Reporting The Idea Of Jati vis-à-vis The Reality Of Indian Islam.

Angshu Mukherjee: The influence of Jatihas not abandoned us in India at all. As much as India marches forward to the future, the shadow of caste looms on her fair face and continues to cast a gloom on our society.

Not a day goes by when mainstream media outlets do not report caste-based violence in some corner of the country. Indeed caste is deeply rooted in Hindu society. But India is described by others as a melting pot of religions and ethnicities, castes and creeds, races and beliefs, of immigrants and refugees. Thus one wonders to what extent the jati system is present in the intersectionality of these factors.

If we scratch but just the surface of the veneer that lies on our cultural regularity, we shall see that the jatisystem pervades the customs of all Indians, Hindu or otherwise.

It is assumed that the caste system is specific to Hinduism since that is where it originated from but if we delve deeper we shall see that that this practice of Hinduism was appropriated and used by even those faiths that came to this subcontinent as conquerors and subjugators perhaps because apart from theoretical notions of universal equality the pride of a conqueror hardly ever leaves them.

Islam came to India first with trade but mostly with war and in conquest. We shall not debate here the contested history of Islam in India. That is for another day . But what of Indian Muslims? Do we find Islam’s notion of egalitarianism in their daily practiced life? A few examples from history may well show that this was not the case, not then in earlier centuries, and certainly not now.

Islamic society is divided into Shias and Sunnis and their long history of rivalry requires no mention here. Also, that divisional history is something not peculiar to India or to Asia but to the whole Muslim world. And this divide has always played a crucial role in the governance or rather the lack of governance in the last years of the Mughal Empire. Indeed one of the major factors of court alliances to get a hold of the Mughal Emperor’s ear and thereby influence imperial policy was based on the Shia-Sunni divide.

India in the middle ages was a magnet for adventurers from Central Asia and Persia. Even though of nominally the same creed and faith, these Muslims held themselves aloof from the Indian Muslims who, as per them, were of impure stock with Hindu blood in their veins. Here, thus we find the nominal notions of purity and impurity, the creation of social alliances that define caste as practiced. (Sarkar)

Indeed as Remy Delage points out in his brilliant article, the Muslim society too is divided into the Ashrafs, Ajlafs and Arzals, the latter being regarded with the nominally impure jobs similar to Hindus, or the mushrikun, and thus associated with notions of untouchability and social taboos.

In practice too the Ashrafs hold themselves aloof by claiming descent from the original hordes that invaded India while the Ajlafs represent the descendants of converted masses who were originally Hindus, or lets just call them natives of Al-Hind i.e. India.

The phenomenon of proliferation of castes into sub-castes namely of the Ashrafs into Sayyids and Qurayshis; of the Ajlafs into their occupational castes, their practice of hypergamous marriages, the existence of social taboos and the phenomenon of climbing up the social ladder by the process of Ashrafisation(quite akin to the phenomenon of whqt has been called Sanskritisation) all point to the existence of the caste system in spite of the proclamations of the universal brotherhood of Islam. (Delage).

In the lived reality of Islam too, we find the existence of separate graveyards, separate seating arrangements in social functions, use of separate utensils, segregation in places of worship as seen in Prof Fahimuddin’s study.

Thus the bogey of caste looms into the lives of all sections of  the life of Indian Muslims and yet material on it is sparse as caste is primarily seen as a Hindu phenomenon. This faux projection of caste being entirely a Hindu thing is used to demonise certain sections of the Hindu population leaving Dalit Muslims to fend for themselves in spite of the fact that in all socioeconomic parameters they fare dismally when it comes to these Indian Muslims as compared to their Hindu brethren . (Fahimuddin)

Thus, the practice and the phenomenon of caste is more a feature of South Asian society in general. It is rather unfortunate that it is politicised and used to berate and assign bad press to Hindu culture only when its complete annihilation requires the full concerted effort of all sections of society.

Delage, R. (n.d.). Muslim Castes in India.
Fahimuddin, P. (n.d.).
Sarkar, J. Fall of the Mughal Empire.