India's Dalit Muslims, marginalised historically and in the present day, find scant mention in mainstream discourse

In times when Muslims are actively resisting state oppression and savagery, and valiantly propagating a counter-narrative to Islamophobia, they must also look to issues within the community.

Shafey Anwarul Haque and Bhawesh Pant October 08, 2020 17:00:04 IST
India's Dalit Muslims, marginalised historically and in the present day, find scant mention in mainstream discourse

Dalit Muslims have been left out of the larger, overarching discourse about the representation, security etc. of Muslims in India. REUTERS/File Photo

Violence against Dalits elicits a set of responses: debates on casteism and discrimination; support for #DalitLivesMatter; politicians capitalising on the situation (as in the case of Hathras). But when highlighting the afflictions of Dalits, a sub-section among them — subject to double discrimination — is rarely spoken of.  Their identity of being “Muslim” and “Dalit” makes their position even more fragile and vulnerable in Indian society. Even politicians don’t care enough to talk about them: For instance, Dalits constitute a significant section of the Muslim populace in Bihar, but there is little attempt to address their grievances even in the run-up to the state’s Assembly elections.

The ‘hierarchy of discourses’ does exist — docile discourses are subverted under the influence of larger or more popular ones. This same plight has been witnessed by the politics around the marginalisation of Dalit Muslims, who have been left out of the larger, overarching discourse about the representation, security etc. of Muslims in India.

One can substantiate this absence of Dalit Muslims from the academic and administrative domains with Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ conception of “sociology of absences”, which refers both to the general silences around particular experiences and the way in which these silences are actively created through particular processes. Taking assistance from Santos’s conception, we also need to dismantle the monolithic imagining of Muslims in India, because this blanket understanding veils the marginalities of Dalit Muslims.

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Since the caste system is a predominant part of Indian society, its influence is apparent in every community in India — including Muslims. The caste system among Muslims looks very complicated, primarily because its origin can’t be traced to religious texts or doctrine. But the lived reality of individuals is different. Like other communities in India, Muslims too are divided on caste lines. The sociologist Louis Dumont argued that when Arabs and Pathans invaded India, they adopted localised notions of caste. Noted JNU scholar Imtiaz Ahmad discusses the caste system in the context of particular localities (other scholars hold varying opinions regarding this), but irrespective of where and how it originated, the division is clear. With respect to Muslims, the ‘most backward’ classes, i.e. Arzals, experience conditions similar to members of Scheduled Castes, or Dalits.

There are basically three categories of divisions among Muslims: the lowest among them are ‘Arzals’ — converts from untouchable or very low castes; succeeded by ‘Ajlafs’, who are considered ritually clean occupational groups but backward in social honour; and at the top are ‘Ashrafs’, those who either claim descent from Afghans, Arabs, Turks etc. or are converts from upper caste Hindus. Technically Ajlaf and Arzal are both taken as ‘backward classes’ but the conditions of both groups vary enormously. (Unfortunately, no empirical data is available to establish their exact population.)

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The Sachar Committee report had observed that “Arzals… [have] similar traditional occupations as their Hindu counterparts in the list of Scheduled Castes. And it is widely believed that these communities are converts from [Hindu] untouchables. Change in religion did not bring any change in their social or economic status”. Likewise, the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities or Rangnath Mishra Commission, which submitted its report in 2007, soon after the Sachar Committee report, also recognised the vulnerable situation of Dalit Muslims and emphasised that their inclusion along with Dalit Christians in the list of Scheduled Castes could strengthen Dalit unity and make them more assertive. The report recommended a “sub-quota of 8.4 percent for minorities within the 27 percent quota for OBC, and reservation to Dalit minorities under the Scheduled Castes category within the 15 percent quota”. The report by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) titled ‘Dalits in the Muslim and Christian Communities: A Status Report on Current Social Scientific Knowledge’ (2008) also recommended Scheduled Caste status for Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians.

