Backward and Dalit Muslims

Book: Basic Problems of OBC and Dalit Muslims
Author/Editor: Ashfaq Husain Ansari
Publisher: Serials Publications, New Delhi
Year: 2007
Pages: 286
Tanvir Salim
Social  stratification of Indian Muslims along quasi-caste lines, is no secret. It is well-known and recognized. It is true that Islam as a religion and a social philosophy does not  recognize caste distinctions (compared to some other Asian religions where caste is integral to their philosophical outlook), but, Muslims are not a socially homogenous group in any part of the world. However, the perception that Islam gives birth to a sociologically monolithic ideological group remained a hindrance in the correct understanding of Muslim societies for a long time although many Muslim groups in India belonging to lower strata of society, such as Momin-Ansar and Jameeat Raeen etc.,  had organized themselves, at least politically. Now, even lesser known biradaries (fraternities) such as Salmanis and Idrisis etc have organized themselves.

Although, elite Muslim leadership has always claimed that Muslims in India are a homogenous cultural group and thus, worthy of a separate political deal, existence of different social and cultural groups amongst Indian Muslims has always been recognized at the cultural level. Famous satirical Urdu poet, Akbar Elahabadi used to denote "common" Muslims by  names like Budhdhoo, Jumman, Shubrati, Ramzani etc. In contrast,  persons of high caste were referred to with the names of Sayyid, Mirza, etc.:

Mirza ghareeb chup haiN, in ki kitab raddi
Budhdhoo akad rahe haiN Sahab ne yeh kaha hai.

(Mirza is depressed as his book has been discarded. Budhdhu takes pride in the sayings of English man.)
Council meiN bahut se Sayyed, masjid mein faqat Jumman
[There are many a high caste people in the Council, but in the mosque, there is only one, Jumman).

The book under review, "Basic Problems of OBC and Dalit Muslims" is a collection of essays on various dimensions of OBC and Dalit Muslim problems edited by Ashfaq Husain Ansari who was a member of Indian Parliament (seventh Lok Sabha) and President of Backward Muslims of India and the First U.P. State  Backward Classes Commission. He died on 20 December, 2008 (See MG 215). Ansari was a social activist for the cause of Backward Muslims but with a difference. He was an activist with an intellectual bent, deeply interested in theoretical positions and analytical results. This book is a proof in support of this claim.

This collection of essays has been divided into three parts: Part I contains 18 contributions from different authors, activists, journalists and chroniclers etc. Part II contains seven essays written by the editor himself, while Part III is a reproduction of a "thin volume" published earlier by the editor. This part also contains nine different contributions on different aspects of the issue at hand.

Naturally, the first part constitutes the core of the book. It contains contributions from Imtiaz Ahmad, Madhu Limay, Nadeem Hasnain, Praful Bidwai, Swami Agnivesh and Walson Thampa, D. Raja, Ashok Yadav, Udit Raj, Dilip Karanth, Shamsul Islam, Sayyid Hamid, Sharad Yadav, Iqbal Ansari, Anwar Ali and the editor himself. This is a heterogeneous list and any volume which contains contributions from all these people is also bound to be heterogeneous. It contains analytical pieces from scholars like Imtiaz Ahmad and Nadeem Hasnain. These contributions are more analytical. Written in a scholarly manner, they fulfill technical requirements of academic writings. These things may not be noticeable in the contributions of a journalistic nature. Some of these journalistic contributions have been collected from different news magazines and newspapers. Generally speaking, journalistic writings are more dated than the academic writings as they are responses to specific socio-political and historical stimuli. Hence, the editor would have done better if he had also given the dates of publication of the concerned contributions. This would have helped the reader to anticipate the circumstances which would have warranted this response. This would have made the collection more useful.

It is usually agreed that Islam has no place for social or caste-based distinctions. There is no superiority of one over the other except by the way of piety which is known to Almighty God alone (hence no question of taking pride in one's deeds or character in this world). The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have declared in his last sermon, "The whites have no superiority over the blacks nor the blacks have  superiority over the whites except by piety."  Similarly Almighty God declares in the Holy Quran (49 : 13) that only the pious are superiors in the sight of the Almighty God.  

The caste system is a unique Indian institution which is not found in other social system.  However, notwithstanding the normative reality, the caste system penetrated into the Indian Muslim society as soon as it arrived in India  The Arab society where Islam appeared and flourished was a tribal society. The tribal culture contains more equality and various forms of communal ownership. In contrast, India was an agricultural and feudal society. The idea of high and low was not unfamiliar to incoming Muslim armies who used to consider themselves superior to the indigenous converted Muslims. Some writers claim that that may be the beginning of a caste system among Muslims. That is why they classify Indian Muslim population into indigenous and non-indigenous groups. Another point of interest may be to investigate whether the caste system is as much hierarchal amongst Indian Muslims as it is amongst the Hindus. Imtiaz Ahmad, famous sociologist, thinks that there is not much of a difference as both societies have evolved caste patterns that are very similar to each other. Main features of the caste system are very common between Hindus and Muslims. The caste factors are quite prominent in selection of profession and in deciding the marital bonds in both societies. To this reviewer, the Muslim society exhibits only this much difference that there is no caste consideration in the Muslim places of worship while caste rules the Hindu place of worship also.

With the emergence of the era of Mandal and kamandal, caste discussions have become the prime topic of social, legal and economic discussions in the country. Foremost among these discussions is a demand for reservation in educational institutions and in jobs. At the time of adoption of a new constitution for Independent India, a scheme of reservation was adopted for selected castes and tribes mentioned in a schedule of the Constitution and hence called "Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribes". The present scheme of reservations is applicable only to those scheduled castes and tribes which are found within the general framework of the Hindu society. Later, the gamut of Hindu society was expanded to include those who have converted to Sikhism or Budhism. However, if a member of scheduled castes and tribes converts now or has converted in past to Islam or Christianity, he loses all benefits receivable to him as a member of a scheduled caste or tribe. In other words, those backward castes which belong to Muslim or Christian religions are not entitled to these benefits. There are many essays in this book from different spectrums of political thought which shed light on various aspects of the issue.

In short, this is a good collection, which shall be useful to both laymen and serious students of the issue who wish to make themselves familiar with the issues and problems of backward classes of India and Dalit Muslims.