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					     Letter from South Asia
Class, Caste or Race: Veils                                                                        discussion about caste and caste-based
                                                                                                   oppression, social hierarchies, and discrimi-
                                                                                                   nation. The Right silences such talk by

over Social Oppression                                                                             shouts of “we are all Muslims” and “caste
                                                                                                   is another country” – obvious which coun-
                                                                                                   try that might be. In fact, the denunciation

in Pakistan                                                                                        of “the evil caste system” is a standard
                                                                                                   hymn in the rightist intellectual’s reper-
                                                                                                   toire on India, Hindus and the Two-Na-
                                                                                                   tion Theory. For the Left in Pakistan,
Pakistani society prefers to silence any discussion about                                          when there was one, it was all about
caste-based discrimination and oppression in the public domain                                     class. Caste or other societal sources of
even though such marginalisation is widespread in many parts                                       inequality and oppression were seen as
of the country.                                                                                    unnecessary diversions from class
                                                                                                   struggle. The Left, of course, never succee-
HARIS GAZDAR                                     (‘katchi abadis’), villages, hamlets, migrants’   ded in large-scale class mobilisation ei-
                                                 campsites and beggar colonies in many             ther, and it is tempting to put this failure


W
            hen asked recently to think          districts: Peshawar in North-Western              down to sterilised and mechanical ideas
            about “social marginalisation”       Frontier Province (NWFP), the Islamabad           about class that did not address societal
            in Pakistan, and to carry out        Capital Territory, Faisalabad, Lahore, and        conditions.
fieldwork on the issue in rural and urban        Toba Tek Singh in central Punjab, Dera               There is yet another popular response to
areas of the country, an experienced team        Ghazi Khan and Rajanpur in southern               the question of caste hierarchy that can be
of researchers knew they were up against         Punjab, Quetta, Kech and Gwadar in                seen as a synthesis of the cruder early
some of the usual sources of resistance. It      Balochistan, and Sanghar, Badin and               rightist and leftist approaches. Those
is easy enough to think, speak and write         Karachi in Sindh. We visited a number of          educated enough to have read a colonial
about “economic” poverty in Pakistan – the       places that were quite familiar and also          gazetteer – that fountainhead of societal
government’s point men notwithstanding.          some places that were new.                        knowledge – know that caste is not an-
Societal causes of deprivation and margi-           There was a prior list of groups or            other country, and that caste was class in
nalisation such as caste, religion and ethni-    “communities” that were of primary inte-          what would be Pakistan. It is hard to argue
city find few takers and many detractors.        rest. This included groups that were known        with something written in correct English
But as our intrepid researchers got about        to face caste-based oppression, such as the       by a real Englishman, or a properly trained
their work, new demons that proved to be         ‘kammis’ (service castes) and “menial”            Indian Civil Services officer who was the
familiar, and yet quite unnerving, reared        Muslim shaikhs in Punjab and the                  next best thing. The answer is that caste
their heads.                                     NWFP; groups such as the ‘masihi’ Chris-          is the past – that was then, now is different.
   I have enjoyed the privilege, over the last   tians in Punjab, and the bheels, kolhis           For evidence, some offer the standard
many years, of working with a gifted group       and other scheduled caste Hindus in               anecdote of the “low-caste” person from
of field researchers who relish the oppor-       Sindh who, in addition to caste-based op-         their own village who went to Dubai and
tunity of challenging their own imagina-         pression, were also vulnerable to                 did well, while others wax lyrical about
tions and asking difficult questions.1 We        religious discrimination. 2 Traditional           Pakistan having an urban “feel” to it.
have worked together on a number of social       beggars, minstrels and groups known to               The public silencing on caste contrasts
policy issues including rural poverty, urban     follow a peripatetic lifestyle represented        with an obsession with it in private dealings
governance, school performance, bonded           another distinct process of marginali-            and transactions. I was once heckled at a
labour and migration. Our last assignment        sation from the mainstream economy and            policy forum in Islamabad while presenting
took us on a whirlwind tour along the            society. In some areas, notably Makran in         findings of research that highlighted the
length of the country – from Khyber to           southern Balochistan with a history of            significance of traditional caste and occu-
Karachi – and across its breadth from            African slave trade, race was expected to         pational hierarchies in the working of labour
Badin to Gwadar. Part of the brief was to        be an important dimension of social               markets. It was quite bizarre to be at the
understand and document diverse processes        marginalisation.                                  receiving end of a leftist “class-not-caste”
of social marginalisation. Or the system-                                                          harangue from a Jamaat-e-Islami trade
atic marginalisation of individuals, fami-       Caste Is Another Country,                         unionist – reassuringly, he later conformed
lies, and groups due to their “social” attri-    Another Time                                      to type and accused our research of besmir-
butes such as caste, traditional occupation,                                                       ching the image of Islam and Pakistan
kinship, ethnicity, religion and lifestyles.       We expected this study to raise the usual       before an international gathering.
   The fieldwork took us to diverse urban        hackles in Pakistan. There is little toler-       Even more ironic was the fact that a
neighbourhoods, irregular settlements            ance in the public domain of any serious          dominant theme of coffee-break chat


