Faith in Punjab seems to have an intrusive presence. Most of Punjab’s Muslims wear their faith on their sleeve in an ostentatious display of what is perceived to be piety.
Badgered by the religious ideology of the state, it’s not good enough for the pious to be pious.
The significance of being pious is greatly diminished if piety doesn’t come up as a marketable commodity and thus is incapable of fetching social capital for the pious.
In Punjab the sacred is not sacred as long as its public appearance doesn’t have an aura of sacredness. That means appearing other than what you are or more than what you are in a society that depends as much on what it’s not as what it is.
What we are is an extremely paradoxical phenomenon because of the fact that our culture and faith are rooted in different types of soil.
Our culture, ancient and complex, sprouted from our own rich soil while our new faith adopted after the arrival of the Arabs and Turks had its origins in the sandy deserts of Middle East.
Our culture despite all its sophistication is a historical product of appallingly rigid caste-based hierarchies which predetermine one’s role and profession regardless of their ability and aptitude.
All this was result of insoluble conflict between the Indus valley people aka Dravidians and incoming Aryans way back in time.
The sturdy nomadic Aryans in a long- drawn-out tussle overwhelmed the less aggressive urbanised Dravidians.
That the victorious Aryans could in no way wipe out the Dravidians resulted in a realisation that the victors and the vanquished had to coexist in this land of plenty.
But the coexistence required a social mechanism through which all the interests of ascendant Aryans could permanently be safeguarded.
The newly acquired power led them to firmly believe in their ethnic superiority and colour consciousness. They were fair-complexioned while their foes, the people they subjugated, were dark-skinned.
The initial notion of caste vividly expresses sense of colour which is self-evident from the phrase Varna Dharma. Varna (Varn/in Punjabi letter r is dropped and is pronounced as Van) means colour.
The vanquished were placed at the bottom of the caste hierarchies and required to adopt professions deemed unfit for the Aryans.
Not that all the Dravidians were pushed down into low castes.
Class did play a role. Upper class Dravidians were given the choice to become part of the Aryan fold after fulfilling certain conditions which included ritual offerings, hefty gifts for priestly class and above all acceptance of the new socio-economic order based on iron-clad segregation, i.e. caste system.
This was a historical necessity: nomadic Aryan elite wasn’t equipped with intellectual tools to run a state spread over vast swathes with large multiple urban centres.
Their collective memory and historical experience reflected lack of knowledge of state craft due to the nature of their primitive social life.
The poorest of the poor among the Aryans forced by circumstances got merged with low castes, even with the outcastes, the untouchables.
Hence it’s not unusual to come across fair skinned Dalits and dark-skinned Brahmins in the subcontinent.
The thrust of the caste system has been on exclusion, segregation and tight social compartmentalisation.
Each caste has its role and profession defined. Intermingling which is natural consequence of social interaction has been the greatest threat to the system.
A related notion of pollution was developed to tackle the threat that could erode the entire edifice. Notion of pollution is all encompassing.
It deals with everything that is there between upper and lower castes. It strictly forbids sharing of food between upper and lower castes and any kind of physical contact.
Touch of an outcaste or low-caste person can pollute anything and everything meant for upper castes.
Islamic faith that Punjabis started embracing from the eighth century onwards recognises tribal identity but has no concept of caste.
It also advocates, without fully abolishing slavery, the notion of human equality. It stresses value of sharing and inclusive activities among the members of Muslim community.
It has much in common with other Abrahamic religions that preceded it; Judaism and Christianity.
How the Punjabi Muslims (not all) can afford not to share food or water with Christians or avoid physical touch with them while Islam allows marriages between Muslims and Christians/Jews is surprising.
The ugly and inhuman practice of declaring poor Christians pariahs and treating them accordingly has its roots in culture.
We saw its recent demonstration in the district Vehari where a poor Christian student from a so-called low caste was allegedly disgraced by his shameless teacher on the first day of his class and a few days later was beaten to death by his class fellows for using their glass to drink water.
The poor Christians who are disgraced, humiliated, beaten for a negligible offence, mostly for no offence at all, are descendants of the Raj era converts from the low castes or from the strata outside the castes.
Their conversion was driven by their legitimate human desire to be accepted and treated with respect as individuals and social beings.
But more they change the more they remain the same in terms of social worth. Muslim Punjabis treat them as scum though it’s upper castes and classes which create filth.
Their filthy mess is cleared by this segment of unfortunate poor Christians.
Punjabi Muslims simply put their faith aside that rejects caste system when it comes to exploiting caste biases to their advantage.
The irony isn’t lost on the ones who know a bit of history; forefathers of the most of these Punjabis themselves being from the lower castes suffered similar indignities before their conversion some centuries ago.
After the conversion in a typical show of ‘slaves assuming the role of their master’ they started aping the upper castes. What it proves is simply this; changing faith is easier than fighting against the force of cultural habits.
So what is needed is a campaign aimed at cultural transformation spearheaded by some visionary like Guru Nanak who debunked the myth of caste superiority by identifying himself with low castes and outcastes: “I am the lowliest of the lowly (Neechi haun utt neech)”.
Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2017