Castes in Punjab

Published: April 27, 2012
The writer edits a quarterly Urdu literary journal Aaj from Karachi, runs a bookshop and City Press, a small publishing house

The writer edits a quarterly Urdu literary journal Aaj from Karachi, runs a bookshop and City Press, a small publishing house

Before I come to the subject of sheer prejudice and violence woven into the fabric of our languages — Urdu and others — I would like to make a small but important clarification. The use of ‘North India’ and ‘northern subcontinent’ as interchangeable terms in the pre-Partition context in my previous columns seems to have led some readers to conclude that the geographical area defined by these terms somehow does not include the present Pakistani province of Punjab. This is an incorrect impression. These terms are used for the entire northern subcontinent — the area above the Vindhya mountains — and, in the context of caste politics, this entire area has common characteristics that are distinct from the area that falls below the Vindhyas. They encompass the entire area of Pakistan in addition to the areas that are on the other side of our borders with post-Partition India.

To somehow conclude that Punjab — or any other part of the present Pakistan — has been free from caste divisions, prejudices, discriminations and politics is to affirm our national trend to deny historical and social reality. Our post-Partition Punjab politics has typically been the power politics between different biradris sharing a specific area. Any number of examples could be found that demonstrate how caste prejudice plays a crucial role in informing individual and group attitudes: from the famous saying adorning the backs of our trucks and buses — Asl se khata nahin/kam, asl se wafa nahin (A high-born can do no wrong/while a person of low origin cannot be loyal) — to a recent whispering campaign vilifying a federal minister in which he was alleged to be from a Nai family. Whether or not the allegation was true, one thing is certain: according to the campaigners, a person’s caste background is the actual determinant of his or her worth!

A more gruesome and violent example is that of Mukhtaran Mai whose teenage brother (a Gujjar) made the mistake of crossing the caste boundary by befriending a woman of a high and dominant caste (Mastoi). As a punishment, he was sodomised by a gang of people who were later convicted for the crime by the Court. Mukhtaran herself, according to the minority judgment of the Supreme Court, was gang raped for her brother’s caste crime.

In order to understand the historical caste divisions in Punjab, I would like to refer to a book called Vichhore da Dagh (The burning wound of separation), by Shamsheer Singh Babra, published from Lahore in 2008. Babra, who was a part of the forced migration of 1947, came from a village called Chhotian Glotian, a few miles from Daska, district Sialkot, and was studying in a college at the time of Partition — which he calls the partition of Punjab. He went on to complete his higher studies in India and the US before embarking on a long career as a social scientist with the World Bank. He wrote this fascinating book, which he calls the biography of his village, recollecting all the minute details of life in Chhotian Glotian as he left it in 1947. On page 34 he writes: “People used to recognise each other on the basis of qaum. Qaum and zaat were one and the same thing. It was written in all official records and stamp papers. Qaum Jat, qaum Zamindar, qaum Tarkhan, qaum Khatri, qaum Teli, qaum Mirasi and so on. Religion was not mentioned. At the time of Partition, in 1947, the distribution of people from different religions [in the village] was as follows: Sikhs 52 per cent, Mussalmans 39 per cent, Christians 7 per cent and Hindus 2 per cent. Sikhs had five qaums: Jat, Ramgarhia, Khatri, Suniara and Mehra … . Mussalmans had the most numerous qaums, as many as 13: Jat, Arain, Lohar, Ghumiar, Bar-wale, Mirasi, Teli, Nai, Mochi, Machhi, Syed and Kashmiri. Only two qaums from Hindus lived there: Suniara and Bahman … . Christians were all considered the same qaum. Christians and Hindus did not own any land”.

