A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting with some local guys as they consumed copious amounts of alcohol to the backdrop of a varied playlist, and it dawned upon me that my opposite number were unaware of the ‘caste-titles’ they were fondly using as an address of endearment. “Chaudhry” this, “Rajah” that, these were the titles that were being thrown about as if the persons being addressed in this manner belonged to a background that distinguished them from those being addressed by their names. Not that I had any profound anxieties about the ‘label’, how could I? I come from the same backgrounds. In Pakistan-administered Jammu, my clan members are commonly addressed as “Chaudhry” whilst those living on the opposite side of the border in mainland Pakistan are identified as “Rajeh”. I’m speaking of distant cousins whose great great… grandparents would marry into the extended tribal network, or at least those committed to preserving ‘kinship’ ties and their sense of tribal ‘honour’. They would never ‘marry out’ of the tribe except to tribes or clans with greater prestige within the same “Biraadri” (a fluid kinship network). As the landed groups grew progressively poorer, this priority seemed more illusive than real.
In my adolescent years, I used to think of the distinguishing ‘clan-titles’ as rather curious but as I began to dabble in the ‘history’ and ‘historiography’ of the subcontinent, the latter of which was heavily influenced by colonial paradigms, I discovered the arbitrary nature of ‘nobility-titles’ within a fluid system of ‘patronage’ greatly exaggerated by colonial ethnologists. This is a fascinating history that if properly understood would reveal how much the British influenced our thought process, and it’s not necessarily positive. A lot of the caste-groups they confronted, ‘lineage-based‘ or ‘occupational‘ (an entirely colonial distinction) were categorised according to a system that fixed their ‘identities’ and corresponding ‘social prestige’.
The irony of all this is that the colonial Brits created the categories, but we’re still posturing through them!
Can ironies get any better?
But, let me be crystal clear. When I speak of the pervasiveness of ‘caste’ attitudes I’m really speaking about feudal Pakistan and its tribal networks from which most of Pakistan’s landowning communities originate. Even recruitment into the Pak Fauj (army) is mostly restricted to these groups. Yes, it is absolutely the case that colonial notions of the martial race theory predetermine who gets recruited into the military establishment. In the cities or their urban heartlands, things are different and not necessarily for the better.
In recent decades, western writers and commentators have been increasingly referring to British-Pakistanis from the cities as ‘citified’ Pakistanis. People here tend to be ‘upwardly mobile’. Originally comprised of ‘humbler’ backgrounds, they do what upwardly mobile people do everywhere, they morph into newer identities as they become more educated, affluent and ambitious. In Britain this has meant posturing through ‘class’ distinctions, as separate from “village Pakistanis”. As a ‘genteel’ group, city-Pakistanis like to present themselves as being more ‘refined’ than the rugged land barons of rural Pakistan whose power has been greatly depleted, as has been the case for lots of the old landed-groups across India. In Pakistan, this means adopting Persian or Arabic sounding family names or ‘titles’ to accommodate a new social ‘status’. These ‘communities’ include a middle-class ‘salariat’ (people doing government jobs), who like their ‘Zamindar’ (landed-peers) are similarly ignorant of their outlandish claims, and imagine their purported past in accordance with their ambitions.
Looking back now, years later, at the lively conversations between my peers about their ‘respective’ backgrounds, I laugh with such ferocity that on a bad day you would be forgiven for thinking that I was high on laughing gas. Don’t get me wrong, I like my ‘substances’ – the licit ones at least, but nothing can get you high like the ‘convictions’ of well-intentioned people who passionately argue about ‘realities’ they’ve never once probed. Of course, they get offended when you tell them, “no it’s just not true. Just because you say you’re a ‘Rajah’, it doesn’t mean that your ancestors lived in huge palaces. And no, you’re not connected with the ‘Royal Rajput’ families of medieval India because you’re a ‘Raja’! How can you be, when you keep saying that your ancestors came from Afghanistan, or was it Turkey!? I have yet to read about the Rajput dynasties of Afghanistan that apparently were connected to your original ‘Pathan’ background which you also proudly claim!”
Talk about being confused!
Conventional wisdom is a terrible thing if you’ve never had the occasion or willingness to question it. Popular anecdotes are worse. Take the claim that ‘Rajeh’ sold out to the British, a favourite past time of those who want to beat this dead horse? And what about the similar charge against the ‘Jats’? Apparently they too ‘sold out’ as they were happily recruited into the British Indian Army. Numerous Princely Rulers across the British Indian Empire came from these backgrounds. Being unfamiliar with how these identities came about and how diverse the groups actually were leads to messy conclusions. Not all Jats are ‘Jats’ in the way a universal Jat ‘identity’ is imagined, and likewise not all ‘Rajeh’ are connected with the tribal confederacies of ancient India that historians speak of as ‘the Rajput’. This is a particular ‘formation’ that belongs to a particular region and period of ‘Indian’ history not necessarily connected with our region in the high hills and mountains of Jammu & Kashmir and contiguous areas. The ‘Rajput’ label means different things to different people and is being used by divergent groups not necessarily connected with the original progenitors of that identity. But even this complex history is contested. It is really difficult to understand, the terrain is hard to map, and no one knows for sure how these ‘group-identities’ emerged.
And this was what I was up against when I said to a friend, “please don’t call me a ‘Chaudhry’, because I don’t feel like one.” There was a subtext here that you won’t understand until you’ve had the fortune, or perhaps misfortune of living in a caste-conscious community. Without exaggerating the problem, attitudes are massively changing, at least here in the UK amongst a generation with different anxieties and priorities. The caste system is more or less dead for British-born Paharis. But, the pervasiveness of our caste-distinctions greatly exaggerated by colonial officers still linger in our conversations albeit unintentionally.
