A refugee train, Punjab, during Partition | Commons
A refugee train in Punjab, during Partition | Commons
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In his History of British India, volume 2, John Mill writes that the institution of caste stood as “a more effective barrier against human welfare than any other institution which the workings of caprice and of selfishness have ever produced.” He also held the view that the institution of caste as such did not exist amongst Muslims.

In many of our discussions about the Two Nation Theory, centred around differences of culture, aesthetic, faith and so on, one of the most important aspects of human experience in the Indian Subcontinent is often neglected. This is the issue of caste, untouchability and how it tied in to the creation of a separate identity for the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent – culminating in the Pakistan Movement.

The concept of untouchability is linked to the caste system. Its application has been pitiless and unrelenting. The castes could neither inter-dine nor intermarry – two aspects that were often brought up by proponents of the Two Nation theory too. There was supposed to be no physical or social contact between the members of various castes, except for the cruel fact that women of the lower caste were considered fair game for men of the higher caste.

As it happens, caste is one of the most inhuman social institutions invented by a dominant group to enslave the subjugated classes. It is an ironclad immutable stratification with a reach across generations. The caste system in Hinduism is as old as history can recall. Manusmriti, dating back to at least 1000 B.C., acknowledges and justifies the caste system as the basis of order and regularity in society.

A person of lower caste can never rise to a “better” station. The sting of caste may have diminished a bit in modern times but its hold over society continues to be strong.

As the Muslim population of the Indian Subcontinent expanded with waves of conquest and conversion, the upper-caste Hindus came to consider converted Muslims as outcasts, preventing the two communities from coming closer. It is a painful testament to the might of the caste institution that India has not yet been able to produce political leadership capable of weeding out this form of social stratification – despite the immense efforts in the 20th century of figures such as B.R. Ambedkar and others.


Also read: How to be BJP’s version of a ‘good Muslim’ – A guide by Arif Mohammad Khan


Through the ages, many foreigners in this land have been horrified by the institutions of caste and untouchability.

Afanasy Nikitin, a Russian merchant traveller to south India in 1466-1472, during the Bahmani Kingdom era, noted in his travelogue The Journey Beyond the Three Seas:

“[…] They drink neither wine nor honey water, neither do they drink or eat with Moslems. […] They hide from the Moslems (their food) so that the latter may not look into the pot or at the food. If a Moslem looks at their food, then they will not eat it […]”

Nikitin also noticed that “In India […] those of one faith will not drink, eat or marry with those of another faith.”

Al-Biruni wrote in his Kitab-al-Hind in the early 11th century:

Four castes […] while eating, they form groups of different castes.”

Further, he observed:

“The untouchables […] are occupied in dirty work […] are considered like illegitimate children […] are degraded outcasts.” He also noted that Hindus are not allowed to meet persons of other religions at their homes. “This trait has created a gulf between us (Muslims) and them (Hindus) that makes it impossible to have any intercourse with them.”

  1. Heesterman in his Caste, Village and Indian Societysays, “Who says India says caste, or so it seems.” Sir Denzil Ibbetson, Chief Commissioner of CP and Lt Gov of Punjab at the turn of the 19th and 20th century wrote in Caste in the Punjab, From the Census Report of the Punjab, 1881that caste was an institution peculiar to the Hindu religion and that it is perpetual and immutable, transmitted from generation to generation without the possibility of change.

Historian Vincent Smith mentions the existence of a caste system and punishments for breach of caste rules in his The Early History of India going back to fairly ancient times.

And yet, in the discussions of caste and Hinduism, another fact from the Muslim experience of the Indian Subcontinent is often missed. While Turkish, Persian and Afghan raiders of the Indian Subcontinent lived here as a military and civil elite, it was the local converted Muslims who bore the brunt of caste and untouchability. Hindus accepted the foreign raiders as a noble ruling elite due to the superiority of their arms. The local Muslims, however, were reduced to a marginalized status.


