Recently a vociferous debate was ignited by a small and rather unknown group, namely the Pasmanda Intellectuals’ Forum (PIF), in the cyber sphere. The debate kick-started when the PIF issued an open letter to the Honourable President of India Ms. Pratibha Patil [Link:http://www.dalitmuslims.com/2009/06/social-justice-and-minority.html], protesting and questioning the non-inclusion of a senior bureaucrat and noted Urdu poet Mr. Anis Ansari in a panel of five candidates proposed by the search committee for selecting the Vice Chancellor (VC) of the prestigious Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) university.
It must be mentioned that of the five candidates proposed by the search committee three are bureaucrats while two are academics. As a matter of fact Mr. Anis Ansari, who had also submitted his curriculum vitae to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) for the coveted position, is senior to all the three bureaucrats selected in the panel. Moreover, considering his seniority and administrative/academic achievements it was hoped that he would certainly find a place in the panel. When the list was finally made public the ‘pasmanda’ (a term increasingly being used by backward/dalit caste Muslims) intellectuals were shocked at the omission of his name. Subsequently, they have vocally attributed his elision to his lower caste location (he belongs to the backward weaver caste in the Muslim community).
One can scarcely fail to get a sense from the debate that followed the Open Letter that caste contradictions among the Muslims were no less acute, if not greater, than that in the majority community. The upper caste Muslim (ashraf) intellectuals, barring a few notable exceptions, were taking positions a la their Hindu upper caste counterparts that ‘merit’ should alone be the criterion in appointing a VC and that it was un-Islamic to talk of caste-based discrimination in the Muslim community. On the other hand lower caste (ajlaf/arzal) Muslim intellectuals were crying hoarse against caste-based discrimination in Muslim society at large and in academic circles in particular. They decried the merit argument of the ashrafiya segment arguing that ‘merit’ was more a ploy to discriminate against the disadvantaged castes. And, that in this particular case ‘merit’ argument did not hold ground as the candidate in question was no less meritorious than others in the list. They also emphasized that though Islam preached equality, the ground reality in the Muslim society was quite the opposite.
After Ali Anwar’s celebrated book Masawat Ki Jung (The Battle for Equality) this debate in the cyber sphere among the Muslim intelligentsia once again exposed the myth of a monolithic Muslim society and foregrounded in unequivocal terms the reality of caste-based differentiation and discrimination in the Muslim society and its institutions. Through the same debate we also came to know that the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jamia Millia Islamiya (JMI) have never had a Pasmanda caste VC so far though the Pasmanda population constitutes more than 75% of the Indian Muslim community.
The debate also exposed the reticence and wariness of the majority community dalit-bahujan intellectuals and politicians when it comes to taking sides on the issues involving the Muslim community. Not a single article or statement has so far emerged from among the non-Muslim dalit-bahujan intellectuals, activists and politicians lending support to the struggle launched by the PIF. It turns out that they are vocal only when the issues relate to the majority community but prefer to remain silent when any issue relating to the minority communities crops up. They take the safe option of non-interference in the so-called ‘internal’ matter of the Muslim community without realizing that the whole movement of social justice for social transformation will remain incomplete and half hearted if the social justice agitations in the minority communities are not offered support and integrated in the mainstream bahujan movement.
In a recent article Ramchandra Guha betrayed his concerns for excellence in higher education and seemed extremely worried with the carrying of caste labels with the names of the three panellists for the post of vice-chancellor of Mysore University by a Bangalore daily (‘The Chancellors’ Vice’, The Telegraph, July 4). I guess with a minimum of intelligence one could have guessed that the names in the panel would have hailed from lower caste locations. Afterall, when was the last time that the caste titles of upper caste VC’s were revealed in the mainstream media? Upper caste VC is a norm. Lower caste VC is an aberration. A lower caste person must prove his/her merit. An upper caste is meritorious congenitally. However, even Ramchandra Guha at least conceded that, ‘To be sure, all other things being equal, or more-or-less equal, one may choose a candidate from a less privileged background. But the focus must clearly be on the candidate’s record in teaching, research, and administration’. While social justice as a normative goal may even potentially necessitate some trade-off with merit, but in the case of JMI issue even a meritorious (or perhaps more meritorious) person has been given a cold shoulder. Surely, it raises serious questions of the social composition of search committees and their lack of sensitivity towards social justice.
PIF must be given credit for raising the issue of appointment in elite academic institutions. Afterall, how many times the dalit-bahujan intellectuals and activists have agitated for democratization of academic institutions? Pasmanda intellectuals have shown the way for the majority community dalit-bahujan intellectuals and activists to follow.
[The author is a member of the All India Federation of OBC Employees Welfare Association (Chennai). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]