We know nothing of that past. And this is evident in the conversations we have in private among like-minded peers, who think they are experts on the actual social stratification of our region, conflating politics with ethnology, social class, colonialism and their own insecurities. Some of these experts believe that a group’s behaviour, deemed on the basis of illusory caste identities, is connected with primordial backgrounds. So many times I’ve had to say, “listen you idiots, there’s no such thing as a ‘Kammi’ ‘class’ (‘low-born)’, so your mate is not ‘cheap’ or ‘miserly’ because he happens to come from the ‘barber-caste.
It’s just not true!”
The term ‘kammi’ is pejorative and offensive. It captures the idea that people who belong to ‘stigmatised’ castes, the non-landed, less ‘prestigious’ occupational castes, are somehow less ‘refined’ in their habits. Imagine for one moment someone arguing such a point whilst displaying the projected ‘traits’ only to attend a charitable function because food will be served!? Or, someone paying for a buffet meal insisting that he eat everything in the restaurant because he paid a measly £12 for his meal? You would hardly think this ‘behaviour’ to be reflective of ‘refined’ ‘traits’ genetically ‘inherited’ from people who built huge palaces that are today visited by millions of tourists.
In my mind this behaviour is what is meant by the term ‘cognitive dissonance’. According to the theory, a person whose beliefs and actions are inconsistent with his behaviour exhibits ‘dissonance’. He is other than what he claims or thinks he is. To say someone is ‘cheap’ or ‘low’ because of his behaviour, because you deemed him to be of ‘low-birth’ whilst you hide your ‘favourite sweets’, not sharing them out as you eagerly accumulate a stock from the largess of others, as you claim to be of ‘high-birth’ is precisely that dissonance – (apologies for the crude metaphors). Constantly being ‘entertained’ at someone else’s expense, turning up at someone’s residence to ‘hang out’ with ‘equals’, will not put you in good stead among those equals. You don’t have to be a nuclear physicist to observe the inconsistency. If, anything, the behaviour in question would not have just been embarrassing but positively humiliating to the very ‘nobility’ from whom you claim your feudal ‘titles’
The ‘Rajah’ or ‘Chaudhry’ of the past belonged to a patronage network; these are honorific titles for people who were “connected”. They are not the residue of some distant ‘primordial’ origin. The feudatory was connected with a nobility class on the basis of military or tax-collecting ‘services’ rendered to his regal masters. There were of course other functions. The titles varied. Sometimes, they were dropped in exchange for other titles; the more a ‘noble’ surpassed his competitors, the weightier his title. A particularly ambitious ‘Raja’ would be awarded more land as he pushed the frontier of his master’s realm into the lands of his enemies. The larger his landed estate, the greater his social ‘prestige’, all of which was in lieu of cash-payments. For obvious reasons, the ‘King’ wasn’t handing out salaries to his feudatories with accompanying P60s, and so ‘land’ had a special significance in the minds of the people who were living during this period. Not only was it a source of income, but it proved you were part of a nobility class. The situation was fluid though, and ‘patrons’ would demote their clients often. Wars were a liability for existing feudatories, they had to fight with their men or tribally-linked mercenaries whenever the Emperor summoned them. With limited prospects for booty, most tribal chiefs were reluctant to heed the call “get ready for war!” Ask any modern general, he’d tell you war is ‘horrible’ and ‘death-bestowing’. It’s usually ‘patriots’ who don’t do the fighting, their sons comfortably lodged at boarding school who are always eager to send the sons of the poor into battle!
The elites of colonial India weren’t that dissimilar to elites everywhere else, they could separate the rhetoric of their propaganda from their own priorities. And they weren’t deluded by their own hype.
The power-structure could and did change, new aspirants would enter the patronage networks, others would be ejected from it. Then there was the old age problem of sibling and family rivalries, brothers trying to topple brothers, uncles trying to undermine nephews, ambitious rivals jostling for position, as others watched on from the sidelines. This is a system that has been well-documented, and whenever we speak of the ‘clan-system’ in our ancestral regions, we are speaking about this particular ‘entente’, and not necessarily the brahmanical norms of North India (caste) that divided people into a four-fold idealised scheme of ‘castes’ with corresponding notions of ritual purity.
The New Brahmans
I’ve often heard from individuals from the wider region (The Panjab Plains as they merge with the hills/mountains of the Western Himalaya) making all sorts of ahistorical, self-affirming claims about their backgrounds, not realising that they’re imagining the past from the vantage of their modern-day priorities. To just give you one example, and there are many, I’m astounded by the number of ‘caste-Kashmiris‘ amongst us now – ethnic Punjabis who claim a Kashmiri ‘ancestral’ background on the strength of adopted surnames – who have also become “high-caste” ‘Brahmans’.
The term “self-styled Kashmiris” is thus an apt one. They are unaware of the actual ‘sensibilities’ behind their parents’ or grandparents’ claims and the actual difference between regional ‘norms’ historically. Aside from not being connected to this heritage through linear descent, there was no Hindu priestly order of any sizeable stature in our particular region (areas converted to Islam) that existed centuries earlier, on the outskirts of an established Brahmanical order. In ancient times, our region was described by those invested in the ‘Brahman’ heritage in what is today North India as ‘Mleccha-desh‘ or the ‘land of the barbarians/foreigners’. The area was home to a thriving Buddhist heritage that was considered outside the pale of the ‘twice-born’, upper-caste Hindus, who subscribed to brahmanical norms subject to the patronage of their Kshattriya rulers (later identified as the ‘ancestors’ of the Rajput). The Buddhists of our region, before Islam swept across the region after 1000 CE, didn’t care one iota for the self-affirming prejudice of the Brahmans, and this could be seen in the writings of the latter.
