The Political Economy of Class and Social Power in Kashmir

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Wajahat Qazi

WORDS and their etymology are powerful in their own right but they are also signifiers-of class, status and power in a given society. Kashmir and its social mix and constituents are no exception in this regard. Words such as ‘khoje’ (upper class wealthy person), ‘waatal’ (roughly the sweeper and the cobbler class), doomb (the lowest classes), peer (the priestly class), ‘haenz’( the boat people of Kashmir, who live almost in a different world and zone ), ‘groos’(peasant) and so on are signifiers of social class  in Kashmir suggesting the class or caste(used interchangeably here) of persons in what was and is a deeply hierarchical society. All these words have, over time, acquired pejorative connotations as well. But, this is the least of the issues. The real problem begins when such signifiers assume dimensions that can either hold back a person (or persons) or even advance them in a social hierarchy.

Consider the pirs and khojas of Kashmir first. The former stood on a higher social pedestal because of their monopoly on/of religion and learning thereof. The latter owed their prestige to either ownership of land or monopolization of the trades and crafts of Kashmir. Both fed on the lower, uneducated classes of Kashmir and the peasants- the pirs were held in awe by the groos and others. This politico-socio-economic condition held and endured almost throughout the rule of various rulers of Kashmir with each class instrumentalized by the rulers for pure reason d’ etat. For example, the doombe,  because of their lower status were associated with a degree of crudeness and rudeness formed the constabulary and informants  of the various rulers. The khojas and the pirs, held to be the polite castes or the ‘shareefs’ of Kashmir, served as intermediaries of the governing classes.

Boatmen of Kashmir- File photo

Life, under these conditions for the deprived classes, was nasty and brutish in Kashmir. It was perhaps only with the incipient advance of Kashmiri nationalism that a new constellation of classes and castes emerged but this was a relatively small class – an educated cohort that assumed a new consciousness and thereby called for both social and economic reform. The Land to Tiller reforms instituted by Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, under socialist influences, aimed to empower the groos (peasant) altered the social dynamic. (But, it was only after land prices skyrocketed in Kashmir that the groos reaped financial benefits. The unintended effect was that the groos landowner and land holder who was supposed to reap fruit from the land and contribute to agricultural efflorescence of agriculture promptly sold his land as a get rich quick scheme).

It was in marriages that class or caste configurations also were reflected; these were almost endogamous. Corresponding to the typology and category of, say Khojas– the wealthy elite- married into Khoja families, the waatals into waatal families, the pirs into pir families and so on.

But, like in other societies, of course, in varying degrees, did education and the crystallization of the state structures alter these social and class dynamics in Kashmir? Not fundamentally is the answer. This is primarily because in the initial days access to the state and thereby was monopolized by the privileged classes who continued to be extractive and exploitative toward the lower classes. The same held true for businesses and trades till Bakhshi Ghulam Muhammad, for political reasons, created new classes in Kashmir. For example, by giving bus and taxi licenses to tongawallahs, Bakhshi derived political patronage from these classes and other allied ones. Access to resources of the state was , for instance, contingent on patronage of the wealthier classes. Forest lessees and so on for example, were given rights for lumbering, denuding Kashmir’s forest and green cover in the process.

By and large, the condition of the waatals, the doomb, the haenz and so on remained the same till the eruption of open militarized conflict in Kashmir. This opened all the fault lines of Kashmir and the social order got inverted. The aspiration of the lower classes was to mimic the upper classes in the changed socio economic order. (Some nouveau riche people who made their wealth during this period are called TK’s in Kashmir meaning ‘tehreeki khojas’, the implication being that they made their money in less salubrious ways) But, underneath this change, counter intuitively, the aspiration for education cutting across classes gained traction and momentum. Even though the provision of education was and is shoddy, but people from all walks of life began educating their children. The pirs, even though  till a potent force, especially in rural Kashmir, lost their pre eminence; the groos was now educated and aspired to be a government official or a bureaucrat or a professional; some underprivileged classes also by virtue of education became doctors, engineers and so on, forming the middle class firmament in Kashmir.

But, even though there were some inter marriages, the underlying social and prejudicial dynamics remained. Behind his back the educated and professional groos was still called a groos pejoratively; the groos, in turn, when he was in a position of power made it a point to throw his weight and position around and so on. The larger point here is that while education rendered malleable social classes and social mobility, to a degree was made possible but the aspirational dynamic was not entirely the kind that would correspond to modernization of outlook and temperament and therefore equality. It , actually, in a different permutation and combination gyrated to the old dynamic of classes and castes in Kashmir in a somewhat different idiom. Will the age of technology and the internet change this?

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Wajahat Qazi

Masters with Distinction in International Relations from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Worked as Associate Editor of Kashmir Observer.

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