Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Ants Among Elephants: A Portrait of Untouchability in India

January 13, 2018

By Kabir Altaf

One of the frequent topics of debate among those interested in South Asia is the caste system and whether it is unique to Hinduism or features in other South Asian religions as well. Hindu society has traditionally been divided into four castes (or varnas): Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (rulers, administrators and warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and tradesmen), and Shudras (artisans, farmers and laboring classes). A fifth group consists of those who do not fit into this hierarchy at all and are considered “untouchable”. What separates caste from other systems of social stratification are the aspects of purity and ascribed status. Upper-castes consider lower castes to be “impure” and have rigid rules about the kind of social interaction they can have with them. For example, upper castes will not accept food from those of a lower caste, while lower castes will accept food from those above them. Caste status is also ascribed at birth and has nothing to do with an individual’s achievements. A Brahmin peasant remains a Brahmin while an “untouchable” engineer is still an “untouchable”. This system persists in India today, though the government does provide affirmative action in order to uplift members of “backward” castes.

Coming from a Pakistani background, I was not familiar with the operation of the caste system in daily life. Though Pakistan is a highly socially stratified society, this system has no religious sanction. In Islam, all believers are considered equal in the eyes of Allah. Unlike in India, where until recently, “untouchables” could not go into several temples, all social classes pray together in the same mosques. This fact is highlighted in one of the famous couplets from Allama Iqbal’s poem Shikwa (the complaint) which states: “Ek hi saf mein khare ho gaye Mahmood-o-Ayaz/ Na koi banda raha aur na koi banda nawaz” (Mahmood the king and slave Ayaz, in line as equals stood arrayed/ The lord was no more lord to slave: while both to the One Master prayed). At least in religious terms, one Muslim is not better than any other, no matter what his social status. Of course, this does not mean that social stratification ceases to exist. To this day, rich Pakistani families have separate utensils in their homes which are to be used by the servants. Punjabi Christians who engage in janitorial work are still known as “chuhras”, a derogatory reference to their pre-conversion caste status as “untouchables”. However, unlike the Hindu caste system, social class in Pakistan is not based on ascribed status. If someone from a low socio-economic background attains an education and a well-paying job, he or she will no longer be treated as belonging to their previous socioeconomic group. This is a major difference from India, where one’s caste remains salient, no matter one’s economic status.

A first hand account of caste in India is given by Sujatha Gidla’s recent book “Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2017). Gidla was born into an “untouchable” family in the southern Indian state of Andra Pradesh. Through the story of her ancestors, she presents a portrait of India from the end of British rule to the 1990s. It is particularly interesting to note that while her family is Christian (a religion in which there is technically no caste), they are still considered “untouchable” in Hindu society. Gidla writes: “Christians, untouchables—it came to the same thing. All Christians in India were untouchables, as far as I knew (though only a small minority of all untouchables are Christian.) I knew no Christian who did not turn servile in the presence of a Hindu. I knew no Hindu who did not look right through a Christian man standing in front of him as if he did not exist. I accepted this. No questions asked” (Gidla 5). Caste is so pervasive in India that it applies even to those groups whose religions formally believe in equality.

Another aspect that differentiates Gidla’s family from that of the typical “untouchable” is their educational attainment. Starting with her grandparents’ generation, her family was educated in missionary schools. Gidla herself studied engineering in India and then moved to the United States for further education. However, these educational achievements did not stop the family from experiencing discrimination based on their caste. After Gidla’s mother, Manjula, passed the exams that qualified her to work as a university lecturer, she was posted by the government to a distant town. When she got there, the principal of the college, a Brahmin woman, refused to let her take up her post. (243-244). Luckily, she was able to return to the job she had just left and her ex-boss was kind enough to rip up her resignation letter. This incident is just one example of the bigotry the family had to face.

Much of the book tells the story of Gidla’s maternal uncle Satyam who was engaged with the Communist Party from an early age and became one of the founders of the Maoist movement. However, caste remained salient even within the Communist movement. Gidla describes how new recruits were given jobs that reflected their caste status: “Barber-caste members were told to shave their comrades’ chins and washer-caste members to wash their comrades’ clothes. Untouchables, of course, were made to sweep and mop the floors and clean the lavatories” (302). Even though Satyam had initially believed that the communist movement should not focus too much on caste, but on fighting for the rights of all workers, he eventually came to believe that upper-caste peasants and workers “couldn’t be won to a truly revolutionary program” (305). When he tried to advocate for the concerns of “untouchable” recruits, he was accused of trying to divide the party and expelled.

Gidla’s book is an illuminating and accessible read. Through the story of one family, she shows how the phenomenon of caste operates in modern India. The book is particularly important for those of us who live in India’s neighboring countries, where caste does not operate in the same way—or at least not to the same extent—as it does in India.

