The Specter of Caste(ism) in Kashmir

The Specter of Caste(ism) in Kashmir
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By Mudasir Ali Lone

The existence of caste in Kashmir is generally ignored here. But the problem exists in Kashmir and it is deep and wide. This is best illustrated by the historical and contemporary experiences of those who have experienced this menace. Perhaps the peasant class of Kashmir can best illustrate their plight when asked how the Malluh (upper-castes) used to treat them. Or the plight of the Naangar’s (landless) experiences with how other communities treat(ed) them constitutes a vivid example of caste and casteism in Kashmir. Perhaps the worst predicament is that of the Waatal community (Chamaar, also called Sheikh in Kashmir) and their attendant ostracism by broader society. They have been ostracized to such an extent that the word Waatul/Sheikh has become a slur and is used as a term of insult and abuse. There’s also the Haaenz (fisher men community) who have to face the ire of casteism.

I don’t know anyone from the community personally, but since childhood I have heard the word Haaenz being used as a slur/insult, and almost everyone in my village and others have indulged in disparaging/disrespecting them.

There is a hierarchy of castes in Kashmir. Malluhs stand at the top of the caste-pyramid; then there are Greest and then come the Naangaar. At the bottom are the communities like Sheikh, Haaenz. The Malluhs have exploited everyone and have maintained their position at the top through treachery, deception and lies.

My observations about caste and casteism in Kashmir were validated by a conversation with a friend of mine who said that, “Sheikh and Haaenz always lived in ‘ghettos’ and were ill-treated”. He then narrated an incident from his village where a person from the Sheikh community was asked to dine with the head priest of the village (Malluh). Unaware of the Malluh’s presence in the gathering, the Sheikh ran away from the gathering, saying that “he would burn in hell if he shared the plate with the Imam (Malluh)”. Malluhs have a notorious reputation for using religion for their personal benefits and for exploiting others. They have always used religion as a tool to maintain their position at the top of hierarchy.

I also remember an incident when I was traveling in a train with two other acquaintances. One of them was a Kumar (from potter community, called Kraal in Kashmiri). They had a little fight over something and they started arguing with each other when suddenly the other guy said to the Kumar, “Kraal chhukh naa, haawakh naa Karaaluh khasltat (You are a Kraal, and you’re showing your Kraal qualities)”.

I wasn’t surprised because casteist jibes are a norm in Kashmir and there is no stopping it.
In my own village, there is a sort of “ghettoization” of the Sheikh community. All the Sheikhs from our village reside within a very small area with a huge density of homes compared to other areas of village. They have small homes with almost no or very little space. I remember seeing new members of that community coming to our village and they would go nowhere else but find a place in that particular area to build their homes even when the place seemed almost filled up. That area is called Sheikhpoor (Sheikh Mohalla). It is sandwiched between a school and a road and is completely in contrast with the way other communities live in Kashmir with open spaces around their homes. It also gives us a clear picture of how Sheikhs or Haaenz are not accepted by other communities. Coming to the Naangaar community, they get a little respite from casteism (compared to Sheikhs) because other communities are dependent upon them for their daily needs. Naangaar community includes skilled workers like carpenters, masons, barbers, bakers (kaander), potters, blacksmiths and so on.
Marriage between Malluh and others is almost impossible; there are numerous cases in Kashmir where Malluh citing their upper caste status refused to let their children marry in the lower castes. Similarly, Greest and Naangaar getting married raises eyebrows and faces huge opposition. Sheikh/Haaenz community is totally ostracized and I’m yet to know about marriage ties with them from other communities.

Our society- especially our intelligentsia- is defined by double standards: We talk about caste and casteism other societies but miserably fail to see the same in Kashmir. I personally have not witnessed proper debate on casteism in Kashmir by anyone yet anywhere- in the media or even social media. I know Kashmiri guys who acknowledge existence of casteism and caste structures in various communities (outside Kashmir), but use casteist slurs freely in Kashmir. I was shocked to see these guys use terms like Haaenz/Waatul as insults to others. However, when they are confronted about it, they are blissfully unaware about the casteist connotations of these terms. Mind you that these are the guys who claim to understand caste and claim to be kind of anti-caste warriors, and if that’s how they (supposedly enlightened and expert people) fail to see casteism in Kashmir one wonders about others, that is, the common people. Talk to anyone in Kashmir about casteism, they simply shift the debate to India. They will talk about Dalits and Bahujans in India, but never ever have I heard anyone acknowledge its evil presence in Kashmir. We love to live in denial!
The caste issue in Kashmir needs to be addressed, discussed and debated as it is: an evil that lurks in our hearts. I do not see any reason for feeling proud about Kashmiri heritage and culture when it has produced evils like casteism. Ours is a casteist society and I’m ashamed of it. Period. I think we all should be!

The author is pursuing B.Tech at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad and can be reached at: