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Social Stratification: Ashrafisation in Manipur

when confronted with the Asian region. Asia did not quite fit the European imagination of races. The caste system of south Asia defied racial categorisation. It is in this sense that B R Ambedkar had denied the equivalence of race and caste. But the essence of both, casteism and racism, lay in discrimination on the basis of descent. By this understanding, Indian elites, notwithstanding their brags, become inveterate racists. Their racism not only manifests in their behaviour with dalits but also in their relation with Blacks abroad. The Indians, despite enriching themselves in Africa over generations are known to avoid any social contact with the local population. Casteism easily transforms into racism abroad: the lightness of skin corresponding to the hierarchical superiority of people. Whites then become quasi-brahmins and blacks, dalits.




Social Stratification: Ashrafisation in Manipur

Mohd Shakil Ahmed



while the Khutheibas performed mainly non-military services in lalup (a system in which every male above 16 years of age had to render a variety of services for 10 days out of 40) though they did take up military duties occasionally.

Both these categories need to be seen

The Pangals, as the Muslims of Manipur are known, do not fall into the two broad categories of Ashraf and Ajlaf as Muslims in the rest of the country do. Their social stratification which has no religious or cultural notions follows a unique pattern and is based on occupations which are open to all. However, there are attempts now to categorise the Pangals through a framework borrowed from outside the state possibly with the aim of status mobility.

Mohd Shakil Ahmed ( is a keen observer of patterns of social stratification among Muslims in the country.

uslims have settled in Manipur since the early part of the 17th century and are known as “Pangal” or “Meitei Pangal”. The Cheitharol Kumbaba (the royal chronicle of Manipur) refers to a battle in 1606 AD involving a Muslim battalion and a department known as (Pangal) “Loishang” created to look after matters concerning the community. The Cheitharol Kumbaba uses the word “Pangan” (Singh and Singh 1989) to describe them. Manipuri Muslims follow the Hannafi school of jurisprudence of the Sunni sect of Islam which is the only I slamic sect in the state.

Pangal Social Stratification

Since 1606 Muslims have been governed by a kazi who headed the loishang for Pangals in socio-religious affairs. At this stage most of the Muslims were engaged in military services which were much in demand due to the frequent threats from outside the kingdom.

Muslim society then was divided into

(a) Khunja (common folk and villagers and (b) Khutheiba (the skilled) (Sharma and Badaruddin 1991). The Khunjas were mainly engaged in military services

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within the larger Manipuri society which was divided into different groups based on the services they provided to the state

– a system worked out under the feudallike structural framework. No religious and cultural notions were attached to these divisions. However, as far as the Muslims were concerned, this was the very first categorisation.

By 1688 AD the Pangals had split further into four groups. The Khunja were divided into two – (1) Lanmi (those engaged in war) and (2) Maulvi (religious scholars). There were other groups too – the Khutheiba and Ingkholshangba. Of all these categories, the Maulvis were deeply respected (ibid). They were also excused from attending lalup. Next came the Khunja Lanmi. The Khutheiba were placed third and the Ingkholshangba occupied the fourth position in terms of social prestige though this division was still based on the nature of the group’s occupation.

In the absence of a religious and cultural justification for such a categorisation, the division of Muslim society was rather fluid, as it were. As far as the Maulvi category was concerned, members of any sagei (an exogamous category whereby the whole Pangal society was (is) arranged in

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Economic & Political Weekly


terms of many sageis who were described by different names by the Meitei kings at different times when individual Muslims or groups of Muslims came to Manipur and settled there) could belong to it. Maulvihood was not inherited nor was it r estricted to a particular sagei. Likewise, any individual or groups of individuals from any of the Muslim sagei could belong to the Khunja Lanmi, Khutheiba or I ngkholshangba categories. Apart from this, there was no restriction on social intercourse not only between these groups but also between the sageis. Moreover, a particular occupation is not associated with any of the sageis since individuals chose their occupation.

Such a system of social division was obviously not rigid because an elaborate scheme of social stratification had not penetrated into Manipur, even though i ndividual brahmin migration had begun in the 15th century (Hijamcha, Ibopishak Meitei 1978). Meitei says that it was during the period of Kiyamba (1467-1508 AD) that the first brahmin (Bamon in Manipuri) inmigration took place.

