The Wani exception

When I came across news of slain Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani, I was struck by his last name. I had known for a while that Kashmiris had castes or as they call it ‘krams‘, like most other people of the subcontinent. And the Wanis are the kram of converts from the mercantile castes of Kashmir. On the wikipedia page linked above, Burhan Wani is listed as the only notable Wani. To understand how odd this is in the broader context of the subcontinent’s mercantile castes, imagine a (fictitious) militant ‘Altaf Agarwal’ being the only notable Agarwal or ‘Afzal Singhania’ being the only notable Bania.

To reflect further on the oddness of Kashmir’s Wanis, note that conversions of upper caste Hindus (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya) to Islam, although not completely absent, were quite rare. For example, in Punjab, Dr. Gopal Krishan (Punjab University) tells us,

Conversion was negligible from the higher castes such as Brahmins, Aroras, Khatris and Aggarwals.

There seem to be two major exceptions to this rule. The first are Sindhi, Punjabi and Kashmiri Rajputs (Soomra, Janjua, Bhatti, Rathar), who converted heavily to Islam. The other, less talked about exception are the Vaishya Wanis of the Kashmir valley. I have never heard of a Hindu Wani and the conversion to Islam seems near total. Such a total conversion of mercantile castes to Islam is not seen in any other region of India.

It would be interesting to know what explains the exceptional status of Wanis. This is not just interesting from a historical perspective, but could also be important in understanding contemporary developments. Consider the issue of Kashmir’s industrialization. A crude model of India’s early industrialization would be Brahmin technical/management education + Bania enterprise. Indeed, Aakar Patel points to the Brahmin-Bania complex as a hegemonic force in the economy of modern India,

HDFC is run by a Bania (Deepak Parekh), Hindustan Unilever is run by a Brahmin (Nitin Paranjpe), ICICI Bank is headed by a Brahmin (K.V. Kamath). Jaiprakash Associates is run by a Brahmin (Yogesh Gaur), L&T is run by a Brahmin (A.M. Naik), NTPC is run by a Brahmin (R.S. Sharma), ONGC is run by a Brahmin (also called R.S. Sharma). Reliance group firms are run by Banias (Mukesh and Anil Ambani), State Bank of India is run by a Brahmin (O.P. Bhatt), Sterlite Industries is run by a Bania (Anil Agarwal), Sun Pharma is run by a Bania (Dilip Shanghvi) and Tata Steel is run by a Brahmin (B. Muthuraman).

More examples are given in the linked Aakar Patel article. We can see that the Bania-Brahmin complex is spread across India, from South to North, West to East. In more recent years, there has even been a diffusion of skills and attitudes, with Brahmins moving into entrepreneurship and Banias into higher studies. In important ways, urban Brahmin-Banias are merging into a single caste.

Is it possible that the religious schism between the Kashmiri Brahmins and Wains possibly precluded such a complex from forming ? One could conjecture that this played an important part in slowing the industrialization of the region, and its economic integration with the rest of India.

In summary, what explains the total conversion of Kashmiri trading castes to Islam, a pattern not really seen anywhere else in the subcontinent ?

Did this effect industrial growth in Kashmir, and provide more reasons for the emergence of an insurgency there ?


18 Replies to “The Wani exception”

  1. ” A crude model of India’s early industrialization would be Brahmin technical/management education + Bania enterprise”

    I don’t know how early is early . OTOH, Tamils brahmins going into industry as industrialists happened more than 100 years ago , even though Chettiars dominated and dominate finance . TV Sunderam Iyengar Sons, Amalgamations , Sankar Cements and by mid 20th century TT Krishnamachari , as well as many minor names dot the Tamilnadu industry for a hundred years.

    1. VijayVan, I am honestly not as well informed about entrepreneurship in South India as I am about the North. I did realize that a larger proportion of South Indian business owners tend to be Brahmins. Do you know if financing from Chettiars played a role in the establishment of TVS, Sankar Cements and others ?

      In the context of the post, the Brahmin-Bania interaction definitely seems to have been stronger in the North, where Kashmir is. And even if this interaction was limited to Banias financing Brahmin enterprise, the Wanis of Kashmir appeared to have played no such role.

  2. Trading castes of the north and northwest by and large kept their own Hinduism intact via extensive collaboration with the Islamist rulers. It was a scratch-your-back and vice versa relationship with the Islamist ruler appearing secular and vice versa the Khatri and Agarwal otherwise bankrolling the Islamist depredations deeper into India (Islamist meanwhile kept the gravy train into Silk road intact).
    The Wani of Kashmir might simply be an exception to the collaborative mercantile castes of the northwest.

