Voice of the oppressed

Empowering Dalit Muslims

Ali Anwar is the founder of the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz (‘Marginalised Muslim Front’), Patna, Bihar, a union of several Dalit Muslim and Backward Caste Muslim organisations. A well known Hindi journalist, he is the author of Masavat Ki Jang (‘The Struggle for Equality’) and Dalit Musalman (‘Dalit Muslims’) and writes regularly on issues related to Backward Caste/Dalit Muslims, who form the majority of the Muslim population in India. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about his involvement in the struggle for the rights of Backward Caste/Dalit Muslims.


How did you get involved in the Backward Caste/Dalit Muslim movement?

I belong to the Ansari community, which is one of the largest Muslim communities in India. The ancestral profession of the Ansaris is weaving. They are considered a ‘Backward Class’ for purposes of reservation. My family is from the Shahabad district in Bihar. My grandfather was a horse-cart driver and father was a mill worker, and before me there was not a single person in my family who had passed the matriculation examination. The Ansaris in my area practised weaving as a profession for generations but with the onset of British rule and with the sort of capitalist ‘development’ that India went through after 1947 this profession of theirs was almost totally decimated. That’s why my parents and relatives, even I as a child, were forced to take to rolling beedis to supplement the meagre family income.

As a child itself I was sensitised to the crass oppression and poverty that I saw all around me. As a student I got involved in leftist politics. This was partly due to the influence of my father, who was a trade unionist associated with the All India Trade Union Congress of the Communist Party of India (CPI). My first involvement in people’s struggles was when some students of my high school in Dumraon started a movement against the Maharaja of Dumraon, a dreaded feudal lord who was also the manager of the school. Thereafter I joined the CPI and remained a card-holder of the party for around 20 years.


How did you take to journalism as a career? In particular, what made you focus particularly on issues related to the Dalits and Backward Castes?

My association with the CPI inspired me to take to writing to document and highlight the oppression of the poor and their struggles against feudal and class/caste oppression. I worked for many years as chief reporter with the CPI’s Hindi magazine Janashakti, based in Patna. However, over the years I also discovered that within the communist parties casteism continues to be rife. Most of the leaders of the various communist parties are themselves from the so-called ‘upper’ castes, which is one reason why they rarely talk of caste but instead talk only in terms of class. In a sense, for some of them this is a way to perpetuate upper caste dominance.

My perception of the reality of caste oppression among both Hindus and Muslims was further strengthened as I travelled around Bihar as a journalist and this was reflected in the sort of articles that I began writing after Janashakti closed down and I joined Navbharat Times and later Jansatta and then Svatantra Bharat. For instance, I did a story on the Police Lines in Patna where there are separate barracks and kitchens for different castes, and another story on Dasrath Manjhi, a Dalit worker who literally broke half a mountain over a period of 19 years in order to build a road. Another story I wrote was on how, as in the case of the Hindus, many so-called ashraf or upper caste Muslims use fake ‘Backward Caste’ certificates to get jobs reserved for the Backward Classes. One such case was that of the granddaughter of Abdul Ghaffur, Bihar’s only Muslim chief minister, who belonged to the upper caste Shaikh caste but got a fake Backward Caste certificate to get a government job. This article, which was published in the Hindustan, created a great stir and I received many threatening letters for having exposed this racket!

In 1996 I received the KK Birla Fellowship for journalists to do a study on Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims, a subject about which very little has been written even though these Muslims constitute the vast majority of the Indian Muslim population. Owing among other factors to caste prejudice, upper caste Muslim writers – Syeds, Shaikhs, Mughals and Pathans as well as non-Muslim scholars have displayed little or no interest in writing about the non-ashraf Muslims. This is one reason why I thought it was crucial to write about them and to highlight their pathetic conditions and their struggles for equality and justice. And so I began travelling around Bihar to document the lives of Dalit and Backward Caste Muslims in the state, a report that was later published as a book in Hindi titled Masavat Ki Jang (‘The Struggle for Equality’). It has recently been translated and published in English and Urdu as well.


What are the major arguments that you have put forward in your book?

