Caste System among Muslims in UP

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At a recent convention, demands made for SC status to Dalit Muslims, flat electricity rate for weavers, renewal of licenses of butchers and a nationwide caste census.

The Pasmanda Adhikar Sammelan. Photo: Shireen Azam

Shireen Azam

Varanasi: “Humne Akbar ka Taj Mahal kab maanga, hum pyaase hai hame Ganga ka paani de do (When did we ask for Akbar’s Taj Mahal. We are thirsty, give us water from the Ganga,” sang Dr Liyaqat Ali, general secretary of the Dalit Muslim Halalkhore Kalyan Parishad. Ali was standing on a stage at Shastri Ghat, Varanasi on January 2 under the banner of the ‘Pasmanda Adhikar Sammelan (Pasmanda Rights Convention)’. Pictures of M.K. Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar and Abdul Qayyum Ansari formed the backdrop.

The event on January 2 was a coming together of over 15 ‘lower’-caste Muslim associations to demand rights for this group. On January 9, representatives of several of these groups travelled across three districts of eastern UP, including to create awareness about their issues and to form new solidarities. Pasmanda – which means “left behind” in Persian – is increasingly a term used by Muslim associations in UP and Bihar, among other parts of India. The term distinguishes themselves as Muslim communities historically and socially oppressed by factors of caste, which is often thought to affect Hindus alone.

The convention banded together concerns of a variety of communities – from the Dalit caste of Halalkhores (sweepers), Nats (dancers) and Dhobis (washermen) to the backward castes of weavers (Bunkars/Ansaris), Qureishis (butchers), Nanpuzs (nan makers), Mansooris (cotton-cardres), Idrisis (tailors), Manihars, Shahs (Fakirs), Salmani (barbers) and Rayeens (vegetable grocers), to name a few.

The underlying theme was the need for “ittehad (unity)” among these oppressed groups. A univocal demand was the inclusion of Dalit Muslims in the Scheduled Caste category, both to bring them both under reservations, and offer protection under the atrocity act. “Just like there are Bhangis in Hindus, there are Halalkhores in Muslims, we do the same work,” Ali reiterated. The difference is that while Hindu Dalits are recognised under the SC category, Muslim Dalits (as well as Christian Dalits) are not. A presidential order in 1950 had added a paragraph to Article 341, restricting SC status to only Hindus (Buddhists and Sikhs were added to it later).

Multiple high-level national commission reports, including the Sachar Commission (2006) and the Ranganathan Commission (2005), have recommended the inclusion of Dalit Muslims into the SC category. A study by Satish Deshpande and Geetika Bapna, commissioned by the National Commission of Minorities in April 2007, observed that “in most social contexts, Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians are Dalits first and Muslims and Christians only second”. It had found Dalit Muslims to be “unquestionably the worst off among all Dalits” in both rural and urban areas. A 7,000-household study in Uttar, Pradesh published in 2017 in the Economic and Political Weekly, showed that untouchability is widely experienced by Dalit Muslims, including at the hands of Muslim backward castes and ‘upper’ castes.

Currently Muslim Dalit castes like the Halalkhores, Nats and Dhobis are recognised only under the Other Backward Classes category, which includes castes like Yadavs, Kurmis and Ansaris – with very different socio-economic and educational indicators – making it very difficult to compete. “Twenty-seven percent reservation for (Muslim) Dalits and (all) OBCs together is too little. There is no such livelihood for Dalit Muslim castes that they can ahead and learn. There is no political representation, no means.” Ali, who is a co-editor at Gyanshakti Times, said that the Halalkhore Parishad has been going on since the 1990s, but the fact that so many OBCs came together under the platform to raise the demand for SC status for them was significant.

Apart from inclusion of Dalit Muslims and Christian in the SC category, the demand of inclusion of an Halalkhore representative in the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis was made. “Our people live in the worst of conditions. They live in huts and do menial jobs. We need an Ambedkar. Bismillah Khan could have been our Ambedkar, but that couldn’t be.”

