February 15, 2009
Casteism: alive and well in Pakistan
Raza Rumi writing for The Friday Times, Pakistan (subscription only)
It is a cliché now to say that Pakistan is a country in transition – on a highway to somewhere. The direction remains unclear but the speed of transformation is visibly defying its traditionally overbearing, and now cracking postcolonial state. Globalisation, the communications revolution and a growing middle class have altered the contours of a society beset by the baggage and layers of confusing history.
What has however emerged despite the affinity with jeans, FM radios and McDonalds is the visible trumpeting of caste-based identities. In Lahore, one finds hundreds of cars with the owner’s caste or tribe displayed as a marker of pride and distinctiveness. As an urbanite, I always found it difficult to comprehend the relevance of zaat-paat (casteism) until I experienced living in the peri-urban and sometimes rural areas of the Punjab as a public servant.
I recall the days when in a central Punjab district, I was mistaken for a Kakayzai (a Punjabi caste that claims to have originated from the Caucasus) so I started getting correspondence from the Anjuman-i-Kakayzai professionals who were supposed to hold each other’s hands in the manner of the Free Masons. I enjoyed the game and pretended that I was one of them for a while, until it became unbearable for its sheer silliness and mercenary objectives.
It was also here that a subordinate told me in chaste Punjabi how the Gujjar caste was not a social group but a ‘religion’ in itself. Or that the Rajputs were superior to everyone else, second only to the Syeds. All else was the junk that had converted from the lowly Hindus (of course this included my family).
My first name is also a matter of sectarian interpretation. Another subordinate in my younger days lectured me on the importance of sticking together as the ‘victims’ of the Sunni majoritarian violence of Pakistani society. Mistaken as a Momin I also got a chance to know intra-group dynamics better, and also how closely knit such groups are and what they think of others. This reminds me of the horrific tales our domestic helper used to tell us about the Shi’ites, and as children we were scared to even go near a Moharram procession, until one day my Sunni parents fired her for poisoning their children’s minds.
My personal inclinations aside, for in the footsteps of the great Urdu poet Ghalib, I view myself as half a Shia, this has been a matter of concern. Can I not exist as a human being without being part of a herd? Obedience to hierarchies, conformity and identification with groups are central tenets of existing in Pakistan.
At a training institution fifteen years ago, where a group of us were being taught how to become ‘officers’, a colleague cooked up a fanciful story about me. In the lecture hall, I had argued for a secular state, quoting Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech and had highlighted the shoddy treatment of the minorities in Pakistan as a betrayal of the Quaid’s vision. This imaginative colleague circulated the rumour that the reason for my political views was that I belonged to the Ahmaddiya Jamaat. One could of course talk of the marginalised only if one was a part of that group. Otherwise why should we care, semi-citizens that we are!
In the twenty first century, Punjab’s entire electoral landscape is still defined by caste and biradari loyalties. In the 1980s, General Zia ul Haq’s machinations spearheaded a second social engineering in the Punjab by resuscitating the demons of clan, caste and tribe. Party-less elections helped Zia to undermine the PPP but it also gave enormous leeway to the state agencies to pick and choose loyalties when election was all about the elders of a biradari. His Arain (a non-land tilling caste) background became a topic of discussion as many Arains used this card to great personal and commercial advantage during his tenure. This is similar to what the Kashmiris have perceived under the multiple reigns of the now rechristened (in a democratic sense) Sharifs of the Punjab, who are proud Kashmiris.
Why blame the Punjabis only? In the early years of Pakistan, the migrants from India had set the ground for the politics of patronage along ethnic and group-lines. Karachi became divided into little Lucknows, Delhis and other centres of nostalgia. Employment opportunities and claims of property, as several personal accounts and autobiographies reveal, were doled out on the basis of affiliation to pre-partition networks – Aligarh, Delhi, UP qasbaas and Hyderabadi neighbourhoods. The same goes for the smaller units of Pakistan. Small wonder that the Bengalis ran away from the Pakistan project, despite being its original initiators.
We pride ourselves on being a nuclear armed Islamic state that broke away from the prejudiced Baniyas whose abominable caste system was inhuman. But what do we practice? Who said casteism was extinct in Pakistan? My friends have not been allowed to marry outside their caste or sect, Christian servants in Pakistani households are not permitted to touch kitchen utensils, and the word ‘choora’ is the ultimate insult after the ritualistic out-of wedlock sex and incestuous abuses involving mothers and sisters or their unmentionable anatomical parts. A Sindhi acquaintance told me how easy it was to exploit the Hindu girls at his workplace or at home. And what about the many blasphemy cases in the Punjabi villages, the roots of which are located in social hierarchies and chains of obedience.
The untouchables of the cities and the villages are called something else but they remain the underbelly of our existence. Admittedly these incidences are on a lesser scale than in India. That simply is a function of demographics. Even Mohammad Iqbal, the great reformist poet, lamented in one of his couplets: Youn tau Syed bhi ho, Mirza bhi ho, Afghan bhi ho/Tum sabhi kuch ho, batao tau Mussalman bhi ho (You are Syeds, Mirzas and Afghans/You are everything but Muslims).
Enter into a seemingly educated Punjabi setting and the conversation will not shy away from references to caste characteristics. For instance, I once heard a lawyer make a remark about a high-ranking public official, calling him a nai (barber) and therefore branding him as the lowest of the low. One of the reasons for Zardari-bashing in Sindh, has to do with the Zardari tribe’s historical moorings. They were camel herders as opposed to the ruling classes with fiefs.
When the young motorists playing FM radio, mast music, arranging dates on mastee chats, display the primordial caste characteristic on their windscreens, one worries if the ongoing change process can deliver a better society. Superficial signs of change cannot make up for the need for a secular educational system, equality of opportunity and accountability of political elites and their patron-state that use casteism as an instrument of gaining and sustaining power.
More bewildered, I wonder where I belong. Bulleh Shah has taught me that shedding categorisations is the first step towards self-knowledge. But I live in a society where branding and group labels are essential, if not unavoidable.
For this reason I am peeved that I still don’t know who I am.