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, “Chaudhry” that was the title that was 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 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. As they 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, and we’re now 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 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. This means adopting Persian or Arabic sounding family names or ‘titles’ to accommodate their social ‘status’. These new ‘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 debates 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’ – kidding of course – 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 ‘Raja’, 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. Being unfamiliar with how these identities came about and how diverse the groups actually are leads to messy conclusions. Not all Jats are ‘Jats’ in the way a universal Jat ‘identity’ is imagined, and likewise not all ‘Raje’ 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 certain 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. But, the pervasiveness of our caste-distinctions greatly exaggerated by colonial officers still linger in our conversations.
We know nothing of that past. And this is evident in the conversations we have in private among like-minded peers, who think that a group’s behaviour is somehow connected with its background. So many times I’ve had to tell my friends, “listen you idiots, there is 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 ways. 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. 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 ‘Raja’ or ‘Chaudhry’ of the past belonged to a patronage network. He was connected with a nobility class on the basis of military or tax-collecting ‘services’ rendered to his regal masters. There were of course many 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-structures 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 ‘caste-system’ in our ancestral regions, we are speaking about this particular ‘entente’, and not necessarily the brahmanical norms of North India that divided people into a four-fold idealised scheme of ‘castes’ with corresponding notions of ritual purity.
I’ve often heard from individuals from our region 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 priorities. To just give you one example, and there are many, I’m always astonished by the number of ‘caste-Kashmiris’ amongst us that have now become ‘Brahmans’. Our new ‘Brahmans’ are unaware of the ‘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 region that existed, for centuries, on the outskirts of an established Brahmanical order. In more 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 didn’t care one iota for the self-affirming prejudice of their Brahman peers, and this could be seen in the writings of the latter.
The region’s proximity to Central and West Asia meant that it was really a frontier to the Indo-Gangetic Plains of North India, and it was always region first to be settled by ‘foreigners’ if indeed we ‘imagine’ this vast area to be part of a primordial ‘India’. A lot of these groups were 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. 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-preists who were keen to promote themselves to the top of their own caste-system. Although ‘lower-castes’ existed within our region (we’re really speaking of kinship networks – 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 caste-outcasts. Our ‘new’ ‘Brahmans’ are unaware of how ‘Kashmiri’ occupational castes were treated in the region even in recent decades. The overwhelming majority of whom were never ‘Brahmins’ in the first place, let alone ‘Bhats’, ‘Dars’, ‘Khawaja’, ‘Mir’ etc. Even these ‘caste’ titles mean different things to different people, from different parts of North India, carrying different levels of social prestige for unrelated groups not necessarily connected with the Zamindar backgrounds. Crucially they are not the exclusive property of ethnic ‘Kashmiris’ with roots in the Vale of Kashmir, whether Hindu or Muslim let alone caste-Kashmiri refugees having settled on the Indian Plains. Most caste-Kashmiris as they were being increasingly identified within the region and the wider region were part of the non-landed occupational groups. Many weren’t even from the Vale of Kashmir in the sense of being ethnic Kashmiris but the wider areas of the State most notably the ‘Chibhal’ region – as it was called during the famines. They ended up on the Plains of Panjab because of famine. They were being identified as “Kashmiris” by virtue of originating from the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir; but that’s just the nature of power-dynamics and how identity labels emerge. They worked as tailors, barbers, shoemakers, labourers etc., and this had implications for how they were viewed by the ‘Zamindar’ classes who had traditionally dominated these areas. All of this is glossed over by their fecund descendants re-imagining their past lives in the idyllic Vale of ‘Kashmir’, the real Kashmir, at the behest of territorial priorities that do not involve them in the greater scheme of things.
Indian and Pakistani narratives around the Kashmir Conflict have seriously warped their sensibilities as they are unaware of the social stratification of the regions they claim their ‘caste-titles’ from.
As for the need to ‘own’ land a distinguishing social marker from occupational backgrounds, it symbolised something much more profound than possessing hectares and hectares of land. It was about patronage, it was ‘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 also included ‘Hindu Rajputs’, or those originally connected with this identity. Many would convert to Islam, and their descendants would be encouraged to drop their ‘Singh’ titles for ‘Khan’. At the instigation of the Mughals, they would also stop using the term ‘Raja’. To illustrate this, hypothetically speaking, the formally ‘Raja’ Chand Singh of Rajouri, would be now described as ‘Mirza’ or Mir Chand Khan of Rajouri. Different titles were deployed. The Mughals preferred Persian-sounding titles as opposed to ‘Indic’ ones. But, as I said the system was fluid. Whenever Muslim rulers were ousted in their regions and the Hindus reasserted themselves, the titles would change again. ‘Khan’ or ‘Mir’ so and so, would revert back to being called ‘Raja’ so and so.
Being a ‘Khan’ is not proof of a ‘Pathan’ background, or more correctly speaking proof of a ‘Pashtun’ ethnic heritage. The fact that some people maintain this today, aggregating the title for themselves just shows how far they are removed from this heritage. They do not know that Afghanistan, historically an ambiguous frontier between Iran and India had always been an ethnically diverse place with a myriad of evolving social groups. Its poverty today, 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 imagining an ‘Afghan’ background are ignorant of that past.
