Monday, January 19, 2009

The Peers of Kashmir

I’ve nothing against the Peers of Kashmir. The truth be told I grew up among Peers. It is one of the more common surnames in the valley and most people born under a Peer star – [ie to a Peer] – consider themselves very respected. The class has a collective mindset that they owe their descent to the Prophet [which is pure poppycock because everyone in the subcontinent from the mainstream Sunnis to Shiites as well as the countless heretical sects often trace their ancestry to Islam’s last prophet]. It is funny that people would use Islam – a religion founded on the basis of egalitarianism – to elevate themselves to some higher imagined status. Hallucination of castes!

Ergo -- most peers intermarry. Marriage outside the caste might somewhat dilute the hallowed status. In earlier days there used to be a block Peer surname but it got sub-divided over the years into a dozen categories according to their rank. So we now have Syeds and Qadiris and Muftis and Nagashbandis and Andrabis and Mantaqis and Hamdanis and Masudis and Bukharis and Nazkis and Geelanis and Rufayees and on and on. [Notice the emphasis on the last letter ‘I’, which translates to ‘Lakut Yae’ in Kashmiri]. In local idiom that is very poetic.

Traditionally the Peers were either clerics in local mosques or they practiced the craft of 'Peer Muridi’ [spiritual intuition to disciples]. They would also be in charge of various shrines. Ironically the practice of using poetic surnames along with personal names was not followed in ancient Kashmir. Academics observe that in olden days no caste system was prevalent among Kashmiri Muslims. People were mostly divided on the basis of their professional status.

In any case the Kashmiri Brahmins – considered to be some of the smartest Hindus – occupied most of the important court and -- later -- government jobs. Peers would gradually assume that responsibility. The control of the pulpit would naturally make them special to believers.

With changing times, the vocation of Peers has also transmogrified. Take a random name in Kashmir’s swelling media frat. You will inadvertently come up with a peer name [of any stripe]. The Peer monopoly over media is total. The mosque continues to remain their stronghold. Locals will tell you that Peers know the rituals better. In a saint ridden place their control over shrines and tombs is also complete. The main standard bearers across the political spectrum -- in both Azadi/non-Azadi camps – Mirwaiz, Syed Ali Geelani, Mufti sayed – are, yes you guessed it right, Peers. They are the new Pandits of Kashmir.

I’ve always been baffled by this rather weird fixation for surnames in Kashmir. One would understand such a phenomenon as a bygone corollary of bigotry but when you have educated – but under-exposed – people still hung up with their ancestry, you seriously need to pause and ponder.

We didn't all come over on the same ship, but we're all in the same boat.