Friday 18 May 2012

Discovering the Caste System in Azad Kashmir as a British Kashmiri

Written by Sameer Hussain
Many years ago, during a school holiday visit to Dadyal (Azad Kashmir), I became aware of the importance given to the caste system in my region. I was with a friend at his shop in the Bazaar, when he asked me about my friends in England. I told him I had several friends whose families originate from Pakistan and even from Azad Kashmir. He then asked me to name a few close friends and was curious to know what caste they belonged to. When I explained that I didn’t know what caste any of my close friends were from, he was shocked and for a moment he failed to believe what I’d said. I realised that locals had a habit of asking people what their caste was, that’s if they didn’t already know.

I found it quite strange at first, because whilst studying Religious Studies at school, I learnt that the Hindu religion had a caste system but there was no such system or its equivalent in Islam. In fact, Islam opposed the concept of a caste system altogether, as it undermined the importance attached to unity. I had no doubt come across the names of a few castes mentioned in various conversations but I assumed that they were merely family names and not associated with a caste system. I recall that my Grandfather often referred to one of my Uncles as ‘Chaudhary’ with great pride in his voice, as if it was a title of great significance and deserved admiration. I began to pose questions and I then grasped that a caste system was undeniably in place. I discovered the names of some of the castes such as Chaudhary, Raja, Khawaja, Ansari, Masalli, Gujjar, Sanyaray, Malik, etc. To complicate things further, I learnt that some castes are given more than just one name e.g. people from the Chaudhary caste are also known as Jatt. Some castes are divided further into groups and even those groups are at times divided even further. For example, within the Raja caste, one of the groups is  that of the Keyani's and within it you will find there are other groups, one of which is known as the Gakhar's. Understanding the caste system itself is quite a challenge and no doubt my knowledge is and probably will always be limited as is the case with most people I assume, with the exception of the odd historian. I realised that the word ‘Baradri’ is used to refer to caste. I often heard people making comments such as ‘apni baradri ne log” meaning people of our own caste. It made me think how we have so many castes and members of each one in a strange way are made to feel a part of their own clan, and that caste is regarded as an important part of an individual’s identity. People are stereotyped, judged, ignored, disrespected, welcomed, loved, married, and all these actions are somewhat based on caste.

I still didn’t have a genuine understanding of what each caste represented or how the different castes were arranged within society. Though I knew some of the basics, it didn’t really make much sense to me. Fair enough, caste can be used to categorise people into say for example different professions e.g. Masalli are drummers and Sanyaray are jewellers. But if you are born as a Massalli and then become a Jeweller, are you still a Massalli? It just doesn’t hold any logic. Surely, people change their jobs and the same profession is rarely passed down from one generation to another. Or do we assume that society is constructed in such a way that opportunities remain with the so called ‘high’ castes and the others are left stuck in their professions. It seems that such a system doesn’t reward people based on merit, instead the positions of honour are granted to the prestigious castes even if there are more deserving candidates from elsewhere in the imposed hierarchy.

Some people seem to hold the belief that caste to some extent does affect how people behave and it plays a significant role in what they do in life. I somehow don’t understand how I would have been any different if I wasn’t a Chaudhary, I’m pretty sure everything would have been the same in my life. I find it very strange when I see youngsters wearing t-shirts that have slogans on them such as ‘Jatts Rule’ or ‘Rajay are the Best’. I seriously find it bizarre that young people are wearing symbols to show off their caste. They proudly display their caste on their car or their motorcycle. Even on the increasingly popular social-networking site Facebook, individuals often remove their surnames and add their caste instead. There are even Facebook pages which make claims that one caste is the best or aim to get together all members of a particular caste. There seems to be a lot of pride and people want to show their caste to others. Then we have people who stick to their own castes i.e. they don’t socialise with people from other castes, because they feel that they are superior and better than others. I was in Dadyal during the local elections in 2011, and many people simply voted by looking at caste, this was referred to as ‘Baradriism’. However, the public was in shock when Raja Noman Kamal decided to leave Raja Ali Zaman’s party and instead support Chaudhary Khalid Masood. A lot of people were surprised because Noman Kamal neglected the typical mentality of siding with your own caste. In many circles, this political decision was saluted because it demonstrated that people are willing to see beyond the narrow mindedness of ‘caste-ism’ and are not limiting their perspectives due to the traditional caste system.

In England, many people have moved on from the caste system, it just doesn’t seem to matter anymore. We are seeing more and more families getting their sons and daughters married out of caste. However, there are still certain groups of people that are stuck in the 1970’s it seems, and they sometimes openly, at other times - secretly dislike people of other castes. This is a real shame because you wouldn’t expect this from people who are living in a multicultural society such as the United Kingdom, where credit is given, in most cases, based on merit. Race, colour, religion, gender, caste and other such factors are not given much importance.

Going back to Azad Kashmir, families are still reluctant to marry from out of caste, because they fear that they will lose their dignity in their own Baradri. People will say things like, for example, ‘inna apni kurri ‘caste name’ ne hawalay karri shori’, they have handed their daughter over to a ‘caste name’ family, and such comments no doubt are accompanied by a negative tone of voice, often with more venomous comments. Some will say these people are backwards and such practices are only common amongst illiterate people. However, this kind of mentality is common in Azad Kashmir and it seems like this is the case amongst even educated and religious families. Families are afraid to break away from the culture they have followed for many years. Many youngsters are left with a difficult decision, if they want to marry someone from a different caste, then they often have to oppose their parents, humiliate them in the Baradri, or instead they can decide to give in and marry someone within their own caste.

I personally don’t see any real benefit in the caste system. I fail to see how its application has or can deliver any vale to society. Instead, it poses a threat to bonds between people, promotes a culture of disunity and in many ways leaves us divided and consequently weakened. If we cannot see beyond caste, then I’m afraid to say our future is not going to be anywhere near as bright as we’d like it to be.

Written by Sameer Hussain (M.Eng) - Admin Dadyal Online
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