Caste Still Burns in Pakistan

As a recent book on a Balochistan temple illustrates, caste politics still divides the Hindus of Pakistan.

Hinglaj Devi: Identity, Change and Solidification at a Hindu Temple in Pakistan is a book you must pick up if your curiosity about Hindus in Pakistan is willing to be stretched beyond confirmation bias. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself looking into a mirror, and feeling that India and Pakistan are not that different from each other — at least in the present moment.

Jurgen Schaflechner’s book is an ethnographic account of a famous pilgrimage that brings Hindus from all over Pakistan and some parts of India to the  Hinglaj Devi shrine in Balochistan. He devotes several pages to describing and interpreting the ‘truth claims’ made by various communities who go there to worship. Mythology meets history; oral traditions meet written accounts. A universe of stories about the goddess and her powers is laid out.

Though I am captivated by narratives about the sacred feminine, this book appealed to me for other reasons. Pardon my resorting to this binary, but it seems like it has been written for the scholar, not the seeker. It puts together a powerful account of caste politics among Hindus in Pakistan, and shows how the pilgrimage itself is used by communities to assert, improve or consolidate their position in the caste hierarchy. And, by extension, to limit access for others.

If you have been on a pilgrimage, you are probably aware of how ideas about ritual purity and pollution are elaborately articulated and enforced at every point. There are people who take on the task of gatekeeping, which brings social capital as well as monetary benefits in the spiritual marketplace. Schaflechner makes sure that you don’t miss how these transactions play out at the shrine. They are central to how pilgrims make meaning of their pilgrimage.

One would imagine that a religious minority in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan would organize itself, and rise beyond narrow factions that only take away from their collective power. However, the caste system is so devious that it makes sure communities stay trapped in pride and prejudice. This us-versus-them divide manifests itself most prominently in the upper caste discourse forbidding animal sacrifice and promoting vegetarianism. The parallel with India is striking, given recent attempts to homogenize what it means to be a Hindu.

Schaflechner’s skills as an ethnographer are evident in his thick descriptions of local practices, and the snatches of conversation his chapters are filled with. However, truth be told, reading the book is somewhat akin to going on a pilgrimage. You have to be patient as you walk through the dense forest of literature review and research methodology. Only sheer determination will take you to the rich and interesting places that lie deep inside the book.

Balochistan is not accessible to most Indians who visit Pakistan, so this book also has value for Track II types like myself whose explorations are often limited to Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. The temple, in particular, is an excellent site to study how Hindus in Pakistan perform their Hindu identity in a space that is part of an Islamic republic, but is also isolated in terms of its geographical location. It is also a place where Hindu pilgrims from India get a curated experience of Pakistan, thanks to tour operators who help them with visa application and police-registration processes.

Here is my favourite excerpt from the book, which frames the pilgrimage using the contemporary language of citizenship and transnational travel:

Previously pilgrims had to fight physical exhaustion and the difficulties of a desert landscape. Now they must grapple with volatile politics and labyrinthine bureaucratic processes… In their mytho-historic narratives about the border-crossing, the will of the goddess is the central axis of the story, and the possibility of reaching her cave in Balochistan is solely a question of her will. She is the one who influences the employees working in the Pakistan embassy to issue visas, or who causes airport security personnel to get distracted at the right time.

I hope she manipulates the political establishment in both countries — India and Pakistan — so that tourism and trade can flourish in our region, cross-border terrorism can stop forever, and people in Kashmir do not have to suffer any longer. I am writing this at the time of Navaratri, so I hope the goddess grants my ardent wishes.

About the author

Chintan Girish Modi

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He holds an M.Phil in English Language Education, and has worked with several academic institutions including the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, and the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange.