Saturday, September 20, 2008



The Quran says "O mankind, I have created you from a single male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes…"(49:13). This text shows that there are many Muslim identities under the umbrella of Islam. These identities are spread across different parts of the globe and have grown with the imbibing of diverse realities of local contexts. This is true for Indian Muslims also.
There is clear literary evidence that a majority of Muslims are converts from oppressed caste groups, which form lower strata of our society. Yoginder Sikand says, "most Indian Muslims are descendants of converts from ‘untouchables’ and ‘low’ castes, with only a small minority tracing their origins to Arab, Iranian and Central Asian settlers and invaders. Although the Quran is fiercely egalitarian in its social ethics, the Indian Muslim society is characterised by numerous caste-like features, consisting of several caste-like groups (jatis). The Ajlafs are commonly and contemptuously referred to as ‘base’ or ‘lowly’. As among the Hindus, the various jatis among the Ajlaf Muslims maintain a strong sense of jati identity.
Mohammed Kalam, a research scholar of sociology from Jamia Millia Islamia University feels that "Sharing a mass prayer in a Masjid doesn’t’t necessarily dilute the contours of disparity. People cannot be maintained in a state of disillusionment for eternity. In fact, the Muslim society is fragmented into various castes, and there is no denying the fact that the forward Muslims are bigger exploiters than their counterparts in other communities." He opines, "Horizontal division is not unknown among the Muslims world over. There are tribes and sects of competing interests. But such vertical division based on exploitation, with perceptible social consequence, can rarely be found anywhere else, and is peculiar to this country." Kalam elucidates two probable reasons for this, "First, the interaction between Hindus and Muslims in which one culture is influenced by the other; and second and perhaps more definite, is the low caste (Hindu) origin of the backward Muslims." Kalam believes that though the caste system is not so elaborate, complete, and defined in Muslims as it is amongst the Hindus, it is equally exploitative in nature.

Noted scholar Zarina Bhatti says:
"Muslims in India are sharply divided into two categories, Ashrafs and Ajlafs. The former have superior status derived from their foreign ancestry. The Ashrafs, or those who claim a foreign descent, are further divided into four castes, Syeds, Sheiks, Mughals and Pathans, in that order of rank. The non-Ashrafs are alleged to be converts from Hinduism, and are therefore drawn from the indigenous population. They in turn, are divided into a number of occupational castes."1
Another noted scholar Asgar Ali Engineer says:
"While Islam does not recognise caste distinctions, Indian Muslim society is based on various caste and ethnic communities. Muslims may belong to a faith-based community, but in sociological and even theological terms are not homogeneous. They are divided into numerous sects, and in India, into various caste groups as well."
A similar point was made by P S Krishnan, former chairman of the Backward Classes Commission, who pointed out that caste is a pan-Indian rather than simply a Hindu Institution. The mere fact of a Muslim or Christian OBC belonging to a non-Hindu faith makes no difference to his or her poverty and the discrimination that he or she faces.2
It is estimated that there are more than 250 Muslim sub-communities existing in India. In Karnataka it is estimated that there are more than 50 sub-communities. Based on the correlation of Hindu occupational groups and socio cultural backgrounds it is clear that mat weavers, stonecutters, and knife grinders have dalit roots. Similarly, bear charmers, snake charmers and Banjaras have tribal origins. The Tamil Nadu Government enlists the Rautar and Marakayyar communities under SC category. We can thus attempt to classify Indian Muslim communities based on their existing occupations. We observe that most of the traditional occupational communities trace their lineages to dalit, tribal and backward castes.
Indian Muslim castes/ communities
The Mandal Commission has made an attempt to classify Muslim backward occupational communities and has declared 80 Muslim occupational groups as backward. Among these are weavers, oil crushers, carpenters and dhobis. Based on this, several states have made attempts to recognise the backward occupational groups in their regions. But comprehensive data on the caste-like Muslim communities at the national level is still not available. The Parliament has acknowledged the existence of castes among Muslim communities in India. During the debate in Parliament on Constitution (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) Orders (amendment) Bill, 2002, Dr Raghuvansh Prasad Singh stated:
"In Islam there is no provision for caste system as in Hindu religion. However, caste system is seen in India even among the Muslims. Some Muslim communities like Kalar, Bakkho, and Rime deserve to be included in the list of Scheduled Castes. Their economic, social and educational conditions are poor. The Government should pay attention towards this issue and consider increasing the percentage of reservation for them. I request that a study by the Social Welfare Department or any other agency be conducted to assess their condition for including them in the list of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes."
During a discussion in Parliament on the Bill, Shri Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi said:
"In North Bengal there is a Muslim community called Shershabadi spread from Murshidabad to Coochbihar. This community has appealed to the Backward Class Commission numerous times for its inclusion in the backward communities."3
Indeed, the Mandal Commission report has influenced the states to reconsider the facts related to Muslim castes and occupational communities. Along with the Mandal Commission, the Backward Commission and Minority Commission at the national and state levels, have made attempts to classify backward occupational communities among Muslims. Based on the reports, the following is the scenario of Muslim caste communities in some North Indian states:
Madhya Pradesh - As Many as 70-80 % of Muslims in the state fall under the category of Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
According to a report submitted to the State Government by the Madhya Pradesh Minorities’ Commission on September 25,2005
"40 communities including Rangrez, Bhishti, Chhipa, Hela, Bhatiyara, Dhobi, Mewati, Pinjara, Naddaf, Faqir, Dhunia, Manihar, Qasai, Mirasi, Badhai, Hajjam, Hammal, Monin, Luhar etc., have been incorporated in the OBC category."4
Uttaranchal - Momin Ansar has been included as a backward community among 79 other groups.
Manipur - Meitei has been categorised as a backward community. This includes Meitei Brahmin, Meitei Sanamahi and Meitei Rajkumar. Also falling under the Meitei umbrella are the Meitei Pangal Muslims.
Assam - Among 28 communities, Manipuri Muslims and Maimals (Muslim fishermen) are included in the backward category.
Gujarat - Over 20 castes from the Muslim community have been included in the OBC category with 138 other OBCs.
Jharkhand - Momin (Muslim) is one group among 30 others enlisted as a backward community.
Jammu and Kashmir - Follows other states on the backward list.
An overview of the national scenario raises the following important issues, which need immediate attention.
· There is a gap in the number of existing Muslim caste communities and those enlisted.
· The enlisting of these communities as OBCs hardly makes any difference since most of the land owning/ dominant/ socio-politically powerful castes are also included in this list. It is highly impossible for all these Muslim castes/ communities to access the provided facilities.
· There is a need to review the rationale for enlisting these communities. Clustering all Muslim castes/ communities under the OBC category is socially unjust. It is observed that in most of the communities, not only occupations but also socio-economic and educational backwardness are similar to that of Dalits.
· Constitutional provisions make enlisting possible by the states but it also creates anger and frustration in the minds of other deserving communities. Some times enlisting is not possible since backwardness has to be proved with a lot of scientific data. The recent experiences of Muslim communities of Andhra Pradesh bear testimony to this. Enlistments made merely to fulfill election manifestos of political parties do not bring social justice to deprived Muslim occupational groups.
Considering that caste is a pan Indian phenomenon found in every religion, and that each caste is based on occupation, traditional occupations can be called as pan Indian phenomena across religions. It is critical for the Indian census operation to collect information on Muslim communities according to their traditional occupations. The information would help in developing long-term and short-term strategies to address the socio-economic backwardness of these communities.
The 1931 census of India conducted by British rulers sets the rationale of considering castes on the basis of occupations. However, Yoginder Sikand argues that
"Several castes, such as the Banjaras, Dhobis, Nats, Lalbegis, Halalkhors, Jogis, Pasis, Mochis, Kathiks, Julahas, Darzis and the Rangrezes consist of both Hindus and Muslims."
This argument again proves that caste and occupation are pan Indian irrespective of religion. But in the year 1950, a Presidential Order was passed and; an amendment was made to article 341 according to which, the Indian Constitution enables the President of India to notify a particular caste as Scheduled Caste. Only Dalits who claimed to be Hindus could enjoy government facilities. The Congress party deliberately used this opportunity to strengthen their vote banks among minorities in the name of appeasement. The then Muslim leaders of upper caste/ class did not question the presidential order. In a way this order separates and divides Dalits in the name of religion. 5