Our region’s proximity to Central and West Asia, (without obsessing about false race theories – a recurring theme on Pakistani internet forums for some very insecure people, their race claims are beyond ‘cringe-worthy’) meant that it was really a frontier to the Indo-Gangetic Plains of North India. It was understandably the first region to be settled by ‘foreigners’, if indeed we ‘imagine’ this vast expanse to be part of a primordial ‘India’, which it wasn’t. A lot of these groups were originally nomadic offering little deference to Brahmanical norms of ritual purity as they consumed meat, fraternised freely with people and women, and worshipped their own gods. In time, they settled down, became Buddhists and some became Hindus as they moved eastwards onto the Plains of India to join the emerging confederacies there, but not in the way we would imagine a modern-day ‘Hindu’ identity. The Hinduism of the past was a lot more fluid, a lot more ‘flexible’ than what it is today, which it still is outside the ideological rumblings of Hindu Nationalists – a political project, not a religious one. With the upheavals in the region and neighbouring areas, a power-structure emerged rooted in the patronage network I’ve described.
It was ‘power‘ that defined privilege and status, and not necessarily the sacred vocation of Brahman priests, who were keen to promote themselves to the top of their own caste-system. This is more about how groups were represented as opposed to the actual exercise of power; the rulers had real power, the Brahmans were subservient to the rulers and at the mercy of their largess. Although ‘lower-castes’ existed within our region (non-lineage based), what the British called ‘occupational groups’ courtesy of their own prejudices, there was little interconnection between them and the brahmanical norms of an ‘untouchable’ class of outcasts.
Our ‘new’ ‘Brahmans’ are unaware of how ‘Kashmiri’ occupational castes (non-clans/tribes, i.e., non lineage-based) were treated in the wider region even in recent decades. The overwhelming majority of whom were not ‘Brahmins’ in the first place, and whose forbears neither identified as ‘Bhats’, ‘Dars’, ‘Khawajahs’, ‘Mir’ etc. These particular ‘caste’ titles, adopted much later by descendants projecting backwards, mean different things to different people, from different parts of North India, carrying different levels of social prestige for unrelated groups of people not necessarily connected with the landed-backgrounds. Crucially, they are not the exclusive property of ethnic ‘Kashmiris’ with roots in the Vale of Kashmir, whether Hindu or Muslim let alone the property of the original landless refugees who settled on the Indian Plains because of famine and poverty. Many groups outside the Vale, use these titles without necessarily making claims to a primordial Kashmiri background.
The overwhelming majority of caste-Kashmiris in the Punjab, as they were being increasingly identified (i.e., Kashmiri by “zaat”/caste as separate from “qaum”, nation) and especially within the wider region were part of the non-landed occupational groups. The majority were not from the Vale of Kashmir in the sense of originating from a “boxed-off” delineated ethnic space, as many obsess about this ahistorical identity given the contested nature of the Kashmir Conflict today. In fact they came from all over the Jammu & Kashmir State, with large numbers coming from the ‘Chibhal’ region – as it was called during the famines; the Pahari areas of Jammu & Kashmir, (AJK included) are located on tectonic plates that have caused numerous earthquakes in the region; the Muzaffarabad earthquake being the most recent in 2005, events that have historically lead to destruction and dispersals. “Kashmiri” refugees (as these people were being increasingly identified) having fled famines, wars, earthquakes, ended up on the Plains of Panjab, and further afield in India, because they were landless and poor. They were treated poorly on the Plains because of their abject poverty. It was much easier for the census takers to subsume these groups within a generic “Muslim Kashmiri” category, and this also happened within the Jammu & Kashmir State. They were treated poorly on account of their origins to Jammu & Kashmir State as landless groups. It was because of colonial practises that rendered an incredibly diverse population from the Western Himalaya, from numerous Valleys, “Kashmiri”, and not because of some primordial “Kashmiri” identity that had existed for thousands of years as ludicrous as this idea is. Ethnic identities are, in fact, very recent social constructs and not timeless “identities”.
But, even before the emergence of Kashmir State as 85, 86000 square miles of territory, centuries earlier the areas (i.e., a geographical region) traditionally connected with the idea of “Kashmir” (a geographical idea) were much larger than the small Vale of Kashmir now imagined as the exclusive locus of an ethnic identity. The Kashmir of antiquity was much larger than the Kashmir of the ethnic Kashmiri imagination and it had historically extended westwards into the Pothohar Uplands and the Hazara Hills of today’s Khyber Pakhtunkwa Province. The Mughals had included many of these areas into their Lahore Province, as many of the adjacent areas remained connected with a Kashmir space; many of these areas are part of Azad Jammu & Kashmir, having been ruled for a short time by the Sikh Confederacy, whose leaders had their own definitions of the Punjab which excluded the Pothohar Uplands and the Hazara Hills from their definition. Eventually, the term Punjab geographically-speaking became conterminous with the idea of the Lahore Province as it expanded to include the old Multan Province and many other areas. But that’s just the nature of changing power-dynamics and how identity-labels subsequently emerge.
On the Plains of India, with little material prosperity and non-landed connections, the “Kashmiri” refugees, famine survivors, worked as tailors, barbers, shoemakers, labourers etc., and this had enormous implications for how they were viewed by the ‘Zamindar’ classes who had traditionally dominated the Plains. Colonial writers described the various colonies associated with such “Kashmiris” disparagingly and prejudicially, in certain instances calling them “scavengers” – hardly the hallmarks of a ‘Brahman’ identity!
These historical realities, historically attested facts I add, are simply glossed over by the fecund descendants of our self-styled Kashmiris from Pakistan Punjab re-imagining their past lives in the idyllic Vale of ‘Kashmir’, “the real Kashmir” apparently, at the behest of territorial priorities that do not involve them in the greater scheme of Indo-Pakistani politics.