Also read: Why we can’t blame just BJP MLA Saini for lusting after fair Kashmiri women


Justice Sir Abdul Rahim, chairing the Muslim League session at Aligarh in 1925-26, stated that Muslims found themselves aliens when they entered the Hindu part of a town. The Muslim part would have been the shanty town because the Hindus formed the middle class under the Muslim rulers as traders, money lenders and government officials. And so, it was often people from lower castes who welcomed the equality professing – if not practising – Muslim conquerors. To endear themselves to the ruling class and to distance themselves from their lower class background, the converted Muslims changed their names to those of the Muslim elite. Some adopted surnames to distance themselves from Hindu society. Imtiaz Ahmed in his Caste and Social Stratification among the Muslims, 1978, informs us that in order to raise their social standing, Indian Muslims adopted names to show affiliation with the Arabic or Persian tribes and towns. It is therefore no coincidence that the Siddiqis, Farooqis, Hashmis, Qureshis, Gillanis, Khawajas, Sheikhs and Syeds are found in abundance primarily in India and nowhere else. Pressure of caste and untouchability was one of the factors that motivated this behaviour. Others went a step further and invented or adopted some mausoleum to become hereditary Makhdoms and Sahibzadas.

In a way Muslims, too, mirrored the Hindu caste institution with a stratification system and untouchability of their own – though it was lacking in its reach and bite.

The long lease of life for caste is also due to the defeatist mindset of lower strata that accepted their humiliation as a fait accompli and never rebelled. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar has quoted many instances from his early life when he suffered indignities due to his low caste. He mentions that in school, only one peon was allowed to pour water on his hands to drink and when that peon was absent, he went thirsty. He writes that untouchable children were segregated and not allowed to sit in the class.

Ambedkar wrote two masterpieces on the caste system. One was “Caste in India”, a speech that he was not allowed to deliver. And the other was a work titled Annihilation of Caste in which he boldly advised the Hindu leadership,

“You must have courage to tell the Hindus that what is wrong with them is their religion.”

Ambedkar, however, never rallied Dalits to throw off the yoke of untouchability by force – even though he himself converted to Buddhism to escape dehumanizing caste system.

It would appear that Indian Muslims adopted a different route in their rebellion: they broke away as a separate nation.


Also read: The good Muslim-bad Muslim binary is as old as Nehru


Today’s India, where Hindu nationalism is more powerful than ever before, is still beset with anxieties around caste and Muslims that are often interlinked.

On a personal note, this writer has also suffered the experience of untouchability at an early age. My father took my mother and siblings to Amritsar to see his ancestral home when I was about 10 years old. We lodged in a hotel on a street of Hall Bazaar. The next day, a childhood friend of my father took us to his house and insisted that we stay with him. In the morning, when my mother went to fetch drinking water, the women of the house didn’t let her enter the kitchen. The family looked after us well, and I recall playing with the child of my age. The memory of my mother standing at the kitchen door and not allowed in because of being a Muslim, hence of a lower caste, is forever imprinted on my mind.

Strictures of untouchability are operative in the modern era as well. A BBC News report in June 2017 titled “India’s Dalits still fighting untouchability” found that a PhD holding a faculty position at Delhi University was told by a shopkeeper in Rajasthan to wash his glass after having his tea – because he was a Dalit. The shopkeeper didn’t want to touch anything that the Dalit lawyer had touched. The BBC article also reported that lower caste Hindus in Haryana were still being tied to trees and beaten by upper caste people, etc.

The accepted account among Hindu nationalists is that most of the conversions in India, whether to Islam or Christianity, were either forced or bribed. The fact is that most of the conversions in India were not forced, though some may have been. It was the lower social strata who converted to gain an equal and dignified status in society that they felt Islam provided.

It is not the intention of this author to prove the superiority of one religion over the other. In fact, this author, being an agnostic, is ready to admit that no religion is above criticism. However, caste and untouchability are phenomena that no one can – or should – live with.

It was the hope of the enlightened Hindu intellectuals that as education and economic standards rose and their benefits became more even, the dividing line between castes would blur. However, with the passage of seventy years since independence, a tangible rise in education standards and with a $3 trillion economy – the third largest in the world by purchasing power partity (PPP) – the caste divide is as severe as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, the effects of caste-related hate incidents appear more painful now as some of the victims are educationally and economically far more accomplished than the perpetrators of the crimes.

Untouchability prevented the social integration of two communities. The presence of Hindu water and Muslim water on railway stations and bus stands was an outrage. In an independent united India, it was simply impossible for Muslims to live as untouchables. And so, one wonders: when the more extreme among Hindu nationalists lament the division of India, do they betray their anguish at letting Muslims slip away from their grasp to another country?

