By Irfan Engineer

(Secular Perspective October 16-31, 2014)

Two years ago, I was invited to speak at a two day convention of Backward Muslims in Patna organized by “Tehrik-E-Pasmanda Muslim Samaj” in Patna. Translated, the name would mean movement of backward Muslim communities. There were about 400 hundred Muslim delegates. Every speaker at the convention was allowed to speak only for 3-4 minutes and this golden rule was strictly followed, the only exception being a UN official from the Millennium Development Goals programme, who spoke for about 10-12 minutes. Convention started at about 11.00 a.m. and continued till 5.00 p.m. without any tea or lunch break. Those who could not stay without tea went out and sipped their tea and returned. Thus there were more than 150 persons who spoke at the convention, only about 5 of which were from Hindu dalit background and one Christian working among dalit community. For editorial reasons, I cannot reproduce the language they were employing to give vent to their feelings against Muslim leadership, whom they accused of ignoring their plight. They further accused the Muslim leadership within all political parties of mobilizing the community only around emotional issues and identity issues like protection of Babri Masjid and Muslim Personal Law – the Shahbano issue and that of demand to ban Satanic Verses, a book written by Salman Rushdie which had derogatory reference to Prophet. The plight of their communities was far worse than even Hindu dalits. They were treated as untouchable not only by the society at large, but also by the notables within the community. The speakers included from the halalkhor community – those who are engaged in manual scavenging and have to clean and carry human excreta on their heads. The Muslim notables or Ashrafs carry the same notion of purity and pollution as do their counter part upper castes within the Hindu community. They too are discouraged from praying in the mosques and if someone enters the mosque notwithstanding the consequences they may be brought upon him to bear, can stand only stand in the last rows for their prayers. The plight of the backward Muslims is worst than that of Hindu dalits as the Scheduled Castes have at least Constitutional and legal mechanisms to protect them, whereas the Presidential Order of 1950 does not permit enlisting of non-Hindu, non-Sikh and non-Buddhists as scheduled castes. Thus they are devoid of benefits of reservations in educational institutions, employment, in parliamentary and state legislatures, protection under the atrocities act and other protections. One of the speakers had managed to get himself educated in spite of all the odds that were stacked against him, but still did not enjoy the respectability of the Ashrafs. The only community proud of him was his own halalkhor biradari. He had lapped up Govt. job using Hindu name and not revealing that he was a Muslim. In the Hall there were frames of Hindu gods for the consumption of his visitors where as frame with ‘Allah’ written on it decorated his bedroom. He could not fast during Ramzan. His Muslim faith was tugged in the corner of his heart and his entire family privately practiced a different religion from their public claims.

The dalit Hindu speakers of the convention empathized with the plight of dalit Muslims and demanded that non-Hindu non-Sikh and non-Buddhist dalits also be included in the category of Scheduled Castes and all the benefits, including reservations be extended to them. Mind you inclusion of more communities as Scheduled Castes could mean sharing the benefits of reservations, but they were willing to sacrifice that for ‘their’ fellow beings.

The convention once again demonstrated that Muslim “community” could hardly be called a community. The community consists of diverse biradaries like the hallakhors,khatiks, telis, tambolis, julahas, bagwans, pathans, syeds, shekhs, etc. These Muslim biradaries can be broadly classified into three categories – the ashrafs (notables or counterparts of upper castes), the ajlafs (counterparts of OBCs – the commoners or artisan class) and the arzals (counterparts of dalit Hindus – those Muslim biradaries doing ‘impure’ work). The terms ashraf, ajlaf and arzal are not derived from any Indian language. They are derived from Arabic language and have been used historically right from the days of Muslim rulers during the Sultanate period. The Muslim converts from backward classes were even exempt from application of the Shari’a law applicable to the notables. Madrasas catered to the Muslim notables and the ajlafs and arzals were left to the care of Sufi saints and their dargahs, where all were welcome, Muslims and Hindus, dalits and notables, men and women. When Islam and even Christianity spread to South Asia, it had to negotiate with the deeply rooted caste system. To the upper castes, it did not matter what religion or traditions and customs the shudras followed, they had in any case excluded them from their communities and social space. No affirmative action was expected from the feudal state which strongly guarded the interests of the notables – Hindus as well as Muslim notables – and maintained the hierarchies and privileges of birth. Conversions to Islam were on account of sharing and caring and inclusive approach of the Sufis towards one and all which led excluded Hindu castes collectively converting as a community and retaining their cultures and traditions and community institutions. The Muslim biradaries even today have their strong allegiance to biradari institutions (something akin to caste panchayats). In case of family disputes, their first instinct is to approach not Darul Uloom or Muslim jurisprudential schools but their respective biradari institutions. Educational institutions, scholarship programmes etc. also cater largely to respective biradaries. Thebiradaries maintain themselves through endogamous practices, if not roti, at least beti vyavhar is within the biradari. Some biradaries are rich and have good social capital other are poor. The biradaries attending the convention I discussed above were among the poorest without any social capital.

