Saturday, September 18

Caste amongst Muslims and Christians in India

I had a good discussion with some friends on a mailing list. Quite a lot of people were very surprised and wouldn't believe that Muslims and Christians in India have a caste system. So I am taking the liberty (and with permission from some) to put in some points which I and others wrote which confirms the existence of caste in the Indian Muslim and Christian population. It is only when we identify and agree that this happens that we can think about eradication. This is not just Hindu specific, this has become an India wide, cross all religions. We see this situation in Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs, you name it.

  1. I dont know about keralites, but among tamil christians, at least 20 years ago, caste was very important in marriage. We have nadar christians, thevar christians, vellalar christians etc. Also a telugu christian lady once told me that she was a brahmin-chrstain and would not intermarry with other 'non-brahmin' christians. One of her relatives had married the tamil actor Nagesh, and she was saying how the family was alright with it since Nagesh was a brahmin although a hindu. I have a Oriya christain friend who says he is kshatriya/Rajput, and in his family they will be willing to marry a brahmin-christian at the most outside his own caste.
    BTW, a muslim friend from Hyderabad, while referring to another muslim caste (I dont remember the name of the caste) told me how they looked down on those muslims and would not intermarry with them. I have heard how in Bengal at one time hindus and muslims married among themselves on caste lines, when they refused to marry from a different caste even if of the same religion.
    Times have changed. I see a lot of intermarriage among urban hindus, especially the IT types, I am sure such changes are happening among christians and muslims also. Intermarriage alone is the solution.
  2. For a genuine student of Kerala Christianity, I can give the names of the following castes in Kerala Christianity:- 1) Anglo Indians ( approved by Government of Kerala os an OBC) 2) Latin Catholics ---( OBC as per GOK) - unofficially they belongs to 3 castes - group of 500s, Groups of 700s & Former Syrains. 3)Nadar Christians ( approved by GOK as an OBC) 4) Scheduled Caste Coverts to Christianity ( approved by GOK as an OBC) -- unofficially they belong to many castes like Pulaya, Parya, Sambvar etc. 5) Mala Aryan Christians ( Approved by GOK/GOI as ST) The Pre-portugese Christians or the Ancient Malabar  Christians now commonly referred as Syrian Christians are classified into two, a) Northists -- who claim they were Christianised by Apostle Thomas b) Southists --- who claim they are the descendants of those Christians who have migrated to Kerala in 4th & 9th Centuries from Syria. Of course  there is no observance of hierachy and ritual purity amoung these castes, the differences mainy exist "in the mind" & in matters of marriage.
  3. I just realised that you might not have access to the journal articles. I only have the second one electronically, the other two are paper, but here are some extracts which you might find of use: In India, Muslim castes generally fall into two categories: higher castes of Syed, Sheikh, Pathan, and Mughal, and lower, service castes. The high castes claim foreign origin from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, or Central Asia, while the members of the low castes are low-caste Hindu converts. Many high castes however are also Hindu converts. For example, manyPathans are publicly known as high-caste Hindu converts. The large number of Sheikhs, as seen in census data on Muslim caste throughout India, makes it probable that many if not most of the Sheikhs are Hindu converts (see Ahmad, 1978a, for a study of a converted Hindu caste that regards itself as a Sheikh subcaste). This is likely a result of what Goodfriend (1983:123) calls the “Sheikh factor” (or Sanskritization in Srinivas’s terminology) , that is, of lower ranking Muslim caste groups attempting to raise their status over time by claiming that they are Sheikhs. These four Muslim high castes are categories, and often (though by no means always) there will be corporate subgroups formed from these categories. In Hyderabad, in addition to the four higher caste categories, the most well-known lower caste groups are the Qureshi (or Qassab, butchers) and  Ladaf (cotton beaters). Other castes that are important in the local hierarchy are Baid Pathan (who have a near-monopoly on the local wholesale betel nut trade) and Chawsh (descendents of Yemeni Arabs who migrated to serve in the Nizam’s forces; see Khalidi, 1997).We should note that being high caste does not necessarily mean that the caste is high status; that is, caste does not fully determine a group’s status. For example, Chawsh, while Arab, are of distinctly lower status than Syeds, Sheikhs, and Mughals in Hyderabad, since their main employment was as military personnel, and others regard them as rough and uncivil. They are not as low as service castes, such as weavers and butchers. However, because of their military background, they are considered lower than “genteel” castes of Syeds, Sheikhs, and Mughals, yet they are still high because of their Arab descent.12 He then talks about the qureshi's and Medhavi Pathans and so on and so forth.  The architect we had was a Qureshi and as you can appreciate over the construction of the house, we discussed various things, caste and history being one of them.
  4. That's true. Christians in Kerala were identified with the upper castes till the westerners came. But please go back to history beofre that and you will find in all books of history that it is the 9th century that Christians came to be accepted as a caste just below the Brahmins. Go back to the social history of Kerala and you will find that the caste system became an integral part of Kerala in this century that is known as the dark of Kerala. That was a little over a century after the Parasuram myth entered Kerala marking the birth of Brahminism. (It had entered Karnataka about a century before that. By saying that caste entered the Kerala Churches only with the westerners you are doing what Hindu fundamentalists are doing by saying that caste is an introduction of colonialism. What happened with the western missionary is that persons from different castes entered the church and they remained as different castes. That is what one means by saying that caste is practised among Christians. By speaking of caste system one does not refer only to its extreme form of caste-based oppression.
