Saturday, September 20, 2008

COVER PAGE OF October - November 2008


Dalits and Muslims are the major communities and pillars of our Indian democracy. The simple reason is that, these communities are active participants of our electoral politics. No political party can form government without the vote of these communities. One can say that these communities are the major decision-makers as voters played and also playing an important role in every election but the social and political status and conditions of these communities are very pathetic.
According to the population, Muslim community comprises of 13.4% of population major minority community. But the six decades of post independent India and the ruling class has betrayed and denied social justice to the largest minority of the country. It has been seen and witnessed inadequate representation in education, employment, land owning And Politics compare to the population.
Many intellectuals and progressive groups of this country raised their concern and voice against this and governments made some efforts to understand the grave realities of this community. Many studies have been conducted so far to understand the realities and problems of this community. The noteworthy study in this regard conducted in 19th century by British ruler Man Stuart Elphinson. He opined that, within Muslims there are many backward communities; special development package is needed to uplift the community. In 1935 Indian government made an act for reservation for Dalit Muslims as reservation given to Hindu Dalits.
The late Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi formed a 10 member commission then called as Dr. Gopalsingh commission to study the status and conditions of Muslim minorities and Dalits in India. This commission has submitted report on June 14th, 1983 and reported that, Muslims and dalits are having feeling of under representation and social, economical and social disparities compare to others. This feeling should be wiped out from the mindset by providing facilities and opportunities to participate in the main stream.
The implementation of Mandal commission report in 1983 was made some impact on the community and the conditions of the community improved a little. In 2004 UPA government Prime minister Mr. Manmohan Singh appointed a commission comprises of 7 members, under the chairmanship of Justice Rajendra Sachar to study the conditions of muslims in India with respect to educational, economical, social conditions. Sachar commission has submitted a detailed report with 16 recommendations on 17th of November 2007. Prime minister presented this report in the parliament on November 30, 2007. Sachar report is consisting of 12 chapters and 478 pages, this commission traveled across India mainly 13 states, where majority of the Muslims are located. Sachar commission also reported the feelings of Muslim minorities.
The irony of the situation is up to 2001 census no government or other institutions have documented on the representation in various sectors. No attempts made to present or project the grave realities of the situation of Muslims with respect to backwardness in front of the governments. This community not only backward in education it is very backward too in employment sector. 94.9% of population is comes under below poverty line and 60% of the population is again land less.
Representation in police department is 6%, in health department 6.4%, in transport 4.5% and railway 4.5%. But among this representation 98.7% comes under the category of 3 and 4. The representations in higher services like IPS 4%, IAS 3% and in IFS 1.8%. Compare to the population this representation is very low, the population is 13.4% and the representation is only 4.9%.
It is quite natural that, the community which is backward in education and employment will comes under the clutches of poverty. In some states it is very backward then the dalits. Understanding this problem is very important, because it is not only the Muslim issue rather it is a question of social justice of the larger society. Inadequate representation and inadequate opportunities for any community is inhuman. There is a necessity that, the available opportunities and resources should be distributed equally among all the communities based on the population and the representation in government sectors also should be based on population if not how can we call our system is democratic.
All the political parties have used muslims as votebank and most of the political parties are posing themselves as the liberators and pro muslims but it is not true, just for vote sake these parties may do several things. Its the responsibility of the Muslim intellectuals And social activits to create awareness on the issues related to backwardness and bring social change within the community it is also responsibility of the believers of social justice of the larger society. - Khasim sab. A

Demand immediate implemetation of : JUSTICE RANGANATH MISHRA COMMISSION REPORT

- V.J. George, National Convenor
National Council of Dalit Cristians, Chennai

Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims are gravely agitating over the delay in extending Scheduled Caste (SC) status to them for more than five decades. Owing to the continuous struggleby the Dalit Christians and Muslims, the Central Government entrusted to the ‘National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities’ headed by Justice Ranganath Misra to study the issues relating to Para 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) order 1950.

After a detailed study on the issue the Misra Commission has strongly recommended the deletion of Para 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Caste) order 1950. The Commission said that this order violates the secular fabric of our country and the Constitution in letter and spirit. It also underlined the fact that Freedom of Conscience and Religious freedom is a Fundamental Right of every citizen. It pointed out that almost all Indian communities, irrespective of religion, share the existence of Caste as a social phenomenon. It further said that differential treatment of SC status on the basis of religion is unreasonable and unrealistic.

Accepting the just demand the Dalit Christians and Muslims, Dr.Buta Singh,Chairman of the ‘National Commission for Scheduled Castes’ has recommended SC status to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims. Later on ‘National Minorities Commission’ and ‘National Backward Classes Commission’ were also recommended the same. It must also be noted that the Sikhs and Buddhists of SC origin were granted SC status in 1956 and 1990 respectively by an ordinary Bill simple majority. The same formality must be adopted now without complicating the procedures.

Political parties such as BSP, CPI, CPI (M), Forward Block, RSP and the UPA partners like Lok Jan Shakti, RJD, DMK, MDMK, SP, NCP, PMK and also members of NDA like Janatha Dal (United), Siromani Akali Dal, AIDMK, TDP, AITC etc have openly supported the status for Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims. Leaders such as Kumari Mayavathi, Sri.Ram Vilas Paswan, Sri.Laluprasad Yadav, Sri.Nithish Kumar, Sri.Prakash Karat, Sri.A.B.Bhardhan, Kalaingar M.Karunanidhi, Dr.Y.S.Rajashekhara Reddy, Dr.J.Jayalalitha, Kumari Mamta Banerji and Sri.V.P.Singh have personally written to Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh urging the early implementation of Ranganath Misra Commission’s Recommendation.

In this situation, Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims feel betrayed over the inactiveness and lethargic attitude of the Congress party and UPA Government on the issue, despite their assurance in the Election Manifesto. In the recent meeting of ‘National Council of Dalit Christians’ (NCDC), held at Chennai, the Dalit Christian leaders have expressed great anguish over the dreadful silence of the UPA Government on this long pending Human Rights issue. The meeting unanimously decided to launch Nation-wide ‘Rail-Roko’ Struggle on 26th August 2008.

RECOGNITION AND ANTITTLEMENT : muslim castes are eligible for inclusion in the category shedule castes