It was only in the 18th century that largescale conversion of Meiteis to Vaishnavism started with the help of royal patronage.

This “homogeneity” among the Pangals was further consolidated when a single version of Islam – Sunni Islam in this case

– was emphasised through the loishang for the Pangals. But why were the Maulvi and Khunja Lanmi categories placed at the first and second position respectively?

Unique Position

Status is defined in the context of group relations and the system of power distribution at a particular stage of development and within a particular political arrangement. Manipur was fast consolidating its feudal character in the 17th century and that is why the institution of lalup had begun to assume importance. Of all the services, the military services were, from the perspective of the kingdom, the most valued because it lived under the constant possibility of being attacked by other powers, and was concerned with maintaining order under its territories as well. Therefore, those engaged in military activities – the Khunja Lanmi – were ascribed the s econd position in the prestige/status

Economic & Political Weekly

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s et-up. The first position was reserved for the Maulvis.

The Maulvis were given a great deal of importance by the Muslim themselves. The valley being a landlocked area, they were cut off from other Muslim centres. In such a situation they tended to cling to their religion and hence the importance of the Maulvis. Thus, the status assigned to each of the Muslim categories in the last two decades of the 17th century was derived not from origin, or heredity but from the point of utility to society.

It may be worthwhile to note the d ivisional set-up elsewhere in India. Louis D umont (1999), one of the pioneers in the study of caste in India observes:

Muslims were and are divided into a large number of groups of graded status, which from this point of view represent a kind of replica of the Hindu system. On this point, we shall summarise briefly what is provided by the literature, confining our attention to the State of Uttar Pradesh as it was before the population shifts which followed the partition of the subcontinent. Muslims are divided first of all into two categories: the ashraf or nobles, supposedly the descendants of immigrants, and divided into kinds; and the common people, whose Indian origin is acknowledged, and who are distributed into a large number of groups which are very similar to castes (respectively 2.5 and more than 4 millions in 1911). The Ashraf belong to four ‘tribes’ or rather ‘groups of tribes supposedly of the same blood’ (Blunt). The first

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of these in theory of Arab origin, have honorific names: Saiyed and Shaikh, while the following two have ethnic names: Pathan (that is, roughly Afghans) and Mughal.

Dumont was of the view that caste among the Hindus is based “on a religious philosophy which supports social division and certain theological notions serve to reinforce them” (Ahmad 1973). Bergel also feels that “The caste system cannot be u nderstood unless it is recognised as a r eligious institution” (ibid). But such a philosophical and ideological justification was absent among the Muslims of M anipur then.

Again, there was (and is) complete absence of caste-like features in the social stratification among the Muslims in M anipur unlike Muslims ( Ahmad 1973) elsewhere in India. Ahmad observes that “It is clear that caste exists as a basis of s ocial relations amongst them (Muslims in India), but its form has been greatly weakened and modified and differs from the Hindu caste model in certain details”. This is not the case in Manipur.This perhaps e xplains the absence of Ashraf-Ajlaf (noble and low-ranked respectively) dichotomy among the Muslims in Manipur. Thus, it is questionable whether the sociological c onceptualisation of Indian Muslims into the two broad categories of Ashraf and Ajlaf is indeed helpful in appreciating


s tratification pattern among the Muslims in Manipur.

To understand Muslims in Manipur, it is important to appreciate sagei. In early M anipur when the Muslims arrived from elsewhere, they were identified on the b asis of sagei given by Meitei/Meetei kings. Historically the Pangal (or Muslim) sageis have been arranged on a nonhierarchical order. Today Muslim society is based on the horizontal spread of sageis with no notion of “high” or “low” among them. Though membership of the sagei is determined by birth one can change his/ her sagei. The sagei-based social set-up is intrinsically a Manipuri phenomenon. Meitei/Meetei society is based on the s even salai (clans) divisional set-up. Muslims however do not have the salai-type set-up and all of them form a closelyknit community.

Ashrafisation and Image Searching

Muslims in India are divided, into three broad categories – Ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal

  • with Ashraf including Syed, Sheikh, Mughal and Pathan subgroups. Muslim writers in Manipur began to refer to this framework since the early 1970s (Ipham, Muhammad Ali Janab Khan 1972). However, when the Muslim community first settled in Manipur they were not classified into these categories but were treated as a homogeneous group. It was only around the 1970s that Muslim writers began s eeing the Pangals in terms of four groups
  • Syed, Sheikh, Mughal and Pathan.
  • Throughout history the Muslims in M anipur have learnt and acquired cultural traits from other groups notably the Meiteis/Meeteis the most prominent of these being language, and dress. Muslims speak the Meitei/Meetei language A Rahman (1997) writes,

    The Manipuri Muslims adopted Manipuri (Meitei language) and accepted it as their mother tongue. It became the door to their hearts.

    The Meitei/Meeteis language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language groups and is a rich language with its own script. Muslims have also in course of time constructed words of mixed origin. For example, Dahal, a Manipuri Muslim term for elder brother, is a constructed word formed by combining the Urdu word Dada and the Meitei word Ahal (elder) (ibid).

    The dress of the Manipuri Muslim w omen closely resembles that of the Meitei women with a slight variation. They cover their heads with a cloth known as khudei. Muslim men too used to wear a type of dhoti known as the Pheijom. Muslim w omen also wear the Hijab, Nakaf, etc.

    The Rajinder Sachar Committee report says that Muslims in India may be divided into four broad groups: (i) the Ashrafs who trace their origins to lands such as Arabia, Persia, Turkistan or Afghanistan,

  • (ii) the upper caste Hindus who converted to Islam, (iii) the middle caste converts whose occupations are ritually clean, and
  • (iv) the converts from the erstwhile untouchable castes, Bhangi (scavenger), M ehtar (sweeper), Chamar (tanner), and Dom etc. These four groups are encapsulated into two broad categories – Ashraf and Ajlaf. In Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and B engal, Sayyad (Syed), Sheikh, Moghul (Mughal), and Pathan constitute the Ashraf ( see archive/2007/jan07/muslimsobcs.html (retrieved on 11/12/2008).
  • There are many groups under each of these broad four groups. The carpenters, artisans, painters, graziers, tanners, milkmen, etc, form the Ajlaf category.

    The Muslims in Assam in general and Surma valley in particular are also divided on the basis of a “shadow caste” (Dev and Lahiri 1984) characterised by flexibility.

    Status Mobility?

    There has been an attempt to see the M uslims through the Syed, Sheikh, Mughal and Pathan categories framework in M anipur as well. The successive attempts to see Muslims in terms of these categories however may be seen as an attempt at status mobility under a framework b or rowed from outside.

    In recent times two forces are simultaneously at work within Muslim society – one marked by the process of ashrafisation and the other characterised by a rush as it were, to consolidate and forge alliances between sageis on the basis of common ground. Both the processes appear to be a manifestation of a search for a “right” image by multiple and competing individuals based on their notion of status and honour. Since the process is largely defined by an attempt to express and a ttain what they perceive to be an “honourable” identity and position egged on by the kind of political set-up that the modern democratic arrangement has wrought, this process appears to have run parallel with the opening up or the widening of the public space which was restrained to a considerable extent before the turn of the 20th century. But these processes are at the level of individuals. The Pangal community is socially, educationally and economically backward and is included in the Other Backward Classes list as “Meitei Pangal”. They have never been driven by any exclusively “ Islamic” concerns.


    Ahmad, Imtiaz (1973): Caste and Social Stratifications among the Muslims (New Delhi: Manohar).

    Dev, Bimal J and Dilip K Lahiri (1984): Cosmogony of Caste and Social Mobility in Assam (New Delhi: Mittal Publications).

    Dumont, Louis (1999): Homo Hierarchicus – The Caste System and Its Implications (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

    Hijamcha, Ibopishak Meitei (1978): Bamon Khunthoklon, Imphal.

    Ipham, Muhammad Ali Janab Khan (1972): Manipuri Muslim, Imphal, p 53.

    Rahman, A (1997): “The Culture of Manipuri Muslims (Pangals) and Meitei Influences” in Arambam S omorendra (ed.), Meitei Pangal Cultural Festival and Exhibition, Imphal.

    Sharma, Kullachandra and Badaruddin (1991): Meitei Pangal Hourakpham, Lainingthou (Imphal: Bapu Research Centre).

    Singh, L Ibungohal and N Khelchandra Singh (1989): Cheitharol Kumbaba (Imphal: Manipur Sahitya Parishad).

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