Story of a Hindu party worker for the Pakistan Muslim League

By Devirupa Mitra, IANS

Rawalpindi : The elections are over, the results are out, and sitting in his wall-papered drawing room in Rawalpindi, 52-year-old Saroop Chand is juggling with two incessantly ringing mobile phones.

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In this Muslim majority country, he is one of a handful of Pakistani Hindus working behind the scenes as anonymous party workers – arranging the brasstacks of a sub-continental election campaign.

“Sat Sri Akal-ji, thank you so much,” says Chand into one of his phone. One of the priests of Nankana Sahib was on the other side of the line, congratulating him for the victory of his candidate of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).

Saroop Chand’s name will not immediately light up people’s eyes in recognition, but in his “area”, Ward 3 in the cantonment city, he is a recognized vote-arranger. “Usually the votes here go either to one side or other. There is hardly much split, so it is much sought after,” Chand told a visiting IANS correspondent.

His story is unusual as he belongs to a community that deliberately remains below the radar in modern Pakistan and gives insights into the plight of being a Hindu and a Pakistani.

In bustling Rawalpindi, remnants of a larger Hindu and Sikh population dot the skyline – with some commercial or residential buildings sporting soaring spires of Hindu temples. “There are only about three or four Hindu families here,” he said.

With close relatives settled near Delhi, Chand admits that he sometimes does wonder what his fate would have been in India. “In India, I may have been just part of the crowd. I have respect here and I am visible” – referring to his conspicuousness of being part of a community that constitutes a mere one percent of Pakistan’s 160 million population.

He lives with his wife, two daughters and a son on the second storey of his building in Kamran market – the ground floor lined with commercial shops, from sweetmeats to hardware. A giant billboard ran along the entire length of the roof of the building – a tiger scowling menacingly and above that a larger than life portrait of a benign Nawaz Sharif. The tiger is the party symbol of the PML-N.

His involvement with the Pakistan Muslim League is a legacy of his father who couldn’t leave his birth place, though his wife and sons left for India in 1947. His father remarried to start a new family and supported the prevailing popular party.

Though Saroop Chand does not say it in so many words, his participation in local politics is partly a guarantee against uncertainties in a security state and almost a necessity in this contacts-driven society.

“Hindus never come into politics and those who do, just want to get NA (National Assembly) or PP (provincial parliament) reserved seats. They do not want to do party work,” he said.

Chand blames his own community for being a too timid, though he admits that there is some cause too. “When Hindus come to the capital for work and stay in guest houses, they are so afraid that they do not give their real names.”

His active “party work” began as gratitude to Nawaz Sharif for getting the lease of his building extended in 1992. “With just 48 hours to demolition, I brought out a newspaper advertisement saying it was a sad day that in Quaid’s Pakistan, a Hindu family was becoming homeless. The prime minister responded and extended my lease,” he said.

But the closeness to PML cost him dearly when Benazir Bhutto’s PPP came to power in 1996. He was picked up by “agencies” and eventually after a year of detention, when his family did not know his fate, he was slapped with a case of conspiracy in a bomb blast. “I used to be brought before the Federal Review Board and my custody increased by three months every time”.

Chand does not talk much about his incarceration – a conspicuous omission for a gregarious man. He finally got his freedom when Bhutto was removed from office by her own appointed President Farooq Leghari.

Though “intensely loyal” to Nawaz Sharif, he changed sides in 2002 to help the sitting six-time member of National Assembly, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, who had shifted loyalties to the splinter ‘Q-league’.

The five years have disillusioned him, just like the majority of Pakistanis. “Whenever my children go out, I am always afraid that there will be another suicide attack,” he said. The government operation against Lal Masjid was one of the straws.

“The drawing room walls used to be filled with pictures with Sheikh Rasheed. He removed all of them in October,” said his eldest daughter, Jyoti, 17.

On his low coffee table, Chand displays samples of various posters that he had designed, printed and plastered all over constituency NA-56 for the PML-N candidate. At the bottom of each poster, there is a small, younger-looking photo of him, as well as of his 10-year-old son Akash.

Watching him, Jyoti remarked, “I have asked him to leave politics. I don’t think they are good people” – to which her father quipped, “but they did cheer me on victory”.

Then, in December, Bhutto’s assassination in Rawalpindi was a shock that has not yet been absorbed. “That day brought us PPP and PML-N workers at the ground level together for the first time.”

With his candidate trumping over Sheikh Rasheed with a huge margin, he finally slept for twelve hours at a stretch on Tuesday after three days of sleepless nights for the polls on Feb 18. “I am getting calls from Hindus and Sikhs from all over Pakistan congratulating me.”

Post-victory, he wants to return to his business, and has only one dream to fulfil by capitalizing on his contacts. “I want to shift my family to a new suburb and covert this house into free lodges for visiting Hindus and other minorities. We will only serve vegetarian food here”.

(Devirupa Mitra can be contacted at [email protected])