Further on, on page 54-5, Babra reveals something which explains why all sweepers in Punjab are Christians. He writes: “Sikhs and Mussalmans in the village (like upper caste Hindus) did not allow the Untouchables (Dalits) to enter their folds. These people lived separately in a thathhi outside the village. Their way of worship was Pagan-like, but they followed the Hindu social customs. After the British Raj was established in 1848, [Christian] missionaries spread in the whole of Punjab. Around 1875, all the Untouchables from the village converted to Christianity. However, their lifestyle and social status did not change. They remained second-class citizens as before …” .

“Untouchables were outside the system. Sikhism, Islam and Christianity negated the hierarchy based on caste and kept the doors open for everyone to acquire knowledge. However, society went on following the same old ways. Each caste married within its fold. Hardly any Sikh violated this rule. Caste system was much stronger among Mussalmans. All Sikhs went to the same gurdwara but Mussalmans would only go to pray in the mosque belonging to their own sect. As people started moving from villages to the free environment of cities, and got educated and well-off, some of them changed their castes. Nais would start calling themselves Jats, Lohars became Khatris. It happened the other way round too. Many Rajputs mingled into Jats; some Bahmans got involved in business and became Khatris. Away from home, anybody could make himself anything he liked — who would know! Especially in Canada, the US and England, people [from Punjab] use their changed surnames. There was a famous saying which went like this:

Pehlon si asi Julahe, pher ban gaye Darzi/ Holi holi ho gaye Sayyad, aggon Rab di marzi! (In the beginning we were Julaha, then became Darzi/Gradually we turned into Sayyad, whatever God wills happens!)”

Some Untouchables did convert to Islam and Sikhism despite resistance from powerful groups; however, they ended up being called ‘Musallis’ in the former and ‘Mazhabi Sikhs’ in the latter case and treated as Untouchables.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 28th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (36)

  • Hasan Awan
    Apr 27, 2012 - 11:49PM

    Sir still there are many discrepancies in this article. I dont know why People mix the caste or tribe and discrimination together. There is nothing wrong if you belong from some tribe but the problem arises when we think someone is superior to others. The older tribesmen actually were like a huge family and it was a good thing. If you say all people are equal then there is nothing wrong to belong from some tribe or caste.
    I belong from Sargodha and Khushab region and I am from Awan tribe and for me if discrimination could be ended then tribes are a great thing. All around my city i know many people who are of my tribe and even beyond my cities in Mainawali and in Chakwal regions. We are like an extended family and i really like this tribe system as we could work collectively as a huge family. So tribe system is a good thing if sense of superiority could be removed and everyone could be considered equal as tribes could work like your extended family.


  • Cynical
    Apr 27, 2012 - 11:50PM

    Salam, Ajmal saab.Another brilliant piece.
    It seems, ‘The more things change, they remain the same.’


  • Shoaib
    Apr 28, 2012 - 12:15AM

    Sir a correction for you that you stated that Mastoi is a higher caste while Gujjar is a lower caste. Sir you are utterly wrong. Gujjar is a famous Punjabi tribe and Mastoi are a Baloch tribe and they cannot be compared in any means . Also I think that you never lived in Punjab and analyzed the situation in a very clumsy manner.
    Also original Punjabi tribes know they are North Indians actually as adterall Punjab is a part of North India historically.


  • Syed Ali
    Apr 28, 2012 - 12:21AM

    @ author! Excellent article and I praise you for that. I am sure you must have read the famous book of HA rose and Sir . Abbetson on the topic where the learnerd authors have shed light on the issue of Caste and tribes. Historically, Castes were to donate social status and were interchangable and there was always room to move upwards or downgrade. For example, the authors point out that a Rajput or Brahmin marrying a woman of lower caste will often loose his status. however in select cases, a person of lower caste marrying in to higher caste will attain the same status in as many as 5 to 7 generations. There were deeds that would increase ones rank in the caste system and there were deeds otherwise. A classical example is 2nd marriage of the widow, which would almost certainly degrade a Rajput tribe or touching of the Plough that would degrade rajputs and Brahmins. In the end of Mughal era, there was more turbulence in society than ever and some how the caste system stopped displaying its dysnamics.