Prior to these reports, the All India Pasmanda Muslim Morcha and All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz had highlighted this issue, stressing that the condition of Arzals is no better than their Hindu counterparts; these bodies worked towards achieving the status of coherent social groups for Dalit Muslims. Activist and politician Ali Anwar introduced this issue in his book Masawat ki Jung: He underscored the discrimination Dalit Muslims face at the hands of upper castes. In an extensively detailed section, Anwar talks about lower-caste Muslims such as julaha (weavers), halalkhor, lalbegi (scavengers), bhatiara, gorkan (grave diggers), bakkho, pamaria, mirshikar, darzi, nat, chik, rangrez, among others, and their hardships. Activists from Bihar and some other states have also brought to the fore a range of issues pertaining to Dalit Muslims (for instance, not being allowed to bury individuals from their caste in common graveyards), quite apart from those of hierarchical ordering, endogamy, hypergamy, forcible employment in traditional occupation etc.

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The Pasmanda movement unveiled the layers of discrimination against the lower stratum of Muslims and recognised that their claim was of a varied nature i.e. they challenged the monolithic conception of Indian Muslins and constitutional remedy for their subordination. The declared motive of all the above mentioned organisations, activists and scholars was to make the subordination of Muslim backward groups visible. These voices had an overarching understanding of marginalisation, where [previously] no serious deliberation had been devoted to the plight of Dalit Muslims.

It must be noted here that mere construing of conceptual categories will not bring about any good for the “have nots” among Muslim classes: The provisions in the Constitution need amendment so that the condition of the most destitute can be improved. In his book Denial and Deprivations: Indian Muslim after the Sachar Committee and Rangnath Mishra Commission Reports, Abdur Rahman (IPS) observes: “This discrimination and injustice [against] Muslim Dalits dates back to 1936 when the Imperial (Scheduled Castes) Order rejected SC status to Christians and Buddhists of similar origin. Dalit Muslims included in the list were barred from availing the benefits.” Rahman adds that this decree became the basis for the Presidential Order of 1950. The recommendations mentioned above bring the constitutionality of the 1950s Presidential Order into the mainstay, since this order, in its original form, reads: ‘No person who professes a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to a member of Scheduled Castes’. Later, in 1956 and 1990, the order was amended whereby Scheduled Castes status was extended to Sikhs and neo-Buddhists. However, since the 1990s, the marginalisation of the Dalit minorities (Muslims and Christians) remained untouched by each political regime.

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Not just administratively, Dalit Muslims are invisible at the academic level also. Eminent AMU historian and scholar Mohammad Sajjad raises several pertinent questions in this regard. “How many Dalit leaders since the 1940s really raised the demand of including Arzals in the SC category? Neither Ambedkar nor Jogen Mandal, nor Jagjivan Ram. How many Dalit leaders since the 1990s have really asked for it with any degree of sincerity?  Why does this demand come only from various shades of Muslims? Even leaders like Abdul Qayyum Ansari do not seem to have spoken about the issue in the 1950s’,” Sajjad told us in a conversation.

He noted that the inclusion of Arzals was “possible through an ordinance of the government, hence it is hardly a big deal”. “Do we have field survey reports about the deprivation of Arzal communities conducted by the Minorities Commission, or by any religious organisation? If not, then why? Some authentic database must be made available in public domain. Paucity of such database is yet another testimony of oppression and exclusion,” Sajjad concluded.

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A sensitive “epistemic and administrative” engagement is needed to bring to the voices of Dalit Muslims to the fore. This must be initiated by civil society and academia as nothing substantial can be expected from the present government in this regard. In times when Muslims are actively resisting state oppression and savagery, and valiantly propagating a counter-narrative to Islamophobia, they must also look to the issues within the community, and help the underprivileged within it prosper.

Shafey Anwarul Haque is a research scholar at Aligarh Muslim University. Bhawesh Pant is a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

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