Casteism: alive and well in Pakistan

Raza Rumi writing for The Friday Times, Pakistan (current issue)

It is a cliché now to say that Pakistan is a country in transition – on a highway to somewhere. The direction remains unclear but the speed of transformation is visibly defying its traditionally overbearing, and now cracking postcolonial state. Globalisation, the communications revolution and a growing middle class have altered the contours of a society beset by the baggage and layers of confusing history.
What has however emerged despite the affinity with jeans, FM radios and McDonalds is the visible trumpeting of caste-based identities. In Lahore, one finds hundreds of cars with the owner’s caste or tribe displayed as a marker of pride and distinctiveness. As an urbanite, I always found it difficult to comprehend the relevance of zaat-paat (casteism) until I experienced living in the peri-urban and sometimes rural areas of the Punjab as a public servant.
I recall the days when in a central Punjab district, I was mistaken for a Kakayzai (a Punjabi caste that claims to have originated from the Caucasus) so I started getting correspondence from the Anjuman-i-Kakayzai professionals who were supposed to hold each other’s hands in the manner of the Free Masons. I enjoyed the game and pretended that I was one of them for a while, until it became unbearable for its sheer silliness and mercenary objectives.
It was also here that a subordinate told me in chaste Punjabi how the Gujjar caste was not a social group but a ‘religion’ in itself. Or that the Rajputs were superior to everyone else, second only to the Syeds. All else was the junk that had converted from the lowly Hindus (of course this included my family).
My first name is also a matter of sectarian interpretation. Another subordinate in my younger days lectured me on the importance of sticking together as the ‘victims’ of the Sunni majoritarian violence of Pakistani society. Mistaken as a Momin I also got a chance to know intra-group dynamics better, and also how closely knit such groups are and what they think of others. This reminds me of the horrific tales our domestic helper used to tell us about the Shi’ites, and as children we were scared to even go near a Moharram procession, until one day my Sunni parents fired her for poisoning their children’s minds.
My personal inclinations aside, for in the footsteps of the great Urdu poet Ghalib, I view myself as half a Shia, this has been a matter of concern. Can I not exist as a human being without being part of a herd? Obedience to hierarchies, conformity and identification with groups are central tenets of existing in Pakistan.
At a training institution fifteen years ago, where a group of us were being taught how to become ‘officers’, a colleague cooked up a fanciful story about me. In the lecture hall, I had argued for a secular state, quoting Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech and had highlighted the shoddy treatment of the minorities in Pakistan as a betrayal of the Quaid’s vision. This imaginative colleague circulated the rumour that the reason for my political views was that I belonged to the Ahmaddiya Jamaat. One could of course talk of the marginalised only if one was a part of that group. Otherwise why should we care, semi-citizens that we are!
In the twenty first century, Punjab’s entire electoral landscape is still defined by caste and biradari loyalties. In the 1980s, General Zia ul Haq’s machinations spearheaded a second social engineering in the Punjab by resuscitating the demons of clan, caste and tribe. Party-less elections helped Zia to undermine the PPP but it also gave enormous leeway to the state agencies to pick and choose loyalties when election was all about the elders of a biradari. His Arain (a non-land tilling caste) background became a topic of discussion as many Arains used this card to great personal and commercial advantage during his tenure. This is similar to what the Kashmiris have perceived under the multiple reigns of the now rechristened (in a democratic sense) Sharifs of the Punjab, who are proud Kashmiris.
Why blame the Punjabis only? In the early years of Pakistan, the migrants from India had set the ground for the politics of patronage along ethnic and group-lines. Karachi became divided into little Lucknows, Delhis and other centres of nostalgia. Employment opportunities and claims of property, as several personal accounts and autobiographies reveal, were doled out on the basis of affiliation to pre-partition networks – Aligarh, Delhi, UP qasbaas and Hyderabadi neighbourhoods. The same goes for the smaller units of Pakistan. Small wonder that the Bengalis ran away from the Pakistan project, despite being its original initiators.
We pride ourselves on being a nuclear armed Islamic state that broke away from the prejudiced Baniyas whose abominable caste system was inhuman. But what do we practice? Who said casteism was extinct in Pakistan? My friends have not been allowed to marry outside their caste or sect, Christian servants in Pakistani households are not permitted to touch kitchen utensils, and the word ‘choora’ is the ultimate insult after the ritualistic out-of wedlock sex and incestuous abuses involving mothers and sisters or their unmentionable anatomical parts. A Sindhi acquaintance told me how easy it was to exploit the Hindu girls at his workplace or at home. And what about the many blasphemy cases in the Punjabi villages, the roots of which are located in social hierarchies and chains of obedience.
The untouchables of the cities and the villages are called something else but they remain the underbelly of our existence. Admittedly these incidences are on a lesser scale than in India. That simply is a function of demographics. Even Mohammad Iqbal, the great reformist poet, lamented in one of his couplets: Youn tau Syed bhi ho, Mirza bhi ho, Afghan bhi ho/Tum sabhi kuch ho, batao tau Mussalman bhi ho (You are Syeds, Mirzas and Afghans/You are everything but Muslims).
Enter into a seemingly educated Punjabi setting and the conversation will not shy away from references to caste characteristics. For instance, I once heard a lawyer make a remark about a high-ranking public official, calling him a nai (barber) and therefore branding him as the lowest of the low. One of the reasons for Zardari-bashing in Sindh, has to do with the Zardari tribe’s historical moorings. They were camel herders as opposed to the ruling classes with fiefs.
When the young motorists playing FM radio, mast music, arranging dates on mastee chats, display the primordial caste characteristic on their windscreens, one worries if the ongoing change process can deliver a better society. Superficial signs of change cannot make up for the need for a secular educational system, equality of opportunity and accountability of political elites and their patron-state that use casteism as an instrument of gaining and sustaining power.
More bewildered, I wonder where I belong. Bulleh Shah has taught me that shedding categorisations is the first step towards self-knowledge. But I live in a society where branding and group labels are essential, if not unavoidable.
For this reason I am peeved that I still don’t know who I am.