Indian and Pakistani narratives around the Kashmir Conflict and their highly emotive claims on Kashmir (“India’s integral part”, “Pakistan’s jugular vein”), some 85000 square miles of resource-rich territory, where 17 million diverse people live today, cruelly forced to navigate their experiences through Pakistani and Indian imposed nationalisms, have seriously warped the sensibilities of some Punjabi caste-Kashmiris, who are not even connected with the Kashmir Conflict, her peoples or future.
The descendants of our self-styled Kashmiris are now beefing with the children of regional people who have actual ties to the Jammu & Kashmir region, completely unaware of the social stratification of the wider region they claim their ‘caste-titles’ from, if indeed their forebears were even from the “Kashmir” region. Surnames have never been proof of actual background. But, I’m always puzzled by casual remarks like, “my great grandad was originally from Kashmir!”
So what about the other 7 great grandparents and 4 grandparents who weren’t from this idyllic “Kashmir” in your mind? For such “Kashmiris”, and for all intents and purposes they are ethnic Punjabis where the present actually matters, they seem to be less-inspired by an otherwise wonderful Panjabi identity, as they ditch the Punjabi language for Urdu and start competing with the actual peoples of the Jammu & Kashmir region – a region that is in the throes of a terrible conflict because of outside powers and unjust power-dynamics! Others are unaware of the huge disinformation and propaganda that now exists on Kashmir, as Indian and Pakistani nationalists offer their incessant commentaries online about the rightful “rights-bearing” hereditary state subjects of this unfortunate land of some 17 million people. Social media in general and Wikipedia in particular has become their favourite outlets; I can not emphasise enough how backwards and unscientific some of the racial claims are, one frequently reads about “Nordic Aryan Kashmiris” with “chiselled features” and “white skin”, “rosy cheeks”, who apparently look remarkably different from the neighbouring “native” “Punjabis” now ironically imagined as the “Jat, Rajput and Gujjar”, identities that the colonial ethnologists, for their own part, were enamoured by as proof of some ancient Aryan, Scythian, Hun, Kushan, etc., legacy. Even today, some historians continue to attribute a foreign origin to these ancient populations on account of the historical polities and settlements that bear their tribal names, and the ruling clans that emerged to create Kingdoms across the wider North West region of the subcontinent.
Muslim Kashmiri refugees on the Plains of North India were excluded from these discussions. As I’ve already pointed out, their treatment on the Plains was hardly flattering.
Jammu & Kashmir may be disputed today, her identity contested between India and Pakistan, but her 17 million people are not disputed, they know who they are. More to the point, they do not share ties of eternal fraternity with our self-styled Kashmiris (now imagined as Brahmans) of the Panjab Plains who would like to pass judgement on who is and isn’t a “Kashmiri”! Ironies are seldom this poetic.
Zamindari & the Patronage Network
‘Owning’ land was a distinguishing social marker in this system, it symbolised something much more profound than possessing hectares and hectares of land. It was about patronage, ‘proof’ that you were ‘connected’. The Zamindar ‘class’, or the landed-nobility, would use the term to highlight this aspect of the network. The Mughals, for their part, would use the term universally to describe their feudatories that included ‘Hindu Rajputs’, or those originally connected with this identity. Many would be encouraged to convert to Islam, and their descendants would drop their ‘Singh’ titles for ‘Khan’. At the instigation of the Mughals, they would also stop using the term ‘Rajah’ and other related titles of this heritage. To illustrate this, hypothetically speaking, the formally ‘Raja’ Chand Singh, would be now described as ‘Mirza’ or Mir Chand Khan. Different titles were deployed. The Mughals preferred Persian-sounding titles as opposed to ‘Indic’ ones. But, as I said the system was incredibly fluid. Whenever Muslim rulers were ousted in their regions, and the Hindu rulers reasserted themselves, the titles would change again.
‘Khan’ or ‘Mir’ so and so, would revert back to being called ‘Rajah’ so and so.
Being a ‘Khan’ is not proof of a ‘Pathan’ background, or more correctly speaking proof of a ‘Pashtun or Pakhtun’ ethnic heritage. The fact that some “Pathans” maintain this today, aggregating the title for themselves just shows how far removed some people are from the actual heritage of our region. They are also unfamiliar with the actual history of Afghanistan, historically an ambiguous frontier between Iran and India that had always been an ethnically diverse place with a myriad of evolving social groups. Its poverty today on account of so much conflict, one of the poorest countries on earth, makes claiming an Afghan identity within the context of our region’s tribal system a rather curious move not least because the people posturing through an ‘Afghan’ background are simply unfamiliar with the Afghanistan of the actual past and their own outlandish claims.
For instance, you will come across individuals emphatic that the original ‘Khans’ were ‘Pathans’. The term ‘Khan’ does not originate with Pashtuns but has its origins in the folk nomenclature of the Mongals from whom many turkic groups adopted the title. The ‘Mongols’ and ‘Turks’, although separate groups shared the same steppes, as the one pushed the other out into the direction of the Iranian Plateau and further afield. The emerging Turkic groups adopted the Persian language after having converted to Islam, some of their number centuries later settled neighbouring regions. They eventually crossed the Khyber Pass to settle India, and they began to use ‘titles’ borne of this historical baggage. The great Mongal ‘Genghis Khan’ was actually born Timujin. In the native language of his peers, ‘Chinggis Khagan’ simply meant ‘Ruler of the World’; the Persian equivalent being Jahan-gir Khan. The ‘Indian’ ‘Mughals’ having descended from a Turkic branch connected with ‘Tamerlane’ where also descended from ‘Genghis Khan’ on their maternal line, or at least this is how they presented themselves.