86                                                                                    Economic and Political Weekly January 13, 2007
among transfer-hungry bureaucrats as-            did not intend any offence when, outraged        all well known and there was a feeling that
sembled at that meeting was the favourable       at the state’s desecration of the remains        they committed these crimes because they
attitude of a high official in the Punjab        of a Baloch tribal leader killed in a mili-      could get away with it, knowing full well
provincial government towards applica-           tary operation, he blurted out, “we don’t        that the victims were socially and politi-
tions emanating from rajput sources. Such        treat even kammis like that!” No offence         cally weak. In fact, these rapes were only
encounters are common enough for the             was taken, of course, because there was          the most extreme instances of sexual vio-
few of us who do this type of work, and          no-one to speak up for the kammi biraderi,       lation suffered by the marginalised groups.
I frequently find myself swapping “war           or to ask our Lahori friend how he treated       In the language of the dominant groups the
stories” with my friend Ali Cheema who           his kammis.                                      “low castes” had no honour, and certainly
teaches economics in Lahore and is in               It was not surprising to me when in the       no honour that could be defended. The
many ways closer to the frontlines.              course of our fieldwork on social                Khans in Peshawar, who regarded them-
   In fact, the kinship group, known vari-       marginalisation we ran into a senior offi-       selves as the racially pure descendents of
ously as ‘zaat’, ‘biraderi’ and ‘quom’ in        cial who admonished me for purposively           11th century Pashtun invader tribes from
different parts of the country, remains a        selecting sites in Punjab with a large           Afghanistan thought that the women of
key – perhaps the key – dimension of             concentration of ‘chuhras’. It was easy          their ‘hamsayas’ (literally neighbours, but
economic, social and political interaction.      enough for this person to use what would         used as a euphemism for dependent service
It is a paradox that Pakistani society outside   be regarded as politically incorrect lan-        castes) such as the Toorkhail (literally
of Karachi, but also quite substantially         guage about an oppressed community –             “black lineage”) and ‘kisabgars’ (menials)
within that metropolis, is united in being       the “untouchable” sweepers who are               were of lax social morals. In any case the
divided into robust kinship groups. The          mostly Christian – in a private conversa-        hamsaya men, unlike the “pure” Pashtuns,
common practice of cousin-marriage – the         tion with a virtual stranger. In fact the        would not/could not protest openly if their
small Hindu and Christian communities            great Punjabi village joke is about caste,       women did contract illicit liaisons with
are exceptions in this regard – contributes      and at its receiving end usually stands a        other men.
to the strength of extended patriarchies.        chuhra, a ‘mussali’ (a pejorative term for         Everyday forms of exclusion revolve
Families and extended social networks            Muslim shaikh menial workers) or a               around taboos regulating eating and drink-
based upon kinship ties are important for        kammi. Luckily for our research the field-       ing together and sharing utensils. Bheels,
Pakistanis and they acknowledge and share        work was not stopped and we went on to           kolhis, bagris, lachhis and other scheduled
these values across ethnic and sectarian         meet many chuhras, mussalis and kammis           caste Hindus that we met in Sindh and
