ashmir can be classified as a homogenous society with its ethnolinguistic composition but deep down there are many fault lines that have existed since medieval times and Kashmiri Muslims have struggled with class and religious discrimination for centuries.
When Kashmir was the Hindu Kingdom it has dominated by the Shaivite Brahmans who constituted the majority. After the establishment of the Shahmir dynasty till its fall in the 16th conversions had been taking place in en mass and it turned Kashmir turned into mass Muslim society. It wasn’t that Islam brought a classist nature into Kashmiri society. Kashmir society was very much divided before Islam came here. Pre-Islamic Kashmir had various groups some of them divided into the lines of caste and some on the occupation. There were two major castes among Kashmir Shaivites; Brahmans and Damaras.
While Brahmans were the learning caste the Damaras were usually the occupation caste. There was a huge hostility between the two castes as it often leads to violent confrontations. Kashmir from the very beginning was divided into Krams. These were before Islam came into Kashmir was based on occupation, class. Both the castes in Kashmir, Brahmans and Damaras had their own Krams in pre-Islamic Kashmir. With the spread of Islam in Kashmir and more people of foreign descent started to come into the valley it caused a great rift between the locals and the outsiders.
While Kashmir has been a place where many empires had come and influenced its culture, tradition, and heritage. When the Shahmir dynasty established them in Kashmir, it was still a Hindu Shaivite-dominated region. With the advent of Islam and it becoming the dominant faith of Kashmir from 13-16 century, it saw a huge disparity among its followers. When scholars like Syed Mir Ali Hamdani started to pour into Kashmir, they were seen as an outsider by the locals initially there was some shown but eventually, with the subsequent strengthening of the Muslim rule, the influx of outsiders was more rapidly growing. While the Shahmir dynasty was the first Muslim dynasty to rule Kashmir Islam came here much before that. It was in the 8th century that the ruler Rinchan shah was the first ruler who came to Kashmir and along with him the major Islamic preacher Bulbul shah.
As Kashmir was much divided in a pre-Islamic era in different Krams with Islamic dominance it further caused more division now within the Muslims of Kashmir. In South Asia, there is a system that is the replica of the Hindu caste system where Ashraf (noble), Ajaf (lowly), Arzal (degraded) are three castes but in Kashmir, things are very different from the rest of south or central Asia. In Kashmir, as Islam made its way and the caste structure remained very loosely defines as there was not prescribed caste system as there is in the Hindu system. So the caste system in Kashmiri became very vaguely categorized.
The scholar and people who usually came from places like Hamdan, Samarkand, and from various parts of central Asia were referred to as Mleccha, which means impure or a person of lower birth. Most of these scholars were Syed which were seen as people of inferior birth by then Brahman chronicler like Jonaraja. Not until that long ago Kashmiri pandits never allowed Kashmir Muslims inside the vicinity of their homes and would never eat anything cooked by Muslims. But this caste conundrum which manifests itself in the surname of the Kashmiri Muslims has caused extreme fault lines in this small community.
Caste in Indian societies especially Hindu ones has come into existence through the text like Manumsimriti, which act as the building block for caste or Varna system. A system of exploitation where Dalits, Valmikies have been killed, tortured by the so-called upper castes. This caste system also exists in the Muslim society in India as well as in Pakistan where lineages like Rajput, khan are taken into consideration in deciding the social status of an individual. The caste system at times can mean more than just pure “caste”. At times it has different meanings in different parts of South Asian society.
When I talk of castes there are many different variations and forms of it in Kashmir and oftentimes they are very much used in a classist manner. In fact in Kashmir caste at times can also signify the occupation of the person. Other groups often are more marginalized like Haenz, Watul who can be considered at the bottom of this stratification. The exact mechanism of social segregation in Kashmiri is very complex and it depends on many factors like occupation, place of origin, and religious affiliation.
The systems of social stratification exhibit wide variance in different societies of the world. This variation may be in the criteria, utilized for placing individual and groups in various social strata of the system, or in the number of strata in the system, and with some having two broad strata such as feudal lords and serfs, or nobility and commoners and other’s having more. There may be flexibility and the sharpness with which each stratum is demarcated. In some systems, different strata are easily identifiable, while in others the boundaries are hard to locate. Considering the various societies that have existed and do exist in the world, certain recurrent forms of social stratification generally can be identified. Sociologists have identified four major types of stratification systems, which have different differences between them, Slavery, the Feudal Estates, the Caste, and the Class system.
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In mainstream Indian society, power-sharing has been affected by a lot of changes that have taken place over hundreds of years. There have been many studies that have been published and some of them like Beteille (1969) which was published on the class and power in the state of Tamil Nadu. Changing the relation of stratification in the Tanjore District brought to light the traditional caste structure as well as the forces of change that we’re making way into it. According to Beteille, Sripurum village is a perfect example of the Hindu division of the caste system. The village was divided into three distinct areas for Brahmans, non- Brahmans, and Adi- Dravida. This pattern was seen to be continuing in a lot of other villages well.
In another village of Tanjore of Tamil Nadu, a different pattern was followed. In this village, the ownership of wealth is seen as a means of superiority. The village was divided into three categories. Brahman landowner, non- Brahman landowner, and Adi-Dravidic. The Brahmans being at the top and Adi Dravidic at the bottom mostly used for labor or agricultural works. this rigid system does not exist in Kashmir as there are no separate localities for each caste in Kashmir but certain groups like Haenz, Watul have separate localities both in urban in rural areas.
