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Recognize Dalit Muslims

By Anand Bharat

16 February, 2005

In an article while stressing the need for a strong Dalit-Muslim tie that could make a possible stand against the Hindu fundamentalism, Kancha Ilaiah wrote, ‘The Dalits and Adivasis have close relations with the Christians but not with the Muslims.’ The service of several Christian missionaries operating in our country has ensured the strengthening of the Dalit-Christians tie. But despite sharing a certain strong historical connection with each other, no such common ground could be forged between the Dalits and the Muslims, which has only resulted in the lack of intimacy between the two.

Ilaiah’s plea for a Dalit-Muslim unity is well understood. Many Muslim and Dalit activists have also come to recognize how both the sections of society continue to be exploited by the Hindu fundamentalists and instigated to kill each other at the time of the so-called communal riot. They have realized the need for a strong Dalit-Muslim tie in order to counter the fundamentalsits’ ulterior motives in pitching the two against each other at the time of communal violence. Such organizations as the Jamat-ul-Ulema-I Hind, the All India SC/ST Federation and the Muslim United Morcha have recently come up with the innovative ideas of organizing Dalit-Muslim Community Dinner, etc. that has helped provide the two communities enough ground to understand each other.

Media has reacted passively to any event of such enormous significance. Its preoccupation with many other trivial issues leaves no room for its engagement with issues like this. We must recognize the harm entailed in such Media passivity. After all, how long would commercial enterprises keep determining our understanding of such social issues?

Coming back to the issue of Dalit-Muslim unity, for any such venture to succeed, one should first stress on the need for the recognision of the caste dynamics operating in Islam, the understanding of which we have been deliberately denied by several Islamic religious institutions and ‘English-speaking Muslim intelligentsia’, who find it safe to propound the false idea of an egalitarian Islamic society. By doing this they consolidate the Muslim population and make them serve their private political purposes.

Shocking it might be for many, around 85% of the total Indian Muslim population are Dalits who have been denied access to those Constitutional provisions that their Hindu counterparts have enjoyed. Despite this being by and large a common knowledge that these Muslims are the converts of the Dalit Hindus, we necessarily ignore the fact that they are very much in the same social trap as Dalit Hindus are. Even the most strident advocates of the caste identity have refused to acknowledge the undercurrent of castes running in Islam. V. T. Rajsekar, the author of the celebrated Caste: A Nation Within the Nation, writes in the same book: ‘Among Muslims there are numerous sects such as Moplah, Labbe, Nadaf…These are not castes but sects… Among the Muslim sects… There is nothing like a “higher” Muslim sect or a “lower” Muslim sect. They are separate but equal.’ For him the Muslim unity over the issues like Shah Bano case, Muslim Personal Law Board, etc. are the ‘advantages of castes graduating into sects’.

The real state of affairs of the majority of Muslims is betrayed by the notion of pan Islamic identity that does not stand true in the context of Indian society where majority of Muslims are the Dalit converts. The Dalit Muslims are today victims of a large political and religious conspiracy unleashed on them by the religious leaders like the ulemas of the madrassas and the English speaking intelligentsia among the Muslims, who constitute just a fraction of the total Muslim population in India.

The need for a proper understanding of the caste dynamics at play in Islam is strong.

Slowly, a few organizations have come up to struggle for the rights of the Dalit Muslims. Among them, the All India Backward Muslim Morcha has raised strong voice against discrimination inflicted on the Dalit Muslims. Sociologists have recently made many studies dedicated to the understanding of the same caste dynamics at play in Indian Muslims. In a paper entitled ‘Social Stratification Among Muslims in India’, Zarina Bhatty observes that Muslims in India are divided into two broad categories, Ashrafs and Non-Ashrafs. Ashrafs are upper castes by virtue of their foreign descent. And Non-Ashrafs, being the alleged converts, constitute the lower castes.

Further, while the Ashrafs are divided into four castes, Sayyads, Sheikhs, Mughals and Pathans, the Non-Ashrafs are divided into a number of ‘occupational castes’. In Non-Ashrafs, writes Bhatty, ‘the superiority or inferiority of a caste is determined by the relative pure or impure nature of the occupation associated with each.’

It must also be mentioned alongside that despite being in an overwhelming majority, the Non-Ashrafs have no particular voice of their own; their social and political situations are largely determined by a handful of upper caste, English-speaking elites, who in order to keep the whole Muslim community together, have consequently done away with their identity as Dalits, thereby depriving them of their claim to social justice and political privileges.

Whatever sociological research has gone in finding caste dynamics in either Hindu or Muslim community is itself debatable. Questioning the integrity of Indian sociologists, Gail Omvedt writes in her essay entitled, ‘Caste and the Sociologists,’ that ‘the most haunting lacuna of contemporary Indian sociology remains the lack of data…the apparent lack of concern for even gathering data.’

It is in fact this lack of understanding among Indian sociologists that has for long put the idea of the existence of something called “Dalit Muslims” under the cover. However, the recent study in the field has given all those activists who want a separate Dalit identity to the Muslims a much-needed shot in their arm.

A clear identification of Dalit Muslims and recognition their political and social needs will help bring together Dalit Muslims and Hindus, which can prove strong bulwark against the fundamentalist force working against them.











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