‘We cannot celebrate our festivals or cremate our dead’

Suraj Prakash’s mud house. The other picture is of Akash and his father Suraj at the shop where they both work. — Dawn
Suraj Prakash’s mud house. The other picture is of Akash and his father Suraj at the shop where they both work. — Dawn

KHEWRA: It is a hot, summer weekend and the narrow road passing through the hilly town of Khewra is lined with cars, their owners busy exploring the Khewra Salt Mines, which were discovered 2,342 years ago by the men of Alexander the Great.

Weekends are peak times for souvenir shops and guides in the mines and 16-year-old Akash is busy catering to customers in a small souvenir shop which also sells decoration pieces made of salt.

“It would have been better if you had come on a weekday, there are not that many customers and I would have been able to talk at leisure,” he says in between orders.

Three Hindu families in Khewra face alienation, poverty

Akash studies at the Al Beruni College in Pind Dadan Khan and in order to fund his studies and help with the family’s expenses, works part time in the souvenir shop, where his 63-year-old father, Suraj Prakash, also works. However, because the shop is a small one and only sells low-priced products, Akash is only able to make Rs5,000 each month.

Akash belongs to a Hindu tribe which decided to stay in Pakistan after the partition in 1947. His ancestor, Roop Lal worked as a washerman (dhobi) in Sambhar Salt Lake, located in the north-western state of Rajasthan in India. He came to Khewra with his British employers in the early 1870s, as it was common for British officers to take their servants with them.

“My grandfather was a dhobi and came here in 1872 when the British started developing the Khewra Salt Mines,” said Suraj Prakash.

He said that Roop Lal continued working as a washerman for his British bosses till his death, after which his son Ram Chand was given the same job by the British government. It was Ram Chand who decided to stay in Khewra instead of migrating to India at the time of partition.

Half the population of Khewra was Hindu before the partition and the expansive houses left behind by wealthy Hindus when they left for India still stand, though they are in dilapidated condition. However, only three Hindu families remain in Khewra today, all siblings of Roop Lal’s and Akash belongs to one of these households, all of which are low income families and struggle with their daily expenses.

“Till a few decades ago, life was simpler and affordable. We could provide for our families by washing clothes,” Suraj Prakash said.

He explained that due to the scarcity of water in Khewra and the advent of modern techniques for washing clothes, the trend for hiring washermen has died out in Khewra. He said that those who could afford to have also opened dhobi shops, making working as washer men all the more difficult.

“We do not own property here and after living here for 150 years, my family does not own a small shop. We only have a small mud house to our name,” he said.

The Hindus of Khewra are also faced with alienation and loneliness.

“We feel like aliens here. The Muslims do not mix with us. They do not attend our weddings, nor do they invite us to theirs,” he said.

The 35 students in his class do not include him in their circle, Akash said.

“I feel alone in college because I am the only non-Muslim in the college. I watch as the rest of the class play together,” he said.

The teenager dreams of becoming a civil officer one day and is worried he will have to give up his studies due to financial problems.

There is not even a cremation ground in Khewra and Hindus of the town have to bury their loves ones instead of burning them according to their religion.

Mr Prakash said the temples of Khewra were also ransacked by rioters after the Babri Masjid incident.

“We worship in our homes and bury our loved ones,” he said, adding that their forefather’s decision to stay was wrong. “Our lives would have been different were we living among other Hindus. We could have celebrated Holi, Diwali and other festivals with others instead of just observing them in our homes,” Mr Prakash said,

Talking to Dawn, the patron of the Pakistan Hindu Council, Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, who also represents Hindus in the National Assembly said: “Cremation is our basic right. There was a cremation ground in Khewra before partition and there are many temples there. But properties belonging to Hindus were occupied with the state’s support.”

“We do not know how much of land that belongs to Hindus is illegally occupied and I recently raised this question on the floor of the assembly as well,” he added.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2016

Courtesy DAWN