20 September, 2003
Forming almost a fifth of the Indian population, the Scheduled Castes or the Dalits, a conglomeration of numerous caste groups considered as untouchable, by caste Hindus, are victims of the most sternly hierarchical social order that human beings have ever devised. Since the social and economic oppression of the Dalits has been so closely intertwined with the Hindu religion, over the centuries many Dalits have sought to escape from the shackles of the caste system by converting to other religions. Consequently, a considerable majority of India’s Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs today consist of descendants of Dalit and other ‘low’ caste converts.
Recent decades have witnessed a remarkable upsurge in radical Dalit assertiveness. This resurgence of Dalit consciousness has not been limited to those defined according to the law as Scheduled Castes, though. Rather, the Dalit struggle for human rights has had a profound impact on other communities as well, most particularly the large category of castes, the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), who form over half the Indian population, as well as the Christians and Muslims, most of whom who share, in terms of social and economic background, much in common with the Dalits.This article looks at the growing consciousness and assertiveness of a large conglomerate of Muslim castes, some of whose leaders are now seeking to advance for them a new identity as ‘Dalit Muslims’. It examines the politics, programmes and broader agendas that advocates of this new identity seek to put forward on behalf of a large section of India’s Muslim population. We deal here with the origins and development of a particular Muslim organisation, the ‘All-India Backward Muslim Morcha’ [AIBMM] to see how this new identity seeks to position itself in the context of debates over Muslim identity in India as well as how it relates itself to the wider multi-religious Dalit community.
The ‘Dalit Muslims’: Who Are They?
Most Indian Muslims are descendants of ‘ untouchable and ‘low’ caste converts, with only a small minority tracing their origins to Arab, Iranian and Central Asian settlers and invaders. Although the Qur’an is fiercely egalitarian in its social ethics, Indian Muslim society is characterised by numerous caste-like features, consisting of several caste-like groups (jatis). Muslims who claim foreign descent claim a superior status for themselves as ashraf or ‘noble’. Descendants of indigenous converts are, on the other hand, commonly referred to contemptuously as ajlaf or ‘base’ or ‘lowly’. As among the Hindus, the various jatis among the ajlaf Muslims maintain a strong sense of jati identity. The emergence of democratic politics is, however, bringing about a radical change in the manner in which this sense of identity is articulated. Aware of the importance of numbers in order to acquire political power and the economic benefits that accrue from it, the Dalit movement has sought to establish a wider sense of Dalit identity that transcends inter-caste and inter-religious divisions and differences among the ‘lower’ caste majority. This wider Dalit identity does not seek to deny individual jati identities. Rather, it takes them into account but seeks to subsume them within the wider collective Dalit identity, based on a common history of suffering as well as common racial origins as indigenous people. This seems to have been a crucial factor in the emergence of a specific ‘Dalit Muslim’ identity that the AIBMM seeks to articulate. ‘Lower’ caste Muslim ideologues and activists in the AIBMM are now in the process of fashioning a new ‘Dalit Muslim’ identity, seeking to bring all the ‘lower’ caste Muslims under one umbrella, defined by their common identity as Muslim as well as Dalit.
The All-India Backward Muslim Morcha
The AIBMM was set up in 1994 by Ejaz Ali, a young Muslim medical doctor from Patna, capital of the eastern state of Bihar, belonging to the Kunjera caste of Muslim vegetable-sellers. Bihar, India’s poorest state, is notorious for its acute caste problem and for its frequent anti-Dalit pogroms. Consequently, the Dalits in Bihar have been among the first to take to militant forms of struggle. The Muslims of Bihar, who form over fifteen per cent of the state’s population, are also characterised by sharp caste divisions. The plight of Bihar’s Dalit Muslims, whom the AIBMM estimates at forming almost ninety per cent of the state’s Muslim population and consisting of twenty-nine different caste groups, is particularly pathetic. 1 Most Bihari Dalit Muslims work as daily wage labourers, manual workers, artisans and petty peasants, barely managing to eke out an existence.
