Inherited caste identity is an important determinant of life opportunity for a fifth of the world’s population, but is not given the same significance in global development policy debate as gender, race, age, religion or other identities. Narendra Jadhav, while advocating an end to the practice of using surnames, asserted that the caste system is the most brilliantly administered scam in history.
The caste system provides a hierarchy of social roles that hold inherent characteristics and remain stable throughout life. Caste discrimination affects an estimated 260 million people worldwide, the vast majority of them living in South Asia. It involves massive violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Those at the bottom are considered lesser human beings, impure, and polluting to other castes. Dr BR Ambedkar in ‘The Annihilation of Caste’ wrote that, “You cannot build anything on the foundation of caste. You cannot build up a nation, you cannot build up a morality. Anything that you will build on the foundation of caste will crack and will never be a whole.”
The concept of Chaturvarna caste system (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra) in ancient Kashmir was not unknown but owing to the socio-political and economic reasons and Sufi intervention, almost all sections of castes gave up their caste and willingly or unwillingly embraced Islam. The Sufis entered Kashmir when people were passing through a period of political volatility, casteism, hefty taxation and severe burden of feudalism. Sufism as an amalgamation of humanism, spirituality and tolerance promoted Islam. The doctrine that there is only one God, that is Allah, sans the caste and class system, attracted people in the Kashmir valley, especially the low-castes.
Islam unites the entire human race under one banner without any kind of discrimination. The Quran advocates that, “O Mankind! Verily 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).” However, caste-based discriminations disappeared but they were replaced by class distinctions which in certain cases retained the old rigidity. The people of Kashmir in medieval period also were grouped into different classes mainly based upon racial, religious, social and economic factors. The caste system among Muslims in Kashmir is not as vicious as in Hindus but its existence is very real and should be countered. The eminent Kashmiri sociologist, late Prof Bashir Ahmad Dabla, in his book ‘Directory of caste in Kashmir’ writes, “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.”
The word ‘Watul’ is a generic term in Kashmiri language for the Watal community. Watals are an endogamous social group in Kashmir, like Dalits in India, associated with polluting jobs such as skinning animals, scavenging and sweeping. Despite the absence of overt caste violence, the dominant classes’ refusal to socialise and form matrimonial alliances with these groups indicates that caste is one of the most divisive forces in Kashmiri society. The bias is so deep that people openly observe untouchability and caste system in the matters of marriages and food sharing, but deny its existence as it runs contrary to their faith (Islam), based on the principle of egalitarianism.
Although Watals are referred to as Sheikhs in common parlance in Kashmir, there are three categories of Sheikhs, one is that of Muslim spiritual guides (Shaikh i.e. Pir or Musrhid), another is agrarian class associated with farming (to which the author himself belongs) and the third group is that of Watal Sheikhs. The jobs considered polluting in Brahmanical society such as manual scavenging and skinning animals continued to be looked down upon in Kashmir. There is a preconceived notion in Kashmiri society that the Watals (Sheikhs) have been meant to ‘clean dirt from society.’ Ironically, the Watal Sheikhs too think that cleaning is their job and no other community is supposed to do it. Watals prepare the hides of dead cattle and buffaloes and the skins of sheep and goats, and rear poultry for sale. Wakefield espoused that Watals are descendants of the aboriginal inhabitants of Kashmir before the advent of the Aryans. They differ from rest of the inhabitants, who hold them in contempt, and have the manners and appearance of a ubiquitous tribe, the gipsy.
However, Islam does not support any kind of superiority or inferiority. Even our beloved Prophet Mohammad (SAW) used to assist his family in daily chores and categorically rejected each and every kind of discrimination. He said, “O Mankind! Your Lord is one and your father is one. You all descended from Aadam, and Aadam was created from the earth. He is most honoured among you in the sight of God who is most upright. No Arab is superior to a non-Arab, no coloured person to a white person, or a white person to a coloured person except by Taqwa (piety).”
The British official Walter Lawrence also observed this discriminatory cultural milieu of Kashmir and enunciated Watals as a wandering community. Watals as a tribe were not considered very honest and were said to be robbers of hen-roosts. This nature of perfidy is endorsed by the Kashmir proverb: “Watal Batwarah or Watal Braswarah” (A sweeper’s Saturday or a sweeper’s Thursday).
There are several classes of Watals. Those who make winnowing fans are called Shupi Watal. Some do regular mihtar’s work and are generally called duwanwol. Others make boots and shoes and are called simply Watal. Like people of other crafts, the boot-makers invariably want something in advance and promise the boots on the following Saturday, which promise is renewed for two or three Saturdays. Hence the proverb became famous. This characterisation of the mendacious nature of Watals has been noted by Prof Mohammad Yusuf Ganaie at the University of Kashmir as a “half-truth” (based on an empirical study). Prof Ganaie reported that owing to various economic opportunities especially in post 1947 era, Watals have no doubt given up the robbing of hen-roosts, but speaking generally, an impression persists in society that they are dishonest and prone to lying. It is in this context that the saying, Watal kaelkait (Watal’s commitment to day after tomorrow) has come into being. For instance, if a Watul owed anything to some person in his locality either in the form of kind or cash, in case of a reminder for repayment, he would generally commit himself to kaelkait (day after tomorrow), but that commitment hardly materialised. Thus, even if today, somebody would like to convey his disdain to someone for not being true to his word in case of repayment, he would say that your commitment is just like ‘watal kaelkait.’
Common people use demeaning terms like ‘Watal Khaslat’ (quality) and ‘Watal Nasil’ (lineage) to heap scorn on them. But we as responsible persons of society do not analyse the economic causes which may have forced the Watal community to delay payments and give birth to above such unethical proverbs and terms. Their co-religionists forgot that the Quran enjoins a share of the poor and needy in one’s wealth and advises Muslims to spend for the welfare of the general public. Quran says, “And whatever you spend, He will replace it; and He is the best of the providers.” We as Ummah have failed in our duty and instead used unfair language for this community which is un-Islamic as Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said, “He who degrades a believing man or woman, or scorns him or her for their poverty or lack of means, Allah, most High, will defame him on the Day of Resurrection, and then will publicly disgrace him.”
There is nothing in their physiognomy to denote that the Watals are of a different race than the Kashmiri cultivators. These people have been treated with much contempt and naturally their social disabilities forced them to earn their livelihood by committing theft and sometimes by singing and dancing. Dr. BR Ambedkar stated that “Caste in the hands of the orthodox is a powerful weapon for persecuting the reforms and for killing all reforms.” The Muslims of Kashmir despite being the followers of an egalitarian thought still cleave to the heinous ways of dismembering the society at large. Islam no doubt provided a unifying and leavening force, and the Sufis tried to bridge the gulf between the different classes, but owing to the economic disparities and occupational differences, real social equality could not be achieved. Watal community is at the worst and lowest rung of society. The famous Sufi saint of Kashmir, Shaikh Noor-ud-din (RA), spurned this discrimination and jotted down that one who harps proudly upon one’s caste is totally bereft of reason and wisdom.