I have tried to show, with the help of interviews, oral histories and statistics, that although Backward Caste/Dalit Muslims form the overwhelming majority among the Muslims of Bihar, they are victims of pervasive discrimination and, on the whole, are economically and educationally extremely marginalised. The state has done little if anything for them and instead has sought to promote the small minority of ashraf or upper caste Muslims as Muslim ‘leaders’. I tried to highlight the nexus between the state and the ashraf political and religious leadership in Bihar, a phenomenon that can be observed in other parts of India as well. This explains, as I have shown, how under various governments in Bihar non-ashraf Muslims have hardly received any representation, whether in successive ministries or in government services. Most of the few Muslims who have been so represented have been from the ashraf, and they do little for the non-ashraf Muslims, being barely concerned about their plight at all. In addition, I have highlighted the fact that in large parts of Bihar Backward Caste/Dalit Muslims continue to face social discrimination at the hands of both self-styled ashraf Muslims as well as so-called upper caste Hindus. I have shown how the leadership of large Muslim religious organisations is almost completely in the hands of the ashraf Muslims.

Could you tell us something about the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz? How was it established and what are its objectives?

The Mahaz is a broad front of a number of Dalit and Backward Caste Muslim organisations from different states of India, particularly Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Delhi. In the course of research for the book I was working on, I realised that Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims are hardly organised at all and have few effective leaders. Till now they have been following the lead of the ashraf, both professional politicians as well as maulvis who have, as I said, taken no particular interest in addressing their pathetic socio-economic conditions. Like their upper caste Hindu counterparts, they want us to focus only on communal controversies or narrowly defined religious issues and in this way seek to completely displace the harsh reality of the lives of Dalits and Backward Castes from political discourse. Hence I along with several of my friends set up the Mahaz in Patna in 1998 to organise the Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims so as to help evolve a leadership that would be responsive to their concerns and which would also seek to build alliances with non-Muslim Dalit/Backward Caste groups so that we can engage in a broad united struggle for our rights.


What sort of work has the Mahaz been engaged in?

We have participated in several people’s struggles for justice to the Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims through staging demonstrations, presenting memorandums and bringing out publications. Recently we launched a Hindi magazine, Pasmanda Ki Awaz (‘The Voice of the Oppressed’). This is the only Dalit/Backward Caste magazine in this country, although the Dalit/Backward Caste Muslim population in India is well over 100 million! Hardly any of the hundreds or even thousands of other Muslim magazines and papers, not to speak of media controlled by non-Muslims, ever talks about our issues – such is the indifference to the problems and plight of our people.

The Mahaz has also been pressing with the demand that the state include Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians in the Scheduled Castes list. Due to an extremely discriminatory presidential order issued in 1950, the state denied Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians reservation and other benefits that had been provided for Dalits in the Constitution. Going completely against all notions of secularism, democracy and social justice, it declared that such benefits would be limited only to those Dalits who claim to be ‘Hindus’. Later, due to political compulsions, the state was forced to extend these benefits to Dalit Sikhs and Dalit Buddhists. So why, we ask, should Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians, too, not be included in the list of Scheduled Castes?

The ashraf Muslim leadership has never voiced this demand because they are not at all interested in the plight of Dalit Muslims. But I think it is crucial that Dalit Muslims be given justice and treated by the state on par with ‘Hindu’ Dalits. Currently they are classified along with several more powerful castes as ‘Backward Classes’ instead of Scheduled Castes because of which they have not been able to benefit at all from ‘Backward Caste’ status. This is despite the fact that they continue to practice the same occupations as ‘Hindu’ Dalits and face the same sort of discrimination and oppression despite following Islam, a religion that is fiercely opposed to caste and untouchability.


How do you think the other Dalits would respond to the demand of including Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians in the Scheduled Castes list? Might they not oppose this on the grounds that this would result in a reduction of whatever little benefits they are able to procure from the state?

This problem can easily be solved if while including Dalit Muslims and Christians in the Scheduled Castes list the Scheduled Caste quota is proportionately increased. In this way, the other Dalits would not oppose this demand. In fact, they would welcome it because in this way the Dalit movement would itself be strengthened. After all, all Dalits, irrespective of religion, belong to the same race and the blood of common ancestors flows in their veins.