  5. It differs from place to place. In Goa and Mangalore, there are four or five castes but occupation makes a difference. In Kerala there are two castes (Nordist and Sudhist) among the Syrian Christians. Latin Christians keep pretty much the system as in their surroundings. Obviously there are many nuances which can be understood from historical factors. For example, there are "Latin Christians" who joined the "Latin Church" considered the authentic church at the "Coonan Cross "Revolt" of 1653 (?). They keep their caste and many intermarry with the Syrian Christians. In TN and AP, there is very little difference between the Hindu and Christian castes. This of course is a simplified versions. It has many nuances. But the basic fact is that caste continues to exist among Christians. For example, some groups like the Nadars who were "untouchable" toddy tappers have moved upwards by using the church structure and have become a "backward" caste. One can mention other nuances. But the basic fact is that caste exists in different ways among Christians though many of its external expressions have changed during the last century. Though Muslims may not recognise it, in practice it exists also among them in different ways. It is important to recognise it and fight against the injustice it does to the subaltern castes.
  6. check these out: *       Ahmad, Imtiaz (1978). Caste and social stratification among Muslims in India. New Delhi: Manohar. OCLC; *       Ali, Syed (December 2002). "Collective and Elective Ethnicity: Caste Among Urban Muslims in India". Sociological Forum 17 (4): 593–620. ; *       Ahmad, S. Shamim; A. K. Chakravarti (January 1981). "Some regional characteristics of Muslim caste systems in India". GeoJournal 5 (1): 55–60.
  7. belonging to a caste itself is not illegal. Not least because there is no agreed legal structure behind what a caste can be. The current way of defining castes is such a hodge podge that castes are identified based upon gazetted notifications. Go figure. Finally, no, I have not come across any well argued historiographically accurate explanation of how the ved or purana or upanishad descriptions of godhead into humans into professions have morphed into the 600 odd castes which are currently gazetted as per the following list. so as you can see, actually belonging to a caste or following the caste system as a means of identification is not illegal.
  8. The government of India stopped collecting data on non-Untouchable (or Dalit) castes after independence. Therefore we do not know how many people of each caste there are. The last census to consider caste for Hyderabad state was in 1921. In this census, in the state of Hyderabad, there were 1,298,277 Muslims counted, with 906,363 returned as Sheikh, 187,679 as Syed, 131,828 Pathans, and 50,048 Mughals. Only 22,359 other caste members were counted (Census of India, 1921:228–236). Although it would be foolish to extrapolate these numbers to today, my observations and conversations with scholars and others indicate that, as in 1921, there are relatively few people of low castes in Hyderabad, while the bulk of Muslims in the city are high caste, mostly Sheikhs. The collection of ethnographic data is valuable here precisely because caste groups are not identifiable through enumeration.
  9. The idea may seem strange that in an egalitarian religion like Islam, there would be ranked, hierarchical divisions among Muslims. Many scholars have debated this point, whether or not caste exists among Muslims in India. It has been clearly established that in some parts of India, and for certain Muslims, caste considerations are strong (e.g., Ahmad, 1976, 1978b, 1981, 1983; Ansari, 1960; Jamous, 1997; Madan, 1995), while for others they are less important (e.g., Fanselow, 1997; Mines, 1978; Vatuk, 1997).
  10. Blood purity is an important concern for Qureshis; they only give and take marriage partners amongst themselves. Qadeer, a 25-year-old butcher, said that if he were to marry out, it would be a major problem. The butchers are very keen on this. There is a distinct sense of honor among them, which is manifest mainly through the maintenance of endogamy (they do not give or take girls from “just anyone”), and the type of work they do—they slaughter only goats. They do not slaughter large animals such as buffalo and cattle, so they feel superior to the buffalo butchers. They also do not slaughter chickens, which is not the province of any particular caste.While the Qureshi are endogamous as a matter of honor, others who are higher caste do not want to associate downward with them. One doctor (a
    Syed) looking for a wife for her son (a Pathan) told me in a firm manner, “No Qureshis. Their culture is completely different.” Aijaz, a marriage lawyer, said that there is biraderi endogamy among groups like butchers because others do not want to marry them, since they always have knives in their hands, and they are a little jahil, rough and uncivil. “But what if they are not practicing butchers?” I asked. He reflected and said, “Yes, I know of one doctor who is of the Qureshi biraderi in Mallepally neighborhood, and his wife is not a butcher.” So, he said, people are only considering money and education now.
  11. The literature on Hindu caste is vast, and beyond the scope of this paper (e.g., Dirks, 1987; Dumont, 1980; Raheja, 1988). Marriott (1976, 1989; see also Marriott and Inden, 1977) argues for interpreting Indian culture through indigenous sociological categories, while Milner (1994) employs aWeberian analysis to examine caste as the most extreme form of status stratification.
    Unlike Marriott, Milner sees caste as comparable to status systems elsewhere.While there are arguments over how best to understand the caste system, another question has been over just how rigid this system historically has been. Cohn (1987) argues that the caste system(s) were quite fluid and that hierarchies of caste were contingent upon local conditions of rule. This changed under the British, who established thorough and relatively stable control, directly and indirectly, over all of India. Also, through the British-administered census, caste was enumerated for the first time, and codified according to a Brahmanical view. Thus, in many places where caste was contested, a hierarchy of castes with Brahmins as superior was imposed by the British (Dirks, 1987). For the most thorough discussion of caste, see Bayly (1999), who gives an excellent account of the development and changes in caste throughout India from the ancient Vedic period to the present.
  12. three of my cousins have married Christians, so I have a reasonably good view of 3 case studies of how caste is pretty solidly entrenched in there. Whether we are talking about who gets invited, the churches which are certain castes, inter marriage between castes and the like are all indicators to the fact that it does exist. And before we start, yes, discrimination is present in both religions, just not on the basis of caste, so if its discrimination that we are looking for, we have that in spades. But to go back to your question, caste as a measure of association is perfectly legal. No illegality in that. It is when you discriminate on that basis, remove opportunities on that basis, etc., that's illegal.

