Recently, a video was making the rounds, wherein a ponytailed man wearing glasses could be seen slapping a hapless man at the shrine of Bahaudin Zakariya. This man was Syed Mureed Hussain Shah, brother of Shah Mehmood Qureshi who is the vice chairman of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-insaaf (the major opposition party in the Parliament). Qureshi’s family is the caretaker of the Bahaudin Zakariya shrine, however, Mureed Hussain Shah who doesn’t belong to any party is often seen appearing in news and castigating his brother Shah Mehmood. The bone of contention between the two brothers is the fact that Shah Mehmood is the appointed caretaker of the Sufi shrine and working as a politician simultaneously. According to his brother not only has he besmirched the legacy of sufis but also that he has continuously been using the name of saints for votes.
On the first day of urs of Bahaudin Zakariya, Mureed Hussain Shah, in an attempt to keep his brother away from the shrine and its administrative tasks, tried to perform rituals himself while as per the customs his brother, who is the appointed caretaker of the shrine, had to perform these duties. Upon one of the devotees refusing to offer the bathing ritual, Mureed Hussain Shah went berserk and started slapping the devotee who may not have belonged to an upper caste Syed family. It could be literally seen in the video that the devotee fell at his foot and asked for forgiveness.
This event in itself is not something that we can overlook because it exposes us to the immensity of the problem that we face in the form of casteism and how violent and exploitative the caste system of Pakistan turns out to be. It is a fact that can’t be denied whatsoever. As a matter of fact, caste system exists in Pakistan in its ugliest form. The video adequately presents us the despicable feature of caste system that dehumanises people from lower castes. People like Mureed Hussain Shah are left with nothing if for a second we take away his caste privilege from the whole scenario of hin being on a position of power.
We can’t hide away from the reality that there is a caste system in Pakistan too and it continues to grow more brutal with each passing day. It’s about time that we made it a mainstream discourse. Appallingly though Mureed Shah beating a devotee in the presence of cameras was portrayed as a commonplace event by his brother’s political opponent simply for political mileage but nonetheless they failed to forge a narrative that the sort of violence we witnessed was an outright consequence of the caste system that subordinates non-syeds/qureshis/hashmis.
Unfortunately, the tale of violence doesn’t end here. Rather what we saw in the video was only the tip of the iceberg because the caste system of Pakistan is more exploitative than we usually imagine. Once you travel to the rural areas of Pakistan where caste system seems to be intact and exists in its repulsive forms, you see how caste-based hierarchies have enslaved people. Upon investigation, one comes to know that it is quite common for upper caste Muslim families – commonly known as Ashraf in India and Kashmir- to enslave people, especially women, who spend their entire lives in serving them for nothing in return, except dozens of rape attempts.
What ruffled me to explore the truth was people presenting the issue as if the class gap precipitated the violence while knowingly or unknowingly ignoring that class gap exists because of caste particularly in our current context. It’s true these families in rural areas of Punjab and interior Sindh own large swathes of lands but as I see it as feudalism and casteism in these areas are entwined. Also, it’s true that these people possess political power but majorly because of caste privilege and wealth that they amassed through wielding caste privilege.
Coming to the Parliament of Pakistan, that too unbearably reeks of casteism. Not everyone in Pakistan except the ruling elite is upper caste. Majority of the people who elect these parliamentarians are nai, jamadar, lohar, kumhar, changar and other lower Caste communities. But these are all names/slurs used by the parliamentarians when denouncing each other. For instance, a few years back when Zulfiqar Mirza (husband of ex-speaker of national assembly Fehmida Mirza) became a media hype when he openly called Rehman Malik a jamadar. He remarked, “Rehman Malik is a jamadar and is here- in the party- to take our shit away. Besides that, Sheikh Rashed Ahmad, who is currently serving in the Parliament and is quite popular for the fact that he’s been lambasting Nawaz Sharif for years, called Nawaz Sharif a lohar even during the time Nawaz Sharif was ruling the country.
Needless to say, our parliament is inundated with politicians who belong to upper castes. Makhdooms, Syeds, Hashmis are in abundance and they have been brought to Parliament not because they genuinely served the downtrodden of their respective constituencies but because their caste privilege came in handy while electing them for parliament.
Obviously, they are accountable to no one during their time in Parliament because if one seeks accountability especially talking about people who elected them, in no time would that person be declared blasphemer. As justification, people say why shouldn’t he be a blasphemer because he’s dared to point a finger at Prophet’s kinsfolk. I’m saying this because recently a picture on a pamphlet brought to the notice of many, said: “Syed Khurshid Shah” the leader of the opposition from interior Sindh is Prophet’s kinsfolk and any word of contempt against him equals to blasphemy.
In conclusion, I must say that Ambedkar is as relevant for today’s Pakistan as he is for India. Given what Dr Ambedkar said “caste is a notion, it’s a state of mind” we have to prevent people from becoming victims of this hideously constructed notion of caste and eventually the state of mind that divested poor people of their right to social liberty. It’s possible only when we recognise caste as a problem.
Auwn Gurmani is studying accountancy and is an anti-caste activist in Pakistan. He is a member of Democratic Student’s Alliance. He tweets @auwn_