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‘Untouchable’ caste identity haunts Pakistani Christians like Asia Bibi, they are mainly looked down on as sweepers, farmhands or toilet cleaners

Many Pakistani Christians – who are about 2% of the population – are children of converts to Christianity from the downtrodden “untouchable” Hindu tribal caste – they are sometimes called “chuhra” (a modern equivalent might be something like “toilet cleaner”). Their families converted in the late 19th to early 20th centuries in the villages of what is now the central Punjab of Pakistan. This “untouchable” caste status is at the root of several blasphemy charges against Christians.


Also synonymous with “low born”, “filthy”, “deprived of morals and values”, of “low intellect”, and condemned to suffer for sinful past incarnations is their expected work as “sweepers”, also known as “janitors” in the Indian subcontinent.

Five years ago, World Watch Monitor reported on the disproportionate number of Pakistani Christians in sewerage or sanitary work, or sweeping the streets. These roles, hazardous for health, and sometimes causing death, are considered demeaning for Muslims. Sanitary workers, mostly illiterate, also often live in illegal settlements that lack basic amenities.

World Watch Monitor’s article came out when the current federal defence minister, Pervez Khattak, then Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, publicly stated that “non-Muslims will be recruited as sweepers”.

Although “non-Muslim” means Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians or any other minority, it was only Pakistani Christians who angrily protested and held social-media campaigns. The reason was obvious: it actually meant “only Christians” because, across the country,

it is only the Christian community which has a disproportionately high representation because of their origins in the “untouchable” caste designated to this occupation.

In many provinces, it is still common for advertisements for street sweepers or sewage cleaners to request only “non-Muslim” applicants. Also several advertisements clearly state they require a “Christian” (or a “scheduled-caste” Hindu) for the work of “janitor”.

On 26 August this year in Sindh, the Rangers, a paramilitary force under the Pakistan Army, advertised for only “non-Muslims” to apply for the job of janitors.

Three days later, the education department of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa advertised that candidates for the job of “sweeper” must be “healthy” and “Christian” by faith.

Similarly, an advertisement earlier this year for a college hospital in Sindh province required that those applying for janitorial work should be a “scheduled-caste” Hindu or member of another minority.

In July 2017, the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation required applicants for the janitorial service “to take an oath on their religious holy book – Geeta or Bible – that they will never do anything else but work as a sanitary worker, and will never refuse to carry out the work”.

unjust in the streets

According to the Lahore Waste Management Company, Christians account for nearly 70 per cent of the city-cleaning workforce in Lahore, despite comprising just 1.6 per cent of the total national population.

World Watch Monitor’s 2013 survey of Pakistani cities showed Christians were disproportionately represented in janitorial work, especially in the larger ones. Recent data shows things have not changed much.

Take a closer look to Lahore for example. It is  the capital of Punjab, largest province and home to most of the Christian population.

68% of total workforce directly employed to clean the city (12,687) are Christian (8,628). (Data provided by Lahore Waste Management Company)

Water and Sanitation Agency
70% of c.5,000 employees are Christian (3,500).

A WSA employee, on condition of anonymity, told World Watch Monitor that Muslim employees would never dive into a clogged manhole: “It is always and in every case the responsibility of a Christian.”



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