Representational image | Adeel Halim/Bloomberg News
Representational image | Adeel Halim/Bloomberg News
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Caste is a Brahminical disease that not only plagues the Hindu society but the entire South Asia is infected by this social evil. Despite regional and cultural variations, caste is a common feature among all religious communities in this region, and it plays a pivotal role in the distribution and control of knowledge, power, property, resources, sexuality and dignity.

Indian Muslims, too, are victims of caste-based stratification, and are divided into three main classes and hundreds of biradaris. At the top of the hierarchy are the ‘Ashraf’ Muslims who trace their origin either to western or central Asia (for instance Syed, Sheikh, Mughal, Pathan, etc or native upper caste converts like Rangad or Muslim Rajput, Taga or Tyagi Muslims, Garhe or Gaur Muslims, etc). Syed biradari is highly revered and their status is almost symmetrical to the Brahmins in Hinduism.

The philosophy of social inequality within Muslims is termed Syedism, and movements against the Ashraf dominance have been led by the ‘lower’ ones — Ajlaf (backward Muslims) and Arzal (Dalit Muslims)—at least since the beginning of the 20th century.

Caste and representation among Muslims

The savarna Muslims constitute about 15 per cent of the entire Muslim population in India, while the rest comprise the backward, Dalit and tribal Muslims. The 1990s saw the rise of several social movements that gave voice and a new direction to abolish casteism in the Muslim society with several organisations leading from the front — the All India Backward Muslim Morcha of Dr Ejaz Ali, and the All India Pasmanda Muslims Mahaj of Ali Anwar from Bihar, and the All India Muslim OBC Organisation of Shabbir Ansari from Maharashtra.


Also read: Upper class Hindus gave caste to us and now they want to be leaders of anti-caste movements


Two books – Ali Anwar’s Masawat Ki Jung (2001) and Masood Alam Falahi’s Hindustan Mein Jaat Pat aur Musalman (2007) – were especially instrumental in exposing the caste-based discrimination prevalent in the Muslim society. These books demonstrated how the Ashraf Muslims had hegemonised and were over-represented in Islamic organisations and institutions (Jamat-e-Ulema-e-Hind, Jamat-e-Islami, All India Muslim Personal Law Board, Idaar-e-Sharia etc.), government-run institutions for minorities (Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Milia Islamia, Maulana Azad Educational Foundation, Urdu Academy etc.) and power structures generally.

The books also illustrate the many layers and forms of caste-based discrimination that is practised in the Muslim society — caste-based endogamy and observation of social distance, the mocking or taunting of subordinate caste Muslims, the existence of separate burial grounds, the practice of forcing lower Muslims to stand in the back rows during Namaz prayers in certain regions, and the practice of untouchability against Dalit Muslims among others.

It is the result of such literature and efforts of the aforementioned organisations that the backward, Dalit and tribal Muslim communities — Kunjre (Raeen), Julahe (Ansari), Dhunia (Mansuri), Kasai (Qureishi), Fakir (Alvi), Hajjam (Salmani), Mehtar (Halalkhor), Gwala (Ghosi), Dhobi (Hawari), Lohar-Badhai (Saifi), Manihar (Siddiqui), Darzi (Idrisi), Vangujjar, etc. — are now organising under the identity of ‘Pasmanda’: the ones who have been left behind.

Secularism vs communalism and neglected Pasmandas

The politics arranged around the axis of religion is often employed by the Brahminical and Syedist forces to protect their own interests and social dominance. Incidents of mob lynching and communal riots are often sponsored and orchestrated by these forces to trap the subordinate caste communities in the web of emotional issues, thereby suppressing the far more pressing issues of the latter’s social and economic upliftment.


Also read: The traditional BJP voter is upper caste, upper class & a staunch believer in Hindu pride


In a way, the Hindu and Muslim communal forces are hand in glove and feed on each other. The victims in nearly all communal incidents are almost always the subordinate castes while the beneficiaries are the forward caste sections. It is somewhat perplexing that a population otherwise divided into hundreds of castes and communities is precipitously transformed into “Hindu” and “Muslim” during communal incidents and riots.

The real numerical minority – the upper caste Hindus and Muslims – has successfully captured Indian democracy by deploying the secular-communal and majority-minority binaries based on religious identity. That is why the Pasmanda movement insists on social identity instead of religious identity. The slogan of Pasmanda movement — Dalit-pichda ek saman, Hindu ho ya Musalman (All Dalit-backwards are alike, whether they be Hindu or Muslim)— emphasises on the unity of Bahujan communities from all religions. Following what Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar used to exhort, the Pasmanda movement does not wait for any saviour anymore but is instead trying to find the solutions to its miseries through increased representation and participation in the democratic processes.