    1. I dont think imperial collaboration ‘protected’ the Hinduism of any group that participated in such projects. As an example, for warrior castes like the Rajputs, such collaboration extended into high ranking official positions and marriages into the establishment. And as mentioned in the post, Rajputs of NW India ended up converting almost completely to Islam.

      The resistance to Mughal rule came mainly from peasant groups like the Marathas and Jats since India’s wealth was in its agrarian economy and these groups were the ones to suffer from the taxation policies. The same trend is seen during British rule. Except Gandhi was able to form a common ground between the peasantry and the upper castes.

      I am not sure how the Wanis are an exception in your explanation. If proximity to ruling powers is the reason for conversion, why do we see it only in the Kashmiri Wanis, but not Punjabi Khatris ?

    1. Yes, the Memons (Sunnis) and Khojas (Shia) are converts from Hindu Lohanas. It is unclear to me whether the Sunni Bohras are an offshoot of the Memons or the Dawoodi Bohras. But in any case, the majority of Lohanas remained Hindu.

      Also, the Muslim Lohana have remained active in entrepreneurship, which doesnt seem to be the case with the Kashmiri Wanis.

  3. You have to understand the scale of the numbers involved here.

    The population of Kashmir Valley was never more than 5% of the population of (undivided) Punjab. So, even though Kashmir came under complete Islamic rule a good 3-4 centuries after Punjab, the results of conversion were near total. The 500 years of rule by Muslim kings (from 1340s to 1840s) left just over 90% of the population Muslim, including all of the wonyh kram.

    Kashmiri population (even in the Hindu period) always enjoyed a remarkable degree of occupational mobility, for an Indian population at any rate. A fact often (negatively) remarked by the brAhmaNa chroniclers of the region. So, you should understand the kram (< Skt karma; lit. work) not as a traditional Indian caste – where occupation is tightly-correlated with a family group – but more like an occupational designation (like English Smith or Taylor etc). So, the extensive trading networks that characterize Hindu or Jain baniyas/vaniyas in Rajasthan/Gujarat which depended on financing from and shared ownership with family members etc were never a feature in Kashmir.

    The means of production in Kashmir were always *heavily* dependent on agricultural subsistence and most trading really was of saffron, fruit and walnuts etc to the plains downstream. Later in the Muslim period 1500s onwards rugs became a major export too. Trading volumes were also limited, not just because most of the exports were perishables but also the geographical inaccessibility of the region. So, the sort of volumes a Kashmiri trader involved in selling saffron in Lahore saw would be a minuscule fraction of a Hindu trader's business in Delhi's mandi or a Gujarati Jain dealing with in the port of Bharuch. It is like comparing the skill set of a commodities trader from Glencore, who deals with daily volumes running into tens of billions of USD on the CME, with a local store owner in a mid-sized town.

    So, I would put the difference down to a combination of very small population, provincial (and isolated) business opportunities and the lack of scalability a dependable caste-based familial network provides.

    1. It is like comparing the skill set of a commodities trader from Glencore, who deals with daily volumes running into tens of billions of USD on the CME, with a local store owner in a mid-sized town.

      This comparison made me chuckle; don’t underestimate local store owners in mid-sized towns. It can be a pretty demanding job as much as commodity trading. In fact owning one’s own business is far more taxing than trading the books of a large corporation..

    2. Thanks for this illuminating comment Slapstik.

      Is it correct to say that since Muslim dynasties in Kashmir were not as ‘foreign’ to the locals as the Turkic and Mughal sultans were for North Indians, the conversion dynamics due to Muslim rule were different ?

      Regarding the question of scale, it also appears that the Central Asian migration would have impacted a relatively sparsely populated Kashmir valley a lot more than other parts of the subcontinent.

      1. // Muslim dynasties in Kashmir were not as ‘foreign’ to the locals //

        As Al-Beruni himself remarks that the Hindus (of gandhAra-kashmIra) he encountered were so different from them (Turanis/Turks) that they would scare their children with them.

        The only experience Kashmir had of Turkic Muslims was of fighting them since the Ghaznavid period. There was a policy of recruiting outsider mercenaries as well: typically hill rAjaputra-s but sometimes also Tibetans and Turanians. Some of the enlisted foreigners mentioned in the rAjataraGgiNI have Indic names (like arjuna, mitravarman etc) so probably non-Muslim minorities of Turkistan/Dardic regions. Though by late 13c there must have been some Muslim recruits in the Kashmiri army.