Kabir Altaf is an editor. He graduated from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.

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Is More Religion the Answer?

April 28, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Religion is always ticking away in the background of almost every issue in Pakistan but there has been a decided uptick in the intensity of instructional fervour in recent days. The thrust is a desperate effort to make Pakistanis more pious in order to achieve the fast disappearing better society of our dreams.

To start off, a committee of the National Assembly passed a bill to make teaching the Quran compulsory in grades 1 through 12 in all federal educational institutions. According the committee chair “the bill is one of the good steps and will benefit students.” The education minister added that “this bill was moved because it was the people’s demand and because it was the need of the hour.” The text of the bill states that “it will make the divine message understood; ensure the repose of society; peace and tranquillity; Promote the supreme human values of truth, honesty, integrity, character building, tolerance, understanding others’ point of view and way of life. It will lead towards spreading goodness and auspiciousness and towards ending chaos and uncertainty.”

Not to be upstaged, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education of the KPK government placed a front-page announcement in national newspapers that it was ahead of the game as the only province to have already implemented such an initiative. “We are ever-committed to harvesting all-rounder children to fully contribute to our society,” it claimed proudly (Dawn, page 1, March 18, 2017).

The Punjab government, never one to be left behind in matters of righteousness, chimed in with a more modest suggestion. The minister for higher education lamented “We are leaving our religion behind, we are forgetting our culture and ethics. Hence, I have made the hijab compulsory for our women and sisters in colleges.” He added it was his duty to take the step “as it is the duty of every Muslim.” He had also thought through an operational plan: “I have also made a policy for it, if your attendance falls below 60 pc then we will give 5 pc attendance to those girls who wear a hijab.” When the government had second thoughts on the idea, the public prosecutor stepped in to salvage the prestige of the province. He offered to guarantee the acquittal of 42 Christians accused of a crime if they agreed to embrace Islam.

Soon thereafter, the newly-appointed Chief Justice of the AJK Supreme Court announced that prayers had been made mandatory and that the annual increment for court employees would be conditional on the regular offering of prayers, which, he said, would be secretly checked. No doubt we will be hearing soon from the laggard governments of Sindh and Balochistan but the trends seem fairly clear about the direction in which we are headed to make the country more pious.

No one would fail to applaud the desire to improve society. Things are so abysmal that it is difficult to think of a single governmental transaction that is free of fraud and graft. And the state of general morality is so degraded that few are willing to engage in market transactions without first securing a trusted personal connection with the transacting party.

There are two concerns, however. The first is that those pushing for piety are among the more impious. Not even the ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs is spotless. And how transparent is the KPK department of education in appointing people to its own sub-departments? When the dishonest begin pushing honesty, the red flags go up automatically. This could be just another distraction while the loot continues uninterrupted.

Second, we live simultaneously in the age of religion and of science. Where, one wonders, is the evidence on which all these policy proposals are based? On what basis is it argued that Quranic teaching from grades 1 through 12 or wearing the hijab in college would make us more pious? If this is only the belief of some individuals why is that belief getting privileged without any empirical support?

What there is by way of evidence might suggest quite contrary conclusions. At least since Zia ul Haq there has been an exponential increase in religiosity as well as nationalism with the infusion of Islamic and Pakistan studies throughout education but Pakistan has only declined on the corruption index of Transparency International.

The number of mosques per square kilometer has risen steeply to the point that simultaneous broadcasts have rendered azaans cacophonous. The number of mentions of God per hundred words spoken in Pakistani languages is now perhaps higher than in any other language in the world. The number of madrassas has multiplied without any increase in peace or tranquility. Rather, the growth in strife and intra-religious bigotry is there for all to observe.

This evidence suggests that more religion is unlikely to reverse the trends. The reason might be that most people have compartmentalized their behavior into separate compartments for  religion and practical life. This is best exemplified by the apocryphal story of the Pakistani importer visiting China who requested his host to give him spurious merchandise at inflated prices but not to serve him any pork. We see the equivalent at home everyday when bureaucrats and shopkeepers suspend all activities at prayer times only to resume fleecing clients and customers once they return from the mosques.

If this characterization is correct, pumping more religion into the religious compartment will have little impact on behavior in this world. That is because the social system we have validated is one in which all that matters is how rich one is no matter how one has accumulated the wealth. Wisdom, integrity and simplicity have all become the hallmarks of fools and the unworldly.