Muslim community is backward as overwhelming majority of biradaries are socially and educationally backward. However the briadaries falling in the ashraf category, have good social capital as some of them were the nawabs and the rulers of the yesteryears. The Bohras, Cutchi Memons and Khojas – the three trading communities fromGujarat have done very well in education and employment. Yes they too face discrimination on account of general stigmatization of all Muslims, but they do have a chance of overcoming the discrimination. The few educational institutions of the community are generally controlled by the ashrafs. The Muslim politicians too come from theashrafs. From first to 14th Lok Sabha, no more than 5 backward Muslims were elected. More or less same is the position of other elected bodies of Rajya Sabha and state legislatures. The present Rajya Sabha has no backward Muslim. In political parties, the representation of backward Muslims is negligible, though the backward Muslims form over 90% of the Muslim population. No wander the ashraf leadership which speaks on behalf of the entire community as they have disproportionate voice in the media exclusively focuses on identity issues like banning of Satanic Verses, mobilization on the issue of Dutch cartoons, Babri Masjid and Shahbano case. Whereas none of the speakers at the convention of backward Muslims focused on identity issues. For them their socio-economic plight and issues of equal opportunities, social justice and education was far fundamental, though Islam was no less dear to them. However Islam was something they lived and practiced within their homes and their private lives, it was their faith and not a tool of mobilization, to be used and abused for political interests and one upmanship. They identified more with the dalits of all communities and with all those who subscribed to the social justice agenda. For them their community and their identity was that of dalits primarily and not “Muslim”. They shared their religion and way of worship with other Muslims but nothing else. It is in this context that the debate on recent Andhra High Court judgment and reservation for Muslims announced by the West Bengal government should be understood. Does the Muslim “community” form a class which is social and educationally backward? In my humble submission and in the light of what I have stated above, Muslims in India neither form a community nor are they a “class”. The Kaka Kalelkar Commission and then the Mandal Commission also included backward classes from among the Muslims in the list of socially and educationally backward classes.

Our Constitution is secular and reservation for the entire Muslim Community would amount to discrimination only on the basis of religion, which is in violation of Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution. Disregarding the legal hurdles in providing for reservations for all Muslims, in my opinion, it is not even desirable and will benefit the biradaries with already good social capital, who do not need reservations for their upliftment and encouragement. The Bohras, Memons, Khojas are largely trading communities having a large section of educated middle class amidst them. The three communities from Gujarat benefited from development of trade in Western India during British Colonial period with development of Bombay as a port city. The younger generation in these communities avail of higher education even without the benefit of reservation or any other affirmative action from the state. After education, though some of them pursue professional careers as doctors, engineers, lawyers, chartered accountants etc., a few of them prefer to continue their family business. Along with mosques and seminaries, these communities have also been able to contribute and give the country educational institutions, hospitals and other public institutions. If 17% of Muslims are matriculates (as compared to 26% of matriculates in all communities), the non-backward class Muslim communities, or Ashrafs, as they are referred to generally, including the Bohras, Khojas and Memons contribute a significant number to the overall percentage of Muslim matriculates. Similarly, the 10% ashrafs contribute significantly to the 3.6% Muslim graduates and 0.4% Muslims with technical education, as against 7% and 0.5% for all communities respectively. If benefits of affirmation action was to be extended to all, the ashrafs would be in a much better position and corner most of the benefits of reservation due their urban base and advantage of English educational background in convent schools and other better educational institutions. The disadvantaged ajlafs and arzals will continue to remain so. Inclusion of specific communities within the Muslim community on the backward classes list also acknowledges the ground reality that Muslims are not one homogenous sociological unit. The caste based discrimination of the specific backward communities continue despite their conversions and that these communities continue their caste based profession and identities.

