Casteism: The many-nation theory

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.

india Updated: Feb 21, 2009 21:18 IST
Raza Rumi
Raza Rumi

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. Globali-sation, the communications revolution and a growing middle class have altered the contours of a society beset by 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, hundreds of cars with the owner’s caste or tribe are displayed as a marker of pride. As an urbanite, I 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.

Identity rules
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). 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 (descendants of the Prophet Mohammad). 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 in Pakistan.

Mistaken as a Momin, I got a chance to know the intra-group dynamics better and also how closely knit are such groups. It reminds me of the horrific tales our domestic help used to tell us about the Shias, until one day my Sunni parents fired her for poisoning their children’s minds. Now, in the footsteps of the great Urdu poet Ghalib, I view myself as half a Shia.

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 human existence, especially in Pakistan.

Punjab’s entire electoral landscape is still defined by biradari loyalties. In the 1980s, party-less elections helped General Zia ul Haq to undermine Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party; but it also gave enormous leeway to the state agencies to choose loyalties when the election was all about the biradari elders. Haq’s Arain (a lesser land-tilling caste) background became a topic of discussion, as many Arains used this card to great personal advantage. It’s similar to what the Kashmiris have perceived under the multiple reigns of the Sharifs of the Punjab, who are proud Kashmiris.

Why blame Punjabis only? 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.

In the early years of Pakistan, migrants from India had set the ground for the politics of patronage along group lines. Karachi became divided into little Lucknows, Delhis and other centres of nostalgia. Employ-ment opportunities and claims of property, as several personal accounts reveal, were doled out on the basis of affiliation to pre-Partition networks such as neighbourhoods in Aligarh, Delhi, UP and Hyderabad. The same goes for the smaller provinces of Pakistan.

Pride and prejudice
We pride ourselves on being a nuclear-armed Islamic state that broke away from the prejudiced Baniyas whose caste system was abominable. But what do we practise? My friends have not been allowed to marry outside their caste or sect, Christian sweepers in Pakistani households are not permitted to touch the utensils, and the word ‘choora’ (untouchable sweeper) remains the ultimate insult after out-of wedlock sex and incestuous abuse. I once heard a lawyer remark about a high-ranking public official, calling him a nai (barber) and therefore branding him as the lowest of the low. The untouchables remain the underbelly of our existence.

Admittedly, these incidences are far lesser than in India. That is a function of demographics and religious sanction in the not so loved neighbour. Even Mohammad Iqbal, the great reformist poet, lamented: 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).
When youngsters rocking on mast music or dating on masti chats display the caste characteristic on their windscreens, one worries if the ongoing change can deliver a better society. Superficial signs of change cannot make up for the need for a robust educational system, equality of opportunity and accountability of political elites who use caste as an instrument of power.

More bewildered, I wonder where I belong. Bulleh Shah has taught me that shedding categories is the first step towards self-knowledge. But I live in a society where branding is essential, if not unavoidable. For this reason I am peeved that I still don’t know who I am.

(Raza Rumi blogs at and edits the e-zines Pak Tea House and Lahore Nama. The article was first published in The Friday Times, Pakistan)

First Published: Feb 21, 2009 21:13 IST