor, a man called Ditt, insisted to the reverend that he had been exposed to the teachings of Christianity, had understood them and was now ready to be baptized. The reverend acquiesced to his request and so Ditt became convert proper. In August of that year, he returned to Sialkot, bringing his wife, their daughter and two neighbors so that they too could be baptized. In February the following year, he brought more. By 1875, the reverend and his fellow missionaries recognized that a mass conversion was underway in what was called the Chuhra community.

The Chuhra community, broadly in India and specifically in Punjab, had a low socio-economic position in the village economy. Virtually all of them were landless and were wholly dependent on powerful patrons. They were often hired as day laborers but were also supposed to perform menial tasks and a range of obligatory services to the landed proprietors. This class of dependent rural laborers became known by titles such ‘chuhra,’ ‘chamar’ and ‘mahar.’ As the economic landscape of India changed over this period, caste became a marker of superiority and a means to justify elite privilege. Brahmin-centered ideas of propriety and purity spread, as did the insistence on barriers between high caste people and ‘polluted’ communities such as the Chuhras. Beginning in the 19th century, chuhra also began to connote ‘unclean’, ‘impure’ and ‘untouchable.’ This permanent designation was the result of the systemization and fixity of caste identities. Thus, Chuhras also became associated with waste, filth and death not just by virtue of class but also by caste, the community gained a second highly potent layer of disfranchisement.

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Conversion to other religions was one mechanism of negotiating and resisting this perennial subordination. Often, the Chuhra community adapted to the religion of the powerful. In areas of Muslim dominance they adopted Islam and in areas where rulers were predominantly Sikh, they began to follow Sikhism. With the proliferation of missionary activity in the Punjab between 1875 and 1920, however, the Chuhras underwent a mass conversion to Christianity.

Conversion did not bring equality on the basis of class but did allow for a type of religious equality. Christian missionaries insisted that there was no difference of caste and birth in Christianity unlike in Hinduism. Once baptized, everyone had an equal chance of redemption and salvation irrespective of whether they belong to a Brahmin or Chuhra lineage. Sialkot was one of the major hubs of the conversion, but similar movements were also being carried out in other cities in the Punjab including Gurdaspur and Gujranwala. Between 1901 and1911, the Christian community increased fourfold, and by 1920 it had almost doubled again.

Economic vulnerability within this community remained a ubiquitous feature during this period as well. Poverty and indebtedness remained rampant, and reports of mistreatment were not infrequent. Missionaries and indeed Christianity itself became identified with this community: another marker of their identity. The marginalization brought on by caste identities was not eradicated by conversion but the cultural interaction brought on through the proliferation of churches, convents and missionary schools in rural and urban areas merely made the identity of the Chuhra community vastly more complex.

As the 20th century progressed, religious identities took on a unique political significance in British India. As political forces within India clamored for self-rule, increased representation in the age of populist politics mattered. After 1917, separate electorates were secured for the Muslim community, and the Sikh community put forth similar demands. Missionaries sought to increase the Christian community to secure some political leverage and competed against Hindu groups such as the Arya Samaj that wished to preclude any more conversion amongst low-caste Hindus.

Politicization of religious identities would make the Chuhra community yet more vulnerable, as the Muslim League, a political party espousing religious nationalism and representing the Muslim community of India, took center stage. The Muslim League’s discourse was by its nature exclusionary. Between 1940 -1947, the years of the Pakistan movement, this exclusion took on an explicit and acute form. The demand for Pakistan was based on the propagation of two mutually reinforcing beliefs. The first was that Muslims of India, who were divided across overlapping boundaries of class, sect, language, cultures and geographies, somehow represented an organic political unity. Secondly, that the rights of this religious minority could not be secured in a secular state. It followed that it was only in a state for Muslims that the rights of the Muslims could be preserved and promoted. The mosque, therefore, became a symbol of the state’s identity, its past, and its future — the church a mere disturbance.

Extinguishable lives

That history of caste hierarchies plays out in modern Pakistan most strikingly when one looks at how Christians are often restricted to the most menial labor and barred from higher occupations.

