'Never throw mud.
You may miss your mark;
but you will surely have dirty hands.'
The irony of the present day world is that on one hand we claim advancement and modernization of mankind and on the other hand we still cling to the wrong beliefs and traditions. Loud statements and tall claims do not reflect reality. Modernization should be holistic, and more prominent in the intellectual arena. We may have broadened our outlook on some aspects of life, but our basic mentality is the same. Until we grow intellectually, any progress is futile. As it is said that the greatest of faults is to be conscious of none, we need to realize our shortcomings and faults.
One of the wrong notions in the human society, particularly ours, is the concept of caste system. Caste system basically represents the class hierarchy in a society while casteism is the rigid social stratification and discrimination in terms of vocations or castes. Although many other nations are characterized by social inequality, but nowhere else in the world has a belief persisted for such a long time as in our society. A concept created almost 3,500 years ago still exist today mainly because it is embedded in tradition, religion and philosophy in this part of the world.
In the modern period, the issue of casteism has been severely criticized by both Indian and foreign observers. We need to understand the history and concept behind this caste system and realize its irrelevance. There are different theories about the establishment of the caste system; religious-mystical theories, biological theories and socio-historical theories.
According to the social historical theory, the caste system in India began with the arrival of the Aryans from central and south Europe and north Asia, around 1500 BC. It is believed that the caste system was not created by a person, but rather it developed out of a practice of a society over several thousands of years. The skin color was an important factor in the caste system as is evident from the meaning of the word "Varna" (caste), meaning skin color. After their arrival, the Aryans set up some social and religious rules, which allowed only them to comprise of the upper class of the society. The community during those times comprised of the locals who were suppressed by the Aryans, and the descendants of Aryans with locals. Later, Aryans added others to their system on the basis of the different professions.
'Worst wars are the religious wars between sects of the same religion or civil wars between brothers of the same race.'
- Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead)
The caste system originated in the Hindu society and was then passed over to the Muslim society as well. In fact, a good Hindu was expected to do everything to live up to the expectations of his caste in order to ensure a good life in one's next reincarnation (janam). Their caste system comprised of five different classes or 'varna'- Brahman (priests and scholars), Kshatriya (rulers, warriors or landowners), Vaishya (merchants), Shudra (artisans or agriculturalists), and untouchable Harijans (sweepers and cleaners). Within each of these classes were the actual castes we know as 'jaatis' or 'zaat', within which people are born, marry, and die. The caste system was related to the occupation or profession of a person. Indologists believe that long back, the caste system was not a strict system and people could move from one class to another due to the desire to adopt different occupations. Later, the caste system was organized in a strict manner but still some communities did not always follow their status occupations. Also, anyone who did not belong to these four classes was an outcast and untouchable. This included all foreigners and non-Hindus, though the Muslims who arrived in India were too powerful to be treated as untouchables.
The Arabs began invading north India in about 8th century and thus started a process of converting Indians to Islam. Caste discrimination persisted even during the Muslim rule in India (1206-1862). After the Arabs, Muslims began coming around 11th century from other central Asian nations. It is believed that most of the Indians who converted to Islam belonged to the existing lower classes. These Hindus thought that by converting to Islam they would come out of this system, but it is believed that in most of the cases they remained in the same hierarchy level after their conversion. Besides these, some Hindu rulers adopted Islam and some are descendants of Muslim rulers who invaded India.
Hence, Muslim origin can be traced to these three sources. Besides the two sects, namely Sunni and Shia, the Muslim community was unfortunately divided into various castes and sub-castes. There are Muslims who claim to be the descendants from the daughter of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the men in this community add the title 'Syed' before their names. Other claim to be the descendants from the first Muslims and add the title 'Sheikh'. The Pathans (Khan) were Muslims who arrived from Afghanistan though many Indians who adopted Islam adopted their surname 'Khan'. With time, there also developed another classification based on the origin of the Muslims. The upper class, called 'Sharif Jaat' were the high caste Muslims or the foreigners, and the lower class, called 'Ajlaf Jaat' included Muslim converts from lower castes.
It is believed that the term 'caste' was first used by Portuguese travelers who came to India in the 16th century and originated from the word 'casta' meaning "race" or "breed". Some believe that this term was used by the British who ruled India until 1947. The British, in their ambition to rule India efficiently, segregated the Indian community into castes and tribes. The elite of the Indian society were classified as high castes, while the other communities were classified as lower castes.
