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 the 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 the Backward Caste/Dalit Muslims.
Q: How did you get involved in the Backward Caste/Dalit Muslim movement?
A: 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 as a ‘Backward Class’ for purposes of reservation. My family is from the Shahabad district in Bihar. My grand-father 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 had practiced 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 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 meager income of our family.
As a child itself I was sensitized 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 Dumroan, a dreaded feudal lord who was also the manager of the school. Thereafter, I joined the CPI, and I remained a card-holder of the party for around 20 years.
Q: 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?
A: 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 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, both among Hindus and Muslims, was further strengthened as I traveled around Bihar as a journalist, and this was reflected in the sort of articles that I began writing after Janshakti 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 with 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’ caste certificates to get jobs reserved for the Backward Classes. One such case was that of the grand-daughter of Abdul Ghaffur, Bihar’s only Muslim Chief Minister, who belonged to the so-called ‘upper’ caste Shaikh caste but got a fake Backward Caste certificate to get a government job reserved for Backward Castes. This article, which was published in the ‘Hindustan’, created a great stir and I received many threatening mails for having exposed this racket!
In 1996 I received the K.K.Birla Fellowship for journalists to do a study on the Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims, a subject about very little has been written, although 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 traveling around Bihar to document the lives of the Dalit and Backward Caste Muslims in the state, the report of which 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.
Q: What are the major arguments that you have put forward in your book?
A: I have tried to show, with the help of interviews, oral histories as well as statistics, that although the 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 marginalized. The state has done little, if anything, for them, and, instead, has sought to promote ashraf or so-called ‘upper’ caste Muslims, who form only a small minority among the Muslims, as Muslim ‘leaders’. I tried to highlight the nexus between the state and the so-called 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 so-called ashraf, and they do little, if at all, for the non-ashraf Muslims, being hardly concerned about their plight at all. In addition, I have highlighted the fact that in large parts of Bihar the 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 organizations is almost completely in the hands of the so-called ashraf Muslims.
Q: Could you tell us something about the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz? How was it established and what are its objectives?
A: The Mahaz is a broad front of a number of Dalit and Backward Caste Muslim organizations from different states of India, particularly Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Delhi. In the course of conducting the research for the book that I was doing I realized that the Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims are hardly organized at all and that they have few effective leaders. Till now they have been following the lead of the so-called 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 organize 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.
Q: What sort of work has the Mahaz been engaged in?
A: 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, as well as Dalit Christians, in the Scheduled Caste list. Due to an extremely discriminatory Presidential Order issued in 1950, the state denied to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians all the reservation and other benefits that had been provided in the Constitution for Dalits. It declared, going completely against all notions of secularism, democracy and social justice, 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 so-called ashraf Muslim leadership has never voiced this demand because they are not at all interested in the plight of the Dalit Muslims. But I think it is crucial that the Dalit Muslims be given justice and treated by the state on par with ‘Hindu’ Dalits. Presently, 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.
Q: How do you think the other Dalits would respond to the demand of including Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians in the Scheduled Caste 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?
A: This problem can easily be solved if, while including Dalit Muslims and Christians in the Scheduled Caste 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 the Dalits, irrespective of religion, belong to the same race and the blood of their common ancestors flows in their veins.
Unlike the so-called ashraf Muslims, who take great pride in their claim of foreign extraction, the 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% of the Indian population, despite the fact that we might follow different religions. We see that the politics of communalism, fuelled by both Hindu and Muslim elites, is aimed at divided 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.
Q: 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?
A: I am totally opposed to this demand. The Constitution explicitly says that the reservation policy is meant for socially and educationally marginalized 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 thereby to promote the interests of the educationally and economically better-off ashraf, who would inevitably hog the lion’s share if a separate quota in jobs and educational institutions was made for all Muslims, although they form only a small proportion of the Muslim population. This demand is also un-Constitutional, 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 the Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims the worst, they being the principal victims of communal violence.
Of late, some people, including some self-styled leaders ashraf leaders, have been asking for a separate Muslim Backward Caste quota within the larger Other Backward Caste (OBC) quota, on the grounds that the 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% quota set apart 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 among the OBCs, we should think of dividing the 27% 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 from other religions, depending on their socio-educational conditions.
Q: 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?
A: Yes, that is an accusation that I have been hearing day in and day out. When we started our work we were branded as ‘anti-Islamic’. Numerous maulvis, mostly of so-called ashraf background, branded as ‘divisive’ and ‘dangerous’ and appealed to Muslims to stay away from us. Urdu newspapers, almost all controlled by the so-called ashraf, also boycotted us, and refused to publish anything about us. However, today, 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 Qur’an says and as the Prophet Muhammad showed in his own life, stands for social equality and justice. It is completely opposed to social hierarchy. So, when we are protesting 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 the Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims are actually working against Islam, for they are indifferent to its mandate of social justice and equality. Among these 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 so-called 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, characterized by the existence of multiple castes. And the so-called ashraf, for centuries, have taken pride in being of foreign extraction, Arab or Iranian or whatever, and considering the other Muslims, who are all of indigenous Indian extraction, as being of ‘low’ caste. So, all this while the so-called 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’, but the moment we non-ashraf begin to speak 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 untie 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 the Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims against the so-called 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 so-called 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 interest, 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 are spreading such serious sectarian conflict and dividing Muslims? Is it because the vast majority of the leaders of these maulvi groups are from the so-called ashraf, so that when they fight on sectarian lines it is okay because this does not threaten so-called ashraf hegemony, but when they see the 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 so-called 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 so-called ‘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 the Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims.
Ali Anwar’s email id is firstname.lastname@example.org
For English and Urdu translations of Ali Anwar’s book ‘Masavat Ki Jang’, published by the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, contact email@example.com For the original Hindi version, contact Ali Anwar directly. For his other book ‘Dalit Musalman’ (Hindi), published by World Dignity Forum, New Delhi, contact firstname.lastname@example.org