Author: Saadut
•9:00 PM

In the heat of a Middle East summer, behind the glass facade of high rises, rooms with delicately manicured and cultivated greenery provided ideal spaces for non resident recluses. The Middle East based NRK (non resident Kashmiri) and his guest started with coffee but soon shifted to Kashmir discussions which included dissecting the anatomy of some mutual Kashmiri acquaintances. "But he is a from a Khaar family (iron smith family)' “quipped the Middle East based NRK, when discussion shifted towards a valley based figure. "He is known to be uncompromising in his ideals, often reaches out to help people" said his guest, "but still he is from a Khaar family" replied the host. "Heard his family is well educated and has risen on own merit" quipped the visitor "but check his family name, clearly points to his Khaar connections" continued the middle based host with an expression of prejudiced disgust. "Khaar ! Well he doesn’t deserve even to be discussed then" closed the visiting acquaintance, waving off hands in air as if pushing some obnoxious smell out of nostril reach while shifting their discussion towards some other 'socially acceptable' topic.

“As for those who divide their religion and break up into sects, thou hast no part in them in the least: Their affair is with Allah: He will in the end tell them the truth of all that they did.” [Al Qur’an 6:159]

Major conversions in Kashmir towards Islam happened in the 14th century, under the spiritual guidance of Amir-e-Kabir (Shah Hamadan) who arrived in 1384 AD. Islam found acceptance in a society riddled with extreme caste bias and prejudice, controlled by the elite Pandits (Hindus) in Kashmir. Since Islam offered social equality, the conversion to Islam started from the lower and middle rung of Kashmiri society, including all working classes who had been suffering for centuries. Gradually some upper classes of Pandits also converted to Islam but the lure of privileges associated with practicing caste supremacy was retained by them (which define the existence of common castes between Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims).

Even after Muslims had become a majority in Kashmir (since all middle & lower classes had converted) the caste based bias did not end against the lower socioeconomic classes and this was mainly led by the powerful Kashmiri Pandits. Such divisions were often driven by a desire to maintain economic and political power by forcing a deprivation of lower social classes. Such deprivation was also practiced in access to education and economic opportunities in Kashmir. The first English education school here was founded by Reverend J. Hinton Knowles in 1880, The Church Mission Society School (now known as Tyndale Biscoe School after British missionary Cecil Earle Tyndale Biscoe, who took over the school in 1891). For its first ten years the school had only Pandits as students (250), as the powerful Kashmiri Pandits stalled every effort to enroll Muslims. It took decades for this caste based exclusiveness to be broken and for Muslims to be a part of this education system in Kashmir.  But while the primary education started gradually opening up for a few Muslims, higher education was still controlled for decades by Pandits. Even Sheikh Abdullah was denied college admission by the same lobby, for being a Muslim, and was later forced to seek admission in Islamia College at Lahore (he was rejected 3 times during his student life for higher studies by the same Pandit controlled system).

What had started as a social division by Pandits was taken forward by many self promoted ‘elite’ castes of Muslims in Kashmir over centuries. Ironically while six centuries ago such social divisions were enforced between Pandits (self flagged high caste) and Pandits (lower social order), post conversion to Islam by the majority in Kashmir these social divisions were not only forcibly practiced by Pandits against Muslims, whom they saw as social rebels, but also by Muslims against Muslims (again social caste based). The same caste and creed divisions were responsible for dis-empowerment of the majority in Kashmir for centuries, which took the shape of Pandit elites controlling the aristocracy and feudal structure while the Muslims (who had earlier converted to Islam for social equality) becoming the serving and oppressed classes.

Sir Walter Lawrence in his book (in 1895) ‘The Valley of Kashmir’ notes (310) Wealth alone commands position, and poverty at once degrades a family. To obliterate all trace of a lowly origin, men have assumed surnames borrowed from familiar animals', insects-, trades, occupations, and places.” So ideally modern-day surnames should not be indicators of even social or ethnic origins for many families over centuries. Interestingly in yet another research work across the Indian subcontinent it was proven that self-identified Syeds from the Indian subcontinent show evidence of elevated Arab ancestry but not of a recent common patri-lineal origin’

In later years within Muslims this polarization was again driven by a niche economically wealthy class or by a class among them who presented themselves as the custodians of faith in Kashmir, even while this caste system was against the basic tenants of Islam. Over decades many castes in Kashmir were invented and then adapted by groups, only to move ahead in social acceptance. Such castes had no historical foundations nor were they trade or work related; some claimed to be progeny of a saint adapting his name as their surname (a saint who had never married and hence had no children). Some tweaked caste labels to remove old traces and incorporate new names, which gradually over decades gained permanence with them. In such a social order, economic and educational opportunities in post 1950’s to 1980’s became the domain of these social elites. The higher classes of Muslims in Kashmir not only practiced social exclusiveness, but also grabbed opportunities based on their proximity to political powers. With education and awareness gradually spreading across social divisions, this caste system evolved into new forms, sort of a mutated virus. Now social divisions were not only practiced based on caste but also geographic origins in the valley. In spite of modern day economic and educational transformation happening across the society, such caste based prejudices still exist in psychological processes and behavior. And such practices exist because of our failure to accept the inclusiveness of all organs of our society, also because such prejudices have been ingrained in us by socio-cultural traditions that we have always mistaken for religious beliefs. While some people are gradually erasing such social boundaries, many of the ‘well educated’ are still hanging on to this false notion of social superiority. Even after 6 centuries in Kashmir we still have not converted to Islam in the real terms.

Our social dependencies and the ironical prejudices practiced, reminded me of a poster I found during my student days
‘One day organs of the body decided to appoint a boss. The mind said “since I think and decide, I should be the boss”. The eyes said “since I provide you vision, I should be the boss”. The arms said “since I act as tools for work and sustenance, I should be the boss”. The stomach said “since I digest all food that provides energy, I should be the boss”. While all organs were deliberating who to be the boss, the buttocks said “I can also be the boss since..” no sooner has it said this all the organs laughed very hard. The butt got very upset and stopped working. Within no time the body was stinking and full, failing every other organ.’