boundaries. Everyone instinctively               in Punjab, their counterpart ‘neech zaat’        Balochistan are served in plates and bowls
knows that market transactions and politi-       (low caste), ‘badnasal’ (bad lineage) in         that are kept separate from the rest in local
cal coalitions will be mediated through          NWFP, and ‘ghulams’ (slaves) in                  eateries. They have to wash these utensils
kinship group ties.                              Balochistan.                                     themselves after use. The same is true of
   Perhaps the public silencing on biraderi         Verbal abuse is just one part of it. In       the Christian chuhras in Punjab and
and quom is born out of embarrassment            Peshawar we heard about how children             the NWFP, who are also denied the
with the continuity of “traditional” social      from a Christian “sweeper” colony were           ‘huqqa’ (traditional smoking pipe) which
forms in the face of modernist aspirations       barred from local government schools –           otherwise circulates freely in the Punjabi
of the Islamist and cosmopolitan types           schools that encouraged the enrolment of         village.
respectively. If the most common under-          children of Afghan refugees who were not           The reasons offered by the Muslims for
standing of quom is the kinship group,           even Pakistani citizens. In brick kilns within   these food taboos – “they eat ‘haram’ (food
then whither the great nation-building           the Islamabad Capital Territory, Muslim          forbidden in Islam) such as carrion, pork,
projects?3 Pakistanis appear, at one level,      shaikh workers were held in conditions of        and reptiles, so it is forbidden for us to eat
to be obsessed with patriarchal notions of       virtual bondage. Youths who did manage           with them” – are curiously reminiscent of
honour, with all of the violent misogyny         to venture out to Rawalpindi’s Raja Bazar        brahmanical notions of ritual purity. Hardly
that goes with them. But the robustness          for recreation had the local police pounce       anyone bothers to substantiate claims about
of wide social networks based on kinship         on them and extract bribes for no reason         the consumption of haram food on the part
groups also accounts for feelings of soli-       other than their “mussali appearance”.           of these marginalised groups, or how, for
darity, group-based collective action, rela-     Bonded labour is also rife in Toba Tek           that matter, eating or sharing utensils with
tive autonomy from state and market, and         Singh villages where mussali farm ser-
a culture of hospitality.4                       vants remain at the beck and call of Araeen
                                                 farmers, as do bheel tenants of Sindhi
                                                 landlords in Sanghar. Verbal abuse leads         Economic and Political Weekly
How Do You Treat Your
Kammis?                                          to physical violence in many cases, and                       available from:
                                                 “light” slapping is not even reported as “a
   The trouble is that the biraderis and         beating”.                                            Churchgate Book Stall
quoms are not all equal, and public silenc-         We documented cases across the coun-                Churchgate Station
ing of the issue is very much about perpe-       try – in Peshawar, Faisalabad, Quetta and         Opp Indian Merchants Chamber
tuating existing hierarchies. The inequality     Sanghar – of rapes perpetrated against                     Churchgate
is so severe and deeply embedded in parts        “low-caste” women from chuhra, mussali,                 Mumbai - 400 020
of the country that it is hardly even no-        lachhi and scheduled caste Hindu commu-
ticed. An urbane politician from Lahore          nities respectively. The perpetrators were