Indian politics and the missing 85% Pasmandas

Questions are being raised about the representation of Pasmanda Muslims in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. As per one analysis, of the 7,500 elected representatives from the first to the fourteenth Lok Sabha, 400 were Muslims — of which 340 were from Ashraf (upper caste) community. Only 60 Muslims from the Pasmanda background have been elected in fourteen Lok Sabhas. As per 2011 Census, Muslims constitute about 14.2 per cent of India’s population. This means that Ashrafs would have a 2.1 per cent share in the country’s population. But their representation in the Lok Sabha was around 4.5 per cent. On the other hand, Pasmandas’ share in the population was around 11.4 per cent and still they had a mere 0.8 per cent representation in Parliament.

It appears that the situation will be the same in the 17th Lok Sabha, too. For instance, only one out of seven Mahagathbandhan’s Muslim candidates in Bihar is a Pasmanda and both BJP-led NDA’s candidates are Ashraf. In Bihar, the population of Ashraf community is not more than 4 per cent of the state’s entire population, yet they got 15 per cent representation among the Mahagathbandhan candidates. In Uttar Pradesh, only one of the nine Muslim candidates fielded by the Congress is a Pasmanda. Bahujan Samaj Party has fielded two Pasmanda candidates out of six Muslims and one Pasmanda is fighting on a Samajwadi Party ticket (out of four Muslims). It is true that in the BJP, there seems to be no space for Pasmanda Muslims, but the flag bearers of secular and social justice politics have also disappointed the Pasmanda Muslims.

Ambedkar, Lohia, Kanshi Ram on caste-based discrimination among Muslims

Manyawar Kanshi Ram had once narrated his experience of working with Indian Muslims: “I thought it was better to contact Muslims through their leadership. After meeting about 50 Muslim leaders I was astonished to witness their Brahmanism. Islam teaches us to establish equality and struggle against injustice but the leadership of Muslims is dominated by so-called high castes like Syeds, Sheikhs, Mughals and Pathans. The latter do not want the [subordinated Muslim castes like] Ansaris, Dhuniyas, Qureshis to rise to their levels…I decided to groom only those Muslims who had converted from Hindu SC communities [Pasmanda Muslims] for leadership” (Satnam Singh, Kanshi Ram ki Nek Kamai Jisne Soti Qaum Jagai, Samyak Prakashan, New Delhi, 2007, p. 132). Even Ambedkar and Ram Manohar Lohia have categorically acknowledged casteism within Muslim society.


Also read: Columbia University teaches Ambedkar’s biography, but few in India have even read it


Dr Ambedkar opines thus: “Take the caste system. Islam speaks of brotherhood. Everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste. Regarding slavery nothing needs to be said. It stands abolished now by law…But if slavery has gone, caste among Musalmans has remained…There can thus be no manner of doubt that the Muslim Society in India is afflicted by the same social evils as afflict the Hindu Society”.

On the basis of the Census Report 1901, Dr Ambedkar notes about the Dalit Muslims: “With them no other Mahomedan would associate, and they are forbidden to enter the mosque or to use the public burial ground”. In contrast to the social reform movements to combat caste among the Hindus, Dr Ambedkar feels that: “The Muslims…do not realise that they are evils and consequently do not agitate for their removal. Indeed, they oppose any change in their existing practices” (Dr B. R. Ambedkar, Pakistan or the Partition of India, Kalpaz Publications, Delhi, 1945, pp. 218-223).

In the same vein, Ram Manohar Lohia suggests: “India’s politicians have hitherto not cared to promote the interests of the really oppressed minorities of the country, the numberless backward castes among Hindus as well as Muslims. They have served the cause of the strong on the pretext of their being a minority, the Parsi, the Christians, the high castes among Muslims as also among Hindus” (Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, Guilty Men of India’s Partition, B. R. Publishing Corporation, 2000, Delhi, p. 47). Now a vital question is that why the parties who idolise Ambedkar, Lohia and Kanshi Ram are shying away from the issue of representation for Pasmanda Muslims?

Whenever Pasmanda Muslims try to contest an election, the Ashraf Muslims taunt them as Dhunia, Julaha, Kalal, Kunjra or Kasai. They make all efforts to ensure their defeat. On the other hand, whenever an Ashraf candidate is fielded, voting for him and ensuring his victory is termed as an Islamic responsibility and virtue. Now, the Pasmanda Movement has launched a struggle against Syedism in Islam with “85 per cent versus 15 per cent” slogan. The Pasmanda community is now talking about politics of rights instead of sawab (virtue/piety), and dawa (medicine/healthcare) instead of dua (supplication)..