prof. Imthiaz Ahmed

I am asked to make a presentation on Scheduled Caste converts to Islam. This raises a substantial diffculty. ‘Scheduled Castes’ is a legal and administrative term denoting casts among Hindus, Sikhs and Neo-Buddhists which possess three principal attributes; engagement in traditionally difilling occupations, exclusion from the main residential areas within localities and untouchability practiced against them by other castes on account of a presumed superiority of ritual status. There are other diacritical distinctions and restrictions that reinforce their distinctly low status. Similar castes among Muslims and Christians are not included in the category ‘Scheduled Castes’ though there have been demands from time to time that this shoudl be done.
If I follow the direction to make a presentation on Scheduled Caste coverts to Islan, I would perforce have to limit myself only to those Scheduled Caste coverts to Islam who embraced that faith after the ‘Scheduled Castes’ became a legal and administrative entity. Cases of members of the Scheduled Castes converting to Islam are known (Meenakshipuram conversions are a case in point), but such cases have been few and far between.2 Once such conversion occurs, the proselytes are denied the recognition and entitlement of the ‘Scheduled Castes’. No useful purpose is likely to be served by cnventrating on this limited section both because the number of such cases is small and the mroe substantial question is that of those Muslims castes which share the characteristics of the castes currently included in the category ‘Scheduled Castes’ but are denied recognition and entitlement as ‘Schedule Castes’. I am therefore going to redefine the scope of my presentation to include Muslim castes that are denied recognition and entitlement as ‘Scheduled Castes’ and not limit this discussion to Scheduled Caste converts to Islam which constitutes a very limited section of Muslims.
Conversion to Islam
Broadly speaking, there are to views about conversion to Islam and attitudes on this issue have been grately coloured by the rise of nationalism and the poitical discourse as in evolved during and after British rule. One view, which enjoys widespread uncritical acceptance because of the communialist interpretation of history during the nineteenth century, is that conversion to Islam was forced by Muslim rulers who were fired by zeal to spread Islam. It is this view that has contributed towards interpretations of the sack of Somnath by Mohammad Ghazni and other temples by other rulers as acts aimed at conversion and was harnessed in mobilising Hindu sentiments during the Ayodhya Movement where Babar was portrayed as a Muslim zealot. The other view is that conversion to Islam took place through the efforts of the Sufi saints who sanctified and legitimised folk religious and cultural practices making it possible for intermediate and low castes, whose culture was greatly imbused with folk religious and cultural elements, to be drawn into the Islmaic fold.
There is no need for our present purposes to go into this controversial question, but one point ought to be made in passing, It is that the heaviest concentrations of the Muslim populations are to be found in areas where Muslim political power was never effectively established or was established much later. On the other hand, these areas had been the strongholds of Buddhist domination before the revival of orthadox Hinduism. The theory that conversions to Islam were limited to the lower castes among the Hindus cannot thus explain the heavy concentration of Muslims in those areas.
What appears more plausible is that large segments of the Buddhist population in those areas embraced Islam as the Buddhist faith receded into the background. Under constant threat of religious presecution at the hands of resurgent Hinduism, Islam may have provided an escape to this erstwhile Buddhist population. Sufi missionary activities may have played a part in this process as the institutional framework of the Sufis was highly communitarian and, after the decline and abolition of the Buddhist Sangha, the Sufi shrines and hospices may have further served as a source of attraction to the Buddhist groups to convert to Islam.
This had a decisive influence in shaping the casts demography of the Muslim population. Muslim high casts comprised by foreign immigrants who had accompanied the invading armies or who emigrated during subsequent peaceable times account for a small proportion of the Muslim population. The artisnal, menial and peasant castes consitutue the largest segment accounting for roughly between 82-64 per cent of the Muslim population depending upon the region and its early cultural history. Lowliest Muslim castes comparable to ‘untouchable’ casts among Hindus consitutue a small fraction of the total Muslim population. Furthermore, they are not uniformly distributed throughtout the length and breadth of the country. There are no known cases of such Muslim castes in South India, except perhaps in Andhra Pradesh, but members of serval such Muslim castes are known to exist in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Gujrat and Kashmir Valley. This peculier Muslim caste demography is accounted for by a number of factors; presence of dominant Muslim castes, pesence or absence of ‘untouchable’ Hindu casts to perform scavenging and other demeaning functions and prosperity levels of Muslims of the area, etc.
Caste among Muslims
Caste had been the organizing principle of Hindu social organization though its rigidity and contours changed greatly through the different historial periods. Perhaps, as has been asserted often, caste was not quite as rigid and fixed during the Vedic times as it became during the period following the articulation of the Manusmriti. Nonetheless, caste early became the defining basis of status, economic resources and political power. It was almost natural that converts to Islam who had earlier operated within the caste system brought their pre-conversion conceptions of the social system, and retained their earlier caste identities. It is also almost natural that conversion to Islam, a sudden turning to a new light, would have automatically introduced some changes in their social organization as a result of interaction with the principles of the Islmaic faith.
Early Muslim rules as well as intellectuals, including the ulema, did not see anything wrong with the peristence of such pre-conversion orientations. Actually, they rationalized and legitimated them as the natural order of things. Zia Barni elaborated a theory that the ‘merits’ and ‘demerits’ of all people have been ‘apportioned at the beginning of time and allotted to their souls’. People’s actions are not of their volition, but rather an expression and result of ‘Divine Commandments’? Muhammad Habib and Afsar Umar Salim Khan, translators of Barni’s work, painfully admits, ‘Barni’s God, as is clear from his work, has two aspects-first, he is the tribal deity of the Musalmans; secondly, as between the Musalmans themselves, he is the tribal deity of well-born Muslims’. Subsequently, the ulema employed the Islamic juridical concept of kafa’a to provide legitimacy to the existing social divisions in society.
Empirical studies which initially took the form of decennial census adduced considerable evidence that casts (or caste-like groupings, which is a much later categorization) existed among Muslims and could be identified through a hierarchy of status orders that had several significant attributes; source of descent so that those claiming to be the descendants of the Prophet or one of his Companions enjoyed precedence over local coverts, and association with an occupation leading to each caste confining marriages to its members. Using evidence from decennial censuses, Ghaus Ansari argued that Muslims in India were divided into three broad categories whom he called the ashraf(noble born), ailaf(mean and lowly) and arzal(excluded).
Each of these categories was further divided into a number or groups for which, following the practice of the decennial censuses, the chose to designate as castes. Since Ansari was relying on the evidence supplied by the enumerations conducted as part of the decennial censuses, he could not examine the process of mutual interaction among these sub-communities whom he designated as caste. He generally suggested that the three broad categories he had identified consituted a hierarchy in which the sub-communities called castes were ranked in an order of social precedence. How this hierarchy was constituted and what was the basis on which the rank order was settled were questions that Ansari could not discuss on account of the limitations of the data he used. This deficiency was met by Ahmad who brought in evidence from castes in close mutual interaction and also noted the differences that existed between the Hindu and Muslim caste systems.
Muslims are as a rule, while they admit that caste-like groupings exist among them, display a high degree of ambivalence on the subject of caste among Muslims.
This ambivalence has many expressions and has resulted in two distinct tendencies among Muslims. Many Muslims, who admit that caste differences obtain among them, often come up with the plea that rather than caste some other term should be used to designate Muslim castes. Ethnic groups, biradaris or caste-like groupings have been considered and used as substitutes. Others deny the existence of caste among Muslims altogether, arguing that Islam is an egalitarian religion and does not recognise distinctions of caste and status honour. These Muslims refuse to recognise that Islam and Muslims are not necessary one and the same and that there might be a gap between Islamic beliefs and ideology and actual social behaviour.
Both tendencies arise from Muslim anxieties about their position in India. Those Muslims who argue that rather than caste some other word should be used to designate social divisions among them are guided by the anxiety that if caste was used it would betray affinity with the Hindus. The Muslim community was very substantially formed through conversion from the indigenous groups and the fear that it might replase back into Hinduism has prompted it all through history to clearly distinguish itself from Hindus through evolving diacritical distinctions that they feel are more Islamic and set Muslims apart from Hindus. Accordingly, while they are willing to admit that caste-like formations exists among Muslims, they would much rather like some other word to be used to designate Muslim castes.
On the other hand, those Muslims who are prone to denying the existence of caste among Muslims altogether do so out of an anxiety for projecting the community as a monolith in the context of its standing as a minority in India. Benur traced this dimension in the context of the rise of the nationalist movement in India. He writes; "The Hindu nationalists, using religion and culture as the bases of nationalism, tried to push only the Hindus as the ‘national’ community, and the Muslims as the ‘illgitimate’ residents of India. The Muslim elites also tried to project the Muslims as religious monolith and advanced the theory of distinct ‘Islmaic’ identity of the Muslims. But becasue the Muslims were divided by the caste hierarchy, it was inconvenient for them to project the Hindus as monlith.
Hense, they put forward the theory of ‘unity in diversity’ and argued that the Hindu culture was the ‘unfying force’ behind the so-called diversity of the Hindus. The Hindu elites, i.e. the Brahmanical upper classes pushed the Brahmanical value system and philosophy as the ‘essence’ of so-called Indian culture. The Muslim elite adopted a similar view about the Muslims, reducing everything to Islam.... So, it was contended that the Indian Muslims are without any caste system and they are one homongeneous community’.