Religious education with a focus on belief divorced from action is not the same as an emphasis on ethics that guide actions independent of belief. Ghalib articulated this clearly long ago:

nahiiN kuchh subbha-o zunnaar ke phanday meN giiraaii
vafaadaarii meN shaykh-o barhamin kii aazmaa’ish hai

(there is no staying-power in the snare of prayer-beads and sacred-thread
the test of the Shaikh and the Brahmin is in faithfulness to principles)

An edited version of this opinion was published in the Express Tribune on 27 April, 2017. The original text is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Some Thoughts on God and Religion

January 10, 2016

I found myself residing once again in a locality exposed to holy noise – the simultaneous narration of the azaan from about a dozen mosques that renders the resulting sound completely unintelligible. This time there was one difference – one of the mosques had amplified itself beyond the reach of the competition and its imam had specialized in a quasi-sermon at six every other morning. Whether it was for a live audience or just for self-improvement I don’t know but almost every word of the narrative was now intelligible. After a few iterations, almost entirely repetitive, I figured out the pattern. The narration, about fifteen minutes in duration, was divided into two equal halves – the first communicated a list of things God doesn’t want people to do and the second a matching list of things God does want people to do. Needless to say, this structure allowed for dramatically rhetorical and rhythmic oration that gradually built up to a rising crescendo of moral righteousness.

The last time I checked I had found that the law of the land restricted the use of mosque loud-speakers to the amplification of the azaan and the Friday sermon. I wondered if the imam knew he was violating the law since this had been a subject of public discussion a while back. Perhaps he did but believed that this was one of the things God did want him to do and in our country, I am told, the commandments of God trump the law of the land. As was the case during my previous stay in the locality, the residents though tired of the repetitive message, were unwilling to raise the issue for fear of finding themselves at the wrong end of holy wrath.

I tried to make the best of the situation and turned my attention to exploring the relationship between God and religion which is something in our country we take for granted. It seemed reasonable to me to believe that the notion of god must have preceded the invention of religion. History does seem to suggest that from the very beginning of human existence man must have been wondrous of natural phenomena beyond his control and critically important for his survival – thunder, lightning, rain, earthquakes, fire and so on. Anthropological accounts provide evidence of how these phenomena were attributed to gods. Hence we have the very well-known pantheon of pagan gods of the Greeks and Romans – these imagined entities were the causes of various natural phenomena and some of them had to be appeased to be beneficent to human beings.

The invention of religion as we know it today seems to be a much later phenomenon dating perhaps to the emergence of large settled communities at the beginning of the age of agriculture. The stability of large communities was crucially dependent on adherence to a shared and mutually acceptable set of rules and values that yielded order and minimized disorder – hence the almost universal prohibitions against deceit, theft, murder and so on. These codes evolved to assume the form of religious injunctions.

What is of interest is that the concept of God and the institution of religion did not come together automatically – in some places they did and in some they did not with hugely significant implications. In fact, even the step of many gods being replaced by one god and fallible gods with limited powers being replaced by one omniscient creator of life was not a universal occurrence. The attribution of a divine plan to the omniscient god, transmitted to chosen sets of people charged with the mission to follow and realize it and to be judged based on their performance, was even less universal.

If we look across the world today, we can discover all sorts of combinations of godhood and codes of behavior. Aboriginal people like Native Americans retain almost all the characteristics of the pagan Greek and Roman constellations of gods. Hinduism, which should more accurately be considered a code than a religion, retains multiple gods with a great degree of freedom to deem any one of them as the patron god of a family. Buddhism is a religion without a god. The Chinese worship their ancestors and some acknowledge a benign heavenly emperor in the sky without any divine plan of sorts. In fact, Confucianism is simply a way, a guide to good living compiled by a human being without any divine sanction to enforce its acceptance or implementation.

It is only the three monotheistic religions arising in the Middle East that have gone all the way combining codes of behavior with the sanction of a single omniscient God with a divine plan communicated to followers through a holy text. And it is through these texts that one gets to the stage of knowing what God wants us to do and not to do – for example, the content of the sermon of the imam which triggered these observations.

In thinking through this evolution, it seems to me that religion has not done too well as far as its don’ts are concerned. Despite the rapid increase in the number of houses of worship per square mile of land, the incidence of code violations – untruth, dishonesty, exploitation – continues to mount and many excessively religious societies are in an extreme state of social disorder. The do’s of these religions, on the other hand, are a different matter – amenable to multiple interpretations and easily hijacked to support all sorts of political objectives. In this case, there are no countervailing forces to limit the potential damage to humanity.

Given the above and as a result of historical experience, it is not surprising to see in some places a movement in reverse – the separation of Godhood from religion. One comes across more and more people who consider themselves religious without necessarily believing in an omniscient God with either a divine plan or the power to judge, reward, or punish humans for their acts on earth. There are others who continue to believe in God but profess no particular religious identity. The declining global attendance in churches is one manifestation of these trends which does not imply that the people who cease to attend church have become irreligious. Rather, religion has once again been reduced to a social bond and a communal code of ethical behavior that people subscribe to without the need for divine sanction to ensure its acceptance.