Unlike the ashraf Muslims who take great pride in their claim of foreign extraction, Dalit and Backward Caste Muslims are all of indigenous origin, being descendants of converts from the oppressed castes. This is why we don’t use the words ‘Dalit minority’ or ‘Dalit Muslim minority’ or ‘Backward Caste Muslim minority’. We Dalits and Backward Castes are not a minority at all. In fact, taken together, we are in the majority, the ‘Bahujan’, forming over 85 per cent of the Indian population despite the fact that we may follow different religions. We see that the politics of communalism, fuelled by both Hindu and Muslim elites, is aimed at dividing us, making us fight among ourselves so that the elites continue to rule over us as they have been doing for centuries. This is why we in the Mahaz have been seeking to steer our people from emotional politics to politics centred on issues of survival and daily existence and social justice, and for this we have been working with non-Muslim Dalit and Backward Caste movements and groups to struggle jointly for our rights and to oppose the politics of communalism fuelled by Hindu and Muslim upper caste elites.


Some Muslim leaders, mainly from the so-called ashraf, are demanding reservation for all Muslims in government jobs and educational institutions. How do you view this demand?

I am totally opposed to this demand. The Constitution explicitly says that the reservation policy is meant for socially and educationally marginalised communities. How can anyone seriously argue that all Muslims in the country are socially and economically backward? Many of those who do argue in this way actually seek to promote the interests of the educationally and economically better off ashraf who, though they form only a small proportion of the Muslim population, would inevitably hog the lion’s share if a separate quota in jobs and educational institutions was introduced for all Muslims. This demand is also unconstitutional because nowhere in the Constitution is there any provision for reservation on the grounds of religion. Further, such a demand is bound to fuel the fires of communalism and Hindu-Muslim conflict, which would inevitably hurt Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims the worst, they being the principal victims of communal violence.

Of late some people, including some self-styled ashraf leaders, have been asking for a separate Muslim Backward Caste quota within the larger Other Backward Caste (OBC) quota, on the grounds that Muslim OBCs have not been able to benefit much from the general OBC quota. I am opposed to this demand as well. I think this is a crafty move to create and promote communal strife between Hindu and Muslim Backward Castes, which can only work to the benefit of the upper caste Hindu and Muslim elites.
The claim that Muslim Backward Castes have not been able to benefit much from the 27 per cent quota earmarked for Backward Classes by the Mandal Commission because these benefits have been cornered by some more powerful and influential Hindu Backward Castes first needs to be established. We have to conduct surveys to show this, and this is something that has not been done so far. Now, this claim might well be true but we can think of this later. We can’t take up too many issues at the same time. I believe that instead of a separate Muslim quota in the OBCs, we should think of dividing the 27 per cent quota that OBCs now have into two, on the Bihar model: one for the ‘Most Backward Classes’ and the second for other OBCs. Both categories would have Hindu and Muslim castes as well as those from other religions, depending on their socio-educational conditions.


Some Muslims, particularly from the so-called ashraf, see the Dalit/Backward Caste Muslim movement as ‘divisive’ and ‘un-Islamic’. Some of them even go so far as to claim that it is a Hindu or Jewish conspiracy to set Muslims against each other. How do you respond to this charge?

Yes, that is an accusation I have been hearing day in and day out. When we started our work we were branded as ‘anti-Islamic’. Numerous maulvis, mostly of ashraf background, branded us as ‘divisive’ and ‘dangerous’ and appealed to Muslims to stay away from us. Urdu newspapers, almost all controlled by the ashraf, also boycotted us and refused to publish anything about us. Today however, perhaps because our movement has expanded and grown into a powerful force, their open opposition has somewhat declined.