  • Mirza
    Apr 28, 2012 - 12:28AM

    Thanks for showing us the mirror and tell the truth. Nice of you to quote the proverb against the “poor/low cast” people. There is another term concocted by the haves against have nots that is “namak haram”. Means a slave is always a slave and if he/she tries to get out and demand equality and rights then they term the person “namak haram”.
    Thanks for quoting the minority decision in Paksitani SC in M. Mai’s case. In the entire history of Pakistan the most historic and correct decisions have been from the dissenting judges not the majority. A couple of examples are justice Munir and ZAB’s case where the dissenting judges have written historic and correct decisions.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Apr 28, 2012 - 12:29AM

    @Ajmal sahab
    Great article but sir according to Quran god made Qaum and Kabeelay to know each other and profession is not Zaat or tribe but bacame in indian rigit caste system and English did not even trys to finished it they even kept in Army recruitment and still follows by our Fauj.


  • HotShot
    Apr 28, 2012 - 1:15AM

    There is another side of the story to the Mukhtar Mai case, according to which, the gang rape of Mukhtar’s brother and that of Mai never took place. As a matter of fact, the family of Mukhtar were more connected and well off than the family of the girl that was befriended by Mukhtar’s brother. Mukhtar Mai was a victim of vani. She was handed over to the other tribe by her very own family to expiate the crime of her brother. She was raped by 1 man repeatedly over several days and then kicked out to humiliated her. The man who raped her was convicted by the courts and is serving his time.


  • Rajendra Kalkhande
    Apr 28, 2012 - 1:45AM

    I don’t know the reason, but caste creates some sort of affinity straight away, even if religion is different. Being a Hindu Jat, I tend to feel closer to Muslim and Sikh Jats and look at their achievements as mine. I enjoy Abrar-ul_haq’s Jatt songs. Just other day I came to know that Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a Jat. I could feel the pride as if he was my distant uncle. Hina Rabbani Khar is another Pakistan Jat who is so popular in the sub-continent and I feel more emotionally closer to her than even our own Foreign Minister Mr Krishna. Caste seems to dominate religious and national boundaries. Trust me, I am not against other castes in any way. However, more than religion, I have a very strong feeling about my caste.


  • Asjad
    Apr 28, 2012 - 2:09AM

    Fantastic article…! It really shows the electoral politics of Punjab…how frm Nawaz to Shahbaz to Elahi to Monis…caste go hand in hand!


  • Shehzad Ali Zaidi
    Apr 28, 2012 - 3:11AM

    When Islam came to India, Indians became Muslims but really kept most of their practices. Same food. Same dance. Same tribal groupings, that is caste. Same language (ok, mixed in some Arabic and Persian). Even the Sufi religion most popular in the subcontinent is basically identical to the Bhakti tradition that stated in India 2000 years ago in Tamil nadu in the deep south.

    All that changed when Pakistan was formed and even more so under Zia ul haq. Now, all of sudden, Pakistanis became Arabs, we inserted inscrutable Arabic words into our language, outlawed dance, bombed Sufi shrines, ate way more meat than we ever have, grew beards, banished the sari, hid under a hijab, and became the center of all things Islamic and violent.

    May god save us for ourselves.


  • blithe
    Apr 28, 2012 - 4:26AM

    I have lived in Lahore for sometime .

    Not a simble person inquired after my caste.
    We are all Muslims and Pakistanis.

