SHAFAQNA – “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Indeed the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted” [Quran 49:13]
Islam as a religion does not believe in distinction on the basis of class, creed, caste, economic status, region, language and background among people. These criteria are immaterial for God to judge any person. In Islam, Taqwa (piety) and fear of God are the two factors that determine the status of a Muslim before Allah. Islam if we would trace its recent roots was successful in establishing an egalitarian society in Arabia. The egalitarianism though continued politically for a period of not more than three decades but for masses it does continue still, though in a very rudimentary shape. The powerful political, social, corporate and military elites have kept the Muslim masses under their thumb enjoying an elated status by depriving the masses equal opportunities to earn, have social mobility and excel in different fields. The élites always need an ideology to keep the masses engaged so as to not let them to be united. Ideology, religion, national interests and patriotism are often invoked to keep the masses divided. Islam preaches, idealism and lays emphasis on equality, fraternity, brotherhood and transnational Ummah. But in reality they are utopian concepts used by the religious and political elite to keep Muslim masses divided so that egalitarianism and equality is never realized. The Muslims of the world are not a homogeneous group but differential one that shares only few things in common.
The Muslims of South Asia are not a monolith too. The cultural conditioning has faded away many egalitarian teachings of Islam too, particularly that of equality. In the Indian subcontinent Islam was spread by the peaceful missionary work carried out by Sufis belonging to varied denominations (silsilas). The converts were mostly from the suppressed and oppressed classes of Hindus i.e. Shudras and untouchables who had been suffering from the caste oppression since generations. Islam and the egalitarian practice of Sufis certainly helped these oppressed Hindus seek refuge and enjoy equality within the ambit of Islam, Sufis and Muslims where they experienced no discrimination. With time, like patriarchy caste also found its roots among Muslim society of Indian subcontinent. Some outsiders who came with Sufis or for many reasons sought refuge in the subcontinent kept harping about their non subcontinental origin. Being refugees, they had the privilege of having expertise in various skills and some were doctors of divinity regarding Islam. The aboriginal converts’ belonged to deprived and suppressed class, thus accepted everything of these outsiders as gospel truth and word of Allah because they had the privilege of interpreting Islam.
The institution of caste came handy and as a comfortable tool for these elites to maintain their hegemony over masses. They would preach about the egalitarian principles of Islam but in practical reality practice inequality having deep hatred for the masses. The Muslims in India became divided among the Ashraf (elite who trace their origin outside subcontinent) and Ajlaf (masses which are local converts to Islam). The Ashraf were enjoying the privilege of having sound social, political, educational and economic status but never wanted it to share with the masses who could have become future contenders to the privileges though there are few exceptions to this rule. Islam was used as a tool and its egalitarian principles twisted in such a manner that it came to justify the institution of caste and Syedization. The scholars of Islam from Sir Syed Ahmad Khan to Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi and down to the line of Islamic revivalist Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi all came to justify casteism as a doctrine of Islam. This justification was the most disservice to Islam, a direct attack on the beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)s life and injustice to the ideals and teachings of Islam. But such disservice still continues and very few voices are talking about the institutionalization of caste among Muslims of the subcontinent.
Indian Muslim leaders have been adopting an ostrich approach denying the fact and lived reality of caste among Indian Muslims. This denial has led to the deprivation of scheduled caste status to Indian muslims, who desperately need reservation being the most marginalized minority of India. Kashmir being a Muslim majority region, though disputed in its nature follows the institution of caste as an article of faith. The Ashraf castes in Kashmir comprise of those who call themselves Syeds (though there is no concept of Syeds in Islam or Quran) and most of them trace their origins to distant lands particularly to Central Asia, like Geelan, Hamdan, Andrab. The other elites are known as Khojas (rich and who are upper caste). Syeds were always poor, used to eke out their living by teaching Quran (though most of them could not understand Arabic and still don’t), attending funeral prayers, leading prayers in masjids and being petty teachers, The Syeds were mostly dependent on Khojas for their survival as they paid them generously and used to donate and bestow grants to the Sufi shrines with which most Syeds had parasitical relationship. Thus many of them earned the title of Malla (a derogatory term used for a person who uses religion to earn money even through fraud and devilish means).
The Syeds and Khojas could intermarry but Khojas looked down upon the Syeds as Mallas for whose existence and sustenance they paid. The Mallas as is always a reality were a shrewd lot and many of them were driven out of their lands by rulers for creating mischief and being a part of nefarious plans against the government. With the division of Indian subcontinent due to various circumstances a part of Kashmir remained with India. Under the charismatic leadership of Sheikh Muhmamad Abdullah the implementation of revolutionary act of Land to Tiller made the masses overnight owners of the land, depriving the Khojas of decades old privileges. Subsequently the new educational policy helped the masses and particularly the Syeds who were the first to avail the fruits of education. They also got their women educated though on pulpits they used to preach that sending girls to schools is haram. The new state changed its contours and there was an overhaul in which Muslims found space in the government jobs. The Khojas as the Indian Muslim elite after the advent of British and defeat of the Last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1857 were still lamenting about the lost privilege, thus did not understand the essence of education in the changing times.