Raza Rumi blogs at  and edits Pak Tea House and Lahore Nama e-zines.


Filed under Pakistan, Punjabi, Rights, Society, south asia

31 responses to “Casteism: alive and well in Pakistan

  1. Pingback: Casteism: alive and well in Pakistan | All Viral Emails

  2. Dastagir

    Too Kaun` Si Bad`lee mein…
    Chh`ipaa Chaand Hai Aa.. Jaa…

    (Noorjehan – film Khandaan)

    Moth-eaten Pakistan was a monument of love… a room built with mud mixed with blood and tears. Pakistan meant “emotion”… the feeling a woman derives when she sees her child growing.

    The Punjabi.. the Sindhi.. the Baluch.. the Pakhtoon.. are taking their sub-nationalist REVENGE on Jinnah’s eclectic and lofty idea of Pakistan.

    These shoulders were not meant to lift the weight that Jinnah’s dream embodied. The Qaum was not ready YET. It would need centuries of evolution for Muslims to reach Jinnah’s level… to understand THAT world-view.

    The Punjabi Zamindar… the Sindhi Vadera… they live comfortably. Their sons do their B.A. in England., and become Ministers (London kaa thap`paa lagnaa zaroori hai., ghulam qaum jo hai). The “Aam” (average) Pakistani is facing hardship. Earlier the Hindu Baniya or the Sikh Sardar would do Zulm.. rape the girls.. .burn their homes.. abduct their women.. grab their land.. not pay them for their labour… today these acts are being done by fellow Muslim-brethren !

    Pakistan was a monument of love… but love fails too… at times. There is nothing wrong in Jinnah’s world-view of Pakistan… the crude reality is… the RAW MATERIAL is not yet ready to bear that weight., that ideological burden… and display that Character ! Every man cant be Jinnah… a man like that is born… in centuries… We can only look at his picture., and feel remorseful.. sad.. and shameful.

  3. eleventyone

    a very good article, unfortunately on an issue which will never really be addressed because addressing it would require us to admit the falsehood of one of our major trump cards over Hinduism.

  4. Hades

    Must start reading Friday Times along with Dawn.

    If even one out of ten articles match up to this, it’ll be well worth my while.


  5. Munna Bhai

    “Can I not exist as a human being without being part of a herd? Obedience to hierarchies, conformity and identification with groups are central tenets of existing in Pakistan.”

