Taken from "Social Stratification Among Muslims in India" by Zarina Bhatty, collected in Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatar by M.N. Srinivas (ed.), Viking, New Delhi, 1996.
Muslims in India are sharply divided into two categories, Ashrafs and non-Ashrafs. The former have a superior status derived from their foreign ancestry. The Ashrafs, or those who claim a foreign descent, are further divided into four castes, Sayyads, Shiekhs, Mughals and Pathans, in that order of rank. The non-Ashrafs are alleged to be converts from Hinduism, and are therefore drawn from the indigenous population. They, in turn, are divided into a number of occupational castes.
In Kasauli the term 'zat' equivalent to 'jati' in the Hindu caste system, is used to refer to caste, and the Ashrafs and non-Ashrafs are collectively referred to as 'oonchi zat' (high caste) and 'neechi zat' (low caste) respectively. Interactions between the oonchi zat and neechi zat are regulated by established patron-client relationships of the jajmani system. The patrons, who belong to the oonchi zat, are referred to as the jajmans, and the clients, comprising the various occupational castes of the neechi zat, as kamin. The kamins, who are attached to the dominant Ashraf lineage in a hereditary relationship, provide specialized services to its members for customary payments in cash or kind. The kamins are provided house sites by their jajmans and can also get land on lease from the jajmans for cultivation.
Like the Ashraf castes, which are ranked hierachically, the non-Ashraf castes also relate to each other in a hierarchical manner. In their case the superiority or inferiority of a caste is determined by the relatively pure or impure nature of the occupation associated with each. The dominant lineage of the Kidwais enjoys a uniformly superior status to all the non-Ashraf castes. The Kidwais claim to be Sayyads but the other Ashraf castes of Kasauli doubt the authenticity of their claim, and believe that Kidwais are a sub-caste of Sheikhs. The Kidwais' claim to Sayyad ancestry is however not openly challenged because of their economic superiority. The non-Ashraf castes exhibit a duality in their status, as each caste is superior or inferior to other non-Ashraf castes but always inferior to Ashraf castes.
Among Kasauli Muslims, the first and foremost criterion for grading non-Ashraf castes was the degree of impurity or pollution implicit in the nature of their occupation. In addition, there was another related criterion, viz. physical proximity of a non-Ashraf caste to Ashraf castes while performing services for them. Mirasis (singers) were thus higher than Nais (barbers), and both higher than Dhobi (laundrymen). Mirasis were higher than Nais because Mirasi women sat among Ashraf ladies to sing and singing had no polluting connotation. Women of the Nai caste who massaged Ashraf women and Nai men who cut hair performed services in physical proximity to the Ashraf caste but were rated lower than Mirasis because both services were regarded as impure. On the other hand, the Dhobi not only washed dirty clothes, which was a polluting occupation, their services did not require physical proximity to the Ashrafs and hence they were still lower in the caste hierarchy.
Things are not only impure or pure, but some things are more impure than others. In the course of practising their traditional occupation, castes which habitually handle very impure things are lower in status than those which handle things which are not so impure. These ideas hold good for the non-Ashraf castes in Kasauli. Human secretions (particularly nightsoil), dead animals and animals eating filth (pigs), are regarded as the most polluting, and occupations associated with them occupy the lowest rungs in the caste hierarchy. These castes are also regarded as unclean. In their case, group pollution also attaches to individual members of the caste.
Consequently, physical contact with individuals of these castes is avoided not only by Ashrafs but also by non-Ashrafs. Among the Muslims, if a person accidentally touches an individual of an unclean caste, the former must purify himself by a simple bath, particularly prior to performing a religious function like saying 'namaz', reading the Koran or entering a mosque. There is a difference here between Muslims and Hindus, and it lies in the fact that, unlike among Hindus, no elaborate rituals are prescribed for Muslims for purifying themselves in the event of physical contact with an individual from an unclean caste.
A person can be polluted not only by touching an individual of an unclean caste but also by coming in contact with an impure substance. Among Muslims all human secretions are 'naiis' or oollutine. Thus a woman during her periods is 'najis' irrespective of her caste and must abstain from saying 'namaz', ritual fasting, entering a holy place or partaking food on which the 'fateha' (Koranic verses) have been recited. A man and woman are both 'najis' after sexual intercourse. If a child wets a person he (or she) becomes 'najis'. Here again 'nijasaf, the state of being 'najis', is removed by having a bath. A distinction is made here between personal pollution caused by contact with human secretions and group pollution related to an occupation which involves direct physical contact with human emissions and waste, as in the case of Dhobis or Bhangis. Personal pollutioin is not transferred to another person whereas a person belonging to an unclean caste like the Dhobi or Bhangi can pollute others by touch.