According to Ali, the plight of the overwhelming majority of the Muslims of Bihar, as well as an acute awareness of the limitations of the traditional Muslim leadership, suggested to him the need for the establishment of the AIBMM to struggle for the rights of the Dalit Muslims. He regards the destruction of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya in 1992 as a landmark event in this regard, seeing the traditional, and largely ‘upper’ caste, Muslim leadership as having only further complicated matters by playing into the hands of Hindu militants and as ‘misleading’ the Muslim masses for their own petty gains.
In less than a decade of its founding, by early 2001 the AIBMM had emerged as an umbrella group of over forty organisations claiming to represent various different Dalit Muslim castes. It now has branches in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Delhi, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, in addition to Bihar, where it has its headquarters.
Aims and Objectives of the AIBMM:
The foremost priority for the AIBMM is to get recognition from the Indian state for the over 100 million ‘Dalit Muslims’ as Scheduled Castes so that they can avail of the same benefits that the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Scheduled castes enjoy, including reserved government jobs, reserved seats in state legislatures and in the Indian Parliament, special courts to try cases of atrocities against them as well as social and economic development programmes meant specially for them. According to Indian law as it stands at present, only those Dalits who claim to be Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists can be considered to be members of the Scheduled Castes and thereby eligible for the special benefits that the state has made available to these castes. The AIBMM sees this as violating the basic secular character of the Indian Constitution. It insists that its demand for Scheduled Caste status for ‘Dalit Muslims’ is fully in consonance with the spirit of the Indian Constitution. Recognising the fact that demands for special legal status for Muslims have been viewed in the past as ‘separatist’ and ‘anti-national’ and even ‘pro-Pakistan’, the AIBMM is careful to project its demands as aimed at integrating the ‘Dalit Muslim’ into the ‘national mainstream’ by enabling them to progress economically and socially, along with other deprived sections of the Indian population. Besides being considered ‘anti-secular’, the law as it stands today is also condemned by the AIBMM as a gross violation of human rights. Furthermore,it is seen as a ploy to keep the more than one hundred million Dalit Muslims in perpetual thraldom, a conspiracy in which both the Hindu as well as Muslim ‘upper’ caste elite are seen as being involved. Because they have been denied Scheduled Caste status and the benefits that accrue from such status, the Dalit Muslims are said to lag far behind the Hindu Dalits, who have been able to make considerable progress in all fields because of the special facilities that the state has provided for them.
A New Indian Muslim Leadership and Changing Discourse of Community Identity:
The AIBMM prides itself in having coined the term ‘Dalit Muslims’, and in this it seeks to radically refashion notions of Muslim community identity. Deconstructing the notion of Muslims as a homogenous bloc, it brings to the fore the existence of caste distinctions among the Indian Muslims, which it sees as one of the primary and defining features of Indian Muslim society.
In articulating a separate Dalit Muslim identity it finds itself at odds with the traditional, largely ‘high’ caste Muslim leadership, which, in seeking to speak for all Muslims, sees the question of caste that the AIBMM so stridently stresses as divisive. Leading Muslim spokesmen have, not surprisingly, accused the AIBMM of seeking to create divisions within the Muslim community and of spreading ‘casteism’, and thus playing into the hands of militant Hindus.Ali sees as Islam as having historically played a key role in the emancipation of the Dalits, a role which, he says, was gradually watered down over time. Islam spread in India principally through the agency of the Sufis, he says, whose teachings of love and social equality attracted many Dalits to the new faith, shackled as they were by the chains of the caste system and the Brahminical religion. 7 It was not by the sword but through the love and compassion that the Sufis exhibited in their behaviour towards the poor, principally the Dalits, that large numbers of Hindus converted to Islam. With the establishment of Muslim political power in various parts of India, however, he says, this radical egalitarianism of the early Sufis gave way to more institutionalised forms of religious expression. ‘High’ caste Hindus, in order to save their properties or to secure high positions in Muslim-ruled territories, converted to Islam, bringing with them notions of caste superiority that are foreign to pristine Islam. Doctrines were developed that sought to legitimise caste inequalities by suitably misinterpreting the Qur’an. Gradually, he says, the ‘spirit of Islam’ was replaced by the ‘rituals of Islam’.
