Caste and the Two Nation Theory

Parvez Mahmood examines the role of caste and untouchability in driving Muslim nationalism in South Asia

Caste and the Two Nation Theory
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 scene of the Gujarat violence: a Muslim neighbourhood today

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.

B.R. Ambedkar (left) led a movement for conversion to Buddhism as part of his struggle against the caste system

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.
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

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.”

C. Heesterman in his Caste, Village and Indian Society says, “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, 1881 that 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.
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

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.

A map depicting the practice of untouchability in India by share of households per district who observe it

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.

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. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: