The pain was evident in his voice as he was talking. On multiple occasions, he had experienced the crippling, demoralizing, and emotionally distressing effects of being a minority. He was reminded of his school days: once he had been barred from drinking water from a filter installed in his school; on another occasion, children refused to share a meal with him by telling him that it was religiously forbidden for them to do so. Having witnessed first-hand the long-standing prejudices and outright discrimination against his community, Kapil Kumar, now a minority rights activist and journalist, found in these experiences a motivation to champion the cause of the downtrodden in his area.
Born into a lower-caste Bheel Hindu family, in Amman Garh village, Rahim Yar Khan, Kumar had an uncanny sense of the challenges that lay ahead to be overcome. “Growing up, the financial hurdles in our family had a profound effect on me. My father was a trader but his business went through a severe downturn. Overnight our fortunes were reversed and we fell into debt,” he remarks. The chances of family survival had dimmed considerably. Fortunately, his uncle came to their rescue and extended financial support in those times of ordeal. The woes of being a minority continued to haunt him even after he was enrolled in a village school where he was treated differently from the rest of his classmates who were mostly Muslims.
Explaining his experience, he comments,
“You know to be a minority in this society is a crime. If you are a Bheel, no one wants to sit with you or mingle with you. I was considered untouchable. In school events that I would be invited to, I was expected to be conscious about my place. I was not allowed to touch utensils so acting like an onlooker I did not eat anything and returned back home.”
He remained in the village until he had passed middle school examinations. When he was admitted into a college in a city where he was not just bullied by others; it was also impossibly difficult to attend classes. The college was far from his village – due to transporting issues he was required to get up early at 5 am, find a seat on a bus, and return at 8 pm. Later, he did his Bachelor’s from the same college in Rahim Yar Khan.
“I completed my education despite all ordeals. I did not consider it an ‘accomplishment’ as many from my community were deprived of education. I thought my success is linked to the success of my community. The first thing that we need is education,” he adds.
Just as each person is shaped and formed by his experience, Kumar’s life was also marked by one such central event which organized many of the things that he does today. It was a seminar held by a local non-governmental organization on the rights of the minority. Leaving a deep impact on him, sparked in him an interest to engage in activism for bringing a change in his community. Already alert to the injustices meted out to his community as well other socio-economic issues that were contributing to the marginalization of Bheel families such as his, Kumar started writing stories and news items and sent these to various TV channels and newspapers.
Kumar says, “Earlier we used to invite journalists to cover our issues, but they would ignore it. So, I decided that I would write something myself and try to get it published. They were ignored initially, but eventually, I got my break as a journalist.”
In the beginning, Kumar’s family and friends discouraged him from pursuing journalism as they thought it would get him into trouble. The fears were not unreal or imagined – he once landed in a lock-up for refusing to kowtow to a local politician. To this day, he continues to work with zest to be an example for his community. Over the years, he has worked with local and international organizations to cover issues of minorities in South Punjab, particularly the Cholistan region. Along with his friend – also a journalist – he formed an association to spread awareness regarding the significance of education. He donates books, notebooks, and school uniforms to those from his community who are unable to afford them.
Kumar says, “I believe that all humans are equal – this is my philosophy of life. My message for my people is this: you should get an education. We need to struggle for our rights and that is the only way we can achieve equality with others.”