Unfortunately, Muslims in Kashmir are divided on the basis of casteism, Sufism, peerism and fundamentalism. According to Kalhana's Raj Tarangini, casteism in Kashmir was somewhat flexible than in other parts of India. Kashmiris are believed to have originated from the Aryan race and it is agreed that Kashmiri Pandits undoubtedly belong to Aryan race, as Kashmir was a colony of Aryan immigrants from central Asia. Kashmiri Pandits, with a few exceptions, belong to the Brahman class. Present Kashmiri surnames have more or less evolved during the Muslim and Sikh rule. Like elsewhere, the Brahmins in Kashmir held powerful positions and the members of the low castes wanted to free themselves from the bondage of the Brahmins. This could be a reason why Islam took such deep roots among the Hindus in the valley between the 15th and 18th century.
Talking about the implications of this caste system, different religions got different social status in different parts of the Indian society. Most of the communities who were high or low in the caste hierarchy remained high or low, respectively, in the social order. Members of a high caste enjoyed more wealth and opportunities while members of a low caste perform menial jobs. Another tradition was that the son inherited his father's profession and this custom got carried on for generations. Different families who practiced the same profession developed social relations between them and organized as a common community. As expected, the upper classes did not interact much with the lower classes. Mostly people married only with members of their own community or caste. In some cases a daughter from the lower community could marry a son from the higher community but not vice versa. It was considered convenient for people to marry having the same background or jaat, because it was expected that there would be minimum adjustment problems. It was believed that this type of arranged marriage would not lead to any unfamiliar or unwanted post-marital situations. The idea behind this is logical and reasonable but it then became a social custom over a period of time whereby the people stuck to their family professions and also married within same type of families and castes. Thus, matrimonial issues were mostly centered on the caste criterion. Marriage across castes was forbidden and those who defied this norm were excommunicated from their castes. Sometimes these issues lead to social clashes, community riots or caste tensions.
'We are all brothers under the skin.
We don't need to skin humanity to prove it.'
If we probe this issue from the Islamic viewpoint, we realize the absurdity of this discrimination. The fact that in reality Islam pays no heed to such social classification and that no consideration should be given to the caste or race of people in any aspects of life is clear from the following verses of the Holy Qur'an:
'Verily, this brotherhood of yours is a single Brotherhood,
and I m your Lord and Cherisher:
therefore serve Me (and no other).'
- Surah 21, Al Anbiya, verse 92.
We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female,
and made you into nations and tribes,
that ye may know each other
(not that ye may despise each other).
Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is
(he who is) the most righteous of you...'
-Surah 49, Hujuraat, verse 13.
'When men are so wicked with religion,
What would they be without it?'
Selfishness, power, need or egotism led man to divide themselves into races, nations and castes. All religions advocated the equality of people of different races, languages and nations forming the closest brotherhood, united in the service of God. It is people of narrower views who made false interpretations and broke up God's message into jarring camps and sects.
All mankind is created of a single pair of parents and as long as a person holds this true, there is no logic in believing in the high or low status of a person on the basis of his birth and caste.
As far as matrimonial issues are concerned, marriage is considered to be the most intimate and sacred communion. Showing bias or making a distinction on the basis of caste, color, creed, language and race in any matter of life is improper. Unfortunately, the Muslim community too is plunged deep into this abyss.
It was the Industrial Revolution that brought a change and a new awareness to people. The rigid, caste-centered thinking gave way to a more liberal perspective and lifestyle. The most serious attack on the caste system came in the 20th century through the Constitution of India. The caste system has mellowed down considerably over the last hundred years or so. People can choose occupations that are not exactly what their caste requires. Many castes have begun to improve their status and create a niche for themselves in the society. Trends such as urbanization and industrialization have helped in breaking down caste barriers to some extent. Interaction among the members of different castes has helped to weaken the strict rules of the caste system. Though caste discrimination was abolished and made illegal since 1950, but prejudice continued and continues even today...
'To repeat what others have said requires education;
To challenge it requires brains.'
- Mary Pettipone Poole
Why don't we use ours and challenge this age-long belief? Others find the caste system complicated, strange and unreasonable. We, however, accept it as natural. But there is nothing natural about it. Considering the fact that casteism has no religious sanction, it is necessary that we stop believing in it. Issues such as race, color, caste and nationality should have been nothing more than convenient labels by which we may know certain differing characteristics of people. It should not have been the basis of judging people. It is in the interest of humanity to rise above these petty norms and beliefs. Considering the principles of equality, dignity, and justice for all human beings, it is imperative that we shun casteism and promote a discrimination-free social setup. It is high time that people should break away from such customs and beliefs, without any fear of repercussions from the state, society or religion.
The only way we are ever going to ensure peace on this planet is to adopt the entire world as 'our family'.