Let me set the record straight here. We Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims are believing Muslims. We take our faith in Islam seriously. Islam, as the Koran says and as Prophet Muhammad showed in his own life, stands for social equality and justice. It is completely opposed to social hierarchy. So when we protest against inequality and injustice how can we be said to be going against Islam? On the contrary, what we are doing is, in my view, actually mandated by our religion. On the other hand, those who keep silent on the plight of Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims are actually working against Islam, for they are indifferent to its mandate of social justice and equality. Among them are several maulvis who have elaborated fanciful theories to argue the case for caste hierarchy in the name of what they call, in Arabic, kafa’a! And few of these maulvis take any interest in our plight, being more concerned with the details of minor fiqh or jurisprudential issues or with promoting their own sectarian brand of Islam while denouncing other Muslim sects as deviant.

Some ashraf accuse us of dividing Muslims. They say that caste has no sanction in Islam and they accuse us of injecting the poison of caste into Muslim society. Such people are completely blind to social reality. Islam, it is true, has no conception of caste, but Indian Muslim society is, by and large, characterised by the existence of multiple castes. And for centuries the ashraf have taken pride in being of foreign extraction – Arab, Iranian or whatever – and have considered other Muslims, who are all of indigenous Indian extraction, as being of ‘low’ caste. So all this while the ashraf have been championing caste and division among Muslims based on caste but this does not strike our opponents as ‘casteism’ or as ‘un-Islamic’, yet the moment we non-ashraf begin to speak, to oppose this system of ashraf hegemony, we are dubbed as divisive and ‘anti-Islam’ and so on. This reaction is no different from that of many upper caste Hindus who brand the Dalit movement as divisive, accusing it of reinforcing caste simply because the Dalit movement seeks to do away with upper caste hegemony.

My answer to those who falsely accuse us of dividing Muslims is that far from doing so we are trying to unite the dozens of Dalit/Backward Caste Muslim communities who have been kept divided for centuries! We are trying to bring them – Ansaris, Halalkhors, Kunjeras, Kalals, Dhuniyas, Mochis and who knows how many more such castes – together on a common platform to voice their demands and concerns. Now, you tell me, are we dividing these Muslims or uniting them? We are not setting Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims against ashraf Muslims. Our movement is not directed against them. Rather, we seek to strengthen and empower our own people, to enable them to speak for themselves and to secure their rights and justice from the state. We welcome well meaning people of ashraf background as well as non-Muslims who are concerned about the plight of our people to join us in our struggle.

When we are accused of dividing Muslims, our response is, "You so-called ashraf have kept us divided for centuries by fanning sectarian (maslaki) differences. Why don’t you put an end to this instead of telling us what to do? You have created and magnified these sectarian divisions for your own interests, to run your own little religious and political shops, for which you have not stopped even at promoting bloodshed and hatred. First you put an end to this sectarian hatred and division that you have created and then talk to us."
Today numerous maulvis of different maslaks – Deobandi, Barelvi, Jamaat-i Islami, Shia, Ahl-i Hadith and who knows how many more – issue statements against each other, some going to the extent of branding all Muslims but themselves as ‘apostates’ and even as ‘enemies of Islam’! Is that not ‘dividing the Muslims’?

Why don’t those who accuse the Dalit/Backward Caste movement of dividing Muslims condemn the way these maulvis spread serious sectarian conflict and divide Muslims? Is it because the vast majority of leaders of these maulvi groups are from the ashraf, so that when they fight on sectarian lines it is okay because this does not threaten ashraf hegemony, but when they see Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims getting together to struggle for their rights, they set apart their sectarian differences for the time being and come together to condemn them as ‘divisive’?

This said, let me point out that not all ashraf Muslims behave this way. Not all of them are opposed to our demands. In fact, some of them, as well as some Hindus of upper caste background, have been supporting our movement and demands. Yet I cannot help saying with deep regret that while several upper caste Hindus have been supporting the Dalit movement in different ways, very few upper caste Muslims have taken any interest in the concerns of Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims. n

Ali Anwar’s email address is [email protected]. For English and Urdu translations of Ali Anwar’s book Masavat Ki Jang, published by the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, contact [email protected]. For the original Hindi version, contact Ali Anwar directly. For his other book, Dalit Musalman (Hindi), published by World Dignity Forum, New Delhi, contact [email protected].

Archived from Communalism Combat, November 2005 Year 12    No.112, Dalit Drishti 1