June 7, 2022 11:16 pm

‘We Take It Lightly’—But Caste Discrimination Ruins Lives In Kashmir

“Even if it takes years to get a perfect match, people would prefer not to do it if the caste doesn’t match. I think it is silly. A lot of Kashmiri men and women have already crossed the preferable marriage age because of this.”

By Tabia Masoodi, Al Misda Masoom

LOST in his thoughts, Faiq stares into the nothingness. The nothingness that surrounds him from the outside is resonating with the nothingness he feels from within. He breaks the impasse by recalling how brutally his hopes were shattered.

Ten years ago, Faiq got admitted into the college and started a new phase of life. Not only did he get friends but among them was a special friend. Over those three years of college, they both became extremely attached to each other. After college, they joined the same university together for their masters, dreaming of life and future together. Once done with masters, they were hoping to get married. But little did they know destiny had some other plans for them.

The girl’s family didn’t approve of Faiq. The girl belonged to the Syed family while the boy was of a non-Syed background. The reason for breaking the bond was that the girl’s family said they would have to hear the complaining tones of the extended family. “They brutally said that this marriage will bring disrepute to their name,” Faiq laments.

Not being able to handle and process whatever was happening, the whole situation turned traumatising for Faiq. He couldn’t even make sense of my surroundings.

Lost in his agony, he used to roam around Shehr-e-Khas wearing an old pheran. Every day at around 6 in the evening he used to sit in front of her home on a small stall and look at her window just to get a glimpse of the “love of his life”.  Without a miss, this became his routine that continued for months.

Just when Faiq thought that nothing worse than this could happen to him, there was more brutality in store for him. All his hopes were shattered on the day when the girl’s brothers beat him mercilessly. After this incident, he understood that there was nothing left to do but to give up.

“This discrimination based on castes ruined our lives,” lamented Faiq. “We take it lightly. But it takes a mental, emotional as well as physical toll to overcome something in which you have an emotional investment of more than ten years.”

While Faiq was lucky enough to push through his trauma many people are not able to transit through the world of insanity to sanity. Salim’s story is not different from Faiq’s except he wasn’t lucky enough to come back to the so-called world of wisdom. He has been on psychotropic drugs for the last 12 years.

Casteism has always been a monster lurking in the shadows of societies, making its discriminatory existence known to the people ignorant about its presence in the cruelest ways. Not only have people faced discrimination at the times of marriages, one can face the ugly monster in any aspect of life. Farhan Dar, a brilliant student, faced its heat during college life only.

He had taken admission with a passion and a lot of expectations for his graduation at a college in Srinagar. But soon his expectations were exterminated by the very monster of casteism at the hands of a teacher.

“That teacher was from a peer background and he was rude to me and would humiliate me for even a small mistake. He used to make racist remarks like ‘since when have people like you started getting an education’,” says Farhan. “All this was affecting my mental stability and shattering my self-confidence.”

In any society, a teacher is considered to be someone who eradicates the darkness of social evils with the light of their knowledge. But for Farhan, this very image of a teacher fell to pieces.

Even at workplaces, people have been a victim of this discriminatory idea of caste hierarchy.

Irfan Bhat has been at receiving end of this discrimination at the hands of his supervisor.

The supervisor and Irfan’s colleague both happened to share the same caste and belonged to a peer family. “He used to favour him a lot just because he was a peer,” said Irfan. “But my career suffered just because of this social evil.”

In his book Directory of Castes in Kashmir, sociologist Bashir Ahmad Dabla classified Kashmiri castes into three different groups. At the top are the ‘Syed castes’ – Geelani, Jeelani, Andrabi, Qadri, Hamdani, Bhukhari, Shah and others. Syeds claim to be the descendants of the family of the prophet Mohammad [PBUH]. It’s believed that Syeds came into Kashmir from Central Asia in the early 14th century and spread Islam in the region. Consequently, many say, they’ve a somewhat proprietary attitude towards Islam in Kashmir.

This group is followed by the ‘occupational castes’ which include surnames like Wani, Zargar, Bhat, Naqash, Lone, Khandey, Ahangar and others. While Syed castes are representative of the different tribes they belong to, this is not the same with occupational castes. These surnames denote only the occupations they or their ancestors had taken up.

At the bottom of Dabla’s caste hierarchy are the ‘service castes’ with names like Hanjis (people living in houseboats), Waza, Gilkar, Sofi, Dobi, Ganie, Bangi, or Sheikh. These are generally landless people or those whose occupations are considered menial.

Sheikh is an interesting caste here. If this title is used as a prefix it indicates the person has descended from Brahmin landlords. If, however, Sheikh is used as a surname, this indicates belonging to the sweeper community.

Elaborating the history of the caste system in Kashmir further, Zareef A. Zareef, a noted Kashmiri chronicler, said that before the Central Asian influence and the eventual arrival of Syeds in the valley, Dar, Rather and Bhat castes were the indigenous people of the valley. “Occupational castes had a Central Asian influence due to which they adopted the Persian name of their surname,” he said. “For instance, Zargar is the Persian translation of Sonur (goldsmith).”

But now, Zareef said, the mentality of people is changing due to education. “Now caste-based discriminations are a lot less than they used to be,” he believes. “Even though the change is not on a larger scale, it is happening slowly.”

Echoing his views, Syed Asim Geelani, a college graduate, says that there’s a great change in today’s generation where discrimination is not happening on a large scale. “If I’ll talk about me, I don’t believe in any superiority over others. I’m just like any other individual. If someone is discriminating on this basis, he/she needs to have an education,” he says. “Education is the key to eradicating such evil social norms. And the change due to education is already happening.”

Contrary to Asim’s view, Alia, a young Srinagarite, believes that even in today’s generation there are people who discriminate as much as people used to three or four decades ago. “I won’t negate the change but there’re still a lot of people who even as jokes pass casteist slurs. This shows that change from within is far to be achieved in a true sense,” says Alia.

In his book, late Prof. Dabla notes: “There prevails an unrealistic notion among some individuals and groups that caste as a working social institution does not exist in this society. But that does not stand as a social reality. The actual reality is caste as a functional social institution prevails in Kashmiri society.”

Even though there may be seen a decline in discrimination in many aspects but when it comes to marriages, casteism still has a stronghold over the minds of people. People on the top of the caste hierarchy still don’t prefer inter-caste marriage.

“Even if it takes years to get a perfect match, people would prefer not to do it if the caste doesn’t match. I think it is silly,” said Showkat Ahmad, a matchmaker. “A lot of men and women have already crossed the preferable marriage age because of this.”

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