Frederick Barth approximates the Swat 'Quoms' (social groups) to Hindu castes. He considers a 'Quom' to be too rigidly separated to be described as class. He also asserts that Swat Muslims practise a ritual-based system of social stratification, for Swat Quoms who deal with human emissions are ranked the lowest (Barth 1969). Bhattacharya in his study of Bengal (India) Muslims also claims that the concepts of purity and impurity exist among them and are applicable in inter-group relationships, as the notions of hygiene and cleanliness in a person are related to the person's social position and not to his/her economic status (Bhattacharya 1978).
Status differentiation implicit in the caste system finds expression in restrictions on marriage and eating together. In Kasauli caste endogamy is strictly adhered to, both among Ashrafs and non- Ashrafs. The four Ashraf castes are divided into two endogamous groups. Sayyads and Sheikhs inter-marry with a tendency towards hypergamy and so do Mughals and Pathans. Marriage alliances between Ashrafs and non-Ashrafs are still inconceivable and not a single instance of this is known to have occurred in living memory in Kasauli. In another predominantly Muslim village in the same district, a marriage did occur once between a non-Ashraf man and an Ashraf girl. But social disapproval was so persistent and intense that the couple was forced finally to migrate to Pakistan. In another district married a Muslim woman as a second wife. She was alleged to have belonged to the Dhobi caste. She was treated well by the husband who, in terms of clothes, jewellery, etc., provided for her equally (according to Koranic instructions as he understood them), but she was never socially accepted by the Ashrafs. On ceremonial occasions she had to retire to her quarters before mealtime, as Ashraf ladies would not eat with her. It was also understood that children born of her would not get Ashraf spouses, and as a matter of fact, they did not.
Ashrafs and non-Ashrafs do not eat together in Kasauli. Between the two endogamous subdivisions of Ashrafs there is no restriction on eating together, but their interaction is so limited that, in practice, it rarely occurs.
Caste in Kasauli represents a cluster of statuses social, political, economic and ritual. The last, in conjunction with social and economic status, has been dealt with in some detail on account of the controversy that centres around it. The political aspect of caste finds expression through the institution of the caste panchayat (a committee of elders) and a well-entrenched concept of biradari (literally, brotherhood).
Each non-Ashraf caste in Kasauli has a caste panchayat which regulates both intra-caste and inter-caste (among the non-Ashrafs) interactions and personal conduct. Caste panchayats have the right to settle disputes relating to property or personal matters, such as petty theft, boundary encroachments on individually owned land, divorce, disputes over dowry and the custody of children. Caste panchayats are also empowered to punish, the punishments ranging from fines to expulsion from the biradari. The latter, which is an extreme punishment, is referred to as stopping hukka-pani, which amounts to barring the offender from sitting and eating with fellow caste members, and further includes a severe economic sanction which prevents the offender from following the caste occupation.
The concept of biradari and caste panchayat are almost inseparable as the economic and political solidarity of a caste is expressed through the biradari and is regulated through the panchayat. Thus there is, for instance, a Julaha (weavers) biradari or a Kasai (butchers) biradari, neither of whom admit into their fold weavers or butchers who may professionally perform their functions but do not belong to the Julaha or Kasai castes. Such persons or families continue to belong to the biradari of their origin a fact that stresses the strict caste basis of biradari.
Hamza Alavi (1976), in his study of villages in the Punjab province of Pakistan, refers to biradari as having apolitical dimension because one can be expelled from it. But he attributes greater significance to the expression of kinship solidarity through the biradaris because of the inclusion in biradaris of both maternal and paternal kin who are engaged in the same occupation. In Kasauli too, each caste being endogamous, biradaris, by virtue of caste endogamy, are composed of both maternal and paternal kin. But, besides safeguarding caste solidarity, biradari panchayats also play a well-defined political role in regulating personal conduct with the help of established biradari norms, and in dealing with inter-biradari matters.
In Kasauli, Ashrafs too have biradaris the Sayyad biradari or the Sheikh biradari, for instance but these exist mainly to define the boundaries of their caste, for there are no panchayats. Biradari solidarity, however, is expressed on ceremonial occasions, when all members of the biradari are invited. Keeping the honour of the biradari is as important as it is among the non-Ashrafs. In the absence of a panchayat, an Ashraf biradari does not have an organ for expressing collective disapproval let alone punishing those committing offences against the caste code. Nor are disputes resolved by the biradari, with the result that they are taken to the law courts.
Thus it was found that Kasauli Muslims functioned on a caste basis, each group or sub-caste being endogamous, and membership of the group being determined by birth. Further, all groups were hierarchically arranged, the hierarchy being determined by ancestry and by the nature of the occupation associated with each group. Conformity to the system was ensured by exerting economic and political pressure through caste panchayats, and caste solidarity was maintained through biradari sentiments. Relations and interactions between the two major segments of the society Ashrafs and non-Ashrafs were governed by the jajmani system.