It was clear by evoking descent from the great Timujin, they were keen to connect themselves with that much older lineage. They didn’t care that their alleged pagan ancestors had destroyed much of Baghdad’s ‘Islamic’ heritage and wiped out ‘Muslim’ populations everywhere. We’re talking about the wholesale destruction of entire cities, the murder of entire populations and rape. But, this wasn’t a priority for those originally posturing through a Mughal-Muslim identity, as we would imagine romanticising our past from our own priorities as belonging to a universal Muslim fraternity. It was about striking fear in the hearts of your opponents, and in any case these labels had completely different meanings to the ones naive people ascribe to them today merely to self-affirm. The feminine equivalent in the Persian language for ‘Khan’ is ‘Khatun’, and again was used as a title of nobility for women connected to this heritage, it’s similar to the Turkic term ‘Begum’ being the female equivalent of ‘Beg’, (nobleman) which has become a popular surname for women outside this history! And yet you would rarely come across people arguing that ‘Khatuns’ or ‘Begums’ are in fact of Pashtun or Turkic origin. This would be akin to someone arguing that the original ‘Singhs’ were all Sikhs despite the ‘title’, now a popular surname for Sikh males having originated centuries before the birth of Sikhism. The Singh title is connected with India’s medieval Rajput houses, and can be dated even earlier to the regional Kingdoms they vanquished.
In describing our region’s patronage system as simplistically as possible – a particular region amongst the larger western Himalaya – I am trying to get across the point that we are strictly speaking about ‘patronage’, not ‘caste’, ‘class’ or ‘inherited’ ‘traits’ as stupid as this latter notion is, not to even countenance stupider claims around “race”. It is about the usefulness of clans or tribes to their regal superiors and not about how people, centuries later, ‘think about themselves’ because of some warped sense of ‘titles’ or backgrounds not properly understood. It is about what a ‘nobleman’ actually ‘did’. In this respect, not everyone from a ‘Rajput’ background was a ‘Rajah’, a feudatory of the ‘Great Rajah,’ ‘Maha-Rajah’. The sons of the Rajah (Rajah-putra) wouldn’t go about self-affirming themselves as ‘Rajeh’ because they clearly weren’t ‘feudatories’. They would use lessor titles like ‘Mian’ (nobleman). In a lot of instances but not exclusively, you were a Rajah because you had a ‘Jagir’ (landed-estate) awarded to you through a detailed system of investiture with its own symbolism and imagery. The Maharajah would come to your lands with great pomp and show, place a turban on your head, receive and give gifts (reciprocation) and ‘invest‘ you into your ‘status’ (affirmation). He was ‘confirming’ or ‘re-confirming’ you in your tracts of land, and letting your competitors know, you have the Maharajah’s ‘favour’. As your fortunes waned, your social prestige waned too, and you were accordingly identified on the basis of your changing material circumstances, if indeed your male-heirs were allowed to retain the land, which wasn’t always guaranteed. With time, the original estate would be parcelled out to male heirs and its actual value would shrink. If your descendants had to work their ever-decreasing lands, they would be identified as ‘farmers’ (‘Jats’) all the while they were keen to point out their illustrious past (Jat-“Zamindar“). The non-landed locals would view them on the basis of their new ‘occupations’. This held true for many groups whose descendants choose to identify as Rajput today, even as their ancestors did not identify as “Rajeh”. For reasons that should be clear now, it would have been a curious move, for people toiling their shrinking lands to maintain the identity of a ‘feudatory land baron’!
No one did.
Our forbears understood ‘ironies’ just as well as we do!
But, then the British came along and created new ‘group’ categories.
The British Raj & Colonial Ethnologists
Re-inventing the caste system
Like previous rulers to India, the ‘British’ were integrated into the system through the patronage network, and were awarded their own Jagirs (estates). The East India Company was awarded its own” Jagir”. The English started out in the early 1600s as an inoffensive trade mission but gradually morphed into an ambitious military presence with their own private armies comprised mostly of Indian ‘Sepoy’ (soldiers). Over the following decades and centuries, they gradually moved from their coastal bases in the North East of the subcontinent to the North West finally overthrowing the last of the great regional bastions of power, the Sarkar-e-Khalsa or the Sikh Confederacy. I would like to add here, it was no idle boast of the Sikh Rulers, many of whose feudatories were Muslims and Hindus (‘Rajeh’, ‘Chaudries’, ‘Sardars’, ‘Nawabs, Mirs, etc)’, that they were a formidable fighting force and the British respected them for it. Had their power not imploded after the demise of Maharaja Ranjit ‘Singh‘ (the ‘Jat”, others have ascribed a different background’), our regions in the North West of the subcontinent would not have fallen into British hands.
But that’s history.
The entire landmass of the subcontinent with the help of Britain’s new feudatories, the Native ‘Indian’ Princes, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh was firmly in check. But unlike previous rulers, the colonial Brits were different. They wanted to buy and sell things, the products that they had manufactured from the natural resources of the countries they colonised; they wanted to find new markets for their products and connect frontier lands with the ‘Indian’ interior. They built an impressive railway system that gave their ‘notion’ of India’ a coherent veneer. They liked to map and categorise their ‘territories’ and ‘subject’ ‘peoples’. They wanted to understand the cultures and ‘dialects’ of the ‘natives’ of this enormous territory they called ‘British India’, some of their linguists produced groundbreaking research, the Linguistic Survey of India being a good example. It was colonial linguists who wrote the first grammars of many ‘Indian’ languages. It was because of colonial policies that inadvertently made Urdu-Hindi, an amorphous Indic dialect of native Indians that was gradually evolving into a literary standard, the official ‘native‘ language of British India. The Muslim and non-Muslim elites of India spoke Persian in their courts and not Hindi-Urdu which was greatly influenced by Persian.
