By Javaid Beigh
A remarkable change has come over last few years as many young and educated Kashmiri Muslims have openly started talking about the ills of caste system prevalent in Kashmir valley, challenging the most open secret of Kashmiri Muslim society, which vehemently denies the existence of Hindu Brahminical “Chatur (four) Varna” system among Kashmiri Muslims. The fact however remains that Kashmiri Muslims are the most Brahminical society among all Muslim communities of South Asia in following “Chatur Varna” Hindu caste system. While there is caste equivalent of all four Hindu “Varnas” (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas & Shudras) among Kashmiri Muslims, it further has the existence of “Ati-Shudras” or Dalits as well making Kashmiri Muslims as the most Hinduized Muslim community in the entire South Asia.
While most Muslims of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh deny the existence of caste system among South Asian Muslims as it goes against the egalitarian principles of Islam that promised an equal and casteless society to many of so called “lower caste” Hindu converts, the fact remains that Muslims of South Asia carried on with the Hindu Brahminical caste hierarchy with slight modifications.
Unlike the broad categories of “Ashraf” and “Ajlaf” that differentiates between so called “pure, fairer and superior” Ashrafi Muslims of foreign origin (Arabs, Turks, Persians, Afghans etc.) and Ajlafi Muslims of native South Asian and so called “less pure, darker and inferior origin, Kashmiri Muslim society has remained more closer to the Hindu “Chatur Varna” caste order with its own slight modifications.
In addition to ruling Sultans (Hindu Kshatriyas), top of the order of Kashmiri Muslim were/are so called “Syed / Pir castes” (Geelani, Jeelani, Bukhari, Qadri, Hamdani, Andrabi etc.), which are equivalent to Hindu Brahmins and South Asian “Ashrafi Muslims” as many of these Kashmiri Muslim families claim their origin to the family of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) or to Central Asian countries like Iran, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. There are also Muslims converts from Kashmiri Pundit community as well as so called “Pathan” Muslims, who even though not Syeds/ Pirs, still fall under this top order. Intermarriages among Syeds, Pirs, Kashmiri Pundit converts and Pathans are not uncommon.
Things become a little complicated as one goes further so called “downwards”. There are Kashmiri Muslim caste groups, which can be classified as “middle castes” or “higher occupational castes”, which makes them equivalent to Hindu “Vaishya” Varna order (Wani, Zargar, Khandey, Lone, Ahangar, Naqsh etc.). At the bottom of the hierarchy are Kashmiri Muslim caste groups which can be broadly categorized as equivalent to Hindu Varna “Shudra” or “lower occupational castes” (Waza, Chopan, Ganai, Dobi, Hajjam, Hanji, Bhand etc.). Many of these Kashmiri Muslim castes would fall under OBC (Other Backward Classes) definition of the Constitution of India or “Pasmanda Muslims”, a term used by lower caste / OBC Muslim communities of North India, especially in states like UP and Bihar.
And finally, exactly reflecting the Hindu Brahminical “Chatur Varna” hierarchy are Hindu “Ati-Shudra” equivalent “Wattal / Sheikhs”, a Kashmiri Muslim community, which was traditionally involved in manual scavenging just like Hindu Dalits. This Wattal community is equal to what is defined as Scheduled Caste (SC) under the Constitution of India.
When confronted, Kashmiri Muslims of the older generation deny the existence of “Chatur Varna” caste system among Muslims of Kashmir and brush it off as an evil Hindu thing that has nothing to do with Islam. They mostly characterize the existence of castes among Kashmiri Muslims as “identity markers” only. The fact that lower occupational castes and Wattal communities have been abused, taunted, discriminated, humiliated and exploited by upper caste Muslims ( Syeds / Pirs and higher occupational castes) just like their Hindu counterparts in north India including a strict rule of not marrying with these communities and in the case of Wattals, even practicing untouchability against them still makes the existence of “Chatur Varna” caste system among Kashmiri Muslims as just a “social classification” for most upper caste Kashmiri Muslims, rather than equivalent of Hindu Brahminical caste system.
It is social reality in Kashmir that most top positions in politics, bureaucracy and business since the time of Sultans, Mughals, Dogras and post 1947 have mostly been garnered by either the creamy layer of rich, urban Kashmiri Pundits or Pir/Syed Kashmiri Muslims. Most poor rural Kashmiri Pundits as well as lower occupational Kashmiri Muslim castes and Wattal community has largely been at the receiving end of this unofficial Kashmiri caste system. The Wattal Kashmiri Muslim community has specially suffered the most as so called “unclean, polluted and dirty” people forced to live in abject poverty in segregated ghettos.
Yet despite this gloomy state of affairs, the young and educated generation of Kashmiri Muslim youth have started asking uncomfortable questions that challenge the rigid social status-quo, which has created a life of privilege for few upper caste Kashmiri Muslims and a life of misery and oppression for vast majority of the so called “lower caste” Kashmiri Muslims and even poor Kashmiri Pundits.
The first step in the direction of ridding the Kashmiri society of the evils of “Chatur Varna” caste system would be to acknowledge its continuing existence, which is not only humiliating for a large section of Kashmiri Muslim population, but it also creates economic conditions, where upper caste Muslims continue to enjoy the benefits of modern education and employment opportunities, while those from the so called “lower caste” Kashmiri Muslim communities continue to struggle to break the chains of stigma, poverty and deprivation that comes with their social status.
The most important reason for a lot of lower caste and Dalit Kashmiri Hindus to convert to Islam was the message of equality promoted by the new faith, which promised a new life of equality, dignity and respect. Unfortunately, however, this promised was breached as instead of getting Kashmir rid of the evils of Brahminism, the Islam in Kashmir valley was itself turned Brahminical by few caste groups for their vested interests and it is time for us to change all that.
The writer is an Aspiring Politician, Political Analyst and Columnist. Who served as PRO to Ex. CM of Erstwhile state of J&K. Writer has done his MBA & MPA. His Views are personal.