Caste primarily exists among Hindu societies, especially in India. It is ingrained in its DNA and is very dominant as a part of the social system. There are four castes in total which are in hierarchal ladder where Brahmans are at the top followed by Kshatriya, Vaishyas, and Shudras, and in the last are Dalits which are considered as untouchable. There are a lot of regional variations in the Hindu caste system. While a system like this also exists in Kashmir but isn’t as rigid as the Hindu system. Kashmir has its way of categorization. A system of Krams is divided into many subgroups. Krams can be considered as surnames or family names that are based on occupation, family history, nobility, and much more.
Krams before Islam
Upper caste/ Krams: Dar, Tantray, Rather, Parray, Wani, Koul, Kucchay, Lone, Bhat. There are more upper-caste Krams and most of them are Brahmanical in nature. Usually, these Krams were held by upper-caste Brahman before the pre-Islamic era.
Occupational Krams: Thantur (coppersmith), Sonar (goldsmith), Saraf (banker)
Lower caste/ Krams: Naid (barber), Chaan (carpenter), Dhob (washerman), Khaar (blacksmith), Kral (potter), Haenz (fishermen and boatmen). Most of these Krams or castes belong to people who are in low occupation.
After the advent of Islam, new Krams were introduced which were more Persian and some of them were religious while some of the upper castes were intact some were changed or very altered.
Upper Krams or castes after Islam: Dar, Tantray, Rather, Parray, Wani, Bhat, Koul, Kucchay, Lone, Pandit, Raina. These Krams remained and continued to function as upper castes Krams.
Persian or Islamic Krams (New Krams): Qadri, Chishti, Hamdani, Rizvi, Gilani, Kubravi,
Bukhari, Andrabi, Mufti, Pir, Suhrawardi, Qureshi, Nazki, Rafiqi, Qazi.
Occupational krams: Zargar(goldsmith), jild-saz(book-binder), kozgar( Cup maker), Naqati(dot maker), Qaleen-baf(carpet maker).
Low caste or Krams after Islam in Kashmir: Baba, Mir, Shaikh, Malla, Shah.
There are many dozen more Krams across all lines in Kashmir some are Muslim specific and some are Pandit specific. Some Krams are shared by both; while some are religious some are occupational. Even among occupational Krams, some were considered as at the bottom like those who took upon the task of cleaning road like sweepers.
In Kashmir, other communities are often considered untouchables. It included the boatmen locally referred to as Haenz and other communities like sweepers or Watul as they are called in the Kashmiri language.
Haenz: they are dwellers of water, they live in houseboats and are mainly involved in the trade of vegetables and crops that grows in and around Dal but they have a presence in every part of the valley. They are considered as an untouchable or outcast group in Kashmir is facing extreme discrimination in every part of society. They have their Krams and have there are different subgroups of this community.
Watul: They are sweepers by profession and can be considered at the bottom of social stratification in Kashmir society. They often live in isolated parts in clusters and more often than not are not included in mainstream Kashmiri society. They face most discrimination as are often ridiculed, they can be considered as Dalits of Kashmiri society.
The Kashmiri society is presently class-based rather than caste-based. People at present are stratified based on class. Some are placed at the top of the hierarchy; some at the bottom and rest in between. This system is explained in terms of class, particularly an economic class. People in the past were differentiating based on large landholding and religious knowledge. But, at present, it is not the landholding, but the monthly income of the person which differentiates families from one another. Now it is one’s income that determines his/her social position or status in society. Economic class is purely seen concerning the property, nature of service, trade, business, and the standard of living, but belonging to a higher caste gives additional status to the person. The landholding is a very important factor in the class determination in Kashmir. Those who hold land are referred to as “Zamindar” or landlords and those who do not have any land are called “Nangars” or landless/ serfs. This feudalistic system is more dominant in rural Kashmir than in urban. Here all the power resides in the hand of Zamindars and Nangars are places at the bottom. Not only this a lot of occupations like that of milkman (Guroo), butcher (Pujj), form lower strata in the Kashmiri society. These occupations are associated with certain castes which are often exploited by the member of the upper class. Caste and class are much interconnected in Kashmir.
There is a particular section in the Kashmiri society that has had considerable influence on the religious lines. In Kashmir often referred to as “Pir” is a collective title usually given to some religious sect who has very dominated the scene post-independence. Some of them are the Ulema, Syeds, and other members who are usually associated with religious identity. They were mostly illiterate before India’s independence but with time consolidated their power and exploited common people in the name of religion. They are found in both Shias as well as Sunni sects. Most of the time this community of “Pir” were involved in menial jobs and a significant population was habitual of begging near the shrines. In fact, through the major part of the history of Kashmir, this community has been involved in the most dishonorable stuff. Shrines were one specific place where they would dominate with their religious knowledge.
Later over time, this community grew in power and enters the religious sphere, and consolidated its power. At one time “Pir” was considered as a derogatory people and referred to as ‘Malle’. In fact, during the later years of Dogra rule, some of them were in powerful positions in the regime along with Kashmiri Pandits. Their journey from doing menial jobs and begging in shrines to becoming a powerful group says a lot about the evolution in the caste or religious evolution in Kashmir.
At present, the situation is changing. Modernization, secularization, education, and newfound economic prosperity have changed the attitude and actual practices regarding the ascribed and achieved status and prestige and facilitated social mobility. Social hierarchy is persisting but the traditional form of rigid stratification is not in practice. This caste and class discrimination must end for Kashmir to secure an egalitarian future.
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