    You missed out the most defining characteristic for existence in Pakistan – religion, or to put it most specifically – Islam. The instances about the ‘Christian servants’ and the “Hindu girls” most succinctly sum this up. Jinnah was irreligious and to that extent could be considered “secular”. But since he used Islam to create a nation-state, his vision of a ‘secular’ state rested on ‘false’ foundations which is precisely the reason why it could not be realized.

    As I see it, you cannot exist as a human being without being part of a herd. The decision is not yours to make. Jinnah did it for you in 1947.

  6. neel123

    Casteism is everywhere.
    Ask any Pakistani, how he is treated as a low grade muslim, in an Arab land. The black muslims from Africa, even lower !

  7. YLH


    That is a pathetic post to say the least.

    I am not going to go over how this view of partition now firmly belongs to the distbin of history but that is for you to learn on your own !

    Jinnah’s vision- consistent with his position throughout whether as an Indian nationalist or as a supposed separatist leader- was that citizenship should be based on equality regardless of belief or cultural origin and that no permanent cultural majority ought to oppress a permanent cultural minority on the basis of numeric majority.

    Whether or not one agrees with this basic principle of Pakistan movement, it is not hard to see that every action of the Pakistani state from objective resolution in 1949 to institution of state religion in 1973 goes against grain of the basic principle of the Pakistan Movement which sought to establish the principle of safeguards of permanent minorities.

  8. YLH


    The caste system is all pervasive when one considers the jatt-arain rivarly in Punjab’s politics. And you are on the dot about attitudes towards Christian servants…

    However, things are changing. And the “choora” attitude is certainly class based. The other day a company driver I spoke too with a long flowing beard spoke repeatedly about a certain “Noel sb” in highly reverential terms. This Noel sb is a Catholic Christian and fits the profile of what is generally referred to euphemistically as a low-caste convert to christianity. However none of the muslas of the long flowing beards dare refer to him in anything but reverential terms.

  9. Munna Bhai

    I think YLH doth protest too much.

  10. YLH

    Muna mian,

    You can hide behind any such sound byte but a more mature approach will be to realize that not everyone is going to agree with your hackneyed and now firmly debunked by most historians who have studied history of the period after the declassification of the transfer of power papers.

  11. YLH

    Erratum “hackneyed view of history”

  12. simply61

    RR,I am curious to know why Hindus are referred to as ‘Baniyas’ in Pakistan.I have heard the term in some PTV dramas of early 80’s too.To be exact,Baniyas are a sub caste and for the record they are part of the caste group Vaisyas(traders,merchants,artisans,farmers).Could this have something to do with a large number of Hindus controlling businesses in pre 1947 Lahore?
    It seems humans find a way of arranging themselves in some form of discriminatory groups one way or the other.On the sub continent its caste,in Britain its the class that divides.

  13. YLH


    That is a cop out. Class system occurs in the subcontinent as well …but caste system is additional nonsense.

  14. Munna Bhai

    @ YLH
    ‘Cultural minority’ – that’s a good one. Best I’ve heard in a long time. Whether the denizens of present day Bangladesh opted for Pakistan because of their common ‘cultural’ ties or religion is the question we need to ask. Probably, they woke up and discovered in 1952, the West Pakistanis weren’t really going to celebrate 21st February
    with them. From then on to 1971, it was a short walk.
    While Jinnah couldn’t trust the Indian polity to play fair by the minority (Oh! I forget, cultural minority i.e.), and to think he could deliver that to the minorities in Pakistan ? It’s as supercilious an argument that I’ve heard in a long time.

    P.S. Grow up. I’m not here to make anyone agree to my views ‘hackneyed’ or otherwise; just to get my point across. Period.

  15. YLH

    The TNT described Muslims and Hindus as more than religious communities but independent national cultures really. It is in this sense that I’ve used the term “cultural” and has been used as such by many first rate historians for TNT. The emphasis however was on permanent and not cultural.

    I have no doubt that had the basic principle ie permanent majority not dominating a permanent minority by sheer numbers been followed, Pakistan would have worked very well vis a vis minorities.

    As for the point you are trying to get across is pointless to say the least. Islam as a communal consciousness in any event is much more discouraging of caste etc. Indeed in pre-1947 Punjab the Unionist Party used Cross communal caste alliances against Muslim League’s Muslim Nationalism.

