Why are we indifferent to Pasmanda Muslims?

Since 1947 the backwardness of Muslims in India, especially in north India, has grown quite substantially. A large segment of these nouvo-backward Indian Muslims are the Urduwala Muslims and the North Indian Muslims. Many of these nouvo-backward Muslims come from the otherwise Muslim middleclass, also referred to with the term Ashraf Muslims. Due to their earlier better educational and economic status, the woes of this class of Muslims, are more visible in the Indian media and the Muslim media.

Yet the fact remains that the larger segment of the total volume of backward Muslims in India belongs to the lower class (or zaat) Muslims, who are called Dalit Muslims or OBC Muslims in modern Indian political terminology. Due to lack of proper government census of Muslims, a misperception prevailed that the number of such Muslims was not large. In contrast to Hindu Dalits and OBCs these Muslims were not organized, had no political voice and did not make demands like Hindu Dalits and OBCs. Most of the Muslim leaders did not specifically address their plight. Prominent Muslim clerics and large Muslim organizations like Jamiatul Ulama, Jamate Islami Hind, Tablighi Jamaat et al did nothing to push the government to recognize the rights of the Dalit and OBC Muslims, vis-à-vis the Hindu Dalits and OBCs. At the same time in the religious establishments of Muslims in the spirit of Islam there was no discrimination against Pasmanda Muslims. Most Muslim leaders opined correctly that in contrast to Hinduism, Islam does not recognise the castes. But that silence and reluctance of the Muslim community leadership led to the lower zaat Muslims becoming an amorphous entity and their many deprivations went unnoticed.

However, as caste politics became a major factor in the Indian polity in the last 40 years, the amorphousness and lack of media attention to the lower zaat Muslims also badly hurt the entire Muslim community itself, half of whom belong to the unrecognized lower zaats. Only about 10 years ago a few lower zaat Muslims from Bihar coined the phrase “Pasmanda Muslims” and made some political representation. They formed the group – “Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz” (PMM) and called their movement “Masawaat ki Jung”.

Without doubt Masawat ki Jung is a very justified social phenomenon of our times and a movement that should have arisen many decades ago. In the aftermath of widespread harassment of Muslims in North India after 1857 by the British, and the discrimination against the community after 1947 by the upper caste Hindus, educational and socioeconomic backwardness became a common feature of the Muslim community in India, especially north India. As the erstwhile middleclass Muslims became socially depressed, so did the Pasmanda Muslims got further depressed and their standard of living suffered deterioration. While Hindu Dalits and OBCs received opportunities for socioeconomic growth by way of the government’s reservation policies, Muslim Dalits and OBCs did not have access to any of those opportunities and thus suffered further decline.

It is no surprise that in most of the slums in India’s many cities at least half of the population is Muslim. In fact they are the Muslim OBCs and Muslim Dalits. With no political or social formulation, not even their own community’s leaders highlighting their depressed state of affairs, the Pasmanda Muslims received no opportunity to emerge out of that abject deprivation. backwardness and lack of opportunities of the Muslim community at large caused further neglect to the plights of the Pasmanda Muslims. At the heart of the suffering minority Muslim community in India there is the Pasmanda Muslim community that occupies half the space.

As the Muslims established several universities, many colleges and umpteen schools (Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Hamdard University, Integral University, Anjuman e Islam, Muslim Education Society (Tamil Nadu), Muslim Service Society (Kerala), quite a few Muslim colleges et al), they made no provision to reserve a few seats for the Pasmanda Muslims. The only recourse for the Pasmanda Muslims was to obtain education at the madrasas where education was free. At the same time Muslim leaders kept making demands for reservation for the Muslim community at large. This is in contrast to the Hindus who did make reservation for Hindu Dalits and OBCs in their universities and colleges. There is a fear and misperception among upper zaat Muslims that by recognizing the Dalit and OBC zaat Muslims, caste system will become a part of the Muslim community in contradiction to the basic Islamic precept of no caste system. But this fear is unfounded. The existence of these depressed socioeconomic classes of Muslims is a long standing reality. And by not acknowledging them in today’s India we are depriving them of the tremendous benefit of reservation in education and employment that is their rightful share.

We should understand that getting reservation for all Muslims by arguing the overall socioeconomic backwardness of Muslims is a very difficult task since the Indian constitution does not allow reservation on the basis of religion. Thus an amendment to the Constitution may be needed; and that is a fairly difficult task. In contrast demanding the same reservation for Muslim Dalits and OBCs that their Hindu counterparts are receiving is on a more just, legal and sound footing and hence has a better chance of success. Yes, it is true that the Rangnath Misra Commission has recommended that the entire Muslim community should be declared backward and given some reservation. But that is a separate issue with its own politics and its own roadblocks. The community should treat these two issues separately and pursue separate avenues for them. Unfortunately some political parties are meddling in this situation and are persuading the Pasmanda Muslims that the other Muslims do not want them to get the Dalit & OBC reservation and instead want reservation for themselves. There is a risk here that the “masawaat ki jung” of the Pasmanda Muslims for equal benefits for them may transform into a divisive tussle between the Pasmanda Muslims and other Muslims. All of us, regardless whether we are Ashraf or Ajlaf or Arzal, must do everything possible to stop that very harmful possibility and march together as one community for justice and equal rights in the Indian democracy. Yet it is time for other Muslims to realize that for many decades we have not paid adequate attention and have been indifferent to the acute socioeconomic needs of our Pasmanda brothers and sisters in their struggle to obtain rights due to them as Dalits and OBCs. We must realize that their uplift and growth is the uplift and growth of the entire Muslim community.

The writer is a community activist in Washington DC