The horror of the Gujarat massacre of the 28th of February 2002 stands before the Indian Subcontinent: in which nearly 2,000 Muslims were killed, 230 mosques were razed to ground, 274 dargahs were destroyed and hundreds of women raped.

And so, it could be possible to argue that the Two Nation Theory was not the result of simply communally divisive Muslims, or, as some Indian nationalists presume, of scheming British. It was the natural outcome of a Brahmin-supremacist mindset.

As Muslim awakening gained ground due to the educational drive of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in the 19th century, their desire for dignity became apparent. Indian Muslims, it seems, were not willing to accept formalized inequality and discrimination, opting instead for a separate homeland.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues.

This article was originally published on The Friday Times.

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20 Comments Share Your Views

20 COMMENTS

  1. In 1971, during the Bangladeshi war for independence, the Muslim Pakistani army gave its soldiers orders to paint yellow”h”s on the houses of Hindus so as to better identify the women to be taped and the families to be slaughtered.

    2.4 million Bengali Hindus died in the worse industrial genocide since the Holocaust.

    We don’t mind being judged as long as it’s not by hypocrites like you

    You are fooling noone here. You are and will always be converted slaves.

  2. For some reason, Ambedkar’s idea about Partition is far away from coinciding with this article. But guess Ambedkar is just some character to be praise worthy and not completely followed. So the only ideas of him that support your agenda are cherry picked and all others are brushed under the carpet.
    Do read Ambedkar’s Pakistan or the partition of India.

  3. “You must have courage to tell the Hindus that what is wrong with them is their religion.”. This is the simple truth. People of the world are accepting hindus due to their liberal mindsets that ‘we should accept people for who they are’, but unfortunately nobody seems to have taught them how to handle ignorant and wrong but persistent people, who if are accepted as they are will fill the world with narrow-mindedness and stupidity. And cowards today are making use of this lenient loophole and trying to normalize and export caste. I think it’s high time that the hindus are told clearly that CASTE SYSTEM is WRONG – loud and clear. If not children of tomorrow around the world will be born as slaves. The filth from subcontinent is threatening to flow all over the world.

    If anybody in the world care for their children, they should tell to indians that caste system is wrong and should be stopped. If not tomorrow’s history will say – abraham lincoln abolished slavery, and indians from the subcontinent brought it back.

  4. So, the hatred for anything non-Muslim was not the reason behind the demands of Pakistan? When Muslims league leaders used to say that we have ruled them for 800 years, we cannot be ruled by them, they were being forced by the caste system. I would also congratulate the author for being honest at the end of his article and show his bias by not talking about the Hindus killed in Godhara train arson and talk about only the killing of Muslims after exaggerating the numbers.

  5. Thats only suitable for pakistanis narratives.that’s how they misguide deir youth & convert them in terrorists& provoke them to hate india.as i hv read in pieces & bits dat quran teaches allah is one.conquer d world & establish d rule over d globe.thats islam against humanity.bt dis article is against india & hindus specifically.2002 riots who ignited??how bangladesh was created??as tarek fatah says,it waz bcz western pakistani treated eastern pakistanis as inferiors due to deir color & ol oder things.y china is deredicalising muslim?? Y myanmar had to began cleanliness drive agains muslims?? Y muslims ol over d world spread terrorism??ol oder terrorists hv specific area & particular enemies.bt ol one can find islamic terrorists ol over d world.who is target?? Humanity!!!he is retired pakistani army man,propagating agenda & trying to prove jinnah & islamists right in divifing india.&shifting d liablility on oders as muslims ol over d world hv tendency to shift & cry victim.

  6. The writer of this article and thought seems to be an anti Hindu fascist. The bitterness he has shown among the Hindus on the basis of the caste is absolutely unfounded and fake. So called lower caste have been living with the Hindus for the thousands of years where as Muslims have wiped out all the lower caste Hindus in Pakistan, Bengladesh, Kashmir valley, Mallappuram, Kairana, etc Muslim dominated areas. Caste system in Muslims is very bitter and brutal. Leaders like Ambedker are responsible for the stregthing of the caste system among the Hindus.

  7. Did Someone Tell The Author That The British Were The Ones Which Encouraged & Exacerbated Not Just The Caste System But Also The Religious Divide, FOR PROFIT??!!

