Why Kashmir Must Pull The Curtains On Its Peculiar Casteism?

by Anam Mukhtar

For a better Kashmir, castes should get devolved to no more than a last name with no socio-economic factor in play.

In the last two decades, a number of slums have come up in and around Srinagar.

Caste has come to be a social marker of a person that positions him into a hierarchical platform through a long-standing lens that decides his whole existence. The claws of casteism have sunk deep into our skin, making us predominantly prejudiced towards people of certain castes.

The usual reference point to casteism is that of Hinduism layering people into four categories – Kshatriyas, Brahmins, Vaishyas and Shudras. These are direct transmissions of different body parts of Brahma (Hindu God of creation), dictating the status of the people belonging to these classes in a society. The resultant fractionalisation thus dismantles the aim for a collective space for equity among people.

Things are not looking good for Muslim communities either, who, despite an egalitarian thought that must overlook the worldly differences according to the theology of Islam, still cleave to the heinous ways of dismembering the society at large.

Kashmir, a place bred with hospitality, is often seen becoming hostile to the efforts of uniting the agencies bolstering these divisions inside the valley. These agencies come dressed as vigilantes to ensure that the caste-based disparities remain intact by conveying the stereotypes to the younger generation.

The Khandaaan

What was initially supposed to be a hereditary calling passed on in families, with caste being their common name, has now occupied the higher and the lower ranks in a place driven by the influence of one’s Khandaan (lineage)? Kashmiris define Khandani as a social metric to represent a morally upright person whose upper-caste impresses excellent virtues on him. Therefore, a person with a lower caste will have no good to owe to his Khandaan, making him yearn for validation all his life.

This intrinsic disability that people deem lower-ranked castes with makes people belonging to them have a hard time resisting the urge to self-criticise. The disparaging link between certain castes and regional slurs is indefinite and makes it impossible for ordinary people to shake off such discriminatory behaviours.

Three Sub-Groups

Kashmiris distinguish castes into three groups, with the Syeds claiming the top place, followed by castes determined from occupation such as Zargar, Wani, Nakash etc. and lower ranks of the service castes such as Hanjis, Sofi, Dobi and more.

Boatmen make a snowman at the bank of Dal Lake after heavy snowfall in Srinagar

It is said that love knows no bounds, but in Kashmir, the boundaries are the castes that decide who to love. Those who happen to fall out of such categories get ostracised until they either elope or get spliced with some other people. To love out of one’s caste becomes unfortunate since the families are determined to zero in on their choices using their Khandaan as the sole reason to declare a mismatch. If there happens to be a success in getting married to a person from a lower caste, it becomes a sob story for the couple since the mouths that pose a question widen all the more.

The common pejorative terminologies for people who do not behave in Kashmir are Watul and Heanz, representing the lower castes. The entrenched association of “bad” and “unclean” with the lower ranks of the cast is reflective of how much more we need to evolve in order to be humans.

A group of young Kashmir women posing for a photograph in ‘happy valley’

An Unjust System

The unjust line of conduct towards the lower caste is not just restrained to marriages but other forms of interactions as well. A Syed might get jittery about eating alongside a Sheikh, a sweeper, for a multitude of reasons starting from how he would be labelled as diluting his pure lineage.

A cosy communication between the two is often thought of as the first step to going easy on inter-caste marriage. Anyone who alters the paradigms of such social constructs will be shunned as an outcast. Often, the fear of being left out of one’s community comes as a barrier to stepping forward to break the chains of Casteism.

The hustle and bustle of unrest in Kashmir silence the sound of the bullets fired from the muzzle of Casteism and racism. So, how must a society handle the issues of Casteism implicating the need for a change? Do the people wait for this age-old conception to die out of its own accord, or must we actively engage in debilitating the crimes done in its name? The problem is that it cannot be dealt with by a force that euphemises the impact of casteism.

An aerial view of Srinagar on Friday during the lockdown that was put in place in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir two weeks back in order to contain the spread of Coronavirus. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Why Inaction?

The inaction towards casteism originates from a lack of identification of the issue. Minimising the real effect of a problem becomes the real problem. Casteism is not rationally backed up. Therefore, its grounds can be easily pulled apart if we realise how poisonous a society gets for its inhabitants with the persistence of such ideologies and actions.

The relaxed spirit towards name-calling that identifies casteism is one more nail in the coffin to seeking a healthy environment for all people. The victims get taunted and are made to feel out of place when trying to keep their social differences at bay. Even after working in unison to put an end to prejudicial practices, there remain unequal images before our eyes to remind us that evil cannot be rooted out without cutting off the primary thought that provokes it.

Hegemonic System

What drives these unfair actions is the desire of certain groups to enjoy their hegemony over the underprivileged ones whenever and however they can. The motive is to feel a sense of belonging to power itself by downgrading others.

Anam Mukhtar

Those who scavenge, sweep and skin animals are often given out names as Watals, and sadly the etymology of who we think are less than individuals describe Watal for us. It is time that we change our understanding of these people and their jobs by redefining them in brighter lights.

For a better Kashmir, castes should get devolved to no more than a last name with no socio-economic factor in play. A Sheikh should have equal opportunities and be able to have jobs other than his ancestral ones without any hassle. No field of work should have a particular caste of people concentrated in it, which is why merit should surpass the age-old cuffs of casteism.

(Author has graduated from Delhi University with honours in philosophy and is a women rights advocate. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Kashmir Life.)

I agree to the Terms and Conditions of Kashmir Life


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here