The existence of caste in Muslim and Christian communities that I have observed in Allahabad, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Bhopal and other places pretty much shows that it part and parcel of Indian community life. Calling it localised is irrelevant since its pretty much prevalent wherever there are concentrations of Muslims and Christians. Just like Hindu's try to explain away caste, others also try to explain away caste in their communities. As I said, I dont really have a problem with people wanting to stick with their own biraderi or caste. And as I said, its not illegal either and its a fundamental right. Its when it becomes discriminatory, that's where the problem lies.

Arguing that the caste system exists in India because of Hinduism might be fair. We do need to go after the Hindu guru’s and the Shankaracharya’s to get them to come out clearly against this heinous situation because it is only after we clearly state that despite it being mentioned in some of the Hindu tracts, it does not meant that we think of people in an upper or lower caste basis.

While I am at it, I also disagree with the idea of counting and measuring castes, we are trying to get away from all this caste business and all this measurement, enumeration, will simply perpetuate this and keep huge problems growing. Look at the people who are asking for it and pretty much all of them are asking for this so that they can demand more resources from the government. Nobody thinks about India as a whole. If you do want to help, then help the poor irrespective of their castes. Surely we are all Indians and that’s more important?


Kunal said...

Well written Shona Bhai. I completely agree with you that caste should not be included in the Indian census. It is contra-productive to the efforts of dealing with this social plague. Especially in the interest of integration and to rid us of the sham of seeking free government funds and concessions based on a loosely defined socioethical classification.
I wonder though if you gave a thought about the social diversity in the Islamic world with respect to Middle East, Africa and Asia. Although I have been told that there is no discrimination, the pilgrimage of Hajj often cited as proof, I still am not entirely convinced. Perhaps in modern day times the discrimination is more economically driven rather than sociologically.

BD said...

There is huge discrimination. For example, the mosques in Europe and USA are quite aligned with people of particular sects or regions.

Yes, the Hajj is a great leveller, but then its like saying that Delhi Airport or Allahabad Ganga/Jamuna ghat is a great leveller, nobody cares about your caste or origin. Well, d'oh