One of the crucial tasks before the Dalit Muslims, as Ali sees it, is to rescue Islam from the clutches of those who claim to speak in its name, the ‘high’ caste Muslim leadership. Thus, he calls for a revival of ‘the true spirit of Islam’, which fiercely condemns all caste and racial divisions. The practice of untouchability, which Islam roundly condemns, is still observed, Ali notes, to varying degrees, by ‘upper’ caste Muslims, who look down upon ‘lower’ caste Muslims as inherently inferior. While Islam calls for Muslims to share in the plight of their fellow believers and to work for their social emancipation, the Muslim ‘upper caste feudal lords’ are said to be ‘deaf, dumb and blind to the suffering of backward Muslims’. Ali is bitterly critical of the traditional, largely ‘high’ caste, Muslim leadership, both ‘ulama as well as ‘lay’. Over the centuries of Muslim rule, he says, the ruling class among the Muslims displayed little concern for the plight of the Dalit Muslims, who remained tied down to their traditional occupations, mired in poverty and ignorance. The only concern of the ruling class Muslims, he writes, was to perpetuate their own rule, and for this they entered into alliances with ‘upper’ caste Hindus, keeping the Dalits, both Hindus as well as Muslims, cruelly suppressed under their firm control. This disdain for the Dalits, he writes, carried down right through the period of Muslim rule, and continues till this very day. 9 He accuses the present-day Muslim ‘high’ caste leadership of playing the ‘minority card’ and practising the politics of ‘minorityism’ to garner power for themselves while claiming to speak on behalf of all Muslims, the vast majority of whom are Dalits. They, he says, refuse to recognise the acute problem of caste within the community because ‘they do not want to lose their jagirdari (power and privileges)’. Yet, the cling to their exalted caste titles simply to ‘produce an impression of supremacy and to demoralise the backward caste Muslims’. In their attitudes towards the latter they are said to be hardly different from the way Hindu ‘upper’ castes treat their own Dalits. He sees the Indian Muslim community as a whole as having ‘all the ingredients of the Brahminical order’.10 The ‘upper caste’ Muslim leadership, he argues, thrives on championing such ‘communal’ ‘non-issues’ as the protection of the Muslim Personal Law or the Babri mosque, which have only helped militant Hindu ‘upper’ caste forces, resulting in terrible violence unleashed against Muslims and communal riots in which the major victims are the Dalits, both Hindu as well as Muslim. ‘The time has now come’, he declares, for the ‘upper’ caste Muslims to ‘stop thinking of the entire Muslim community as they have been clearly reduced to their [own] caste leadership, which they were doing from the very beginning (sic.) under the pseudo-umbrella of Muslim unity’.
Given the stress that Islam places on radical social equality, on the one hand, and what he sees as the failure of the traditional Muslim leadership in championing the rights and interests of the backward caste Muslims, on the other, Ali calls for a ‘power shift’ from the ‘Arab-origin ashraf’ to the ‘oppressed Muslims’. 12 Denying that his struggle is aimed against the ‘upper’ caste Muslims, he says that it is directed principally at the government, to force it to grant Scheduled Caste status to the Dalit Muslims. A new, Dalit Muslim leadership is called for, for it alone is seen as able to champion the rights of the oppressed among the Muslims. By taking up the interests of the Dalit Muslims, he argues, the AIBMM is not seeking to divide the Muslim community on caste lines, as some have accused him of doing. Rather, he says, championing the cause of the oppressed is what Islam itself calls for, a radical concern for the poor and the weak, which ‘is repeatedly stressed in the Holy Qur’an and in the Hadith’.13 The Prophet Muhammad’s early followers, he notes, were largely poor and dispossessed people, and because he spoke out on their behalf, he was fiercely opposed by the rich Quraish of Mecca. Islam, he says, insists on a passionate commitment to the poor. Hence the accusations against the AIBMM of allegedly dividing the Muslims by taking up the cause of the poor Muslims alone are dismissed as baseless. If special facilities were to be provided by the state to the Dalit Muslims, they would, he argues, be able to advance economically and socially. As a result, inter-marriages between them and the ‘upper’ caste Muslims would increase, and gradually the caste system within the Muslim community would begin to disintegrate, this being seen as working towards the fulfilment of Islam’s vision of a casteless society. By denying the existence of caste within the Muslim community, he says, the traditional Muslim leadership is only helping to perpetuate it.