  16. Majumdar

    RR sb,

    To tell u the truth the whole world is tribalist, with some tribes being perceived as superior, others as inferior. In West it is race, in the subcontinent it is sect and caste, in Africa tribes so on and so forth. Although in the subcontinent we seem to be blessed more than normal with such practises. And sadly even urbanisation and education dont seem to be eradicating such prejudices- at least fast enuff.


    The Punjabi.. the Sindhi.. the Baluch.. the Pakhtoon.. are taking their sub-nationalist REVENGE on Jinnah’s eclectic and lofty idea of Pakistan.

    Jinnah’s Pakistan was not supposed to crush sub-nationalism, rather it was supposed to be a voluntary union of autonomous subnationalities. The “revenge” you are speaking is actually against the non-achivement of the Jinnahite vision.

    Earlier the Hindu Baniya or the Sikh Sardar would do Zulm..

    Look at the positive side. At least one set of oppressors has been gotten rid of.


  17. YLH,could it be possible that others make comments as observations and not as cop outs? I was not denying casteism or pushing it under”our great culture”carpet…….
    Here in the gulf state of Bahrain the society that is 99.9% Muslims (locals) is still divided into some 7-8 groups that owe allegience to tribal or country of origin factors.People marry mostly within these and I am told socialization also mostly occurs within these.This is in addition to the (growing) sectarian divide between Shias and Sunnis.The black Bahrainis and those who are from the sub continent(origin) are at the bottom of the pile…
    Hence I wondered if humans are pre disposed towards some how constructing a hierarchial pile and thus relegating some permanently to the bottom of the heap…..just a thought.

  18. I remember that when one of my friends, an urbanite, spent a long time thinking why the policeman asked about his cast after he was arrested for the first time.

    Caste system was the mark of the Asiatic Mode of Production that prevailed in India before the era of colonialism. Later, with a merger with capitalism, it became Asiatic Capitalism where caste identities and caste-based work lingers on with capitalist development. We have been discussing this caste issue on the CMKP fourm for a long time at a theoretical level. I hope all you will find it interesting:

    Documentary on the Caste System in South Asia

    Asiatic Capitalism & Agrarian Relations

    The basis of patriarchy in the Asiatic Mode of Production

    Marx and Engels on the Asiatic Mode of Production in India

  19. This article is indeed very timely and highlights the issue of caste-based discrimination in contemporary Pakistan, which is a human rights problem that is increasingly being recognized by a number of civil society organisations and the international community. The Government of Pakistan is in fact going to be examined by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in Geneva on 19-20 February, where this issue is expected to be addressed by the Committee based on alternative reports prepared by civil society organisations. It is the first time in 10 years that the Government has complied with its reporting obligations as a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and it is therefore a good opportunity to start a constructive dialogue on this matter. Links to the Committee’s website, including the alternative reports prepared for the review, are available here:

  20. hayyer48

    RR. If it is any relief Indian Muslims are as much caste oriented as Pakistani ones. Any race of invaders that conquered India necesarily adopted caste as their leitmotif.
    Vidrohi is absolutely right.
    It is the Brahminical mode of social ordering that dictates caste. The Brahmins when they invented the caste system created a system which Aldous Huxley re-invented in ‘Brave New World’. Like Huxleys categories India’s castes were interchangeable in that innate abilities determined caste and individuals could migrate to a higher caste.
    Later caste did become hereditary and so it has continued. Invaders till the coming of Islam become Hinduized and were assigned a position in the hierarchy depending upon how they fitted in. Brahmin chroniclers being the only literate guys around decided who would be what. So it was with the Greeks, Huns, Scythians, Kushans and others till the coming of Islam. Muslims invaders had their own system and did not become Hinduized.
    Or so they thought!
    Casteism is rampant in Indian Muslims. Sayyids ofcourse are at the top. Ghalib was in his own words, a ‘Mughal Bacha’. But the Mughals were considered lower than the Sayyids as attested by the story of ‘Twilight in Delhi’ by Ahmad Ali.
    RR need not feel too badly about the lost ideal of Pakistan. India has lost many of its ideals and survives. Jinnah’s ideal was that of a deracinated non-practicing Muslim. I dont believe that the Muslim aristocracy which was behind the Muslim League ever imagined a Pakistan where their superiority would be amalgamated in the common mass of Pakistanis.
    Simply 61: Pakistanis call all Hindus Baniyas because it is that caste with which the common Muslim lacks empathy most. The Baniya conforms to the stereotyped image of the Hindu. Grasping, scheming and untrustworthy. Gandhi was a bania. The word Bania as you know comes from Vanijya or commerce.

