Question of Caste and Democracy in Kashmir 

Traditionally Kashmiris would respect craftsman as God’ chosen person. They would be careful about what is called mixing of castes. They were, true to the Islamic tradition, also against changing caste or name. A peer, for instance, should be a teacher of a sort and not an administrator, not a bureaucrat. They would respect the authority of a wise man in a village more than collective opinion or voting one’s choice. They would strongly be attached to their localities and in fact this is still a “problem” when new generation has to decide where to live and not getting cooperation from older generation of parents. Traditionally people cared more about good neighbours than good facilities provided by the State. Traditionally relationships mattered in making key decisions and today cold calculations. Traditionally social roles were better defined and services were better. We could hardly need a carpenter or barber from an alien land to deliver services. Neighbours, even if less efficient in certain sense, were preferred.

All these things are interconnected. I am afraid it is the word caste that raises most eyebrows. Nothing has been more misunderstood in the wake of modern democratic set up than the institution of caste. Granting abuses of this institution that are evident to anyone and far from defending Hindu caste system or its Kashmiri version as far as it sounds arbitrary and exploitative in any way, there is a need for understanding what it originally meant and what function it served in the total dynamics of our society few decades back. I wish to defend and provide metaphysical grounding for what Sheikhul Alam said teli mali aasi wander raaj (O dear! Then will be the reign of primates).  Or apricots and apples will mature together. And many other similar sayings are understandable only in light of traditionalist view of caste, of kufoo, of rule by the wise rather than people or so-called democratic rule. Let me quote Coomaraswamy to state the complexities of the case and the neglected or distorted other aspect of a traditional notion with which we had hardly any problem few decades back. Caste, understood as Aristocracy of Spirit, is a universal phenomenon, to be found in every tradition, not just Hindu or Kashmiri. It is not found in Kashmir only. In a traditional society everything is related to everything else and subordinated to the chief spiritual end of perfection or linked to God and every action is a sort of worship or sacrifice. All the quotes are from Coomaraswamy’s essay “The Bugbear of Democracy, Freedom and Equality.”

 “Sometimes, “the more we see of democracy, the more we value monarchy”; the more we see of “equality,” the less we admire “that monster of modern growth, the financial-commercial state” in which the majority lives by its “jobs,” and the dignity of a vocation or profession is reserved for the very few, and where, in the words of Eric Gill, “on the one hand we have the artist concerned solely to express himself; on the other is the workman deprived of any self to express”.

 “No type of civilization can be accepted that does not provide for the worker’s happiness: and no man can be happy who is forced to earn a living otherwise than by the labors for which he is naturally fitted and to which therefore he can literally devote himself with enthusiasm. I say that no man can be happy but in “that station of life to which it has pleased God to call him”; that man is literally unfortunate (deprived of his due inheritance) if either the state or his own ambition bring it about that his fortune and his nature are incongruous.”

 “There are types of society that are by no means “above,” but on the contrary “below” caste; societies in which there prevails what the traditional sociologies term a “confusion of castes”; societies in which men are regarded primarily if not, indeed, exclusively as economic animals, and the expression “standard of living,” dear to the advertising manufacturer, has only quantitative connotations.

 “The economic results of commercial exploitation (“world trade”) are typically summarized in Albert Schweitzer’s words, “whenever the timber trade is good, permanent famine reigns in the Ogowe region.” When thus “commerce settles on every tree,” the spiritual consequences are even more devastating; “civilization” can destroy the souls as well as the bodies of those whom it infects”.

“The traditional arts and crafts are, in fact, “mysteries,” with “secrets” that are not merely “tricks of the trade” of economic value (like the so-much-abused European “patents”)”

“The pursuit of perfection is everyman’s “equality of opportunity”; and the goal is the same for all, for the miner and the professor alike, because there are no degrees of perfection.”

 Let us not forget that we have neither rule for the people nor by the people as democracy promises, nor freedom to work as our nature or aptitude would demand, nor equality in any meaningful sense today in the reign of democracy or welfare state. If most of us are alienated from their work, wish to change their job or rise to higher social status it means there is fundamentally something wrong with our system. We have few craftsmen and almost only mazdoors, may be in white collar professions. Let us consider Coomaraswamy and give a thought to an aspect of our tradition that we are proudly losing. Marxist, Dalit and other critiques of modern pathologies of ancient institution  need to be read along with Coomaraswamy’s writings if we are not to throw the baby with the bathwater.