    The new generation in Pakistani cities have no clue about the caste system.
    This is a big differnece between is and Indians


  • Khizar
    Apr 28, 2012 - 4:55AM

    The author miserably messed things up. According to author Tribes and Caste are like one thing and in fact they are not. Tribes are like families or extended families. Caste system is more like a religious thing and nothing to do with Tribes of older times and Caste is associated with Hinduism where they were divided into Brahman ( The Upper Most) , Khastri ( Warrior Class), Waish( Farmers) and Shooders ( The lowest). The cast was meant for religious reasons and the author miserably messed Caste with Tribes.
    Also what a pity that he actually first divided people according to Religion and then Divided Sikhs into certain tribes and Muslims into others and this is sheer ignorance and nothing else. A tribe have nothing to do with religion. Both Sikhs and Muslims in Punjab belong from different tribes and they existed even before the Sikhism ever came in this region as Sikhism is only 300 Years old while all tribes live here for more than a thousand years. This article was a mere explanation of some excerpts of one book who analyzed those people according to his own thinking and nothing else.


  • Haris Chaudhry
    Apr 28, 2012 - 5:10AM

    I have great admiration and respect for this author. Simple, structured, well researched and straight forward reflection on our recent history that we all seem to be shy of.
    You have a very disarming way of writing that shows the mirror to the ‘ghairatmand’ and ‘pure’ of this nation without sounding condescending or overbearing.

    Here is hoping that those that do read your writings do so with their eyes and minds open to what I would call our shared history with our larger Hindu neighbour – It bursts our bubble so frequently blown about us being cleaner, superior, prettier (!!), braver, generous and purer than our hindu compatriots and somehow contain more “Arab-esque” than “Indian” heritage..



  • Arijit Sharma
    Apr 28, 2012 - 7:07AM

    One can not escape the fact that deep down we are the same people.


  • Apr 28, 2012 - 8:50AM

    shamsheer singh babra book is good and very interesting. i do not know either the editorial staff upload it or not but one thing i need to mention here. it remind me all india congress especially gandhi politics. when u have some praise for south Punjab you called it seriaiki and when u want to criticism than u called it Punjab. even so-called intellectuals who praised the book Punjabi Taliban did so because in the book author tries to mention madrassas of south Punjab. it is a sorry state of affairs. double standards of our intellectuals is a common problem and they with one breath, praised Sir Syed and so-called first war of independence 1857.
    for ajmal sarkar, one thing is most important and that is who promoted that caste system, who made it part of modern state craft, it were gazetteers and Britishers who made it part and parcel.


  • Shoaib
    Apr 28, 2012 - 8:58AM

    Jat is a Tribe name and not some social class. Caste is more like a social class. Some people in comments rightly pointed out the difference here. Caste is more like Hindu religious thing while Tribe is a family thing which represent common geneology. So please differentiate in them.


  • Sanity
    Apr 28, 2012 - 10:35AM

    An excellent article indeed!


  • Rai Rashid Kharal
    Apr 28, 2012 - 12:44PM

    One point needs to be clarified here, Shamsher Singh Babra needs some more research on castes in Punjab. In real sense Julaha, Suniara or Maacchi, can not be categorized as castes. these are occupational titles for those who opt different occupation as per their needs and circumstances. where as Jat, Rajput, Arain etc are castes.


  • Abdul
    Apr 28, 2012 - 12:54PM

    Nais would start calling themselves Jats, Lohars became Khatris. It happened the other way round too. Many Rajputs mingled into Jats; some Bahmans got involved in business and became Khatris.

    In most of Punjab, and especially in Central Punjab, Jat is a far more powerful caste than Rajput. This is why many Rajputs have assumed a Jat idenitiy. The Bhatti rajputs in particular have heavily intemingled and intermarried with Central Punjab Jat clans like the Cheema and the Tarar. Before partition caste loyalties were more important than religious ones.


  • Sajid Mahmood
    Apr 28, 2012 - 1:33PM

    Qaum or Tribe is no bad thing until or unless it gives (hot) air to enmity/hatred types of things. To remain united as Pakistanis, we must refrain from saying or writing I/we am/are Awan, Alvi, Chaudhry, Bhatti, Raja, Arain, Gujjar, Qaisrani; Muhajir, Punjabi, Pathan, Sindhi, Balochi; Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Parsi. Instead we must feel proud of being called as a True Pakistani. It is pertinent to mention here that before hoisting flag of a political party at our homes, we must hoist our National Flag to keep our spirits high and show our enemies that WE ARE UNITED without any discrimination.

