Serious conversations on caste are often ignored in Kashmir. In this piece, the author offers some personal experiences of caste-based discrimination which merit attention.
In my childhood, I was often baffled by the use of caste-based surnames of my schoolmates. I didn’t have one. My parents would often ignore my question on this. But as I grew up, the answer unfolded in front of me in many ways. I realized my caste is something that would differentiate me from others in ways I wouldn’t like; that based on my caste my level of intelligence will be decided, and my caste will determine my basic human rights. With time, I realized I wasn’t alone.
In the South Asian context, when we speak of caste, what comes to our mind is Manu, the so-called prophet of caste. It is no wonder that Nietzsche found Manu Smriti “a work which is spiritual and superior beyond comparison". It might sound surprising to many that caste was prevalent in South Asia much before Manu, but the archetypal man gave it a structure, philosophized it, gave caste rules, and raised it as dharma.
Caste has had its different manifestations in different societies of the world like the bushido code in Japan or Varna system in India where it has a religious facet too. Muslims in India and Pakistan have equally detestable caste-based rules. In fact, among Indian Muslims the concept of Ashraf (the noble), Ajaf (the lowly), and Arzal (Dalit) is structurally similar to the Varna system. Historians believe that Muslims have over time consciously adopted the Hindu caste system. Many also believe that the converts never left their former Hindu caste identities, as proven by the fact that in India and Pakistan people still claim to be Muslim Rajputs still, a Hindu caste prevalent in Rajasthan whose armed men of power had come to exalt themselves as heirs to the scriptural Kshatriya ideal.
The caste discrimination in Muslim Kashmiri society has been its permanent feature for centuries now. It manifests itself just like the Hindu caste system though it is not structured well because we probably never had our own Manu, but it is socially institutionalized and deeply entrenched. Kashmiris, as in many other cases, have failed to acknowledge the caste rot in our society, the traditional proverb of phakkas pardeh karrun seems appropriate.
As a lower caste Kashmiri Muslim, I have had a very close encounter with the monster we try to hide beneath our pherans, trust me none of you would ever want to be in the situations that lower castes in Kashmir are put into. This isn’t a rant or I don’t want to sound condescending towards anyone, but my observations are deeply personal.
Several years ago, my cousin brother had a love affair with an upper-caste Kashmiri Muslim girl. We belong to Wagay /Shergujri caste, a part of gooer (milkmen) community. The girl’s family refused the proposal with a reprimand to my family reminding us of our low stature in the society. Higher caste women don’t wed lower caste men, we were told.
Why is this example of marriage important? Why is this the very basis of judging caste in Kashmir? Because the problem of caste ultimately resolves itself into one of repairing the disparity between the marriageable units of the two sexes within it. The critical evaluation of various characteristics of caste leaves no doubt that prohibition, or rather the absence of intermarriage, is the only one that can be called the essence of caste.
Dr. Ketkar and Dr. Nesfield in their recognized work on caste in India that was quoted by Dr. Ambdekar in his magnum opus The Annihilation of Caste argue that marriage is the basic essence of a caste system because this is the only way you can enter the other close-knit group. The proponents of caste call it pollution and according to them this is what castes must resist. They feel this is a direct attack on the very identity of a caste.
When we speak of caste in Kashmir, the conversation often begins and ends with marriages. That’s not it. The next example is a deeply personal one.
It is a common practice in Kashmir to keep a separate gooer bane, milkmen’s vessel. This vessel is kept outside the kitchen usually and the gooer cannot step on the braandh (porch) of the house, milk has to be taken without him coming close to the steps of the house. I wonder if this isn’t untouchability then what is. I would say this is the hallmark of untouchability –the concept of impurity of a group of people. This is how untouchabilty, a major offshoot of caste, works; with various people allotted different tasks, some cleaner than others. Even a mere physical touch of a gooer who works in a gaan, cleans animal excreta isn’t tolerated because he is deemed impure. This is exactly how valmikis are treated in the Varna system by Brahmins, who believe that even the shadow of lower caste people can bring bad luck to them. On these lines, a waatul is also subjected to total inhuman behavior in Kashmir; he is the one who cleans things up during a wedding feast but he is never served food in the main hall or tent, not even near the woeri. While you may think of caste as being only about the division of labour, it is so mainly based on the idea of purity and pollution.
One more thing: Islam guarantees Muslims equality, but I want to ask how many people from lower castes in Kashmir are allowed to lead prayers? I rest my argument here.
So who benefits from caste in Kashmir? As is the universal norm, the higher castes or the upper castes have traditionally and still continue to benefit from this cruel system. Lower castes in Kashmir have been systematically ostracized and discriminated against. A mere census of government officials, medical colleges, engineering and professional colleges should be enough to prove the disparity between upper and lower castes in Kashmir. Privileges make us blind to the social circumstances of others, as most of the higher castes who went to the best universities in the world, (that few from my caste, or negligible from lower castes have ever made to), will bring out the ace of merit and will attempt to deny the fact that historically personal and social barriers were placed between education and lower castes. The misguided understanding of merit, along with conscious attempts to maintain caste domination, that is at the root of denying caste privilege. I can say with complete conviction and unambiguity that a certain section of society has reaped dividends of the caste discrimination in Kashmir.
I attended biology tuition for a few days with a known teacher in Srinagar. He was so obsessed with castes that he would ask every student in the class, kraam kyah chhei (which caste do you belong to)? Upon learning my caste, he jibed tohie kar pyeath logvu parrun (since when did you guys start studying? Of course he was a higher caste. I was left with an astounding sense of humiliation and helplessness that has stayed with me till today. My eyes drooped down, I felt robbed of my identity as a student. A decade or so later, it was the same humiliation and helplessness that led a brave Dalit activist Rohit Vemula to end his life. His death will always loom as a protest against higher caste hegemony. He remarked in his suicide note: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.” Today I understand how I was being robbed of my mind by the teacher.
The parallels that Kashmiri society has drawn between immorality, taboos and lower caste women are just bizarre. Traditionally, kraali kooeri and haeinz koorie have been linked to prostitution. Haeinz, waatul, dooumb are racial slurs used to denigrate anyone. The fear of attacks has forced communities like watal and doombs to live in ghettos. The naangar (landless) community has always been at the receiving end of backlash by Zamindaar (lanldlords) in country-side Kashmir. Mudasir Ali Lone in his essay on caste in Kashmir remarks that our zamindaars have assumed the role of jats and gujjars, the landlord community in India, infamous for their khaps and atrocities against lower castes.
One of the biggest examples of casteism in Kashmir is the band e paather, (folk dance and singing troupe). It is said that in old days whenever zaaeldars (big traders) used to organize a function, they used to call the lower castes of the village to beat drums, sing paeans for the zeealdar. They would also wash the utensils of the feast and in lieu of all this they were offered left-over food. They were supposed to feel grateful for this. Also, the zaaeldari hisaab (sort of ritual) of calling a naevid (barber) to home for grooming is another example that how higher castes actually thought that it’s against their grandeur to walk up to a barber shop (salon).
Each of these points can be singularly examined to form a coherent argument against the practice of caste in Kashmir. We often hear that oh! This and that practice is no more prevalent in our society, so forget it. No. We will not forget it. I will not forget it. Forgetting is a privilege the oppressed can’t afford. ♦
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of Wande Magazine.