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Kashmir’s Untouchables: The Untold Story of Caste Discrimination

Caste discrimination in Kashmir may never have led to any violent outbursts but the fault lines are there.

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4 min read

The enormity of conflict in Kashmir has often led to the trivialisation of various socio-economic issues, which get buried under the weight of humongous political unrest. Though conflict undoubtedly remains the biggest of all evils, with people engrossed all the time in dealing with the gehenna (difficulties) it brings, in between, the issues of social and economic importance take a back seat.

One such issue is treatment of social groups like 'Watals' or 'Sheikhs'. They do menial jobs like sweeping or cleaning and live in separate colonies or ghettos in isolation. The term 'Watal' is in fact a slur used with a disparaging effect to address people associated with such jobs.

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Despite Islam being the religion of majority in the valley, people belonging to these communities are treated as untouchables, which is contrary to the Islamic values of social justice and equality.

Mumtaz Ahmad, a resident of Watal or Sheikh mohalla, says:

We are being treated as pariahs, nobody excluding our community considers us as equal citizens. People hesitate in talking and shaking hands with our community. They even maintain a distance with us if we somehow end up in their social gatherings.

The mohalla is a ghetto of some 500 households on the periphery of Srinagar's historic old city, which houses these people, who particularly work as sweepers in the local municipality.

"The egalitarian philosophy that Islam brought along did dilute the social stigma associated with people of 'lower' castes but it never really wiped out the biases against them. That is why we still have separate colonies like Watal mohallas, where they live in isolation and in pathetic conditions," says a Kashmiri Sociologist Dr Afaq Aziz, faculty member at Centre of Central Asian Studies (CCAS), University of Kashmir.

"People living in these ghettos are often treated as second-class citizens by people of 'higher' castes, who hesitate in mingling with them in individual capacities and social gatherings," adds Dr Aziz.

Even though the caste hierarchies in Kashmir may never have led to any violent repercussions, the fault lines are discernible. "I have been living in the shabby conditions of this colony since last 50 years and there has not been a single case of a boy or a girl marrying outside the community,” says Nazir Ahmad, another resident of the locality.

Our children suffer the worst. We toil day and night to educate them but it bears no fruit. They too are as ostracised as us.
Nazir Ahmad, Resident

A large section of Kashmiri society perceives that discrimination based on caste doesn't exist or if it does, it’s on a micro scale as it contradicts their religious beliefs – but that idea seems far removed from lived reality.

Hanan Zaffar is Editor, ‘Muslim Mirror' and 'CricSwarm'. Currently pursuing a masters from Jamia Milia Islamia, he has written extensively on politics and sports for national and international organisations like The Diplomat, The Quint and The Citizen. He tweets @HananZaffar.

Affan Qadri is a freelance photojournalist based in Kashmir.

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