This tendency has permeated down to socioligists who display a remarkably uncanny ambivalence towards caste among Muslims. At the beharioural level, they are willing to concede that there are elements of caste in Indo-Muslim society. However, as soon as the discussion shifts from behaviour to ideology they recoil form their position, seeking to add caveats or hedge around the issue by admitting unabashedly that when they apply the term in the context of a Muslim group they are using it in a loose sense. Two recent writings by Husnain and Nazir exemplify this tendency. Husnain locates his discussion in the context of the question whether the concept of caste can be applied to the system of social stratification of a community professiong a faith other than Hinduism. His conclusion is bald and simple: ‘It is true that the egalitarian social order of Islam stands in sharp contrast with the ideology of caste yet the ‘Indian Islam’ and ‘Hindu Caste System’ have been able to achieve a substantial compatibility’. He then goes on the offer a host of explanations for why this should be the case. He writes; Hutton sounds convincing when he says that when Muslims and Christians came to India; the caste was in the air and the followers of even these egalitarian ideologies could not escape the infection of caste. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Indian Muslim population comes form the lower Hindu castes who have been coming into the fold of Islam to escape from social presecution and the oppressive socio-economic disablities.
They were also attracted and lured by the social egalitarianism of Islam but the search for equality proved a mirgage. In many cases there were improvements in their socio-economic condition yet the goal of social equality remained illusive. Moreover, in most of the cases the people embracing Islam gave up their religious faith but not the caste that was brought forward even to a new socio-religious milieu. Thus, it would be apt to say that while Islam may not be having castes or caste-like groupings, the Indian Muslims do have’.
No sooner that he has made this sociological formulation, Husnain becomes uncomfortable. As if fearing that the he might have committed an almost sacrilegious act by declaring that there is caste among Indian Muslims, he wishes to recoil from it. Cryptically, he adds; ‘But in the present paper an attempt is being made to stay clear of the issue whether the model of social stratification among the Indian Muslims is the replica of the Hindu caste system or not. The author, in this paper, shall be using the term caste and caste system among the Indian Muslims in a conveniently loose manner. It is undisputed that there are groups of people among the Muslims who are organised more or less like the Hindu castes but this is also true that many of them are less rigid because Islam, theoretically at least,permits marriages between different classes of believers. Not only that. He looks for crutches that would enable him to perform this summersault. He finds one in the following statement of Nazir, which he quotes approvingly...’ It is necessary to make a distinction between a caste system and caste labels; the former of labour, occupational specialisation, unequal dependence, and recruitment by birth only; the latter refers to a set of non-local, non-corporate named groups which provide a ranking hierachy, and which do not involve occupational specialisation, unqueal dependence, and recruitment by birth only. ‘Perhaps’, concludes Husnain, ‘the ‘caste system’ and "caste like groupings" among the Indian Muslims with all its fludility may be better analysed and better understood through this observation.
This assumes that Hindus live under ‘the caste system’. Muslims only use castes labels. Several theoretical and empirical questions are raised by this assumption. First, how is this assumption made? Is it made on the basis of a piece of emprical reasearch? Or, is it made on entirely a priori grounds. As far as I am aware, there has to date been no empirical research which can be said to have established beyond the shadow of a doubt that Muslims do not live under a caste system and only use caste labels. Indeed, if such empirical research existed, the dilemma these authors (and others) face over how to characterise Muslim social stratification in India would not exist. It exists because avaiable emprical research has demonstrated that Muslim social stratification in India and beyond is marked by features of the caste system. It is, therefore, clear that the assumption is made on a priori grounds. As believing Muslims committed to upholding the widely proclaimed Islamic egalitarianism as axiomatic, they cannot face up to the behavioural reality that Muslims live under a caste system.
They not only assume the distinction between ‘the caste sysem’ and ‘caste labels’ but go on to suggest that it consitutes a viable framework for analying and understanding Muslim social stratification in India. It is used as a smokescreen to aviod facing the harsh behavioural reality of caste among Muslims in India.
Second, is there an empirical basis to the assertion that Muslim social organisation in India is ‘a set of non-local, nor-corporate named groups which provide a ranking hierarchy, and which do not involve occupational speialisation, unequal dependence, and recruitment by birth only Nazir does not make explicit the level at which he is taking. Is he talking about the categorisation of Muslims into the broad ategories of ashraf, aillaf and arzal.
If that is his point of reference, then his characterisation of Muslim social organisation as a set of non-local, non-corporate groups can be said to have some validity. However, it would invalidate the distinction between ‘the caste system’ and ‘caste lables’ since similar broad division exists in the form of varna categories in ‘the caste system’. Ansari used the three broad categories of ashraf, ailaf and arzal in the collective sense but clearly recognised that they by occuption, endogamy and socialbility. Thus, if Nazir’s reference is to the groups at this level, then his description of Muslim groups is wholly erroneous. Let us look closely at the empirical evidence in order to determine whether the distinction he posits between, ‘the caste system’ and ‘caste labels’, and by implication between Hindu and Muslim modes of social organisation, is confirmed by available studies.
Sociological research on Muslims in India as opposed to lay and impressionistic writings continues to be thin. Evidence brought together by Ahmad (1973) and subsequent research demonstrates that Muslim groups which are the point of reference here, for which words biradari and zat are commonly used, are local and corporate entities. Even biradaris or zats such as Saiyyid, Sheikh and Ansaris, which are dispersed widely and found in different parts of a district, state or the country, are idetifided by their affililation to a particular territory and restrict their marriages to members within that territory. Ofcourse, how that territory is distinguished varies widely. For Sayyids, Shiekhs and Pathans, which resent being characterised as biradaris and prefer to be described as zats, the association to terriotory is expressed through appending the name of the territory to its name. Thus, one hears of Sayyids of Satrikh, Sheikhs of Allahabad, Kidwais of Baragaon or Kasuli and pathans of Malihabad. In the case of Biradaris that have an internal organisation of governement and social control (called biradari or zat panchayat) this territoral association is defined by the jurisdiction of the biradari panchayat. The Ansais in Rasulpur, where I carried out fieldwork, were divided into concentric circles of theree and thriteen villages. They confined their marriages to thirteen villages though Ansaris existed in neighbouring areas as well.
This is not all, Considerable evidence exists to show that the biradaris or zats are associated with particular occupations, are inter-depenent (tied into patron-client relationships of the jajmani type), and are endogamous. This does not mean that all members of a biradari or zat necessarily practice the occupation with which their group is traditionally associated. There has been much variation throughtout history among biradaris and zat,as indeed there has been within castes, in the extent to which their members remain tied to the practice of their traditional occuption. On the other hand, biradaris and zats further down the social ladder had traditional occupations and their association with occuption was strong. This was not significantly different from the picture of groups in what Nazir would characterise as ‘the caste system’. Risley’s following observation makes this explicit; ‘In theory each caste has a distinctive occuption, but it does not follow that this traditional occuption is practised by its member... The traditional occuption of the Brahmans is the priensthood, but in practice they follow all manner of pursuits. Many are clearks or cooks, while some are soldiers, lawyers, shop-keepers and even day-labourers, but they remain Brahmans all the same.
The Chamers of Bihar are workers in skin,but in Orissa they are toddy-drawers. In Orissa and the south of Gaya the Dhobi is often a hewer of splitter of wood. In Bihar and Bengal the Dom is a scavenger or basket maker, but in the Orissa states he is a drummer or basket maker and has nothing to do with the removal of nightsoil; in Chittagong and Assam e is a fisherman, in Cashmere a cultivator and in Kumaon a stone mason.
The argument that Muslim groups, biradaris and zats, are not based on recruitment by birth only is equally fallacious. Like the groups in which Nazir would call ‘the caste system’, Muslim briadaris and zats are based on recruitment by birth only. There is no process by which one can become a Saiyid, Shiekh or Julaha except that of birth. It is for this reason that when someone marries into another biradari or zat, he is not integrated into another biradari or zat but retains his or her original biradari or zat association. There exists a posibility in the case of biradaris and zats to attempt social mobility and end up becoming a Sayid, Shiekh or Pathan in course of time through inventing a rationale and a genealogy. Where such social mobility occurs, the basis of recruitment to the biradari or zat does not change. The biradari or zat just ends up becoming another biradari or zat, and comes to be known by another name, to which recruitment continues to be based on the principle of birth.
This is again no significantly different from the situation in ‘the caste system’ where castes have the possibility of changing their antecedents and name through the process of social mobility. Thus, the point that both biradaris and zats and ‘less rigid because Islam, theoretically at least, permits marriage between different classes of believers’ is not empirically established. It is asserted without a substantial basis in any empirical research.
This raises fundamental questions. Why Husnain and Nazir as well as a host of other researchers who have worked on the sensitive question of the existence of caste among Muslims are so strongly persuaded to posit that there are significant differences between ‘the caste system’ and the system of biradaris and zats? Is it that these difference actually exists but empirical research has so far failed to unearth them? Or, is it that they are persuaded into asserting these differences contrary to empirical evidence out of extraneous considerations? Is it that they are prone to emphasising these differences because as believing Muslims they are familiar with the Islamic discourse that asserts that Islam preaches social equality and are afraid to take a contrary position? Or, is it that aserting these differences is a defence mechanism whereby they can simultaneously adhere to their disciplinary obligaton as social scientists as well as their religious obligation to unhold what is commonly considered the Islamic view on social stratification?
My own view has been that the tendency to emphasise differences between ‘the caste system’ and the system of biradaris and zats arises from some such considerations, but I would refrain from making any such point here. I would like, istead to explore whether their starting point that Islam, is an egalitarian religion and preaches social equality theologically and sociologically vaild. This is central to understanding their standpoint.
Islam and Social Equality