  8. The author is wrong when he says caste system does not exist among Muslims. It is there because most Muslims were converted from low caste Hindus who wanted to save themselves from Brahmins. It is for this reason most Hindus treat most Muslims as untouchables. At the same time, it must be said that Muslims did convert large number of people by force and still are doing the same in Pakistan and Bangladesh as they feel, they get some bonus points according to their religious diktat if they can convert some infidels to Islam.

  9. Pakistan has been created out of Hindu-hatred. Conversions were mostly forceful. Not only Hindus, Sikhs were also forced to convert and Sikh Gurus faced diabolic torture from Muslim emperors in that direction. So adducing to the Hindu caste system is a ruse. How deep was the hatred of Muslims against Hindus can be enviewed from an account of Lord Casey who wrote in his book, “After a communal clash between Hindus and Muslims in Dacca in mid-1944……..in a subsequent discussion with the Chief Minister (Khwaja Nazimuddin) about communal differences between Muslims and Hindus, he exposed the emotional depth of the Muslim feeling towards the Hindus by saying, ‘If the Hindus put the buttons on the right side of their jackets, we’ll put ours on the left. If they have spouts on their water pots, we will not have spouts’ – which left me with little more to say. ” (Personal Experience–1939-46).
    And Gujarat riots? They were started by Muslims out of their hatred of Hinduism and their obsession with the stupid dream of Ghajwa-e-Hind. The writer is another Islamic liar.

  10. Yet Muslims are being discriminated in Pakistan on the name of sect and also caste. So much success in removing caste from Islam in Pakistan….Utter failure

  11. Many Indians don’t realize the magnitude and depth of the poisonous hatred and venom Pakistan has. The idea of “Pakistan “ itself is venomous. Our founders Gandhi, Nehru, Patel , Ambdedkar, Azad, Rajaji and the gang were intellectual giants and humanists. They had differences and had made some mistakes but were idealists who saw unity in diversity. If we don’t uphold their vision, they cannot be responsible.
    Jinnah and feudal elites who founded Pak were very selfish, narrow minded feudal elites. Ultimately short sighted and divisive individuals. They produced a product that is drowning in hate. The Islamosupremacist mindset tries to portray Indic civilization as ultimately the mist evil and they are beautiful. The truth is the opposite.

    • No Problem In Being Idealist Like Indian Founders EXCEPT That Idealism Has To Confront REALITY!! Acknowledging Reality Doesn’t Make One An Extreme Right Winger!! Reality Has To Be Confronted So That People & Nations Can Develop Capabilities To BRING CHANGE In The Present & Future!!

      Dr. Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate poet and writer
      Of Indian Constitution said On Christianity & Islam:

      “Two or three different religions claim that only their own religions are true and all other religions are false and their religions are only ways to Heaven. Hence conflict with them cannot be avoided.!!
      On Islam, He Said: It’s A Fundamentalist Religion & Wants To Destroy All Other Religions!!

      Dr. Ambedkar’s Views On Islam: The brotherhood of Islam is not the universal brotherhood of man. It is brotherhood of Muslims for Muslims only. There is a fraternity, but its benefit is confined to those within that corporation. For those who are outside the corporation, there is nothing but contempt and enmity. The second defect of Islam is that it is a system of social self-government and is incompatible with local self-government, because the allegiance of a Muslim does not rest on his domicile in the country which is his but on the faith to which he belongs. Wherever there is the rule of Islam, there is his own country. In other words, Islam can never allow a true Muslim to adopt India as his motherland and regard a Hindu as his kith and kin.

      Sardar Patel’s speech at Calcutta Maidan on 3rd January
      1948. Islam/Muslims Helped Make Pakistan & The Next Day, They Said: “We Are Are Loyal To India!!”

      Watch At 5:34 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3HFNqforiM&t=13s

  12. It is not good manners to point out flaws in others, irrespective of their factual accuracy,by coupling 2002 with casteism the author s intentions don’t seem to be above board.

  13. yes and I think the utmost torch bearer of Casteism was Nehru who himself added word “pandit” before his name and who didn’t allowed ambedkar,Gandhi,and other non brahmins not to become PM and allowed his Brahmin generations to flourish as PM of India.The print why don’t you write articles on them.

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