The politics of marginalised communities is akin to lava burning for centuries below the earth’s surface. When the volcano erupts, it changes the entire landscape. In the 1990s, the BSP gave us our first female Dalit chief minister, which upset all expectations and equations. The Pasmanda movement is now trying to forge a pan-religion unity of OBC-Dalits and expanding the extant notions of Bahujanwad. The Pasmanda community is now working tirelessly towards completing the circle of social justice.

The author is Senior Assistant Professor of Sociology, Glocal Law School, Glocal University. He is also the director of Dr Ambedkar Centre for Exclusion Studies and Transformative Action.

This article has been translated from Hindi. Read the Hindi version here.

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4 Comments Share Your Views

4 COMMENTS

  1. Casteism is a reality among all religions of India, including Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians along with Hindus. However, casteism has no basis in any faith, and it is a product of economics and resource rationing. To have privileges over the resources, humans have crafted classes. It is this arrogance that one is superior to the other, and is the mother of all evil and all conflicts.

    Over the years, I have learned that all religions were against any classification of humanity, including Hinduism, but most certainly Islam. Inequality is antithetical to Islam. I will check with Hindu scholars to make sure it is not a part of the Santana Dharma, but injected by Hindu Sharia called Manu Smriti.

    This non-sense about Ashrafi among Muslims or Brahmanism among Hindus is an attitude developed over the years and gradually forced onto the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian communities.

    In Bangalore where I grew up, we did not identify ourselves as Sunni, Shia, or Ahmadiyya, nor did we know anything about Ashrafi, Syeds, and Shaikhs. It is sadly dominant in North India and some pockets of South India. Someone needs to correct me if I am wrong.

    I have said before and will continue to say which will piss the arrogant among Muslims. I have no problem if you claim to be a direct decedent of the Prophet, as a Muslim, I have no problem with that, but if your claim is to ‘feel’ privileged over others, that is it pure non-senses and un-Islamic. No one is more privileged in Islam than the other, and no none is superior to the other. All are equal, but you get a bonus if you serve fellow humans, who are God’s creation.

    Once Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’s daughter asked him, if she would go to the paradise, he responds that she has to earn it by doing good deeds, i.e., caring for fellow humans and environment. She asks again, and I am the daughter of the Prophet, don’t I get a free pass? Prophet Muhammad says, no, every individual has to earn God’s grace, and no one is entitled to freebies and there is no nepotism in Islam.

    A few among Muslims claim that they are Syed’s or Qureshi’s and link their lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. So what? Are you trying to hide behind that name? Is that a privilege? Are you superior to others? Even if you are the daughter of the Prophet, you cannot claim rights over the others. God does not discriminate anyone on the basis of their faith, race, ethnicity or culture, He/she is just, kind, merciful, and equitable.

    Mike Ghouse, Author
    the Book: American Muslim Agenda

  2. I am a Indian Christian, and it is the very first time I am learning about the caste system being followed among Muslims in a manner similar to that among Hindus. The way Islam is practised, I find is rather alien especially with their women not only wearing burqa but also covering their faces, which seems to be followed even by the educated among them, and which to me is abominable. Man is supposed to be a social being which I had learnt in Civics 70 years back in school, and this practice still continuing in my opinion is anti-social. Anyone practising this or promoting this is therefore ANTI-SOCIAL. It looks to me that those who had converted to Islam in the past from Hinduism actually had gone from the frying pan to the fire.

  3. Caste ia a Hierarchical System which migh have been suitable for “those”” times.One is NOT sure who is responsible for it,as it is a way of Management of the Society,Kingdoms,Nation etc in this part of the World.Now who s responsible for Monarchy in the UK[at least England],some parts of Europe and some West Asian Nations like Saudi Arabia?Is this NOT a form of Caste.Surely Brahmins are not responsible for it,as Hierarchy is a universal phenomenon.Examples:-
    1.Modern Corporations with CEO,Management,Staff and Contract Labour
    2.The Government with its Head and other Ministers
    .3.The Church with Pope etc
    4.The Military with its cadres
    the list is endless.
    The List is endless

  4. Wow. An eye opening article
    I had always wondered how come the issues of underdevelopment do not take center stage among Muslim politics, which always seems to be trapped in secular vs communal debate.

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