There is need to ask three different questions of the Islamic text if we are to understand Islam’s position with respect to social stratification and social equality. First, whether Islam is opposed to social stratification as such or is merely opposed to social inequality. Second, what is truly the Islamic attitude towards social inquality that existed in the society in which Islam evolved and took roots? Finally, whether the social equality that it proclaims, and to which reference is always made when it is suggested that Islam is an egalitarian religion, is a description of on existing state of affiars in society or is merely an ideal that is given to mankind as a direction in which it should strive. It is necessary to ask these questions in order to understand the nature of the emphasis on egalitarianism and social equality in Islam. Basic to these questions is the sociological dictum that no society beyond the most primitive can be truly egalitarian.
This was the point at the heart of Veblen’s Theory of the Leisured Class (1932) wherein he argued that as societies generated economic surplus there almost always developed some form of social stratification. Pitrim A. Sorokin articulated this point as a general statement.
On even the most casual reading of the Islmaic scriptural text one is struck that quite irrespective of the emphasis it places on equality of human beings Islam’s orientationis remarkably hierarchical. Its hierarchical orientation comes in a wide variety of fields. First, the relationship of the believers with non-believers is conceived in hierarchical terms with the believer the dhimmi and the kafir consituting a clear hierachy.Second, the relationship of Allah to the beliver is conceived in hierarchical terms. It is a relationship of subordination and subservience so much so that the invidual believer must prostrate before Allah in daily prayers and must at the same time see hmself as utterly powerless in relation to Him.
Any number of passages exist in the Islamic scriptural text endorsing the relatively lowly standing of the believers, whether as indiviuals or as a collective entity, in relation to Allah. Third, the relationship of the wife to her husband is clearly conceived in hierarchical terms even if the text does not distinguish between them in terms of the religious duties enjoined upon them. This sometimes cited by Muslim feminists and Muslim modernists to argue that Islam guarntees equality of gender and does not place a Muslim women in any inferior position to a man.
However, in reality a women is subordinate to a man and the relationship between them is seen as constituting a hierarchy wherein the woman stands in relation to a man in the same position as the individual stands in relation to the community and the community stands in relation to Allah. Fatima Mernissi characterises this orientation of Islam in relation to women by the concept of nusuz, which implies an unequal relationship. Finally, the relationship between the master and slave is conceived in clearly hierarchical terms even if the master is called upon to deal with the slave with kindness and merit is assigned to those who would free their slaves. Thus, it is clear that the framework of Islamic thinking is deeply imbued with the notion of hierarchy and social stratification.
It is true that the Arab society in which Islam evoloed did not possess great differences of welath, but economic differenitation between ordinary Bedounis and the trading classes did exist. One can easily imagine that they would have differed with respect to their wealth, material possessions and lifestyles and Islam could not have brushed them under the carpet. It would have been required to deal with them, as they would have been reflected in their behaviour and mutual attitudes. As far as the Islamic scriptural text is concerned, it clearly recongnises such distinctions in society and prescribes appropriate forms of behaviour for each.
It asks those deprived in social and economic terms to to content and to live according totheir means. It is repeatedly said in the text that Allah is All-seeing and would reward the poor for their poverty on the day of judgement. At the same time, the wealthy and rich, while they are allowed to live in their riches and to spend according to their economic standing, are warned not to be too proud of their material possessions. Moreover, they are aksed to show kindness to those who are deprived and poor and to part with a portion of their wealth and income for the poor. Even the poor are conceived in hierarchical terms;
first come the near ones followed by orphans and then the destitute and the deprived. If some kind of social stratification had not existed in society, Islamic scriptural text would neither have referred to those differences, nor indicated appropriate forms of behaviour for them. It would also not have sought to device an economic framework for the redistribution of wealth in a manner that the poor are able to meet both ends meet. It is, thus, clear that the emphasis that Islamic scriptural text places on social equality does not describe an existing state of affairs.
This distinction should not be entirely unfamiliar to us in India.
As is well known, Indian society has been the most unequal society, social inequality being institutionalised in the caste system. India’s constitution went on to declear India to be a casteless and classless society. In so doing, the constitution was ot proclaiming that scoial inequalities of the past ad entirely disappeared ad the society was egalitarian from the time it was promulgated. The only sensible way would be to recognise that, while social inenqualities persist, the ideal that the Constitution provides is that of egalitarianism. This is also true of Islam. It proclaims social equality to be an ideal, but recognises social inequalities existing in society. By this token, there is no contradiction between Islamic support for an egalitarian society as a future goal and presence of caste or class differences as a social reality.
Dalit Muslims
The expression ‘Dalit Muslims; has been finding increasing mention in the discourse of traditionaly backward Muslim communities in recent years. However, there does not yet exist any clear understanding of what this expression actually means or which castes or groups it is supposed to denote. On the one hand, it has been used to denote a whole range of Muslim castes which are currently inclduded in the category of the Other Backward Classes.
On the other hand, it has been used to denote those Muslim castes or groups which converted from the ‘untouchable’ Hindu castes or are so severely stigmatised and are subjected to such extreme forms of social exclusion that would render them comparable to the Scheduled Castes.
The Mandal Commission compoundedand reinforced this confusion. As is already well-known, the Commission’s task was to identify Other Backward Castes and to determine whether they should be eligible for reservation along the lines of the Scheduled Casts and Scheduled Tribes. There was no difficulty in this with respect to Hindu castes because administrative policy clearly recognised a distinction between Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Castes.
Because the presidential order of 1950 clearly and arbitraily laid down that ‘No person wo professes a religion different from the Hindu religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste’, the Mandal Commission lumped the severely stigmatised and extremely excluded among the Muslims with Muslim Other Backward Castes for purposes of affirmative action. Therefore, when the urge for equality and social justice seized the imagination of the lowest social groups in other religious traditions and the word Dalit came to be seen as a short-cut-carrier of that aspiration, the expression ‘Dalit Muslims’ came to be used for a wide variety of groups other than those severely stigmastised and excluded and on that ground comparable to Hindu ‘ex-untouchable’ castes for whom the term ‘Scheduled Castes’ was reserved.
One can arrive at an assessment of the extent of confusion that prevails at present with respect to the expression ‘Dalit Muslims’ by reading between the lines in the statements of those claiming to speak on their behalf as well as by considering the castes that they have been tempted to include under that category. N. Jamal Ansari writes’.... it is an established fact that Indian Muslim community is divided into castes and has a large deprived section.... Before discussing constitutional provisions in respect of dalits and exclusion of all ‘Dalit Muslims’ from those provisions, I think we must define ‘Dalit Muslims’. Dalit menas downtrodden, oppressed, supporessed and backward.
Also, Dalit stands for untouchable and depressed classes. The term "Dalit" applies to members of those menial castes that have been graded lowly which they have inherited by accident of birth. Likewise, Ali Anwar uses the words ‘pasmanda’ (meaning downtrodden and backward) and Dalit interchangeably and includes under ‘Dalit Muslims’ castes like Bhatiyara; Tikyafarosh, Itafarosh, Halalkhor, Khakrob, Mogalzada and Chirimar only some of which can be said to be severely stigmatized and excluded. Clearly, in all such statements and lists, as their reading suggests, the expression ‘Dalit Muslims’ has been used as a generic term to denote all Muslim castes that are educationally and socially backward.
There are roughly about 17 Muslim castes distributed in different parts of India who would qualify to be eligible for inclusion in the category ‘Scheduled Castes’. On what basis are they distinguishable from the Muslim Other Backward Castes? Ansari did suggest in this early work that the relationships between the ashraf and ajlaf on the one hand and the arzal on the other wer shaped by considerations of social distance taking on the characteristics of untouchability.
He mentioned that the members of the category called arzal were excluded both physically and socially. From a physical point of view, they tended to inhabit excluded localities and did not mix with the members of the other two categories. When it came to social intercourse, their relationship was characterized by strict maintenance of social distance and deference so that the members of the arzal castes had minimal and limited interaction with the members of the other castes.
Once again, Ansari was constrained into not saying anything more that this by the nature of the evidence that came out of the enumerations of the decennial censuses and some stray observations the census authorities offered in their reports from time to time.
More fouced research on social stratification among Muslims in the early seventies and subsequently relied upon empirical methods, painstakingly collecting information on actual, day-to-day interactions among Muslim castes. This reasearch succeeded in providing a more grounded picture of the situation of the castes that Ansari had called arzal. It demostrated that in terms of day-to-day social interactions the arzal existed on the margins of society. Even so, the range of dimensions of interaction that this research explored was restricted to areas of commensality, endogamy and sociality. It showed that the arzal engaged in the lowly occuption of scavening, confined their marriages wihtin the group were excluded into separate residential quarters in the villages as well as the towns in which members of the other categories did not live. This research also noted the existence among the arzal castes of a system of internal government and social control with a hereditary official who regualted the life of group members and punished any transgressions of group norms besides setting domestic or intra-group disputes.
Since much of this early research was focused on local communities, villages and towns, and covered groups falling into what Ansari had designated as arzal and ajlaf, the range of information of the arzal castes does not go beyong this limited range. For example, it is silent on the exclusion of the arzal castes in the ritual and religious spheres as well as on whether the religious specialists who cater to the ashraf and ajlaf castes also minister to them.
Considering the severely stigmatised and extremely excluded so-called arzal castes, two questions need to be disposed off. One is whether these castes should be recognized and entitled to benefits currently given to the ‘Scheduled Castes’? One argument often advanced is that Muslims do not have castes and therefore the benefit of reservation to ‘Scheduled Castes’ cannot be extended to them.