    <<<<<<<<< LONG LIVE PAKISTAN >>>>>>>>>

    Sajid Mahmood
    KUFRI, Valley Soon Sakesar


  • geeko
    Apr 28, 2012 - 3:37PM

    @Rajendra Kalkhande:
    Forgot my favourite Jatt, Waqar Younis =P

    But caste is no more important in “big cities” (Lahore, Islamabad, …) through the majority of Punjab (Seraiki areas and Potohar plateau) are still heavily concerned, which makes the majority of the Muslim Punjabis still caste-aware.


  • vasan
    Apr 28, 2012 - 3:58PM

    There seems to be lot of misinformation among Pakistanis about caste system. They are confused the currently prevailing caste system which are similar to the tribes the author has described. But the original caste or varna as described in Hinduism has 4 varnas ie Brahmins, Shatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudra. It is very important to note the people belong to these castes not by birth but by their nature. One can become a brahmin from a shudra caste by change in their gunas which are again divided into 3 ie Rajas, Tamas and Sattva. A humans nature is made up of a combination of these gunas. . But the prevailing caste system which is given to anyone by their birth and used in the marriages, festivals etc are similar to the ones described by the author and hence similar to the tribes. The prevailing caste system has nothing to do with what is preached by Hinduism. I guess it is the way the societies in the South asia evolved and not by religious practices.


  • Sial
    Apr 28, 2012 - 4:54PM

    There seems to be lot of misinformation among Pakistanis about caste system. They are confused the currently prevailing caste system which are similar to the tribes the author has described. But the original caste or varna as described in Hinduism has 4 varnas ie Brahmins, Shatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudra.

    The Varna system of North India has no existence at all in Punjab and Sindh. The Asharf and Ansar system of North Indian Muslims also has no existence here. Punjab has its own social system based on the Zamindar and Kammi. The Zamindars all come from formerly Hindu tribes like the Jat and the Ghakkar, rather than Syeds and Qureshis, like in North India.


  • Prabhjyot Singh Madan
    Apr 28, 2012 - 5:11PM

    Caste system is a curse. Indian constitution denounce it. Being a Sikh I believe in one humanity. I would not hesistate to eat from the plate of a shifts or anyone. It divides people. Sat Sri akal. Peace, cheerio.Recommend

  • Hasan Awan
    Apr 28, 2012 - 5:18PM

    @Sajid Mahmood: The hypothetical definition of Pakistani family is good only for some fiction books. When i will be in danger or i will be hungry or if i want something if i will knock at some of my Pakistani family member’s home in case of danger then all i would get would be good abuses. There is no such thing as Pakistani family. Please stop this patriotic rhetoric and live in real life. In real life your family can only help you while believe me when you will be dying no Pakistani will help you.
    My uncle recently died in one accident and i saw his video on youtube that people were enjoying that how he was killed but nobody brought him to the hospital for over two hours and he was dead due to blood profusion. So come out of this cloak of Fake Patriotism.Recommend

  • Rajendra Kalkhande
    Apr 28, 2012 - 7:22PM

    @Shehzad Ali Zaidi.. To me Arabisation of Pakistan is something like Buddhimisation of India during Ashoka the great. It did not last long. Same is likely to happen with Pakistani Islam. People had enough of it and there is growing debate in all walks of Pakistani society. Sooner or later Pakistan will return to same version of liberal Islam. Wahabism does not suit Pakistani temperament.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Apr 28, 2012 - 7:25PM

    @Probhjiot singh Madan
    I dont think man last year in East punjab city of jalendhar one sikh precher got murdered the reason behind was he is not jatt and also sikh dont want low caste hindus to converts to sikhism they well come only from certain families in punjabi hindus to become
    a sikh and read history or go to u tube to see speeches
    of late leader of khalistan movment. Allah u Akber.