        Look at it this way: Kashmir was Hindu when Amir Khusrow was born in UP to a Turk who had taken a local Rajput wife. It was still Hindu when he had done all his compositions etc and died. So it is anyone’s guess who was more used to Turks/Muslims until early-mid 14c…

        Immigration was always tightly controlled and anyway not easy in the pre-modern period given geographical inaccessibility. Tight immigration was the policy even during the Muslim period down to this date. Note that Kashmir had gone back to local Muslim rulers – native Chak (< Skt. chakra) sultans – by the time Moghals came on the scene. Ain-i Akbari explicitly writes of the minority of Muslims of Iran and Turkestan in Kashmir (not in very promising terms).

        1. Hi Slapstik, this has probably been discussed elsewhere on this forum, but for various reasons I am resistant to the ‘population scale’ argument. Especially since we know that places like Sindh did not become Muslim majority even after nearly a millennium of Islamic exposure and rule (Interpreting the Sindhi world), and remained more than a quarter non-Muslim right up to independence. Not to mention that the axis of conversion remain firmly consistent, upper castes with the possible exception of Kshatriya groups remaining Hindu, nomadic/peasant castes converting in marginal areas, and Dalit-Bahujan remaining Hindu.

          However, your point about krams not being hardcore castes might be the key. Perhaps Kashmiri Hindu groups (apart from the Brahmins) did not see themselves embedded in a wider Hindu world via the institutions of their castes, the way Hindus in other regions did.

          1. 1. Sindh has a population 8 to 10 times that of the Kashmir Valley. And the Valley really is a very small place: an oval with major axis of 130 odd km and minor axis of 30 odd km.

            Sure, it may not be the only reason, but the brute force of numbers is important. Easier to affect acculturation in a smaller pop than a larger one.

            2. I am not sure about the claim of Kashmiri Hindus not connected to wider N India. The kings of Kashmir had strong personal and political relations with both gandhAra (shahis) and Aryadesha (gahadvalas, chahamanas). LOTS of references to such visits and meetings.

            And the occupational status of even brAhmaNa-s was more fluid in Old Kashmir. Kalhana’s own father was a feudal drangapati (Lord of the Gate) in varAhamUla (modern day baramulla in Urdu; varmul in K)

            The fluidity of occupation has more to do with local evolution (substrate?) of Hinduism generally in the Himalayan belt. E.g. caste identity not very strong in Nepal either compared to Gangetic plains.

            (In general the best analogues of Kashmiri Hinduism are Hindus of Himachal, Uttarakhand, Nepal. That is what our culture was like)

          2. Yes, the caste system in HP, UT and Nepal is different from the plains. The explanation I have encountered for this is that the economies in these areas were close to subsistence, with lower needs for intricate division of labour. Basically, a huge chunk of peasant and intermediate service castes (teli, lohars, julahas, vishwakarma, maali, nishad) were absent, and you only had upper castes (Brahmins, Rajputs) and Dalits.

            Had thought Kashmir would be a bit different since the valley does have enough cultivable land to move beyond subsistence. But I guess the substantially smaller growing season and geographical isolation made this hard.

  4. “The resistance to Mughal rule came mainly from peasant groups like the Marathas and Jats since India’s wealth was in its agrarian economy and these groups were the ones to suffer from the taxation policies. ”

    This is not true as all regions had their own peasant communities which hardly revolted. All communities which revolted against the mughals had their own specific reasons. for example muslim jats who were also peasant did not revolt unlike their sikh and hindu counterparts, even though they outnumber them.

    On the rajputs the predominance of rajputs caste across whats it today’s Pakistan is a result of various other groups (Gujar,Jat) taking up rajput caste as to move socially upwards. Another such example is the caste “Mughal” which was clearly designed for social mobility. This is not a isolated phenomena you see that in Sindh where ethnic sindhi communites also “took up” rajput lineage similar to how Shivaji had to take up “Kshatriya/Rajput” lineage on his coronation. In Goa and western Ghats too you will meet “Kshatriya” catholics.

    1. The point about Muslims in Pakistani Punjab taking up Rajput lineage is an interesting one, although one would guess that even the original Rajputs were similarly created by coincident claims from various upwardly mobile clans. However, that being said, there is not much record of Hindu Rajput activity in Western Punjab for quite a long time, so it is safe to conclude that most of them either converted or migrated eastward (Bihar, for example, has a lot of Rajput migrant families).

      1. There is no account of them in West Punjab because mostly they are all “made up” rajputs. The Purbias have a different history since they have been moving eastward during the Pratihara’s time already. They moved to Central India and as far East as Orissa where you still find royalty like “Singh Deo” ruling in Bastar and Western Orissa.


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