This is a fallacious arguments to say the least. Public policies are based on objective realities and seek to address social problems as they exist at the ground level. If extremely excluded and severely stigmatised castes exist among Muslims, there is no ground that the strategy of ameliorationg the benefits of the ‘Scheduled Castes’ to severely stigmatised and extremely excluded Muslim castes, and any attempt to shy away from this obvious action would expose the State to the allegation that it is indirectly seeking to prevent the depletion of the ‘Hindu community’ by ensuring that the Schedule Castes stay within the Hindu fold and if they hanker for those benefits they should change over to Hinduism and one of the other religions of Indian origin whose deprived sections are included in the category ‘Scheduled Castes’. The State’s secular credentials will remain in doubt so long as this argument is adhered to.
The second question is whether these Muslim castes should be recognised as ‘Schedule Castes’ only when there is demonstrable evidence that they converted from one of the Scheduled Castes. This was also the test applied in the determination of Sosai’s claim to be granted concessions being extended to the ‘Scheduled Castes’. Among other things, his claim was rejected as he could not demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that he or his ancestors had necessarily descended from one of the ‘Scheduled Castes’. It is necessary to remember that in most of these cases we are dealing with castes whose caste histories are wholly unrecorded.
Moreover, where is the basis for presuming that all such castes in other religious traditions are necessarily descendants of the ‘Scheduled Castes’? It is possible that they may have come into existence autonomously as a result of subsequent colonisatin under Muslim domination. Muslim elites may have forced some groups, irrespective of whether they earlier belonged to the ‘Scheduled Castes’ or not, to perform certain functions for the and their current stigmatisation may not be the result of their conversion to Islam but may owe itself to their subseuqent domination. Under the cirucumstances, requiring the severely stigmatised and extremely excluded castes, whether among Muslims or Christians, to pas s the test of orginating out of the ‘Scheduled Castes’ would amount to failing them on a priori grounds.
This would militate against the spirit and intentions of the Constitution. The scale of justice has to be balanced to ensure that similiarly placed social groups are treated equally and evenly without religion (an anathema in a secular state) being brought into play to deny some of them equal treatment under the law.
1. Paper presented at the workshop on ‘Conferment of Scheduled Caste Status to Persons Converted to Christianity/Islam : Issues and Challenges’ held at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, on August 18-19, 2006.
2. Contrary to popular perceptions and State eagerness to enact legislations seeking to regulate conversions on the premise that large-scale conversions to Islam are indeed taking place Muslim proselytization efforts virtually ceased after Independence. Some Muslim groups continue to hold on to the concept of dawat (invitation to Islam), but are conscious that the political climate is too hot and problematic to attempt proselytization on a large scale. Unless castes come forward for reasons of their own (as happened in Meenakshipuram), conversions to Islam are now mostly individual and sporadic. For a discussion of the dynamics of the Meenakshipuram conversions, see Imtiaz Ahmad ‘Threats and Responses: Conversions in Tamilnadu’, Economic and Political Weekly, vol.17, no.43, 1982, pp.1737-39 and ‘The Tamilnadu Conversions, Conversion Threats and the Anti-Reservation Campaign: Some Hypotheses’, New Quest 34, 1982, pp.219-26.
3. For a more detailed discussion on this point, see Imtiaz Ahmd, ‘Exclusion and Assimilation in Indian Islam’, in Attar Singh (ed.) Socio-Cultural Impact of Islam in North India, Chandigarh, Punjab University, 1976.
4. One explanation for the presence of Muslim scavengers in Hyderabad appears to be the presence of sizeable Muslim elite which needed scavengers in order to maintain family toilets. Outside of Hyderabad, particularly in outlying districts where an elite class did not exist Muslim scavenging castes are not to be found. Because Uttar Pradesh and Bihar had a sizeable elite class the largest number of Muslim lowest castes is found in these areas. Again, while they are found in and around Kilkata, they are almost non existent in rural West Bengal.
5. See K.M.Pannikar, Hindu Society at Cross-Roads, London, Allen and Unwin, 1961.
6. There is an interesting debate on caste among Muslims according to which Muslim system of social stratification is claimed to have evolved independently and is seen as having no relationship with the Hindi caste system. Charles Lindholm has argued that many of the features found in Muslim society are similar to those found among Muslims in other parts of South Asia and on that basis has argued that the Muslim social stratification found in India is an extension of the system found elsewhere (see Charles Lindholm, ‘Paradigms of Society : A Critique of Theories of Caste among Indian Muslims’, European Journal of Sociology, 1965, pp. 131-140). Many Muslims are themselves inclined to take a similar line of argument. This argument would have been tenable if Islamic scriptural sources had provided a blue-print of an Islamic social stratification system. This not being the case, the argument fails to sustain itself. It is plausible that Islam did modify certain social practices including that of caste. Whatever practices were not sanctified by Islam but existed in India were attenuated. Whatever practices existing in India where in Conformity with the Islamic ethos became more rigid. Thus, purdah practices, which already existed even in India, were rendered more rigid and strict and caste principles were relaxed or made less restrictive.
7. For a more detailed treatment of Barni’s as well as other contemporary scholars’ views on social divisions in society, see Yoginder sikand,
8. Quoted in Sikand
9. Gaus Ansari, Muslim Castes in Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow, Ethnographic and Folk Culture Society, 1959.
10. Imtiaz Ahmad, ‘Introduction’, in Imtiaz Ahmad (ed.), Caste and Social Stratificaion among Muslims, Delhi, Manohar Book Service, 1973.
11. Fakruddin Benur, ‘The Dynamics of Caste Problems of the Indian Muslims’, Paper presented at a seminar on Dalit Muslims organized by Deshkal Society, New Delhi, 2004.
12. This tendency is, incidentally, not limited to Muslim elites, but is also reflected by leaders who claim to represent the cause of lower Muslim castes. For example, Ali Anwar, president of the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, Bihar, notes, ‘In Islam in primciple caste and conceptions of high and low or touchable and untouchable do not exist. I want to state this right in the beginning because whenever this question is discussed some people immediately start citing the Quran and the Hadith. I want to state that the the discussion is not about Islam but on adherence to it’ (Paper presented at a seminar on Dalit Muslims organized by Deshkal Society, New Delhi, 2004).
13. Husnain
14. Nazir
15. Husnain, p.2.
16. Husnain, pp. 207-08
17. Husnain, p.207.
18. Nazir, p. 2898
19. Husnain, p.208
20. Nazir, p.2898
21. Hutton, Census of India, 1902, pp. 350-51
22. Hasnain, p:208
23. On what grounds the presidential order of 1950 decided, in opposite to the explicit wording of the Constitution, remains an enigma and has not been adequately researched upon. It is clear that the distinction arose out of the strong Hindu undertones of nationalism as it took shape in India.
Since the idea of nationalism simultaneously propagates the notion of a national community which in this case was seen as the ‘Hindu community’, there was fear that if the extremely stigmatized and excluded castes in other religious traditions were allowed eligibility as Scheduled Castes there would remain no check on conversion of lower groups to them (already the idea that the lower groups had converted to Islam because of their lowly position in Hindu society was widespread). The idea that the term ‘Scheduled Castes’ should be restricted to Hindu ‘ex-untouchables’ was introduced to prevent conversion of lower Hindu groups to other religions and thereby to prevent any subsequent depletion of the ‘Hindu community’. What role did the presence at that time of Dr.Rajendra Prasad at the helm of affairs played in this process is also worth investigation in the context of his subsequent strong opposition to the passing of the Hindu Code Bill.
24. ‘Oppression of Dalit Muslims through Constitution of India’, Paper presented at a seminar on Dalit Muslims organized Deshkal Society, New Delhi, 2004.
25. There are some who question the tendency to denote backward and downtrodden Muslim castes as Dalit Muslim. Benur writes, ‘A question can be asked at this juncture. How it is appropriate to call these bahujan Muslims or backward Muslim masses as Dalit Muslims? By calling these Muslims as Dalit Muslims, what we aim to achieve? Creation of awareness among the Muslim masses? Removal of marginalization?
Generating sympathy wave? Calling these Muslims as Dalit Muslims are we radicalizing caste politics? (Fakruddin Benur, ‘The Dynamics of Caste Problems of the Indian Muslims’, Paper presented at a seminar on Dalit Muslims organized by Dehskal Society, New Delhi. 2004.
Perhaps the reason for this is their desire to consolidate a wider constituency. Shabbir Ansari, leader of the Mahrashtra Backward Castes Federation, and Ibrahim Qureshi, convener, National Coordination Council, Muslim OBC of India, Bhopal, have maintained a distinction between Muslim Other Backward Castes and Dalit Muslims, Qureshi lists 8-10 Muslim castes who are eligible for inclusion in the Schedule Caste category (see his paper presented at the Muslim OBC Conference organized by the PM’s High Level Committee, New Delhi, 5-6 September, 2005. Eajaz Ali has been very clear and his movement focuses exclusively on severely stigmatized Muslim castes.
27. From my observations of growing up in a Muslim family I am able to recall a number of instances of both open and silent discrimination practiced against these castes. We had a Lalbegi woman come to clean the toilets in our house. She was on the best of terms with my mother and would sit for hours together gossiping with my mother. Whenever my mother would offer her pan, she would wrap her hand with her dupatta to receive it. My mother used to drop the pan in her hand, making sure that her hand did not touch the Lalbegi woman’s hand. On occasions of marriage the family would come and sit in a corner and wait until all guests had eaten and left.
It would then be given food in vessels they brought with them. They did not eat the food there, but instead took it with them to be eaten at home. On sacrificial eid the family was not given any portion of the meet. It was given the intestines which were kept aside for them. It is possible that some of these forms of discrimination have changed, but there is no evidence to show that they have disappeared. The Commission on Religious and Linguistic Minorities should sponsor studies to evaluate the discrimination and its changing forms in a few areas to find out the current state of these castes.
28. Some evidence exists to show that there is discrimination against these Muslim castes in the religious spheres. I found during fieldwork in eastern Uttar Pradesh that members of these castes did not go to the mosque for prayers and if they went they had to stand in the back rows.
It has been mentioned by many observers that such groups often have their own mosques. N.Jamal Ansari notes that ‘in certain areas of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar there are separate mosques and burial grounds’ for these castes (Paper presented at the seminar on Dalit Muslims organized by Deshkal Society, New Delhi, 2004). Establishment of own mosque would call for a level of prosperity for the groups as a whole. Whether they have attained such levels of prosperity is something on which very little information exists.
29. In Parasram V.Shivchand case it was held that in order to determine whether a particular caste is a Scheduled Caste one has to look at the notification issued by the President on that behalf. This questionable view calls for a review.


