“Yun To Sayyed Bhi Ho, Mirza Bhi Ho, Afghan Bhi Ho..
Tum Sabhi Kuch Ho, Batao To Musalmaan Bhi Ho..?”
-Mohammed Iqbal, Jawab E Shikwa.
Muslims have been inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent right from the advent of Islam. Even before Islam, Arab and Persian traders traded with India, and would marry and settle down in this part of the world. Naturally, Indian traditions and culture slowly seeped into the social life of Muslims who migrated to Hind and stayed here for good. In fact, influences of Indian culture were more than evident in the durbars of Delhi, and even though the sultans were proud Muslims and reveled in promoting their own culture, had no qualms in accepting and promoting India’s glorious customs and heritage. Soon, the two fused together to create a unique brand of “Hindi Muslims”, a fusion that had both- unadulterated Islam coupled with strong influences of Indian culture.
Subsequently, both the good and the bad mixed together. And even a religion like Islam and Muslims who claim to follow the ideals of Prophet Mohammed- of all Muslims being one– irrespective of financial status, race or gender; could not stop the evils of the caste system from slowly penetrating and taking firm root in their lives.
While the “caste system” among Muslims in the Indian subcontinent isn’t as extreme and punitive as that among their Hindu brethren, its influence is still strong and manifests itself in many aspects of society. It is however essential to point out that caste and sect are not the same, and that different sects treat the topic of “caste” differently.
“People are of two kinds. They are either your brothers in faith, or equals in humanity.”
– Hazrat Ali, Islamic Caliph and Successor of Prophet Mohammed.
Indian Muslims soon came to be divided into two groups- The Ashrafs and the Aljafs. The Ashrafs, a word derived from the Arabic root “Sha-Ra-Fa,” means noble one. The Ashraf’s included people of foreign origin, i.e. the Arabs, Persians, and Afghans etc who had migrated to India. This included the “Sayyad’s, people whose lineage can be traced back to the Prophet Mohammed. The second category is that of the “ajlaf” or the local converts, which included people who followed professions like weaving (julaha) etc. Some use the term “Arzal” to denote the untouchables who converted to Islam. The term “Pasmanda” meaning people who have fallen behind, is also used for Dalit and Shudra Muslims.
The general debate regarding SC Muslims revolves mainly around the question of awarding them reservations. The focus almost never shifts to, how Muslims belonging to the Ajlaf and Arzal category fare in comparison to the Ashrafs on a social level.
The first and probably the only place the “caste system” manifests itself most strongly is when it comes to marriage. Many, if not all, prefer to marry among their own. Even though it would be wrong to say that inter-marriages between the two castes are uncommon, however, the words “zaat, beradari, khandan” are often thrown around while discussing marriage. It is also not uncommon to see the elders of a family protesting firmly or stopping marital alliances with those they consider to be lower than them. Hence, for instance, a Sayyed rejecting the marriage proposal of non-Sayyed merely on the basis of descent is not unheard of.
It is also not uncommon for Khojas (formerly a Hindu caste) and Bohris, to frown at marriages outside their communities. In fact in some cases, such marriages can even lead to being cast out and boycotted by their communities, even if said marriage was to a Sayyed. A Khoja marrying outside his jamat, has to give a written apology letter, moreover, such a wedding cannot take place inside a Khoja mosque.
Even though popular religious speakers like the Shia cleric, Dr. Sayyed Ammar Nakshwani, listed among the 500 most influential Muslims in the world, openly and strongly speak against such practices- stressing on the fact that such things have no basis in Islam and discrimination based on descent is mainly a phenomenon that exists in the Indo- Pak communities, to bring about significant change will still take time.
Many Muslims, who fled India during the time of partition, changed their surnames and even forged family trees when they reached Pakistan. A move, that was also included in what scholars called the “Ashrafization process.” This was done to climb up the rungs of the caste ladder.
“kuch badi baat thi, hote jo musalmaan bhi ek..
firqa-bandi hai kahin aur kahin zaaten hain, kya zamane main panapne ki yahi baten hain..”
Iqbal’s laments in his famous work are not uncalled for. The divisive caste system not only created a clear distinction among Muslims, but also had a significant economic impact.
Studies estimate that about 75-80% of Muslims in India are Ajlaf. And though the caste system doesn’t operate on the level of “purity and impurity” like in non-Muslims, the distinctions are also profession based. Thus in the light of the Sachar committee report and its follow up, these factors add to the debate about giving reservations to Muslims.
According to the committee’s report, Muslims were lagging behind even SC/ST in backwardness. Their education was below the national average and their presence in government and decision making positions almost negligible. Worse, they had the second highest incidence of poverty with 31% falling below the poverty line. Data from the 2011 census also revealed that 42.7% of Muslims are illiterate, which is the highest rate for a religious community.
Is this the direct effect of the “caste system?”
There is not much evidence to establish a strong link between the two. The Mandal commission in its report had clubbed the arzals and the ajlafs together. 82 social groups among Muslims were declared OBC. According to The Outlook’s report, the National Sample Survey, 61st round, shows that those reporting as OBC’s among Muslim’s constitute 40.7% of the Muslim population. In states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu , Haryana, Bihar, Rajasthan, MP and UP the majority of the Muslim population is listed under OBC. Many more Muslim communities are appealing for the backward status.
Muslims that fall under the category of “Ajlaf or Arzal” face a dual disadvantage. While socially and economically many of them are not at par with their Ashraf counterparts, due to politically charged decisions and lack of proper reservations for Muslims, they are unable to come out of the lowest levels of society. While states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have taken positive steps in this direction, there is still a lot to be desired.
There is an urgent need for action by the governments both at the Centre and the State level. If things continue to function as they are, the situation may only get worse. And in this time of need, Ajlaf and Arzal Muslims should probably look towards their Hindu counterparts for solidarity and strength. As Khalid Ansari, in an interview to Sabrang India put it, “What do you expect when the Muslim face of principal political parties in UP is upper caste? For the Congress, it is Salman Khurshid, a Pathan. For the SP, it is Azam Khan, a Pathan. For the BSP, it is Naseemuddin Siddiqui, a Sheikh. Even for the BJP, it is Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a Sayed.”
The responsibility to uplift their brethren also lies with the Ashrafs, who constitute 20-25% of the Muslim demographic. At the end of the day, if they are not ready to help their own, how and why do they expect those in power to take the prerogative? It is almost foolish to believe that anyone else can help a people who have no intention of letting go of their superficial feeling of superiority and helping themselves. If change will not be brought from the inside, it will ultimately either lead to stagnation of a society or they will be forced to undergo change that maybe hostile to them as an entire group. What right do they have to question a certain CM who is forcing change into madrasa’s if they themselves could care less about education and employment among their midst? It is either now or never.
The slogan of “Dalit-Muslim pichda ek saman, Hindu ho ya Musalman,” has never rung stronger.