Muslim Untouchables


Equality is something that had universal appeal and one of the key factors that helped Kashmir embrace it almost half a millennium after it had taken over most of the world. But Umar Mukhtar reports how Kashmir is back to a new social stratification on basis of the caste, a system in which some are very close to what Hinduism believes in

An old photograph showing potters carrying their manufacture. They are wearing the footwear woven locally with paddy straw rope

Ghulam Mohammad (name changed) is a sweeper in a Pulwama school. On a picnic, last year, the staff relished the multi-cuisine Wazwaan in the platters (trami). Sitting in a four around the big platters, Mohammad after serving others intended to join them too. Spotting a platter having only three people, he went there. The trio did not object. Instead, they left the trami, on one or the other pretext. Reason: Mohammad belongs to Sheikh caste. Understanding it better, he took his meals separately.

Identities are a must because it helps people are known and recognised each other. Profession, attributes and even qualities add to the peoples’ identities. But when it comes to the social stratification, caste is the identity in whole.

Caste, the Zaat, is basically a surname used either as a suffix or a prefix to one’s real name, largely suffix.

Largely, caste is something that stratifies the large population into the sub-segments so that it will be easy to identify and know the people. They will get a particular caste, hence their identification will be a soft process. But it now hardly remains the identity indicator, instead carries different tags with them.

Castes are now the portrayal of the socio-economic status of people. A person with a high caste gets more attention and privilege than the others, be it political or socio-economic.

Prof Bashir Ahmad Dabla

The renowned Kashmiri sociologist Prof Bashir Ahmed Dabla in his book titled Directory of Caste in Kashmir has classified Kashmiri castes into three different groups: peers, occupational castes and service castes.

In the hierarchy, Dabla puts the peers on the top with various sub-categories including Syed, Geelani, Jeelani, Andrabi, Qadri, Hamdani, Bhukhari, Shah and others.

In occupational castes, Dabla has included surnames like Wani, Zargar, Bhat, Naqash, Lone, Khandey, Ahangar and others.

In the caste stratification hierarchy, Dabla has put service castes in the last. It includes Hanji (people living in houseboats), Waza, Gilkar, Sofi, Dhobi, Ganie, Bangi, or Sheikh at the bottom. These are generally landless people or those whose occupations are considered menial. These surnames denote only the occupations they or their ancestors had taken up.

So, the association of the privilege with the caste made it a fragmenting factor in the society. People got divided, egalitarianism vanished.

The Caste Divisions

The stereotyping of the castes on the basis of the status divides the people. Issues pop up. The high caste people make their own clan refusing to mingle with the other ones socially. A difference is felt.

Though the differences are not much prevalent here in Kashmir like rest of India, probably because of the religion. Islam discourages the casteism and encourages the egalitarianism. But still to some extent it exists and takes a toll in a society.

Manzoor Ahmad Bhat weaving carpet at International Buyer-Seller Meet.
Pic: Durdana Bhat

Caste does not come into play much between friends, neighbours and colleagues but when it comes to marriage, casteism prevails.

Sociologist Dr Mushtaq says that Kashmir society is the loose type of endogamy society. “We prefer the inter-caste marriages.” Mostly the peers who are deemed as the high caste strictly marry in their caste only. They hesitate in tying knots with other castes, he added.

What basically makes the peers believe that they are superior to others is that they claim to be the descendants of the family of the Prophet.

But Dr Mushtaq believes that it is not necessary that all Jeelanis’, Hamadanis’, Bukharis’, are peers. “When the Mir Syed Ali Hamadani came to Kashmir along with other 700 followers, all of them were not peers. Some of them were of different caste, different occupations. Once they settled here they got their castes on the name of the region they belong to like Bukhara, Jeelaan and Hamadan.”

But Dabla sees casteism as a social institution. “There prevails an unrealistic notion among some individuals and groups that caste as a working social institution does not exist in this society,” Dabla wrote in his book. “But that does not stand as a social reality. The actual reality is cast as a functional social institution prevails in Kashmiri society.”

Bilal Ahmad, a matchmaker is confronting such stereotypes often where he finds casteism deep-rooted in Kashmir. “I have seen girls who have crossed the age of marriage just because their parents could not find a proper match within their choicest caste. They prefer late marriage but do not want to marry in other castes,” he said. “The usual sense of egalitarianism and equality of friends, neighbours and colleagues, takes a back-seat all of a sudden in such cases.”

Medically also, this is not a good idea to have inter-caste marriages. In most of such cases, it has been found that people who prefer inter-cast marriages often suffer from OCD’s (obsessive compulsive disorders).

Women in city outskirts polish the main Kangri raw material.

But Sheikh is an interesting caste in Kashmir. If it is prefixed with the name the person, it indicates the person has descended from Brahmin landlords and is superior. But a suffixed Sheikh indicates the person carries a service caste. This is something different that people have played with the name.

To avoid the social humiliation because of the caste and given the nature of this fatigue in egalitarianism, it has led to another phenomenon of ‘changing the caste.’ Hanji turns to Dar mostly and similarly Hajams to Hakeem.
Even though the existences of caste as a social institution in Kashmir society is widely denied, perhaps because it contradicts the core beliefs of the faith, it is an open secret within the community, especially urban. The role of caste in Kashmiri society comes to the surface at important social functions like marriages. Syed’s rarely married people from occupational castes. And similarly, those belonging to occupational castes refrain from marrying into service castes.

Caste Privilege

Once caste becomes the status basis, privilege comes accordingly. High caste people have always the proximity with the power corridors, hence reap the benefits more than the others. This is something that has been there since Kashmir’s transition to Islam. Sections in the first immigrants of preachers settled within the ruling clans and the tradition continued. This distinction helped the so-called upper castes stay untouched by the tyranny of the ruling class that dominated the ground zero. At the peak of mass exploitation, the sections of the society that retained their economic status and social standing were the upper castes.

At around 5 pm, the fishermen leave with their catch only to put it on sale next morning.

That is perhaps why they retain the power in different fields. In the University of Kashmir, 94 of the 370 faculties belongs to these castes, a cursory look at the campus prospects suggests. In the Islamic University, it is 28 in 233. This is because while the preliterate, education is quite a new thing, not more than two to three generations old. The Kashmir bourgeoisie has been well read throughout and they had already their career paths clearly visible.

“Such examples are not confined to the universities only but you will find it going through the whole system,” said Imran Ali, a postgraduate student and a social caste.

Changing Phenomenon

But as the economic factor has played a much bigger role in the lives of people for last some years, this caste factor seems to get thinner. Now marriage happens without the consideration of the caste, mostly the economic factor is deciding now.

Walter Lawrence, Kashmir history’s most popular Land Settlement Commissioner and author of widely read The Valley of Kashmir, writes: “No respect is paid to descent. Wealth alone commands position, and poverty at once degrade a family.”

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