  • Tariq
    Apr 28, 2012 - 7:53PM

    Author has reviewed the book Vichhore da Dagh by Mr. Babra. He evidenced it to prove that areas including present Pakistan and N India were influenced by the caste system which is affiliated to the prejudice and violence. It relates to Urdu language too. The difference between tribe and caste has also been made. Issues of caste superiority noticed in the follow-up blogs. Jatts are mostly discussed.

    Epics of Gilgamesh and Trojan War contain the glimpses of the heritage of the people of N Subcontinent. Racial and linguistic ethnicity is age old and it takes commensurating time to transform. Despite swift cultural and other diffusions due to globalization and technology, it will still take time to deny the stance of the author.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Apr 28, 2012 - 9:05PM

    The book is written in Gur mikhi or English or Urdu Hindi???


  • let there be peace
    Apr 28, 2012 - 11:12PM

    I’m surprised to see the comments from Muslim Pakistanis (presumably forward Caste)- and this is 21st century – supporting and justifying caste system. And then at other places they will boast how their religion is superior to other religions using caste system argument.


  • Tariq
    Apr 29, 2012 - 12:11AM

    @Ali Tanoli:
    its in Anatolian language Tanoli Sb
    Punjabi sir


  • Prabhjyot Singh Madan
    Apr 29, 2012 - 2:28AM

    @Ali Tanoli:
    One person getting killed does not reflect on society. It was a exception and not a rule. It is deplorable but I have been to gurudwaras of lower castes without problems. I insist caste system is alien to guru granth Sahib, our holy book. We welcome all who wants to become Sikhs but we are not a missionary faith. I believe in one humanity and that is what ggs has taught me. Rab Di quam, rab dey bandey. Sat Sri akal. Salam .peace


  • Maria
    Apr 29, 2012 - 9:43AM

    I think that the author is mixing up caste and clans. I know that my relatives in the Punjab couldn’t care less about what clan one comes from since it doesn’t matter anymore. In India caste refers to something that you are born into and cannot be changed. People in Pakistan talk tribe of Pashtuns is better than another clan or that one clan of Punjabis is better than another clan. It is true that every Indian Muhajir who has moved to Pakistan likes to say he is a “Syed” but I know that most people in Punjab just ignore such talk since they know it to be false.


  • stenson
    Apr 30, 2012 - 1:12AM

    @Shoaib: Good point. I think the author is mixing up castes and clans / tribes. Nowhere in Pakistan is there the kind of caste affiliation that exists in India. In Punjab and Sind, people may belong to clans but no one cares about this when marrying or getting jobs etc. And yes as some comments above show, the Mastoi are not a caste but a Baluch tribe. The author has to understand the difference between tribes and castes. I wuold say there is no care about so called “castes” in Pakistan wherever I go in any part of Pakistan.


  • Talat Haque
    Apr 30, 2012 - 9:27PM

    Human beings would like to pretend that they are united and EQUAL under some higher idea [philosophical, social or religious] …………… but the fact is that they are not ………. they are divided and different and suffer the illusions of grandeur and delusions of superiority [ethnic, racial, religious – so on and so forth] ………….. they kill and conquer and rule and terrorize based on these divisions …………. anyone who does not see that is pathetically ill-informed ………… Thank you Ajmal Sahib for reminding us all …………. that is not to say that sometimes human beings don’t break out of the bonds of these divisions and prejudices – they do ………… great souls …………. but they are exceptions and not the rule.


  • Surender Pruthi
    May 13, 2012 - 4:23PM

    @Prabhjyot Singh Madan: A note of consequence and I fully endorse the views of Bhai Prabhjyot
    Ji.We,always,have to act rising above these petty considerations in the best interests of the man-kind.With regards,Surender Pruthi,Sonipat(India).


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