The New Myths, “Race”, “Language” and the formation of a new “Class”
A lot of people unfamiliar with this history, vastly exaggerate the importance of ‘Urdu’ to the emerging ‘Muslim’ power-structure. In this respect ‘Urdu-speakers’ were themselves stigmatised particularly in the Panjab by the ‘Zamindar’ clans as being ‘salaried’ puppets, (i.,e administrators from non-landed backgrounds) of the colonial British usually in junior or clerical roles. Their material prosperity was not comparable to the wealth of the much richer land barons who had little to no inclination to speak the language of the emerging administrative ‘elite’ who went on to assume power in both India and Pakistan as the power of the landed-groups diminished.
The colonial Brits were also heavily influenced by the racial theories of the time and wanted to distinguish the ‘races’ of India whose ruling class they surmised were foreigners just like them. They had merely overthrown the most recent of these foreigners, the ‘Persian-speaking’ turkic-Mughals of Mongol origin. As they went about their business studying the peoples of India, their ethnologists would argue that the ‘Jats’ were originally of Scythian racial-stock and the original ‘Royal Rajputs’, descended from the Kushans, Huns, Hephtalites and other central Asian hordes around the turn of the 1st century. Other ethnologists had different opinions. It was all ‘pie in the sky’ theorising with a smattering of historical truth, here or there, grossly exaggerated to fit colonial priorities.
The ethnologists and race theorists weren’t just researchers though. They were ideological pioneers. They not only documented and categorised the various tribes that had been submerged within the system, but they added their own veneer of interpretation and eventually fixed the ‘identities’ in question. As they went about researching the caste-groups, measuring heights, body weight, distances between eyes and nostrils and even skull sizes, intelligence, facial complexions or ‘hue’, even facial hair, they created all manner of bogus social constructs in effect becoming the ‘gatekeepers’ for entry into certain sectors of society – (these charts/tables still exist and one can see how the British aggregated India’s population into illusory group identities. Crucially there was no corresponding fascination with “Kashmiris” as proof of racial pedigree which should explain the reification of Kashmir because of the Indo-Pak Conflict). It was colonial officers who had the final say as to whether you were of ‘low-birth’ or ‘high-birth’ even as they claimed to be merely documenting objectively India’s native populations. They noted that the ‘higher-castes’ were generally fair-skinned, not much darker, if not of the same complexion as the Mediterranean ‘races’ – (note, being fair skinned within this social context was not proof of ‘noble’ background, it merely confirmed the British in their claim that the higher castes were not originally native to India; this is a form of race-engineering). It was surmised that the lower castes and the untouchables were darker-skinned if not ‘black’, as they created all manner of false claims about the Dravidian populations of the South.
You should understand the biased subtext now not least because of how the colonial Brits ‘projected’ their own racial importance onto the natives of India and the rest of Europe. Colonial race scientists similarly categorised the peoples of Europe through their own racial schemes. They presented themselves as self-styled ‘Nordic Aryans’ locating themselves at the top of their own race-tree, (ironically, the term “Arya” (Aryan) belongs to Indo-Aryan and Indo-Iranian speakers and not Europeans – the term implies ‘nobility’ not race). They plonked the Slavic populations of Eastern Europe right at the bottom, with a particular loathing for Jews, who were subsumed within the ‘Semitic Race’. Of the latter concept, some writers claimed that the ingenuity of western Europeans, or those of original “Aryan” descent, had been sapped by the introduction of the Judaeo-Christian tradition at the hands of a much inferior ‘Semitic’ race. Other writers did not share such sensibilities. More ironically though, the theorists, as Nordic Aryans, viewed themselves racially superior to the ‘Mediterranean Races’, even as they claimed the Roman-Grecco heritage as part of their own classical heritage.
This did not however stop ambitious Europeans – the ambiguous “whites” as the ‘classification’ was emerging – from seeking work in the British Indian Empire, and similarly being affected by the race theories of the time. Many of these up-starters (that’s how the emerging “whites” from the colonies were described by the established “elite” in the mother countries) came from modest backgrounds and eventually merged with a European ‘nobility’ in India. In their home countries, they ordinarily lacked the sense of social prestige they had been aggregating for themselves in Britain’s most lucrative colony. Many of them were acutely aware of this when they returned ‘home’.
In ‘India’ if you were identified as ‘Jat’, ‘Gujjar’, ‘Rajput’ or, say, ‘Yusufzai’, or ‘Afridi’, (i.e., Pashtun because of Yusufzai roots etc; Sikh because of Jat roots etc, ‘Panjabi’ or ‘Rajasthani’ because of Rajput, Jatt or Gujjar roots – this is how the actual priorities moved) you were labelled as a ‘martial race’ and your entry was permitted into the British Indian Army. Similarly, if you were landowners, again with illusion to the historical patronage network described above, you were permitted to buy land. The Brits argued that this was to protect the agricultural clans from unscrupulous money lenders (“Mahajan”) who belonged to ancestrally less distinguished backgrounds. The race ideas were crude enough, the ‘Rajputs’ and ‘Jats’, although strong and brave were incredibly unintelligent and simple, very easy to manipulate. The money lenders and traders (“Khatris”), were weak but crafty and cunning and although of Indo-Aryan racial descent, a bit like the Brahman priests, they were accused of all manner of perfidy, guile and falsehoods.
In effect, caste-groups were being pitied against other caste-groups.
The British writers, it would appear, were not enamoured by ‘Brahmans’ in general, and had a particular disdain for how members of this ‘group’ self-affirmed; this prejudice can be seen in how they described the Brahmans as being weak, scheming and keen to promote themselves.