I am eagerly looking forward to the completion of my stay in this locality although I am grateful to the imam for initiating this exploration. I am not sure he would approve of his sermon being used for such a purpose but perhaps he also does not fully know what God wants or intends in making his followers do what they do on earth.

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Pilgrimage as Secular Activity: A Constitutional Perversion

January 30, 2011

By Pilid Lao

Today’s Supreme Court decision in Prafull Goradia v. Union of India is ludicrous to say the least. The question was straightforward and simple: whether a government grant funded by taxpayer money violates the proscription of Art. 27 against state fostering religious activity. Article 27 of the Constitution of India states:

No person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination. (more…)

On Secularism in South Asia

January 17, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I made the argument in an earlier post (The Peculiar Nature of the Pakistani Liberal) that the political debate in South Asia is confused because we have borrowed labels – “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “reactionary” – from the discourse of the European Enlightenment without adapting them to the local context. My intent was to follow up and attempt a more nuanced portrait of an individual who would be loosely identified as a liberal in Pakistan today.

I realize now that in doing so I would have to negotiate through the tricky terrain of secularism, which, like the others, is a concept that has suffered much distortion in South Asia. Therefore, I need first to state clearly how I understand secularism before I move ahead to discuss how South Asian ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ relate to it. (more…)

On Religion as an Individual Code of Behavior

November 17, 2010

Reading a 1956 interview with the writer William Faulkner, I gained an insight into religion that I wish to share with readers. In order to set the context for Faulkner’s remarks, I will reproduce a section of the interview and then focus on the part that triggered the new thought in my mind.

INTERVIEWER: Are there any artistic advantages in casting the novel in the form of an allegory, as the Christian allegory you used in A Fable?

FAULKNER: Same advantage the carpenter finds in building square corners in order to build a square house. In A Fable, the Christian allegory was the right allegory to use in that particular story, like an oblong, square corner is the right corner with which to build an oblong, rectangular house. (more…)

Culture Bypass: A New Paradigm – 5

September 24, 2010

From A’daabKhuda HafizAllah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed?

By Ahmed Kamran


We have seen in Part 4 how by the time Pakistan was formed the die was already cast. Let’s see how we continued to sink further into intolerance and religious bigotry declaring more of us as Kafirs and non-Muslims. How the long journey that we collectively embarked upon on this Bypass is clearly leading us through barren and desolate cultural landscapes to eventual self-destruction. The question is: Is there an exit available on this Cultural Bypass?

After a long colonial occupation, India was declared independent and a new country, Pakistan, specially carved out of the majority Muslim areas of India emerged on the world’s map in August 1947 amidst human blood flowing in the streets and fires burning from the houses. (more…)

Culture Bypass: A New Paradigm – 4

September 15, 2010

From A’daabKhuda HafizAllah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed?

By Ahmed Kamran


In the previous three parts (here, here and here) we examined the long journey of Indian Muslims from the inception of a great common Indo-Persian culture in the 13th century to its political isolation especially by the end of 1930’s. By the time British rulers were fully engaged in World War 2, Muslims, with an acute sense of their separate identity that developed particularly in the backdrop of political events during 1920’s and 1930’s, were about to embark on a collision course with rest of the Indian people. Let’s discuss the key drivers of this great sea change in Indian politics as the British prepared to leave an independent India in the hands of indigenous people. (more…)

Culture Bypass: A New Paradigm – 3

September 10, 2010

From A’daabKhuda HafizAllah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed?

By Ahmed Kamran


In Parts 1 & 2 we discussed an Indo-Persian culture that evolved in India, and how this Ganga-Jamni Tehzib responded to the collapse of Muslim political power and the rise of European powers. We have seen how the frustration of the Muslim intelligentsia gave rise to an aggressive Jihad culture and an inverse reflection led it to the pursuit of modern knowledge and secular progress. Let’s see how Indian Muslims slowly drifted towards a new path of social and political isolation. (more…)

Culture Bypass: A New Paradigm – 2

September 3, 2010

From A’daabKhuda HafizAllah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed?


By Ahmed Kamran


In Part-1 of this discussion we briefly traced how a highly tolerant Indo-Persian culture, a Ganga-Jamni Tehzib, emerged in India over many centuries of interaction between a Muslim Persian empire and a rich Indian civilization before the advent of European powers in India and the spread of their influence in our intellectual and cultural life. Let’s now see how particularly the Muslim thought process in this Ganga-Jamni culture responded to the disrupting influences of the English ascendency. (more…)