Kashmir valley is supposedly a Muslim majority region, where technically caste related practices shouldn’t exist. But it is an open secret that Kashmiri Muslim society is among South Asia’s most Brahminical Muslim societies, where caste-based discrimination is rampant and omnipresent.
I personally came across one such extremely ugly incident few days back, when I was approached by many members of my village and area around saying that a poor Kashmiri Muslim family of potter caste (“Kumhaar”) was stopped by upper caste Kashmiri Muslims in a nearby village from burying their dead in the village graveyard, where mostly members from upper caste Kashmiri Muslims were buried.
I was not only shocked but also horrified to hear that such discriminatory and dehumanizing caste practices continue to exist in Kashmir valley in this age and in these times, especially in interior rural areas, where things haven’t changed for past many centuries. I tried to reason out with the upper caste Kashmiri Muslim members who were refusing burial of what they called was a dead member of “lower, dirty & polluted” caste, whose grave will violate sanctity of the (upper caste) graveyard.
Angry and outraged, I returned back to my home and went back live on Facebook and expressed my disgust and then declared that from henceforth I will drop my upper caste surname “Beigh” and will adopt “Kumar” surname in solidarity with the Kashmiri Muslim potter community, which often uses “Kumar” caste as their surname.
My statement received widespread appreciation and approval and immense support from a cross section of Kashmiri society including from Kashmiri Pundits and Kashmiri Sikhs. But this episode did leave a bad taste in my mouth and made me wonder, if we as a Kashmiri society are really the kind of God fearing and pious Muslims as we portray ourselves to be?
The bitter truth is that Kashmiri Muslims are the most Brahminical societies among all Muslim communities of South Asia in following “Chatur Varna” Hindu caste system. There is caste equivalent of all four Hindu “Varnas” (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas & Shudras) among Kashmiri Muslims along with the existence of Kashmiri Muslim Dalits.
While most Muslims of South Asia 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. Academicians divide South Asian Muslims in two 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.
Then 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 Dalit 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.
Discrimination against lower caste Muslims in graveyard burial is not something which is only restricted to Kashmir valley. It is an unfortunate and un-Islamic caste practice that is widely prevalent in other parts of India as well as in Pakistan.
It is not uncommon to find walled and segregated caste based grave yards in villages of north India, where each upper Muslim caste have their own caste biradari graveyards, where members only from their caste are allowed to be buried.
Members from lower Muslim castes are often violently prohibited from burying their dead in these graveyards, which are lined by cemented walls and closed & locked doors. Few months back, Pakistan’s Sindh province was rocked by an ugly controversy, when in order to expand marbled grave tomb of a famous Sindhi nationalist leader from Syed caste, 13 kacha graves of lower caste Muslims from Mallah (boatmen) caste were dug and then thrown in a single pit.
The move sparked a nation-wide protest in Pakistan and people were shocked to see that such un-Islamic caste practices continue to exist in Pakistan even in modern days.
It is clear that Kashmir valley has a serious problem pertaining to caste-based discrimination which is not only against the egalitarian principles of Islam but is also an unethical societal behavior, which has no place in modern civilization. Graveyards of Kashmir should not discriminate anyone on the basis of caste.
We as a Kashmiri people must acknowledge the existence of caste menace amongst ourselves and strive to uproot this vestige of bygone era.
Javed Beigh is General Secretary People's Democratic Front ( Secular ).
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.