Occupational castes, by far didn’t even register with the colonial ethnologists, as many were simply described as aboriginals, or not originally of Aryan racial descent. Occupational groups not part of the ‘agricultural castes’, were proscribed from buying land. By not only creating ‘race-fictions’, the colonial officers created new forms of social discrimination. Ambitious individuals from occupational castes jostled to get identified as ‘martial races’ or ‘agricultural castes’ to simply get ahead in life, in order to become soldiers (obtain jobs) or buy land (investments, obtain social prestige) they had to fabricate their caste-identities and many did exactly that. This merely strengthened the ‘prestige’ of identifying with certain caste-backgrounds, empowering group identities that hadn’t existed previously in the way we imagine these identities today, naively I add.
In effect, the British created new norms of social interaction which we sloppily assume to have always been there. There is a wider point that I’m trying to get across to my readers.
The British ‘fixed’ what was essentially a fluid situation!
In the past, ‘the nobles’ had to physically demonstrate their ‘nobility’.
As a notable feudatory, or ‘Jagirdar’, synonymous with ‘Zamindar’, the title-holder was the real patron in his lands to occupational groups who were reliant on his ‘goodwill’. It was the responsibility of the Jagirdar to ensure law and order and oversee disputes. How he behaved, distinguished him from his ‘equals’ and ‘inferiors’ and carried great symbolism. The ‘Nawabs’ (‘nobility class’) of the past, all manner of titles existed, behaved in a ‘dignified’ way. They would not eat from people below their ‘status’, but were obliged to feed their ‘subjects’ to show their ‘largess’. This is not merely bigotry but a public announcement of who is in ‘charge’. How and where they lived was also a demonstration of their power, their forts were usually built on the summit of hills. For instance, they would never be seen tilling their lands, this was an insult and proof that they had ‘fallen’ from the accomplishments of their forebears.
Observing this phenomenon of downward mobility, colonial ethnologists coined the term ‘debased Rajputs’, and argued that many of the ‘authentic’ ‘Rajput’ clans that ended up on the Himalayan Hills having fled the Indo-Gangetic Plains in defeat were later identified as ‘Jats’ (‘farmers’). Many of these Jat groupings continue to maintain a Rajput origin, even as they look suspiciously to those self-affirming as “Rajeh” amongst their midst. These groups get frequently confused with the emergence of ‘Jats’ from the same Indo-Gangetic Plains following the implosion of Mughal hegemony after the demise of Aurangzeb. Probably of nomadic origin centuries earlier and having moved from the direction of Baluchistan, Sindh, into Gujarat, Rajasthan and then ‘Panjab’ they became militarised and took up arms against their defeated rulers. In time they coalesced with a new emerging ruling class, the Sikh Confederacy, and the emergence of the ‘Sikh Jat’ had its origin in these dynamics.
This is not to say that the emerging tribal formations, belonged to separate, or distinct, ancestral groups to somehow create new primordial identities. On the contrary, modern DNA studies have shown a common origin for these various populations, and many other communities that otherwise wouldn’t posture through such ‘identities’ today. Ironically, even Pashtuns, and Tajiks, are related to Jats, for instance, more so than to the ethnic groups of the wider Iranian Plateau just to give you an idea of this shared but distant past.
Such have been the upheavals in the western Himalaya and the wider Plains, a history that goes back centuries and involves diverse people who have left their mark on history and not just place names. This has been a history mired in seismic events across North India. It is the complete opposite of the stupid anecdotes of people who like to posture through illusory caste backgrounds as they seek to demean those they think are somehow inferior to them, not even understanding the actual backgrounds in question, not even their own humble backgrounds.
Of late, I have noticed that some dilettantes have even taken to deploying genetic categories like y-chromosomal and mitochondrial haplogroups, terms that deal with ancestral populations tens of thousands of years old, to affirm or negate their own racial claims about the socially-constructed identities borne of the colonial legacy I’ve been discussing. Terms such as ‘ancestral ethnic admixtures’, and ‘autosomal DNA’ are being used to identify ancestral populations as they supposedly connect with modern-day populations courtesy of arbitrary and fluid identity labels (social constructs). Such ideas are crude, and incredibly flawed. The entire edifice of such enterprises is based on flawed colonial ideas that have long been debunked by experts in the realm of biology, anthropology and history. One can see through the anxieties of these commentators though, as they leave a huge trail on numerous social media forums, it seems they really seek proximity to “whiteness” in an attempt to self-affirm and disconnect themselves from an Indian ‘core space’. They have yet to wean themselves off “debunked” race myths and destructive ideas. But, they happily venture into debates that they do not understand, to substantiate through “genetic data” incredibly flawed “race” claims. Even individual “castes”, or “ethnic groups (social constructs) are now being identified through ancient haplogroups, a concept best deployed in the realm of genetics; haplogroups cannot be used to understand socially constructed identities of the modern age – the two considerations deal with different phenomena.
Sadly, this is lost on our social commentators, who seek confirmation bias for their outlandish claims.
The Way Forward; Maintaining Humility in Upward Mobility
Fast forwarding to today, my peers who live in the UK have no sense of this history. In the absence of the patronage network, its vast proceeds, lands, upheavals, and symbolism that came by way of it, it’s bizarre to hear someone call another ‘Rajah’ or ‘Chaudhry’ Saab’ (from Saahib/Sir). This would be akin to hearing, someone named ‘Bob’ who lives on a council estate calling his neighbour ‘Duke’ or Earl Dave’ and thinking nothing of it. If that wasn’t bad, to then be confronted with unwarranted prejudice on the back of a history not understood proves how ‘dispossessed’ our community really is.
Whether my peers will heed my call to stop using titles that are now disconnected with their past, and there’s no proof that any of us was ever part of this past as I’ve already explained, I leave to their conscience. For my part, all I can do is inform them about how stupid they sound when they poke fun of people who are really their equals.
