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Reservations For Indian Muslims: Conflicting Claims About Caste

By Yoginder Sikand

10 September, 2010

Mobilising on the basis of their caste identities, Dalits and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) have been able to wrest substantial rights for themselves over the decades. Although the less numerous and less powerful castes among the OBCs and the Dalits remain heavily marginalized in terms of all developmental indices, it cannot be denied that reservations in public sector employment and educational institutions and other positive discrimination measures undertaken by the state for these communities has played a central role in their overall development and empowerment. In this process, of course, the role of caste-based movements of reform and protest remains central, in the absence of which the state might never have been forced to concede to affirmative measures to address their concerns in the first place.

The vast majority—some estimates put the figure at more than eighty per cent—of the Indian Muslims belong to various caste groups that were, and still are, considered ‘low’ in the caste hierarchy. These groups are of indigenous origin that, over time, underwent a process of Islamisation, a process that is still under way in different forms. On the other hand are Muslims who are, or claim to be, of ‘foreign’ extraction, in which, typically, they take great pride. These are the Syeds and Shaikhs, who claim Arab origin, and the Mughals and Pathans, who claim Turkic and Afghan descent respectively. In the centuries of ‘Muslim’ rule in India, these Muslims of ‘foreign extraction’, who also claim to be ashraf or ‘noble’ (as distinct from the majority Indian Muslims of indigenous, ‘low’ caste extraction whom they looked down upon) occupied key positions in society as rulers, landlords, and religious scholars (‘ulema). This pattern continues till today, with most top Muslim politicians and ulema belonging to the same ashraf class.

One of the reasons for the overall ‘backwardness’ of the Indian Muslims is undoubtedly the fact that the vast majority of the community are of ‘low’ caste origin, having remained deprived and marginalized precisely because of their caste origins and background and despite their conversion to Islam. Further, in contrast to ‘Hindu’ Dalits, who have won crucial gains by mobilizing on the basis of caste, the Muslim ‘low’ castes have witnessed no such substantial caste-based mobilization for their rights despite the fact that their social, economic, and educational conditions are at par, or perhaps even more dismal, than the former.

That such caste-based mobilization for rights and for making demands on the state have been relatively absent in the ‘lower’ caste Muslim case owes principally to the continuing hegemony of the ashraf Muslims, who project themselves as the natural leaders and spokesmen of all Muslims and, as maulvis, as the authoritative spokesmen of Islam. While, in general, the ashraf continue to strictly practice endogamy (thus perpetuating their castes) and many ashraf maulvis continue to seek to sanction caste hierarchy in the name of kufu (social, including caste, parity while choosing marital partners), in the face of demands by ‘low’ caste Muslim groups for reservations for them in public sector employment and educational institutions, as is available for non-Muslim Dalits, the ashraf have cried foul, claiming that such demands are ‘un-Islamic’ because caste itself, they argue, is an un-Islamic or Hindu institution or notion.

Typically, they have angrily decried demands for affirmative action for ‘low’ caste Muslims as ‘divisive’, and even as a ‘conspiracy to destroy Muslim unity’ or even to ‘Hinduise the Indian Muslims’ at the same time as they make no effort to promote meaningful Muslim unity by, for instance, denouncing caste endogamy among the ashraf, making Muslim organizations more socially inclusive by incorporating more non-ashraf in decision making positions, or critiquing the divisive sectarianism of the mullahs, which takes the form of angry polemics between rival Islamic sects, each of which claims to alone represent Islamic authenticity. Behind such appeals of ashraf leaders to promote ‘Muslim unity’ in the face of ‘low’ caste demands for state-sponsored affirmative action, which they denounce as ‘divisive’ and ‘un-Islamic’, one can detect a distinct nervousness at the prospect of the numerically much more significant non-ashraf threatening their claims to leading and representing the entire Muslim community.

In the face of growing demands on the part of ‘low’ caste Muslims for reservations, ashraf leaders have typically responded by arguing, against obvious empirical reality, that Muslims have no caste at all, this being a ‘Hindu’ institution, and that their identity is, or should be, defined simply by Islam alone. If pressed to reluctantly recognize the existence of caste among the Indian Muslims, an undeniable social reality, they would argue that the state should consider all of India’s Muslims, as an entire community, as socially and economically ‘backward’ for purposes of reservation, rather than limiting this category only to the ‘low’ castes among them. ‘Low’ caste Muslim ideologues have pointed out that in this way ashraf leaders seek to scuttle any prospects for positive discrimination in favour of the ‘low’ caste Muslims as well as to ensure that the benefits of such a policy, if adopted, accrue largely or entirely to the ashraf, who, though in a minority compared to the ‘low’ castes, are educationally, socially and economically far in advance of them.

The continuing tension between ashraf spokesmen and ‘low’ caste Muslim leaders on the issue of caste-based reservations for Muslims is well illustrated by a letter penned by Maulvi Anis ur-Rahman Qasmi, the General Secretary of the Imarat-e Shariah of Bihar, Orissa and Jharkhand, addressed to Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar, which I came across recently. The Imarat-e Shariah is a body of Deobandi clerics who claim to represent the Muslims of three eastern Indian states and to be authoritative interpreters of Islam.

In his letter, Maulvi Qasmi congratulated the Bihar Chief Minister for having included the Malik caste of Muslims as OBCs (although the Maliks claim to be ‘high’ in the social hierarchy) and appealed to him to include what he termed ‘the remaining three [Muslim] castes (jatiyan)’ in the state that were not already categorized as such in the OBC list, a reference to the socially dominant Syeds, Pathans and Shaikhs. It is said that the letter provoked a storm of protest from ‘low’ caste Muslim leaders in Bihar, as well as non-Muslim OBC organizations, who saw it as a conspiracy to grab the limited gains that the OBCs, including the Muslim OBCs, had been able to wrest from the state. They pointed out the anomaly, or hypocrisy, as some put it, of Maulvi Qasmi recognizing the existence of caste among Muslims (by pleading the case for reservations to be extended to the three ashraf castes) while at the same time ashraf mullahs and other leaders of Maulvi Qasmi’s kind are quick to deny the existence of caste among Muslims when demands for affirmative action for ‘low’ caste Muslims are made, whether on the state or on ashraf-led Muslim organizations.

Maulvi Qasmi is, of course, no exception, and he merely exemplifies the muddled, contradictory and self-serving stances of most ashraf leaders with regard to the issue of affirmative action for Muslims. It is clear that, generally speaking, these leaders remain vehemently opposed to any independent mobilization of ‘low’ caste Muslims, even if for the purposes of making demands on the state. That opposition continues to pose a major hurdle on the ability of ‘low’ caste Muslims to mobilize for their rights and to work for their own empowerment and a cause, among many, for their continued marginalization.

Copyright 2010: New Age Islam Foundation

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/NewAgeIslamIslamAndPolitics_1.aspx?ArticleID=3412