The International Dalit-Minorities Conference over the Independence Day weekend in New York discussed the challenges and opportunities for the suppressed classes of India (religious and ethnic minorities and dalits).
The conference, organized by the American Federation of Muslims of Indian Origin (AFMI), which also held its XVII North American Annual Convention in conjunction with the conference, was held at the Marriott-Long Island in Uniondale, New York. Chairing the conference was Ram Vilas Paswan, India’s Minister of Steel and chief of Lok Jan Shakti Party.
AFMI president Ali Quraishi said: "Dalits and minorities, mainly Muslims, constitute about 40% to 50% of the population of India, and if they vote for the right candidates in polls, they can be a powerful voice, and secure what is due to them, that which has been denied to them for so long."
Participants included social activists, academics, community leaders, politicians, media activists and professionals from a cross-section of the society.
Dr. AS Nakadar (AFMI Trustee) from Michigan, renowned academic Dr. K.P. Singh of Washington University, and Dr. Shakir Mukhi (past president of AFMI) from New York spearheaded the organizing committee of the conference.
In his inaugural address, Paswan, who is also the Chairman of the Dalit and Minorities International Forum (DMIF), said the conference aimed to focus international attention on discrimination based on caste, gender and religion and deliberate on eliminating such societal inequalities.
Paswan called for empowering the socially deprived through education and employment.
"Till such time that the minorities do not have self confidence, India cannot progress. We need to facilitate this," he said. Despite the constitutional provision for equal opportunity of development, discrimination against Muslims and Dalits are a reality, Paswan said. Legislation is needed for reservation to deprived classes, he continued.
"If Dalits and Muslims get united, they will lead the politics of India, governments will be theirs, and they will rule the country," he said. Paswan said development and progress of Dalits and Muslims can be only through reservations.
Syed Shahabuddin, a former diplomat, ex-Member of Parliament, said that funds earmarked for the deprived do not percolate to them due to the prevailing bureaucratic set up in India.
Dr. AS Nakadar stressed the importance of education, which would help increase the socio-economic capital of not only the individuals, but of communities and countries as a whole.
Prof. Mungekar, Member of the Planning Commission, said, "Forty-two per cent of the people in India are still below the poverty line, despite the economic development witnessed by the country in the past sixty years."
He said the minorities got marginalized after Partition because of the unequal opportunity structure in the country. He also lamented the political parties for not giving adequate reservation to women, saying the powerful political class is not ready to surrender their powers to women.
The conference was also addressed by Member of Parliament Ram Das Athawale, member of the Planning Commission and Dr. Bhalchandra Mungekar, social activist Teesta Setelvad and Tehelka’s Tarun Tejpal. Delegations of Sulabh International members and Bhopal Gas victims also participated in the conference.
The revolutionary work by Sulabh International has liberated several Dalits from the humiliating work of human waste disposal.
"We the voiceless are coming together to let the entire world know that we have learned to articulate our views. We the powerless are coming together to let the entire world know that no longer we will allow any one to divide us in the name of caste or religion. We will define who we are and not what others will define us. For centuries we have waited for this historic moment, a moment that will see the weakest showing their will to survive. It is a moment of self respect, dignity and self discovery," he said.
At the end of the convention, a New York Declaration was issued, demanding compensation to 1984 anti-Sikh riot victims, justice for Godhra victims and restoration of Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya to the Buddhists.
The declaration called for "the immediate elimination of all forms of discrimination. Restoration of the Human Rights of the Dalits and the Minorities in full measures, whenever and wherever they are violated. Urgent investigation of all cases of involuntary disappearances and custodial killings in Jammu & Kashmir and arbitrary detention through out the country on unverified accusation of terrorism and investigation of mass crimes and communal riots by Special Investigative Teams [SITs] and independent prosecution by special courts that does not spare the mighty and powerful," it read.