After getting elected, the Y. S. Rajshekhar Reddy Govt. brought in legislation to provide for 5% reservation for Muslims. The legislation was challenged in the Andhra Pradesh High Court and High Court struck down the legislation as unconstitutional and violating the fundamental right of equality. Article 15 and 16 of the Constitution of India provides that the state shall not discriminate on grounds only of caste, religion, gender and language or any one of them. However, affirmative action by state providing for reservations for socially and educationally backward classes and special provisions for women and children would not be deemed to be violation of general rule of non-discrimination. The AP legislation provided for reservations for Muslims on the ground that the Muslim community was socially and educationally backward community and therefore covered by the deeming provision in Article 15 and 16 of the Constitution. The A.P. High Court in its judgment opined that the affirmative action of reservation was for socially and educationally backward classes and not for a religious community, and, moreover, there was no data on which the AP Govt. could have come to the conclusion that entire Muslim community was socially and educationally backward. The overall percentage of reservation, according to Supreme Court cannot exceed 50%. However, after providing for 5% reservations to Muslims, the overall percentage of reservation exceeded 50% and this was one more count on which the earlier order of reservation for Muslims. The Supreme Court of India upheld the AP High Court judgment. The Andhra Pradesh Government then reserved 4% seats for backward classes amongst Muslims, this time after gathering the data on which classes of Muslims were socially and educationally backward. The Andhra Pradesh Govt. asked AP Commission for Backward Classes to examine the social, educational and economic status of the Muslim community. Based on the Commission’s findings, the AP Govt. decided to create group E called “Socially and Educationally Backward Classes of Muslims” in the list of Backward Classes. 15 specific classes of Muslims which were included in the list are Achchukattalavandlu, Attar Saibulu, Dhobi, Fakir, Garadi, Gosangi, Guddi, Eluguvallu, Hajjam, Labbi, Pakeerla, Borewale, Qureshi, Shaik, Siddi, Chakketakera and other Muslim groups. Those excluded from the list of backward class Muslims were – Syed, Musahik, Mughal, Pathan, Irani, Arab, Bohra, Shia Imami Ismaili Khoja, Cutchi-Memon, Jamayat and Navayat. The AP High Court has struck down the reservations for Muslims for the second time on the ground that decision making process about backwardness of Muslim classes was wanting in not taking all the relevant factors that should have been taken into account, and on the other hand taking irrelevant factors. The AP High Court has not stated that there can be no reservations for backwards among Muslims. The WB Govt.’s belated enthusiasm for affirmative action for the Muslim “community” should also be open to question as a politically motivated move while facing the heat after Nandigram and electoral shift towards the Trinamool Congress- Congress alliance in West Bengal.

It is time to question reservation as the only form of affirmative action. The politician finds reservation most tempting for they don’t have to mobilize additional resources from the budget. Pass a legislation fixing reservations for a specified community and gather their votes. A small section of Muslims backward class artisans have come up hard way and have been able to marginally benefit from growth in exports in particular and economy in general. A small section of saree weavers in Varanasi, brassware artisan in Moradabad, workers in lock industry in Aligarh, scissors industry in Meerut have managed to be upwardly mobile. The backward classes within the Muslim community will benefit more if the government formulates schemes for protection of informal labour, provides support for upgradation of the skills they already possess and financial support through co-operatives of artisans to ensure full participation of these sections in the economic growth. But that would require re-allocation of resources from the industries to poor and from supporting the sugar barons and their co-operatives to the poorer artisans. It will require a statesman and a visionary rather than pigmies using same old formulas.


Centre for Study of Society and Secularism