Economic and Political Weekly January 13, 2007                                                                                              87
people who may have had partaken of food           oppression? “Caste” after all implies some
forbidden to Muslims might be offensive            legitimised “system” of the division of
to Islam. In fact, there is little problem in      labour. The Oxford English dictionary calls
sharing meals with “upper caste” and               it “any of the hereditary Hindu social
upper class Christians and Hindus. And             classes; any exclusive social class”. The
conversely, even second-generation                 common translation in Pakistani languages
Muslim converts from the marginalised              is zaat, which is not about social class but
“low-caste” groups are subjected to the            related to ‘nasal’ (lineage), or quite liter-
same food taboos – they “appear” like the          ally, race.
carrion-eaters, so they must be the same.             The colonial gazetteer of Punjab based on
In fact, it is quite common to hear alle-          the first population census of the province
gations that even Muslims of long-stand-           proposed that the “vagrant, menial, and
ing such as the Muslim shaikhs (mussalis),         artisan castes”, which made up over a
changars, lohris, shahikhels and others are        quarter of the population including all of
not “proper” Muslims.                              the groups such as kammis, chuhras and
   There are many stories of change too,           mussalis mentioned here, “…include the
in some cases dramatic ones, across the            great mass of such aboriginal element still
country. Individuals from “low castes” have        to be found in the Panjab”.5 Its author
broken out of their subject status and entire      Ibbetson then went on to grade these various
groups have acquired social equality and           groups in terms of their “habits” such as
political power to an extent. The                  eating carrion and vermin, and lax social
Khaskhelis of Sindh, for example, have             mores, while acknowledging that these
memories from just a couple of genera-             groups were responsible for much of the
tions ago of having been referred to as            industry and the farm labour in the prov-
“slaves” by their former masters, the Talpur       ince. Ibbetson and his peers, unlike
Mirs. While still mostly poor, they are no         contemporary Pakistanis, felt free to
longer in a position of dependence, and            write about race, culture, caste and class,
are represented in positions of influence          as complementary features of social in-
in politics and in public life. In Makran          equality, perhaps because they were un-
in southern Balochistan the Darzadas or            perturbed by their own racism. But one and
descendents of African slaves have expe-           a quarter of a century hence the public
rienced economic and social mobility.              silencing and the private obsession
They insist on being referred to as                with zaat means that the village joke is still
Baloch, and the “pure Baloch” acknowl-             on us. EPW
edge their rise and point to important
political leaders in the Baloch nation-            Email: gasht@yahoo.com
alist movement who are from a Darzada
background. Migration to Muscat and                Notes
mass recruitment in the 1970s and 1980s
in the Royal Oman Army, in which all               1 Azmat Ali Budhani and Hussain Bux Mallah
men from Makran were classified sim-                 are co-veterans of many such campaigns.
ply as “Baloch” is cited as a key channel          2 “Scheduled Caste Hindu” is an official census
                                                     category in Pakistan. Affirmative action
of mobility.
                                                     regulations do exist, but are largely ignored by
                                                     government. Many of the castes and tribes
Zaat Is Race                                         included in the “schedule” would be referred
                                                     to as adivasi or dalit in India.
   The story of the Makran Darzadas is             3 Quom is also the Urdu word for nation.
clearly about race – the distinct racial origins   4 To get a very human sense of this dialectic I
of the former slaves and masters are clearly         would strongly recommend Mukhtar Mai’s
                                                     autobiography – this ultimate victim and resister
visible, and the history of enslavement,             of the extended patriarchy remains deeply
trafficking, and emancipation a relatively           attached to her family, village and social
recent one. But then how different, really,          networks. In terms of integrity, candour,
is the story elsewhere in Pakistan (and              warmth, humility, and insight, In the Name
northern India for that matter). The public          of Honour published by Virago Books stands
silencing of “caste” in Pakistan implies             at the far end of the spectrum from that
that unlike India there is not much political        other Pakistani autobiography published in
                                                     2006.
capital vested in that term. If we can go          5 Ibbetson, Denzil (1986), Panjab Castes, reprint
from some sanitised notion of “class” to             of the chapter on ‘The Races, Castes and Tribes
“caste”, then what prevents us from pull-            of the Panjab’, 1883, Government Printing Press,
ing away yet another veil covering social            Lahore, p 266.



88                                                                                         Economic and Political Weekly January 13, 2007

				
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