daud Sherifa khanam : A SPACE FOR THEIR OWN

Award instituted by the Central Social Welfare Board, began a Muslim Women’s Jamaat in 2003 to provide Muslim women a space to express themselves and contest traditional, repressive diktats "I have courage, not authority. My work is a necklace of hot burning coals," says Sharifa who heads the Muslim Women’s Jamaat of Tamil Nadu.
Daud Sharifa Khanam is a women’s activist and first recipient of the Durgabai Deshmukh Award, instituted by the Central Social Welfare Board in 1999. She beganthe monthly jamaat (congregation) for Muslim women in 2003, to provide Muslim
women a space to express themselves and contest traditional, repressive diktats. The Muslim Women’s Jamaat is an attempt to challenge the authority of the traditional jamaat system which, to a large extent, controls the social life of Muslims. Each mosque elects a group of influential men from within the community to form what is known in Tamil Nadu as the pallivaasal jamaat. Besides managing the affairs of the mosque, the all-male jamaat also arbitrates in community affairs, acting as caste panchayats in hearing and settling disputes and ruling on matrimonial matters including divorce, custody and maintenance.
They are respected and feared and have the backing of the mullahs. They even get funds from the wakf boards. The pallivaasal jamaat survives on chanda (donations) collected every year from community members. Families are also expected to pay up separately for religious rituals like births, deaths and marriages. Individuals, even entire families, may be declared outcastes if they fail to pay up. Sharifa says jamaat members often thrust their decisions on women, threatening to "deny them a space even in the burial ground" if they fail to obey their decree. A woman cannot become a member of the jamaat committee. Worse, since women are not allowed into mosques where the jamaat committee meetings are held, a woman cannot represent her own case to the committee. She can at best send her husband or brother to represent her. A woman’s life can thus be decided by a group of men without her being given even a hearing! Many factors contribute to discrimination against Muslim women in Tamil Nadu, including large-scale migration of men to the Gulf to make money. With the menearning in dollars, dowries have spiralled. Yet mehr (the bride price that has to be paid to the wife) has not kept pace. Dowries range from anything between Rs 30,000 and Rs 2 lakh, but mehr is rarely more than Rs 1,000. Migration and the resultant distance causes the break-up of many marriages; in some cases, the easiest way for a man to desert his wife is to disappear abroad. Oral triple talaq is still recognised as legitimate by the male jamaats. Some men use email to divorce their wives, others resort to SMS! The Muslim Women’s Jamaat, set up in 2003, encourages a liberal interpretation of Shariat law, freeing women from patriarchal bias. It takes up disputes, intervening to try and get women a better deal in what are, basically, unequal marriages.
The jamaat has spread to several districts in Tamil Nadu, with coordinators in each district, most of them voluntary workers. It meets every month, usually at its headquarters in Pudukottai. The coordinators travel to meetings unescorted, sometimes staying overnight or catching the night bus home.
"We are slandered as anti-religion, anti-Islam. But it’s not a religious struggle, it’s a power struggle," says Sharifa. Sharifa has been reviled, abused from the mosques and threatened for organising Muslim women in rural Tamil Nadu to resist the oppression of the mullahs. Many of the women who come to Sharifa seek redress from the unfair judgments of the traditional jamaats. This often puts her and her organisation in direct confrontation with the male jamaats and religious elders. This is the major reason for their hostility.
However, the jamaats are beginning to recognise the positive role that Sharifa’s group can play and occasionally approach them for intervention. Muslim Women’s Jamaat meetings are held in a specially constructed hall — a large open room built in traditional style with a high, red-tiled roof. It is built within the precincts of Sharifa’s residence which also houses the office of the NGO she founded.
Sharifa Khanam herself has had a turbulent life. Her father died early and her brothers ran the household in traditional, patriarchal style. However, she was given a decent schooling and sent to Aligarh Muslim University for her graduate studies. Unfamiliar with north India, Sharifa was unhappy and dropped out to return to Tamil Nadu. Her elder brother was so angry that he cut off her allowance. Independent by nature, Sharifa decided to support herself by giving tuitions. Then, in1998, she was offered the chance to act as translator at a women’s conference in Patna as she had picked up Hindi in Aligarh and spoke it better than most Tamil women.
The event was an eye-opener for her. "It was the first time that I heard of women’s rights. I was surprised! I realised that these women were speaking of the same kind of oppression that went on in my own house too." As an unmarried woman, Sharifa eventually began to feel unwelcome in her family house. "I found myself becoming a third person in my own house.
I felt neglected by the family," she says. In 1987, she set up the organisation STEPS Women’s Development Group. STEPS began functioning in Pudukottai as a community welfare centre for women, but soon it began handling cases on behalf of battered women. In 1991, with the backing of progressive bureaucrat Sheela Rani Chunkath, who was then collector of Pudukottai, Sharifa was able to get a piece of land in the heart of the town and build a room to live in and work out of. In 1995, Sharifa decided to focus on the women of her community since they seemed singularly helpless in the face of dual oppression, both as women and members of a minority community.
In a few short years, Sharifa was able to set up a strong women’s organisation, tackling numerous cases of violence against women and solving matrimonial disputes. Recognition came her way quickly; the STEPS office is decorated with awards and trophies from both local and national organisations including the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development. It is the award money from various organisations, in fact, that enabled the building of the STEPS office — a single room above Sharifa’s home.
Accessed by a flight of steps, the room is built from red brick and tile in the Laurie Baker style, allowing in ample natural light, a glimpse of green trees in the neighbouring courtyard, and a breeze that wafts through the room keeping it cool. In this cocoon Sharifa and her staff battle with the grim realities that face them on a daily basis.
Sharifa says that in the last 15 years she has handled around 10,000 petitions from Muslim women alone. Members interact with the police and lawyers to ensure the speedy resolution of cases. "If the response is poor, we take to the streets," says Sharifa. In 2004, the intervention of women jamaat members led to the suspension of a few police officers in Annavasal town for "counselling" a rape victim rather than taking action in the case. A 12-year-old girl employed as a domestic help was raped by her employer. The investigation dragged on until the jamaat staged a dharna in front of the office of the superintendent of police and made sure the culprit was brought to book.
In the past 10 years, Sharifa has mobilised women in 10 districts across Tamil Nadu —Trichy, Pudukottai, Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari, Madurai, Theni, Dindigul, Nagapattinam, Tuticorin and Perambalur. Women jamaat leaders in these districts travel to Muslim residential areas to spread word about the jamaat. They also mobilise women to oppose the three dominant social evils in the Muslim community — ex-parte divorce (talaq), polygamy, and dowry demands..
Taj Begum of Sivaganga district has emerged as a local leader, and the jamaat in her area values her advice. People take cases to her house. She counsels families and only takes the case to the STEPS headquarters if legal intervention is required. Rashida Begum is typical of some of the younger women who belong to the Muslim Women’s Jamaat. She says: "After getting a talaq I have gained self-confidence. My mother had a difficult marriage and she tolerated so much to be able to bring up her children. But I am educated and can work and earn to bring my child up on my own." The Muslim Women’s Jamaat’s major demand is that half the members of the traditional jamaat committees should be female. They want all brides to be at least 21 years old, mehr to be substantial and marriages to be registered with the government. Also, that a woman teacher be appointed in each mosque as, they allege, male hazrats have been accused of misbehaving with girls who go to the mosques to study the Koran.
From the government they demand reservation in education and employment and concessions for the Muslim community on a par with backward classes and the poor. They want employment under NREGA to include home-based occupations that Muslim women do, such as processing of foodstuff and production of goods, craft items etc. Jamaat members recall that when some poor women went to work on a NREGA construction site they were told they could not do the work in a burqua! They also say that land should be distributed to them under the government’s land distribution

