By ~ Amen Jaffer,
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar begins his undelivered speech of 1936, Annihilation of Caste, by arguing that the success of political and economic reform in India depends on social reform. He described an Indian society riven by caste oppression in which the upper caste sought to control the minutest details of the lives of the lowest castes – what they can wear, the food then can eat, the spaces where their bodies are allowed. This was a world in which the lowest castes are treated as untouchable, where their bodies, even their shadows were considered a source of pollution for the upper castes. Fast forward to 21st century Pakistan and the similarities between the two worlds appear strikingly similar. Despite being told that caste and untouchability is a result of Hindu prejudice and has no place in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it is all too obvious that not only are they pervasive across Pakistani society but are taking ever more violent forms.
Even though there is little public debate on it, I view the blasphemy allegations against Bibi Aasia Noreen as a case of caste oppression and the ongoing protests against her acquittal by Pakistan’s Supreme Court as a violent reinforcement of a caste-based social order.
In his judgement on this case, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa points out that Aasia’s accusers attempted to hide a crucial piece of evidence that would change the entire complexion of their case against her. This is the dispute that ensued between Aasia and the two women, Mafia Bibi and Asma Bibi, who had accused her of blasphemy, before the blasphemous remarks were allegedly uttered by Aasia. The source of the conflict appears so ordinary but would be very familiar to Ambedkar. Aasia bibi offered water to the two women who were incensed by this small act of kindness. Ambedkar would be very familiar with their response: how dare a Christian woman, a woman who belongs to the lowest caste in our village, how dare she defile our purity by touching our water and then has the temerity to offer it to us. Notions of purity and pollution upon which the entire edifice of caste oppression rests were shaken by this act by Aasia. In large part due to the struggles of Ambedkar and millions of other Dalits who have refused to submit to caste oppression, Aasia found the courage to challenge this prejudice. Instead of meekly submitting to upper-caste violence, Aasia challenged the women: so what if I touched your water? Am I not a human being? Why does my touch pollute you? Are we not equal?
Incensed by this show of defiance by a low-caste woman, this threat to their caste domination, the standard bearers of the social order in the village started to scheme retribution. Times had changed somewhat. They could no longer simply cow Aasia and other members of low-caste communities into submission with their threats. They had to resort to new tactics and they decided to use nay abuse the very religion that has no place for caste to teach Aasia and every other low-caste Christians a lesson. As Judge Khosa convincingly argues in his judgment, the many inconsistencies in the blasphemy accusations against Aasia reveal that they had been clumsily concocted by some of her fellow villagers with the support of the police. That they had to resort to such tactics rather than directly punishing Aasia for her challenge to the caste system is evidence that fissures are appearing in the structure of caste domination in Pakistan. The accusations and violent response to her acquittal also reveals that those who benefit from caste oppression are not going to give up this system so easily. It shows that they are using new tools to terrorize and oppress the lower-castes. As evidence I would point out that like Aasia bibi, many of the others accused of blasphemy in Pakistan belong to low-caste Christian communities. While caste dominance is certainly not the only motivation for protesters who have paralyzed Pakistan for the last three days, I would insist that one of the consequences of their actions is the reinforcement of an oppressive caste system. The message delivered to Pakistan’s lower castes by these accusations and protests is loud and clear: you will pay with your life if you dare to challenge your oppression.
~ Amen Jaffer
Via~ FB of Ajmal Kamal