Resisting the stereotype

Middle caste Muslims struggled to attain social status compatible with their newly earned economic status.


Ajmal Kamal April 13, 2012

Faced with the pressures and strains of the modern life introduced by the huge social change under the colonial dispensation, the middle and lower caste members of the newly created classes had to make a deep cultural choice. The contours of this choice before these castes have been researched and formulated by the great sociologist and anthropologist MN Srinivas through his definitions of concepts such as ‘Westernisation’, ‘Sanskritisation’ and ‘Dominant Castes’. Although these concepts were developed based on Srinivas’s study of the Hindu caste system during the modern era, these can equally well explain the dynamics of change in the North Indian Muslim society.

The concepts of Westernisation and Sanskritisation, as defined by Srinivas, present the either/or choice before the individuals and castes that began their journey of upward social mobility or modernisation. Briefly put, Sanskritisation (or, in the case of the Muslim society, ‘Ashraafisation’) is the social trend or process through which “a low or middle Hindu caste… changes its customs, ritual ideology, and way of life in the direction of a high… caste. Generally such changes are followed by a claim to a higher position in the caste hierarchy than that traditionally conceded to the claimant class by the local community”.

Westernisation, on the other hand, is another process in another direction. Making this choice, individuals and groups, stop adhering to the traditional caste hierarchy altogether.

Seen in the context of Muslim society of the nineteenth century Northern India, the dominant Ashraaf castes first tried their hardest to resist the spread of education and change of caste profession among the middle and lower caste Muslims. Sir Syed’s treatise, written in the wake of the 1857 rebellion against the East India Company’s forces, clearly brings out the absolute division in his mind between the upper caste Muslims (who he simply calls “Muslims” and who in his view were loyal to the British masters chosen as rulers of the land by Allah’s will) and the lower caste Muslims (in his interesting and colourful language “badbakht” and “bad-zaat julahas” whose livelihood was destroyed by the colonial economic onslaught and who were arguably the driving force behind the rebellion savagely put out by the Company’s army). Later on, when the Company’s rule was replaced by direct imperial subjugation, both the upper and lower castes tried to adjust to the changed circumstances and use them to their individual and group advantage.

In the modern world brought about by the colonial transformation of the subcontinent, education and change of profession constituted the two main vehicles of upward mobility for the lower castes and for maintaining the domination of the upper castes within the Muslim communities. Upper caste Muslims were forced to abandon the lifestyle of living off the land through an established way of patronisation and to take up education and economic engagements under the colonial system. Middle or lower caste Muslims too raised their economic status, taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the new circumstances.

The Muslim social history of the Northern subcontinent is very interesting and revealing as it can be seen as an ongoing struggle of the middle caste Muslim individuals and groups to attain a social status within their communities that would be compatible with their newly earned economic status. This struggle was consistently resisted through various means by the dominant upper caste Muslims. Sir Syed made it very clear that modern education should be the exclusive realm of Sharif Muslims and the educational aspirations of the lower caste Muslims should settle for traditional madrassa education. The parallel and contemporary Deoband movement tried hard to keep the doors of even religious education closed to lower caste Muslims. Both Aligarh and Deoband (being symbols of modern and religious education among Muslims) had limited success in their exclusivist policies and some of the fruits of both kinds of education managed to reach the excluded groups. However, both were more or less able to force their elitist — Ashraafi— worldview on a large part of the Muslim educated classes and they began to identify themselves with the supremacy of the Muslim invaders from Arab, Central Asia and Afghanistan and their descendants. They started subscribing to the social and cultural values established during the centuries-long ‘Muslim’ rule. There was, however, another group of individuals — exposed to modern education, Western ideas and urban life — that felt dissatisfied with the old, worn-out traditional values and aspired for a more just and equitable social order based on egalitarianism, individualism and democracy instead of a rigid social and economic hierarchy.

The literary expression in Urdu of this modernist group blossomed in what was at that time — during the 1930s — called “Naya Adab” or New Literature. Saadat Hasan Manto was deeply inspired by this trend as it closely resembled his own creative personality, which developed during the 1920s and the early 1930s as a result of his reading of French, Russian and English fiction. Manto began his literary career by translating some of the works of these prominent modern writers into Urdu.

The sociocultural change summarised in the preceding paragraphs involved only the upper and middle castes. Manto chose as subjects and characters of his fiction individuals from the still lower rungs of society that remained on the margins and suffered the worst economic exploitation and social contempt.

What sets Manto apart from many of his contemporary writers is his fascination for men and women from these lowest depths that express their individual selves by resisting the stereotypes thrust on them by the dominant traditional, conservative, backward-looking world view. A number of his highly political stories have characters from the red light districts of the new urban centres. His famous characters from this wretched world — prostitutes, pimps and clients — are distinct in that they refuse to conform to the stereotypes imposed by the hostile social order. We can benefit from studying Manto’s characters in this perspective: Saugandhi (protagonist of his story Hatak Insult), Sultana and Shankar (of Kali Shalwar), Khushia, and Babu Gopinath.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th, 2012.

COMMENTS (44)

Surender Pruthi | 9 years ago | Reply

Are we not going to be harsh in treating the people who had migrated from India into Pakistan and had served this nation during the early years,post-partition?Why should they be castigated now,since we have attained education and information about the state-craft?Please do not forget their contribution in making the State of Pakistan and give them credit for it rather than being uncharitable in our's comments.With regards,Surender Pruthi,Sonipat(India).

Abid P. Khan | 9 years ago | Reply

Those who are always bent upon crossing swords, may benefit by reading some literature on:

Mamluk Bahri Mamluk Fatimid Slave Dynasty (Hindostan) . Sometimes the word education is alternatively used for enlightenment.

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