In a dramatic challenge to the patriarchy of the all-male jamaats, the women thought of building their own mosque. A local family agreed to donate the land for the mosque. However, the tremendous publicity that the announcement of the mosque generated led to an angry counter-campaign from the Ulemas. Under pressure, the donors withdrew the offer. Sharifa then decided to build the mosque on her own land. This led to the edict that Islam does not permit an unmarried woman to build a mosque. Sharifa promptly accepted a proposal of marriage from a progressive businessman.
Sharifa visualises the women’s mosque as a place for prayer as well as community service, with a meeting hall, a shelter for destitute women and a training and education centre for girls. It will have a woman priest and other female religious functionaries. Men will be permitted to enter and pray but they will not control the mosque. Sadly, today the mosque at Thandeeswaram village near Pudukottai town stands built only up to basement level, as the organisation has run out of money to complete it. Despite an organisation to run and a baby girl to take care of, Sharifa, now a feisty 42, plans a fundraising tour in India and abroad. "My target is to raise a million dollars for the women’s mosque" she says, confident that she will achieve her dream.
Karnataka Struggle Committee for Social Justice formed with the support of Minorities organizations. A state level network of Muslin Ngos and organizations, like minded individuals and organizations was formed in 2006. A secular Network comprises of 17 members state committee ,20 Distic Committes in Karnataka . Working on the issues of Cultural, economical, political and religious rights among Muslims in the state of Karnataka..
Defeat BJP and Save India rally:
During the 2004 assembly elections in Karnataka, under the leadership of progressive thinker Shri Muruga Rajaendra Shivashararna, intellectuals and progressive writers, Pro. Ravivarma Kumar, Pro. K. Ramadas, Dr. U.R. Anantha Murthy, Devanur Mahadeva, Gouri Lankesh, a rally was organized in 10 assembly constituencies of Bangalore 4,000 people participated in the rally.
Remembering Freedom fighter Tippu Sultan:
On his 207th death anniversary Social Transformation message of Tippu a programme was organized and 400 people were participated in the programme, Dr. U.R. Anantha Murthy inaugurated the programme and other chief guests were Dalit leader and intellectual Indudhar Honnapur, Mrs.Banu Mushtaq, President of Milli council Mr. Shafiulla.
Understanding Dalit movement through Autobiography of Dalits: A programme was organized on 27th June 2004:
Dalit literature in Kannada plays an important role in the history of Karnataka particularly with reference to the social movements. Understanding the cultural hegemony of Brahmanism ideology and countering through the Dalit auto biography, in Kannada language, 5 books have been published so-far on this issue. A review of these books was organized in Bangalore, the main speakers of the programme were, Shri Veerabhadra Channa Malla Swamiji, the then, Police director Subhash Bharani, intellectual and writer, Dr.Banjagere Jayaprakash, Dr. Mallepuram G Venkatesh of Hampi Kannada University and pro. Narasimhaih president Backward classes forum Karnataka.
Protest in front of Town hall Bangalore:
A protest was organized in front of town hall on November 2nd, 2004 to protest against Sangha parivar- Bhajaranga Dal and Umabharti on the issue of Baba budan giri and Tiranga rally. 700 people participated in the rally and other like minded organizations of Dalits, Backward Classes, All India Christian council and Democratic youth federation of India were also participated in the protest.
Dalit -Muslim unity:
On 9th January 2005, A state level conference was organized in Indian social Institute, Bangalore to bring Dalits and Muslims together to understand the importance of Dalit and Muslims unity and harmony. Dalit Voice Editor Mr. V.T. Rajashekhar, President of PUCL-K Mr. Hasan Mansur, General Secretary of Karnataka Urdu Teachers association Dr. Fyzulla Baig junaidi, General secretary of
Muslim advocate council mr.Ziakarnatake were participated in the programmer. The presentations of these guests
were collected and printed in the form of small booklet and distributed 1000 Kannada copies to the community.
Review of Anti Communal Legislation Central act :
On 20th of June 2007, a review programme on Anti Communal Act was organized in Bangalore. Programme was inaugurated by Rt. judge of high court of Karnataka justice Sadashiva. The chief speaker was Mrs. Aninta Ratnam director of Samvada, past chairman of Backward classes commission Dr. C.S. Dwarakanath.
Future Challenges of Secularism:
During the formation of JD(S) and BJP government in Karnataka, a seminar was organized in Bangalore to discuss the future challenges of Secularism in Karnataka. Around 240 people with different walk of life, like writers, intellectuals, dalit leaders and activists participated in the programme. The chief guest of the programme was Mr. Sidda Ramaiah, Ex deputy chief Minister of Karnataka. Other guests were K.B.Siddaiah,Dalit thinker, Mavalli Shankar Dalit leader, Pro. Ravi Varma Kumar, Senier advocate,.
Seminar on the Status of Muslim communities in Karnataka:
On July 9th, 2006 a programme was organized in Indian Social Institute(ISI) to give orientation for NGO‘s who are working with Muslims. 24 organizations participated during the programme which actively involved in development and welfare activities with Muslims. This programme was inaugurated by Rtd Justice of high court of Karnataka justice, Ko. Channa Basappa. Dr. Manohar Chndraprasad was presented a paper on caste, class and multi cultural back ground of Muslim communities. Mr. Abdul Rasheed, writer presented a paper on Indianization of Muslims. Mr. Siraj Ahamed editor of Islamic Voice presented a paper on Motivated Violence of government and Human rights with reference to Muslim community.
Campaign on the Religious rights of Muslim women:
During the month of June to November,Campaign on the Religious rights of Muslim women has been jointly organized and launched under the leadership of Pro. Hasnath Mansoor in Bangalore Urban, Rural and in Ramanagar Districts covering 18 slums, where majority of were Muslims. 18 workshops of 3days have been organized in the areas covering 900 women.
Understanding of Communalism in the context of Karnataka
A state level workshop on Understanding of communalism in the context of Karnataka was organized in Bangalore, 160 people belong to progressive, dalit thinkers,intellectuals were participated in the workshop. with the support of PUCL-K, NAPM, Indian Social Institute (ISI), Alternative Law Forum (ALF).
The main topics of the workshop includes;
1.Historical and Political background of Communalism in Karnataka.
2. Farmers movement of Karnataka
3. Dalit Movement of Karnataka
4. Back ward classes movement
5. communalization of Democracy
6. Experiences of communalism in Karnataka
7. strategies to combat and resisting communalism
Awareness campaign on Justice Rajendra Sachar commission report on Muslim And Jus. Ranganatha Mishra report :
During the month of January 2007 the campaign was launched and it was continued to may 2007. The main objective of the campaign was to create awareness among Muslim community on Justice Rajendra Sachar commission report on Muslim minorities. District level seminars were organized during the campaign and 5000 booklets on the issue were distributed in the state. Bangalore, Hassan, Chitradurga, Davangere, Dharwad and Koppal districts were covered during the campaign and at the district level different programmes were held.
Remembering Jalaluddin Rumi, a mystic Sufi Poet
In India Jalaluddin Rumi a mystic poet and Sufi played an important role to bring Dalit, Backword Communities and Muslims together through mysticism and spirituality particularly the tradition of Sufism has played historical role in India. A seminar was organized in Mythic society Bangalore to remember the contribution of Sufism and Jalaluddin particularly. Dr. U.R.Anantha Murthy and Devanur Mahadev, Pro. Ki.Ram. Nagaraj, Shudra Srinivas were among the guests.
Rally for Demanding reservation in private sector, in judiciary and demanding implementation of Justice Rajendra Sachar report:
On June 27th, 2007 a rally was organized in Bangalore 1500 people from the Muslim community were participated, Dalit leader and well known personality of Tamil Nadu Tol Trimavalavan , National president DPI and Paul Diwakar National Convenor NCDHR were one of the guests.
Muslim, Christian and Dalit Unity State level Conference in Bangalore:
A State level conference of Muslims, Christians and Dalits were organized in Bangalore on 28th June 2008, 2000 Peoples were gaddering and demanded:
1. 13% Budget allocation for development of Muslims Karnataka Budget.
2. Backward Muslims should be recognized under the category of Most backward Classes and political space and opportunities and reservation should be given to these communities.
Future Campaign/ Struggles of Struggle Committee for social justice will be based on these issues:
l Demanding political Reservation of Most Backward Muslim Communities and Dalit Muslims. Identifying Muslim communities which are socially, economically, and politically most backward.
l An the Muslim women rights, Demanding Muslim women development Directorate in the government.
l Networking among Dalit, Dalit Christion and Muslims organizations to bring communal harmony and Unitey for Karnataka State level
l Awarenes on the Sachar and Mishra Commissions Reports .
For this cause we are expected support, And we hope you join with this downtrodden peoples social justice process .