We are all equals today, and we should redeem our humanity on the basis of universal human rights and not through debunked race theories, or caste prejudice, or some primordial ethnic identity that has never existed historically.
There are no ‘Jats’, ‘Rajeh’, ‘Sardars’, ‘Malks’, ‘Ghakkar’, ‘Kashmiris’ (self-styled caste-Kashmiris), ‘Awan’, ‘Bhats’, ‘Bains’, ‘Arain’, ‘Gujjar’, ‘Tarkans’, ‘Lohars’, ‘Mochis’, ‘Darzis’ or ‘Musallis’ anymore. The old system of social stratification, greatly exaggerated by British colonial ethnologists to their own strategic and material advantage I’m keen to re-iterate, has long passed. The corresponding titles and backgrounds are thus throwbacks for a people who should now identify on the basis of their new social and political experiences. To repeat a long-accepted fact courtesy of observers who have not forgotten the evils of Nazi race science or Apartheid South Africa, we are all equals and our life stories, and the struggles and ordeals of our forebears, connect us with our shared humanity.
It is this aspect of our shared past we should be celebrating in the UK, in common with traditionally dispossessed people across the world, to make sense of the timeline that resulted in many of our forebears becoming a settled community here.
British-Paharis from Jammu & Kashmir
For those of us from Jammu & Kashmir and a particular cultural sphere now living in Britain we are all British-Paharis. However we want to label this ethnic space, “Pahari”, “Patwari”, “Hindko” etc.; “Pothohar Uplands”, “Azad Jammu & Kashmir”, “Hazara Hills”, “Jammu & Kashmir”, “Kashmir” etc., these labels are borne of internal differentiation courtesy of the same outsiders who “divided and ruled” us all those years ago with their race science and fanciful caste prejudice. It was officers of colonialism, having aggregated for themselves the role of official cartographer, who mapped our region, and assigned its various parts to the evolving geo-administrative configurations they created.
Culturally speaking, our ethnic homeland is one uniform region – known broadly and somewhat erroneously as the Pahari-Patwari Ilaaqah given it extends to regions in the Hazara Hills, Khyber-Pakhtunkwa. Over the centuries, the people have been moving eastwards from a centre of gravity that used to be located in the Peshawar Basin and Swat Valley, as far as the Pir Panjal Mountain Range, in what is today Indian-administered-Kashmir. We should take the time to learn about our cultural heritage, language and past, as opposed to posturing through the false consciousness of illusory priorities and imposed identities, becoming disconnected with our forebears actual lived experiences.
I believe we, and our children, will be much better for it.
And so, let me illustrate the absurdity of such a situation in closing.
I recall an incident in my youth between two individuals arguing about their caste-backgrounds. The one presented himself as a ‘Rajah’ whilst the other puffed his chest out as a ‘Jat’. The Rajah stated that his caste was the ‘higher’ as Rajputs are higher than Jats and in previous centuries his ancestors were ‘Kings’! The exchange got incredibly heated when the ‘Jat’ accused the ‘Rajah’ of being a ‘Pittoo’ (‘stooge’) of the ‘British’. This altercation happened some twenty years ago. The protagonists were older than me and I had no reason to question what they were saying. I only know now how incredibly impressionistic their respective arguments were, not least because the ‘Jat’ had maintained all along a ‘Bhatti’ (Plains) ‘Rajput origin whilst the ‘Rajah’ claimed to have come from the Sudhan tribe that has never been considered ‘Rajput’ in the classical definition and imagery of the term. He also used the term Sardar, although given the label’s association with ‘Sikhs’ in the mind of our Jat Muslim brother, this may explain why he chose to self-affirm as a ‘Rajah’. One can see the actual priorities of the identity labels we conveniently deploy when it suits our interests, even as the past in question is ‘imagined’. Moreover, the error on the part of the ‘Rajah’ was to juxtapose his clan’s (self-styled) ‘title’ ‘Rajah‘ with an illusory background (‘Rajput’) and then conflate the two with a history he didn’t quite understand. Sudhans have never been ‘Kings’ but tribal leaders in their part of the world, and obviously not every Sudhan is a tribal leader. As for the Bhatti ‘Jat’, otherwise considered Rajput on the Plains of India, he wasn’t aware that Bhatis, Jats, Sudhans and all the other ‘martial races’ were admitted into the British Indian Army. It was these groups that inadvertently helped prop up the colonial order without which British rule would have been impossible. This is how tribal groups survived, and it had nothing to do with ‘treachery’. To hear people make such claims today, only demonstrates how ignorant they are of ‘centuries’ of ‘power-dynamics’ that characterised regional ‘Indian’ polities. For instance Muslim Mughal Kings were married to Hindu Rajput Princesses to ensure the loyalty of their feudatories, many of whom were themselves of prestigious backgrounds and had their own private armies. Many Mughal Rulers were thus partly descended from Rajputs, a reality that wasn’t lost on them. Conversion to different religious faiths within the context of this power-dynamic had never once been based on religious conviction but out of the strategic desire to ‘survive’. Numerous defeated Hindu elites became Muslim precisely for this reason.
Of course, as I’ve tried to argue in this piece, none of us in Britain is a ‘Raja’ or a ‘Chaudhry’. We should discard these titles like all the other fanciful titles some of us claim when imagining our past. Our heritage is one of dispossession and we should never forget why and how we ended up in the UK to redeem ‘caste titles’ that are in all honesty disconnected from our real experiences.
It is folly of the worst kind to imagine one’s past disconnected from one’s present. It is an ugly kind of hubris that exposes us for what we really are.
Read Poem ‘Our “Nawabs” of Britain‘ by Paharian