Further most of them had business and education ended with a government job that had a limited amount of salary, so Khojas looked down upon the Syeds who would take up the government jobs. Once the Syeds made an entry in the government job sector particularly bureaucracy and police they made every effort that non syeds do not make it to the top echelons of these institutions. It took several decades for the non syeds, the aboriginals masses of Kashmiris to make a dent in the Syedized bureaucracy. Still the Syeds are dominating bureaucracy and the invisible apartheid still continues. The Islamic revivalist movements that spread its network in Kashmir including Jamaat e Islami were again dominated by Syeds as they has the privilege and genealogy of knowledge. The indigenous institution of Mirwaiz whose establishment is traced to Dogra regime and who had very humble origins though today due to social mobility they are now counted among the elites.
The resistance movement against India too at one point of time was dominated by the Syeds though the insurgency was started by the non syeds and still they continue to offer the sacrifices and become cannon fodder with Syeds ruling the roost and enjoying the leadership privilege. Very few Syeds and Khojas got killed or took part in the insurgency but both United Jihad Council and Hurriyat Conference is dominated by Syeds who want the sacrifices from the non syeds while having luxurious lives for their wards and extended family. They have used every mechanism to keep the masses occupied with the conflict so that they are not able to reason out about the larger questions that include caste and the privileges associated with it. They do not want to democratize this institution and follow Islamic principles of equality by marrying with non syeds though they regularly harp about democracy, equality, Islam and unity.
The coming to power of a Syed party in Kashmir i.e Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) aka Pir Development Party has rendered the matters worse because they have installed their relatives from university to municipality thus depriving others of their rightful place that also added fuel to the resentment against the government. PDP has been the most nepotic regime democratically elected in the history of Kashmir. The conditions will go worse and caste factor will become a major player in electoral politics of Kashmir in near future like it became in U.P elections among Muslims even, if the government does not stop acting in an unbiased manner. The Hurriyat led by both Geelani and Mirwaiz has been less critical of PDP regime as in a certain bloodline sense they are related to each other.
Jamaat e Islami cadres also took an active part in making several PDP candidates victorious in elections as voting was clandestinely done on caste lines, though Jamaat voted in favor of PDP more because of hatred for National conference that was instrumental in decimating Jamaat e Islami in various regions in the name of fighting insurgency. Leaving aside the debate of voting on caste lines, it is both quite hilarious and condemnable that just of the basis of mere destiny of being born in some family one thinks that he/she is elevated from others just on the basis of sheer chance and then brands others as inferior. If at all one needs to be arrogant it should be on their achievements not on mere basis of birth and tracing some origin to distant lands. Qureshis who think they belong to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)s tribe must remember that Quran says “Muhammad is not the father of [any] one of your men, but [he is] the Messenger of Allah and last of the prophets. And ever is Allah , of all things, Knowing” (33:40). Further Qureshis were a varied lot, Abu Lahb and Abu Jahl who were bitter enemies of Islam were Qureshis too. So while tracing the origins one should get the pulse of the facts too. In some parts of India, Qureshis are butchers and enjoy other backward class status.
Further those who trace their origins to distant lands and proudly display their surnames as Hamdanis., Geelanis, Baghdadis and Andrabis must be thankful to Kashmiris who gave them refuge when they were driven out and hunted down in their birth burgs. Instead of looking down upon the host community they must acknowledge the generosity of locals and praise their efforts. Refugees all over the world are a deprived community, unwelcome mostly but people of subcontinent are a hospitable lot who helped the downtrodden ancestors of those who today claim to be elite.
Caste is a reality if not of Islam but of Muslims certainly that needs to be understood, grappled with, dialogued and then decimated leading to its annihilation from the body of Muslim society. It seems to be an impossible task despite the strength of Dr B.R Ambedkar’s ideology and Dalit politics failed to annihilate the caste but the struggle against the curse of caste needs to be initiated, fought particularly by making the masses understand its perils and how the elite has been exploiting them by engaging them in futile struggles while raising the false bandwagon of Islam being in danger, while enjoying and indulging in politics in which the cannon fodder always became the deprived masses. A holistic approach needs to be undertaken in order to sever the deep tentacles of caste from our society.
By M.H.A.Sikander – Writer-Activist based in Srinagar, Kashmir