While Christians account for just about 2 percent of Pakistan’s population, they represent almost the entirety of the workforce in sanitation, sewage, refuse-collection, and ‘sweepers’ according to censuses by Waste Management authorities in the major cities. Moreover, the Christian community is significantly more likely than the general population to be unemployed, and significantly less likely to achieve literacy. Many Christians dwell in slums or lower-income neighborhoods of Pakistan’s major cities, like the slum 100 Quarters in Islamabad that while hidden from view, houses over 1000 Christian families, or Karachi’s City of Jesus which houses over 45,000 Christians who have grown accustomed to the rampant discrimination preventing better jobs, attacks from extremist outfits, and extortionists demanding jizya (a religious tax extracted from minorities).

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It comes as no surprise to the Christians of Pakistan that discriminatory sentiments are expressed freely even by high-ranking politicians, such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Chief Minister Pervez Khattak who insisted that “only non-Muslims will be recruited as sweepers.” Most grow up acutely aware of the dangers of retaliation. Like the 13 Christian families working at a brick kiln in Samundri, Punjab who refused to work for no pay and saw their homes being demolished by the local government, many live in constant fear of fierce reprisals perpetrated or tacitly supported by the local and federal governments.

The Christian community is triply victimized on the basis of caste and religion, as well as class. Fundamentally, the class character of the Pakistani Christian community means it does not have access to protections which may be available to other minorities in Pakistan. Needless to say, the Chuhras of Pakistan can seek no such refuge. The original sin of being poor coupled with being of lower birth and low status has resulted in Christians being perennially vulnerable. This vulnerability does not stem from a single institution or a particular group but from the panoply of actors that exploit this weakness.

The bigoted view of Christians as low caste, menial laborers stemming from has also played into successful attempts to fan violence against the community. Social scientist, Haris Gazdar, notes that verbal, physical and sexual abuse against low caste communities is a norm across Pakistan. In cases of rape, Gazdar writes that, “The perpetrators were all well known and there was a feeling that they committed these crimes because they could get away with it, knowing full well that the victims were socially and politically weak…In the language of the dominant groups the ‘low castes’ had no honor, and certainly no honor that could be defended.”

In March 2013, a quarrel between two drunkards, one Muslim and the other Christian in Joseph Colony, a Christian neighborhood in Lahore led to demands by Muslim clerics that Christians surrender their property. The local police not only knew of the demands but supported them: the police stood by as a mob of two thousand men attacked, looted and usurped Christian property with wanton abandon. Two hundred homes were burnt down. In other words, Christian property rights are viewed as extinguishable and subject to the demands of Sunni Muslims.

This is equally true of Christian lives. In the 2009 Gojra riots, a violent Sunni mob set 40 homes and a church ablaze, resulting in the deaths of eight Christians. These riots followed in the heels of an attack on a hundred homes belonging to Christians in Kasur. In November of last year, a Christian couple, Shama Bibi and Sajjad Maseeh, were accused of blasphemy by local clerics on loudspeakers and lynched by a crowd and burnt alive on a brick kiln. Shama Bibi was pregnant.

Youhanabad is another instance in this long line of marginalization and bloodletting. Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab, visited the families of the lynching victims but has yet to visit relatives of the scores of dead in Youhanabad. As the Christian community soberly celebrated Easter, there was still no update on the police investigation pertaining to the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar perpetrators of the attacks. Many in the community do not expect it to ever come to fruition. The Punjab police continues to spirit Christian men away from Youhanabad — news that is unlikely to see the light of day in the mainstream Pakistani press. Meanwhile, revenge attacks, such as the teenager Nauman Masih who made the mistake of revealing he was Christian and subsequently burnt alive for it, are widely anticipated.

As always in Pakistan when it comes to the systematic repudiation of justice for minorities, most wait with bated breath for the rinse and repeat.

Kamil Ahsan is a freelance writer and a doctoral student at the University of Chicago.

Zaib un Nisa Aziz recently finished her Masters in International History from the London School of Economics and Political Science and is currently a Teaching Fellow at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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One Response to ‘Impure’ Christians: Youhanabad and the Legacy of Caste

  1. Eleanor Nesbitt on May 2015 at 1:10 PM

    Thank you for this account of a situation that is so often portrayed in terms of religious conflict (without the crucial caste and class factors).

    Sadly, caste stereotyping, experiences of discrimination (and of denial that this continues) cropped up in my own research among South Asians (of several faith communities) in the UK.

    Are there any signs of positive change anywhere in Pakistan for Pakistani Christians?

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