Speakers thought that inclusion of Dalit Muslims under the SC/ST Act could offer them protection under atrocities as well. “The people who die in lynchings are Dalits, they are Nats, Halalkhores. If Dalit Muslims get SC status, the issue of mob lynchings can be curtailed,” said Yusuf Ansari, advocate and national president of the All India Pasmanda Adhikar Manch. “People tend to hide these identities and pretend we are Khans and Pathans. Come, let us come together and proudly say that we are Halalkhores or Nats.”

The event was also attended by the Father Anand Mathew, who spoke of the rising hatred in the country and the increasing violence against Muslims and Christians. He reiterated the urgency for SC status to Dalit Christians and Muslims.

Occupational castes

Apart from Dalit Muslims, the convention raised issues of castes who fall in the occupational caste category, and are struggling because of government apathy or suppression.

“Lower castes of Muslims are overlooked by the government and upper castes both,” said Idris Ansari, president of the Bunkar Manch (weavers’ association). The last three years have been volatile for weavers in Uttar Pradesh, especially Varanasi. In December 2019, the Adityanath-led BJP government passed an order ending the flat electricity rates that weavers had been entitled to, and enforcing unit-based consumption instead.

This was unsustainable for power-loom weavers. A protest by several association of weavers ensued in September 2020, and the government had to put a stay on the rates. However, just last month, a new order asked for weavers to pay arrears for the balance. “We are afraid that a new-BJP government will slash flat-electricity rates.” Concerns of the Qureshi caste because of UP’s slaughter ban and non-renewal of licenses were also addressed.

Solidarities and issues

What brings together interests of these castes? “It’s the same lathi which is caning weavers also, Nats also, Qureshi also, and Nanpuz also. So why should we fight separately, let’s fight together,” said Amaan Akhtar, who was the organiser of the event under the Pasmanda Adhikar Manch, and is also associated with the Congress Minority Cell in UP. “Our fight is not about Hindu vs Muslim. It’s a fight of social justice. Constitution gives equal rights in the name of religion. Article 341 says only Hindus can be included in SCs. My question is Why? When there are sweepers among Muslims, Mochis, Dhobi who wash clothes, the name is same, work is same, then why are you creating differences. Why are they being denied rights.”

Akhtar said that Pasmanda castes are being hit from both sides. “On one side, their rights are being denied because they are Muslims. They are politically marginalised, but also they have to face contempt because of their castes, from Muslims as well. They do not get respect. Traditional occupations are also dying because of non-recognition. Aligarh’s lock industry, Benares saree weaving – they are all occupations of occupational castes. If the communities are not recognised, they will wither. They need subsidies and support.”

“Pasmanda has now become an important word,” said Ali Anwar, an ex MP from Patna. Anwar was one of the chief guests at the event, along with Supreme Court advocates Arun Manjhi and Deepak Singh. “People like Owaisi and the RSS are suddenly trying to talk about Pasmanda. We are meeting so that our people don’t come under the sway of either of them.”

Anwar, who formed the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz in 1998, argued that the mainstream Muslim leadership does not address issues of lower caste-Muslims. He said the Pasmanda movement is now faced with a sword on its chest: “Secular parties have used Muslims as vote-banks and not addressed our concerns. They are opportunistic. But at least one can fight the secular parties. We know we have to fight them and keep demanding our rights. But there is no fighting the BJP, which runs on fascism and will kill democracy and the constitution.”

Solidarities and “ittehad” are not that easy to come by, however. Akhtar mentioned that when he went to approach one particular Dalit Muslim community to participate in the convention, they got upset at being called by their caste name. “They want to be called Khan.”

The presence of caste stigma towards lower caste communities among Muslims is coupled with the absence of an empowering politics based on caste assertion – which often leads marginalised castes to hide their identity and claim higher caste status. High denial of caste among Muslims by upper castes, and the lack of assertion by lower castes, is also a reason why estimation of lower caste Muslims has been difficult. NSSO figures for Uttar Pradesh puts the number of OBC Muslims at 69% of the Muslim population, however the percentage could be higher by various estimates – especially when one considers the breakdown in 1931 census. The event ended with a call for a caste census – which would be able to ascertain an accurate representation of all castes and communities in India.

Shireen Azam is a PhD researcher at the University of Oxford. Her thesis looks at the invisibilisation of caste among Muslims.

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