Pakistan NGO acts on demeaning low-caste word for ‘Christians’

World Watch Monitor reports that a programme organised by Bargad, Pakistan’s biggest NGO for youth development, is attempting to tackle the social stigma Christians face from the word used in the Constitution for them.

Muslim students showing support for the 'Green for White' campaign to end prejudice against minority religions, Lahore, October 2015 (Photo: WWM)
Muslim students showing support for the ‘Green for White’ campaign to end prejudice against minority religions, Lahore, October 2015 (Photo: WWM)

The Urdu Isai (derived from Isa, the Arabic word for Jesus used in the Qur’an) now carries strong overtones – from colonial times – with the ‘unclean’ demeaning occupations done by the lowest castes. This use of language feeds the narrative which makes Christians feel like second-class citizens in today’s society.

On 8 October in Lahore, more than 500 Muslim students took an oath that they would not call Christians Isai, but would use the word Masihi (Messiah), which Pakistani Christians prefer as a positive identity for themselves.

The program is part of Bargad’s “Green for White” campaign. The green of the Pakistan flag represents the Muslim majority and the white, the non-Muslim minority. The campaign is thus to motivate Muslims to support religious minorities, who in recent years have become the target of religiously motivated discrimination, prejudice, stereotyping and violence.

The students, from various parts of the country, also promised to carry this message to at least 100 other people.

The Constitution of Pakistan divides its citizens between Muslims and ‘non-Muslims’, even though the country’s founder, Mohamed Ali Jinnah, famously stated: “You are free. You are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

Article 260(3)(b) explains a non-Muslim as “a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh …” faith. The Urdu translation of the Constitution uses the word Isai for Christians.

Some church leaders in recent years have tried to spread a message that the Isa of the Qur’an does not refer to the Biblical Jesus. Others have stressed that, according to Acts 11:26, the disciples of Jesus were called ‘Christians’, so their name should be derived from the word ‘Christ’ and not from ‘Jesus’. However, the discomfort of Pakistani Christians with the word Isai has more to do with the Indian caste system than religious conflict between Christians and Muslims.

“It is important to work on changing social behaviours towards minorities, so that they are duly respected and protected,” said Kamran Michael, Pakistan’s only Christian Senator.

Bargad Executive Director Sabiha Shaheen added: “Why can’t we Muslims just call the Christians by the word they think is more respectable for them? Today we are sowing a seed for social harmony and change in which all students have taken an oath to share this message with 100 other people. Though there is a law in place to outlaw name-calling, as responsible citizens we need to take a step towards this change.”

Why the issue is more about ‘caste’ than about religion

Most Pakistani Christians are Dalits from the “untouchable” caste. En masse conversion to Christianity among this caste began sometime in 1873 and abruptly ended in 1920s during the British rule of India in the Punjab, now Pakistan. When a large number of Sikhs belonging to untouchable castes converted to Christianity, the word Isai became popular, but later it became derogatory and synonymous with “low caste”.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains caste as “socially ranked occupational categories”. The caste system splits occupations into three categories: “clean”, “menial” and “defiling”. The upper three castes are assigned “clean” occupations: priesthood, governance and business. “Menial” occupations include barber, cobbler and ironsmith. Jobs involving picking up dead animals, working with their hides and also sanitary work are considered “defiling”. Those working in “defiling” occupations are considered “untouchable” because by touching them, a “clean” person becomes ritually “unclean”.

The word Isai is also used for “labourer” and “sweeper”.

The Indian Christian journal, Religion and Society, notes that when landowners or businessmen need to hire labourers, they will say in Punjabi: “Aah, jara do ku Saai [Christians] kharhnay si”, which means, “I want to hire a few labourers”. Similarly, the 1961 census in Lahore recorded that menial castes include “Christians, lohars [blacksmiths], tarkhans [carpenters] and mochis [cobblers]”.

In legal documents, under caste, Christians (regardless of education, wealth, etc.) are all referred to as Isai, i.e. the equivalent of “labourer” or even “sanitary worker”.

The primary forces behind regulating the Indian caste system as an instrument for social stratification were the religious notions of karma (deeds) and samsara (reincarnation). Human beings are born unequal, according to the Manusmriti, described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as “the most authoritative of the books of the Hindu code”.

Over hundreds of years, the Muslims who came to India adopted the caste system, giving birth to “Islamic castes”. The locals who converted to Islam also maintained the caste system. Prior to becoming an independent state, Pakistan was part of Indian society; hence, it inherited the social and cultural patterns that had prevailed in the subcontinent for millennia.

The Bargad event was arranged in collaboration with Punjab’s Youth Affairs Department, Young Parliamentary Forum and Youth Parliamentary Caucus. Punjab’s Youth, Human Rights and Minority Affairs and Finance Ministers all participated, with the YP Caucus Chairman and Vice-Chairperson Mary Gill, and National Assembly member Romina Alam.

Christian parliamentarians Gill and Alam said that the initiative should have come much sooner and Senator Kamran Michael promised that he would table a bill in the National Assembly to outlaw the use of the word Isai.