Ali calls for a struggle to be waged to fight for extending Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Muslims, and in this the Dalit Muslims would join hands with non-Muslim secular and progressive forces, in the face of the stiff opposition that is expected from many ‘upper’ caste Muslims as well as ‘upper’ caste Hindus. The struggle would need the help of non-Muslim Dalits as well, for if the Dalit Muslims gain Scheduled Caste status, they could join hands with Dalits from other religions and become one strong force, almost half the Indian population. They could, together, even capture political power, bring their interests and demands to the centre of the Indian political agenda and put an end to atrocities against them. Ali sees the new Muslim leadership that he envisages as being drawn primarily from among the ‘backward’ Muslims, who form the vast majority of the Muslim population in India, for they alone can truly speak for their people.18 Since the primary concerns of the backward caste Muslims are sheer physical survival, jobs, wages and the like, this new leadership would seek to bring about a ‘revolution of priorities’. Instead of taking up ‘communal’ issues that would further exacerbate Hindu-Muslim differences by playing into the hands of fiercely anti-Muslim Hindu zealots, which only works to further their interests of the Hindu and Muslim elites, this new leadership would focus on issues such as ’employment, food, housing and elementary education’, issues which affect the daily lives of all poor people irrespective of religion. In this way, Hindu-Muslim antagonisms would fade away, the Dalits of all religions, the primary victims of the politics of communal hatred, would unite, and the conditions of the poor would improve.
Since the Dalit Muslims share similar concerns of sheer survival with Dalits of other religions, this new Muslim leadership would seek to build bridges between the Muslim Dalits and those of other faiths. All Dalits, irrespective of religion, belong to the same ‘nation’ (qaum), Ali says. Mere change of religion cannot wipe away the common blood that runs in their veins. 20 The Dalit ‘nation’, representing the indigenous inhabitants of India who today follow various different religions, has been fractured into various antagonistic groups, but they must be united. The ‘divided Dalit nation’, he writes, will be united once again when all Dalits, irrespective of religion, are granted the same status as Scheduled Castes.
Hence, in order to re-unify the Dalit ‘nation’ so that the Dalits emerge as a powerful collective force, all Dalits must unite to support the AIBMM’s demand for Scheduled Caste status to the Dalit Muslims (as well, interestingly, to the Dalit Christians, who, too, are denied such status). By joining hands with Dalits of other faiths and jointly struggling to improve their living conditions, Ali writes, the Dalit Muslims would be able to join the ‘national mainstream’ of Indian society. With a new Muslim leadership coming to the fore drawn from the Dalit Muslims, the community would turn its back to the communal antagonisms of the past rooted in a long tradition of exclusivism and separatism. The Dalit Muslims would begin to collaborate with other Dalits, with whom they have ‘a great commonality of interests’, pursuing the same occupations and facing the same economic and social problems.22 In this way, a joint struggle for social justice and inter-communal harmony can be launched for all Dalits, irrespective of religion.
Demanding Scheduled Caste status for the Dalit Muslims may, in itself, not be a very radical step, given the present climate of privitisation in the country, where government jobs are being sharply curtailed and public expenditure and subsidies drastically reduced. However, its wider implications are certainly more momentous in their probable consequences. The demands of the AIBMM, limited as they may well be, might actually help facilitate a radical shift in the very terms of Muslim political discourse. Its stress on secularism and human rights, which it sees as being grossly violated by the present law related to Scheduled Caste status, its call for ‘integration’ of the Muslims into the ‘national mainstream’, its radical disavowal of communal politics, and its appeal for building bridges and working in collaboration with other Dalits in order to reunify the ‘Dalit nation’ and working for inter-communal harmony, might well provide a key to what has so far seemed the intractable communal problem in India.