Panjab Castes: 04- Effect of conversion upon caste

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This article is an extract from



Being a reprint of the chapter on
The Races, Castes and Tribes of
the People in the Report on the
Census of the Panjab published
in 1883 by the late Sir Denzil
Ibbetson, KCSI

Lahore :

Printed by the Superintendent, Government Printing, Punjab,

Indpaedia is an archive. It neither agrees nor disagrees
with the contents of this article.

Effect of conversion upon caste

At the beginning of this chap ter I stated, admittedly as an exaggeration of the truth, that caste has little necessary connection with the Hindu religion, and that conversion from Hinduism to Islam has not necessarily the slightest effect upon it. I shall now consider how far that statement has to be modified. I have attempted to show in the preceding paragraphs that pride of blood, especially in the upper, and shame of occupation, especially in the lower classes, are in all societies the principal factors which regulate social rank; and that when Brahminism developed caste, all that it did was to bind the two together, or at least to pre vent the dissolution of the tie which bound them and which would have broken down in the ordinary course of social evolution, and while thus perpe tuating the principle of the hereditary nature of occupation and social status, to hedge it round and strengthen it by a network of artificial rules and restric tions which constitute the only characteristic peculiar to the institution of caste. This I take to constitute the only connection between Hinduism and caste ; and it is obvious, that these restrictions and prejudices once engrafted on the social system, mere change of creed has no necessary effect whatever upon their nature or their operation. As a fact in the east of the Panjab con version has absolutely no effect upon the caste of the convert. The Musalman Rajput, Gujar, or Jat is for all social, tribal, political, and administrative pur poses exactly as much a Rajput, Gujar or Jat as his Hindu brother. His social customs are unaltered. His tribal restrictions are unrelated, his rules of marriage and inheritance unchanged ; and almost the only difference is that he shaves his sealplock and the upper edge of his moustache, repeats the Mahome dan creed in a mosque, and adds the Musalman to the Hindu wedding cere mony. As I have already shown in the chapter on Religion, he even worships the same idols as before, or has only lately ceased to do so.

The fact is that the people are bound by social and tribal custom far more than by any rules of religion. Where the whole tone and feeling of the country-side is Indian, as it is in the Eastern Panjab, the Musalman is simply the Hindu with a difference. Where that tone and feeling is that of the country beyond the Indus, as it is on the Panjab frontier, the Hindu even is almost as the Musalman. The difference is national rather than religious. The laxity allowed by Mahomet in the matter of inter marriage has no effect upon the Musalman Jat of the Dehli division, for he has already refused to avail himself even of the smaller license allowed by the Hindu priests and scriptures, and bound himself by tribal rules far stricter than those of either religion. But the example of the Pathan and the Biloch has had a very great effect upon the Jat of the Multan division; and he recognises, not indeed the prohibitions of Mahomet, — or rather not only them, for they represent the irreducible minimum, — but the tribal rules of his frontier neighbours, more strict than those of his religion but less strict than those of his nation. I believe that the laxity of the rules and restrictions imposed by the customs of castes and tribes which is observable in the Western Panjab, and among the Hindus no less than among the Musalmans, is due far more to the example of the neighbouring frontier tribes than to the mere change of faith. The social and tribal customs of the eastern peasant, whether Hindu or Musalman, are those of India ; while in the west the people, whether Hindu or Musalman, have adopted in great measure, though by no means altogether, the social and tribal customs of Afghanistan and Bilochistan. In both cases those rules and customs are tribal or national, rather than religious.

At the same time there can be no doubt that both the artificial rules of Hindu caste, and the tribal customs which bind both Hindu and Musalman, have lately begun to relax, and with far greater rapidity among the Musalmans than among the Hindus. And this difference is no doubt really due to the difference in religion. There has been within the last 30 years a great of Musalman revival in the Panjab; education has spread, and with it a more accurate knowledge of the rules of the faith; and there is now a tendency , which is day by day growing stronger, to substitute the law of Islam for tribal custom in all matters, whether of intermarriage, inheritance, or social intercourse. The movement has as yet materially affected only the higher and more educated classes ; but there can be little doubt that it is slowly working down through the lower grades of society. The effect of conversion to Sikhism has already been noticed in the chapter on Religion, as has the effect of change of creed upon the menial classes ; and this latter will be dealt with more at length in that part of the present chapter which treats of those castes.

This is much less true of the middle classes of the towns and cities. They have no reason to be particularly proud of their ( a-te ; while the superior education and the more varied constitution of the urban population weaken the power of tribal custom. In such casesthe convert not unfre quently takes the title of Shekh : though even here a change of caste name on conversion is pro bably the exception.