  21. yasserlatifhamdani

    I like Banias…. besides we owe our country to a Gujju Bania… Mahomedali Jinnahbhai’s caste was Vaisya Bania… though he famously said “I am not going to haggle like a Bania” but that is precisely what he did… and thank god for it.

  22. simply61

    YLH,you are incorrigible 🙂 🙂 Yahan bhi Jinnah sahib!!

  23. Rafay Kashmiri

    @Yet one of those Indian cultural curse,
    leftovers, inhuman Brahmanic diseases,
    still exist among other inherited legacy
    like, illiteracy, poverty, superstitious sects,
    inhuman traditions, panchayats, feudalism,
    Zamindarism, chaudrism, women treated as
    an eternal sin, abused, punished and many
    intestinal chronics, and yet caste system
    propagated by Pro-Indian Pakistani secular
    media run by TV anchors like Mustansar
    Hussain Tarar, Geo shaddi on line was
    destined to promote the come back of caste
    system. God damn them !!!


  24. Majumdar

    Rafay Kashmiri sahib,

    You guys have got rid of the Hindoos. Inshallah, you will be get rid of Hindoo customs as well.


  25. simply61

    Rafay Sahib, kabhi kabhi apne gireybaan mein bhi jhaank ke dekh lena chahiye.As Majumdar says Pakistan has by and large got rid of Hindus and their religion so why has this layering of society continued?
    Maybe the answers are not as simplistic as you would like them to be.

  26. Adnann Syed


    Your sarcasm is priceless. Please keep it coming.


    Agreed, but introspection has never been our forte previously. India, US and Jews have readily been provided as our favourite villains.


  27. Amit

    I have always believed that caste system is a facet of Indian society. It has been in the Indian system for so long (thousands of years) that there is no way we can get rid of it so easily. Apart from the Muslims I have even seen Indian Christians practicing caste system. I vividly remember an incident in Hyderabad, India where a mother-in-law refused to eat in the same plate as her daughter-in-law because the daughter-in-law belonged to Harijan community whereas they belonged to Anglo-Indian-Brahmin. The saas use to openly deride the bahu for her dark complexion and caste. There was an article in India Today long time back that spoke of churches having separate entrances for low caste and high caste faithfuls. So much for equality!

  28. rashid

    Movie Jinnah and treatment of minorities in Pakistan.

    Little over a year ago i visited Akbar Ahmad, producer of movie Jinnah, in American University, Washington D.C.

    I asked him in the movie that he produced, he showed Hazrat Qaid-i-Azam talking with Ghandi in a post death scene where they see roits and killing of Muslims by Hindus after the Barbari Masjid incident. QA saying to Ghandi, this is what i foresaw!!!I asked Akbar Ahmad what you think of Pakistanis doing now??? Are they not doing what QA was worried, Hindus will do to Muslims??? How come this aspect has been ignored???

    Prof. Akbar Ahmad was quiet.

  29. rashid

    Writes: Jinnah’s ideal was that of a deracinated non-practicing Muslim.

    But when we look at founding fathers of Pakistan they were quiet a religious people. They all hanged out in their “Pak Tea House” which was actually a Mosque/Muslim Mission House in Woking, England. Read where even the idea of Pakistan originated:

  30. yasserlatifhamdani

    Rashid sb,

    Thank you for that fascinating account.

    Having known Ibrahim Dard’s family, I am also familiar with the fact that Jinnah himself visited the main Ahmaddiya mosque in London where he was requested that he return to India to lead the Muslims of India out of their quagmire.

    These are the facts of history that are swept under the carpet by Pakistan’s mullah brigade.

  31. Milind Kher

    Jinnah had a wonderful vision for a secular Pakistan. It is sad that power hungry mullahs have hijacked a nation that has the potential to deliver a lot.