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. This wasn’t a priority for them, as we would imagine romanticising our past from our own priorities as belonging to a universal Muslim fraternity. 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). 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, I am trying to get across the point that we are strictly speaking about ‘patronage’ and not ‘class’ or ‘inherited’ ‘traits’ as stupid as this latter notion is. It is about your usefulness to your superiors and not about who you ‘think you’ are because of some warped sense of ‘titles’ or backgrounds not properly understood. It is about what you actually ‘do’. In this respect, not everyone from a ‘Rajput’ background was a ‘Raja’, a feudatory of the ‘Great Raja,’ ‘Maha-Raja’. The sons of the Raja (Raja-putra) wouldn’t go about self-affirming themselves as ‘Raje’ 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 Raja because you had a ‘Jagir’ (landed-estate) awarded to you through a detailed system of investiture with its own symbolism and imagery. The Maharaja would come to your lands with great pomp and show, place a turban on your head, receive and give gifts and ‘invest‘ you into your ‘status’. He was ‘confirming’ or ‘re-confirming’ you in your tracts of land, and letting your competitors know, you have his ‘favour’. As your fortunes waned, your prestige waned too, and you were accordingly identified on the basis of your changing circumstances, if indeed your male-heirs were allowed to retain the land, which wasn’t 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’. 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 categories. Like previous rulers to India, they too were integrated into the system, and were awarded their own Jagirs. They started out as an inoffensive trade mission but gradually morphed into an ambitious military presence with their own private armies comprised mostly of Indian ‘Sepoy’. 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 (‘Raje’, ‘Sardars’, ‘Nawabs)’, 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 was firmly in check. But unlike previous rulers, the colonial Brits were different. They wanted to buy and sell things, things that they had made 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.
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 in the Panjab by the ‘Zamindar’ clans as being ‘salaried’ puppets, (i.,e administrators) of the colonial British usually in junior or clerical roles . Their wealth was not comparable to the wealth of the much richer land barons who had little or 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 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 and 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. It was they who had the final say as to whether you were of ‘low-birth’ or ‘high-birth.’ They noted that the ‘higher-castes’ were generally fair-skinned, not much darker, if not of the same complexion as the Mediterranean ‘races’. The lower castes and the untouchables were darker if not ‘black’. 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, placing themselves as ‘Nordic Aryans’ at the top of the race-tree whilst plonking the Slavic populations of eastern Europe right at the bottom. More ironically, they viewed themselves racially higher than the Mediterranean Races – as true “Aryans”, even as they claimed the Roman-Grecco heritage as part of their own classical heritage.
This did not however, stop ambitious Europeans from seeking work in the British Indian Empire, and similarly being affected by the race theories of the time, as they merged with a European ‘nobility’ in India. In their home countries, they would have ordinarily lacked the sense of social prestige they were aggregating for themselves in Britain’s most lucrative colony.
In ‘India’ if you were identified as ‘Jat’, ‘Gujjar’, ‘Rajput’ or, say, ‘Yusufzai’, or ‘Afridi’, 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 only you could buy land. The Brits argued that this was to protect the agricultural clans from unscruplous money lenders who belonged to lower castes. The race ideas were simple, the ‘Rajputs’ and ‘Jats’, although strong and brave were incredibly unintelligent and simple. The money lenders and traders were weak but crafty and cunning, a bit like the Brahman priests, who were accused of all manner of perfidy, guile and falsehoods. Occupational castes that were not part of the ‘agricultural castes’ were proscribed from buying land. By not only creating race-fictions, the colonial officers created new forms of discrimination. Ambitious individuals now jostled to get identified as ‘martial races’ or ‘agricultural castes’ to simply get ahead in life. This merely strengthened the ‘prestige’ of identifying with certain caste-backgrounds, empowering identities that hadn’t existed previously. The British in effect 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. The British ‘fixed’ what was essentially a fluid situation.
In the past, ‘the nobles’ had to physically demonstrate their ‘nobility’.
As a notable feudatory, ‘Jagirdar’, you were the real patron in your tribal lands to occupational groups who were reliant on your ‘goodwill’. It was also your responsibility to ensure law and order and oversee disputes. How you behaved, distinguished you from your ‘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 impressive 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, colonial ethnologists coined the term ‘debased Rajputs’, and argued that many of the ‘Rajput’ clans that ended up on the Himalayan Hills having fled the Indo-Gangetic Plains in defeat were later identified as ‘Jats’ (‘farmers’). 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 earlier and having moved from the direction of Baluchistan, Sindh, Rajasthan and Gujarat into the ‘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’ has its origin in these dynamics.
This is not to say that the emerging tribal formations, belonged to separate, or distinct, ancestral groups. On the contrary, modern DNA studies have shown a common origin for these various groups, and many other communities that otherwise wouldn’t posture through such ‘identities’. Ironically, even Pashtuns, and Tajiks, are closely related to Jats, for instance, than to ethnic groups of the wider Iranian Plateau, to give you an idea of this shared but distant past. Such have been the upheavals in this region.
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, and symbolism that came by way of it, it’s bizarre to hear someone call another ‘Raja’ 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.
There are no ‘Jats’, ‘Raje’, ‘Sardars’, ‘Malks’, ‘Ghakkar’, ‘Kashmiris’, ‘Bhats’, ‘Bains’, ‘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. 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, to make sense of the timeline that resulted in many of our forebears becoming a settled community here.
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” 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 prejudices. It was these officers of colonialism, having also aggregated for themselves the role of official cartographer, who mapped our region, and assigned its various parts to the evolving geo-administrative configurations. Culturally speaking, our ethnic homeland is one uniform region – known broadly as the Pahari-Patwari Ilaaqah. We should take the time to learn about our actual cultural heritage, language and past, as opposed to posturing through the false consciousness of illusory priorities, disconnected with our lived experiences.
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 ‘Raja’ whilst the other puffed his chest out as a ‘Jat’. The Raja 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 ‘Raja’ 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 ‘Raja’ claimed to have come from the Sudhan tribe that has never been considered ‘Rajput’ in the classical definition and imagery of the term. The error on the part of the ‘Raja’ was to juxtapose his clan’s (self-styled) ‘title’ ‘Raja‘ 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’, 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