Effect of Islam in strengthening the bonds of caste

But if the atloption of Islam does not absolve the individual from the obligations common to his tribe or caste, still less does its presence as such tend to weaken those obligations. Indeed it seems to nic exceedingly probable that where the Musalman invasion has not, as in the Western Panjab, been so wholesale or the country of the invaders so near as to change bodily by force of example the whole tribal customs of the inhabitants_, the Mahomedan conquest of Northern India has tightened and strengthened rather than relaxed the bonds of caste ; and that it has done this by depriving the Hindu population of their natural leaders the Rajputs, and throwing them wholly into the hands of the Brahmans. The full discussion of this question would require a far wider knowledge of Indian comparative sociology than I possess. But I will briefly indicate some considerations which appear to me to point to the probable truth of my suggestion. I have said that caste appears to have been far more loose and less binding in its earlier form than as it appeared in the later develop ments of Brahminism ; and we know that^ at least in the earlier and middle stages of Hinduism, the contest between the Brahman and the Rajput for the social leadership of the people was prolonged and severe (see Muir's Sanskrit Texts, Vol. I). The Mahomedan invaders found in the Rajput Princes political enemies whom it was their business to subdue and to divest of authority ; but the power of the Brahmans threatened no danger to their rule, and that they left unimpaired. The Brahminic influence was probably never so strong in the Panjab as in many other parts of India ; but it is markedlyl strongest in the Delili Territory, or in that portion of the Province in which, | ■ lying under the very shadow of the Mughal court, Rajput power was most' . impossible. Moreover, it is curious that we tind the institutions and restrictions - of caste as such most lax, and a state of society most nearly approaching that which existed in the earlier epoch of Hinduism, in two very dissimilar parts of the Panjab. One is the Indus frontier, where Mahomedanism reigns supreme ; the other is the Kangra hills, the most exclusively Hindu portion of the Province. On the Indus we have the Saiyad and the Pir, the class of Ulama or divines who take the place of the Brahman ; the Pathan or Biloch as the case may be, who correspond with the Kshatriya ; the so-called Jat, who is emphatically the people or Vaisya in the old sense of the ^'ord, and includes all the great mass of husbandmen of whatever caste they may be, Awans, Jats, Rajputs and the like, who cannot pretend to Kshatriya rank ; the Kirar or trader of whatever caste, Banya, Khatri, or Arora, con-esponding with the later use of Vaisya ; the artisan or Sudra ; and the outcast or Mlechchha. The two last classes have no generic names; but the three first con-espond almost exactly with the Brahman, the Kshatriya, and the Vaisya of the middle Hindu scriptures, nov nre the boundaries of these divisions more rigorously fixed than we find them in those scriptures. The other portion of the Province in which caste restrictions are most loose and caste divisions most general and indefinite is the Kangra hills ; or precisely the only part of the Panjab into which Mahomedani;^-m has found no entrance, in which Mahomedan ideas have had no influence, in which Hinduism has remaine^d ^ absolutely sheltered from attack from without, and in which the oldest Rajput dynasties in India have preserved tVicir supremacy unbroken up to wdthin the last eighty years. On the Indus we appear to have caste as it is under the Mahomedan, on the Jamna as it is under the Brahman, and in the Himalayas of Kangra as it is under the Rajput. The state of caste relations in the Kangra hills is fully described under the heads of Jats in general, Rajputs of the Eastern Hills, Thakars and Rathis, Kanets, and Hill Menials, The whole matter is summed up in the quotation from Mr. Lyall ^iven on page 175. Here the Rajput is the fountain of honour, and the very Brahman is content to accept rank at his hands. Mr. Barnes writes of the Kangra Brahmans : —

The hills, as I have already stated, were the seats of petty independent princes, and in every principality the Brahmans are arranged into classes of different degrees of purity. The Raja was always considered the fountain of all honour, and his classification, made probahly at the counsel '•'of his religious advisers, was held binding upon the brotherhood. In these graduated lists no account was ever taken of the zamindar Brahmins, as they were contemptuously styled; — they were left to themselves in ignoble obscurity. Thus, in the days of Raja Dharm Chand, the two great trhes of Kangra Brahmins,— the Nagarkotias ' (from N'agarkot, the ancient name of Kangia) and the ' Batehrns,' — were formally sub-divided into clans. Of the Nagarkotias Dharm Chand established 13 different families, of which, at the risk of being considered tedious, I subjoin a catalogue.

So we find the Raja of Kangra bribed to elevate a caste in the social scale ; and the Raja of Alwar making a new caste of a section of the Minas, and prescribing limits to their intermarriage with those who had till then been considered their brothers.

Under Iahomedan rule the Rajput disappeared, and for the Hindu population the Brahman took his place. Hence the wide differences between caste in Kangra and caste in the Dehli Territory. In the Hills, the very [ P. 180 ] stronghold at once of Rajput power and of Hindusim in its most primitive form, we have the Brahman, but with a wide difference between the Brahman who prays and the Brahman who ploughs ; we have the Rajput, a name strictly confined to the royal families and their immediate connections, and refused to such even of those as soil their hands with the plough ; we have the great cultivating class, including the Thakars and Rathis of acknowledged and immediate Rajput descent who furnish wives even to the Rajputs themselves, and the Rawats, Kanets, and Ghiraths of somewhat lower status ; we have the Kirar or Mahajan, including not only traders, but all the Kayaths and the clerkly class, and even Brahmans who take to these pursuits ; we have the respectalde artisan class, the carpenter, mason and water-carrier ; and finally we have the Koli or Dagi, the outcast or Mlechchha of the hills. And from top to bottom of this social scale, no single definite line can be drawn which shall precisely mark off any one caste or grade from the one below it. Each one takes its wives from and eats with the one immediately below it, and the members of each can, and they occasionally do, rise to the one immediately above it.

See also

Conversion of religion: India (history)

Conversion of religion: India (legal aspects)

Love jihad

Panjab Castes: 04- Effect of conversion upon caste

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