The caste experiences of southern states
The scenario of occupational groups within the Muslim community in Southern India is not very different from the rest of the country. The Mapillas of Kerala are Muslims. In Malayalam ‘Mapilla’ means son-in-law. According to the story behind the origin of this community, the Arab traders who came to Kerala during the medieval period, gradually developed social relationships with the locals, married into them and settled down in the coastal areas. As a result they came to be known as the ‘sons-in-law’ or ‘Mapillas’ of the region. Their descendants formed the clan of ‘sons-in-law’ and practiced matriarchal system of inheritance. In due course they came to be known as Mapillas. This society has five subgroups namely Tangal, Arabies, Malabaries, Pusalar and Ossan. These subgroups are hierarchically graded. Tangals form the top-most stratum. Tangal is a respectable term normally used to honor Nambhudaries or Kerala Brahmins. Following the Tangals are the Arabies and below them are the Malabaries. Commenting on these communities, Victor D’ Souza says:
"The Pusalars are converts from the Hindu fishermen community (Mukkuvans). Their conversion took place relatively late because of which, in addition to their lowly occupation of fishing, they were allotted a low status in the Mapilla society. The Pusalars are spread all along the coastline of Kerala and till today, continue their traditional occupation of fishing.
The Ossans are a group of barbers among the Mapillas and on the basis of their very low occupation, are ranked the lowest. Their womenfolk perform as hired singers during social occasions such as weddings." 10
Disabilities inflicted on lower castes within the Kerala Muslim (and of course Hindu) society existed in the Lakshadweep Islands. Leela Dube who studied the caste hierarchies prevailing in the Islands in some detail, quotes in her book (edited by Imtiaz Ahmed),
"The aristocracies called the Karnavars are descendants of Nambhudaries and Nayars. They are also referred to by the respectful appellation, Koya, which means a religious dignitary. It was this class that monopolised land and boat owning. The Malumis or Urukkars formed the sailor caste; and the Melacheris (literally, tree climbers) formed a class of serfs, who earned their livelihood by plucking coconuts, tilling their lords’ lands, rowing their boats. The number of castes or classes varied from island to island, some places having four instead of three. One island, Agathi, was regarded as a Melacheri island. This shows the structure of Muslim communities of Laccadives."11

Muslim castes/ communities of Karnataka
The identification and enlisting of all the Muslim castes/ communities/ subgroups in Karnataka has not happened so far. But some attempts towards the same have been made through Backward Commissions. These Commissions have identified and to some extent, provided information and insights on 25 Muslim communities in the State. However it is estimated that there are nearly 52 such communities. The enlisting of these communities is based on the criteria of social, economic and educational backwardness. In Karnataka, Muslims constitute 12% of the total population and form the second largest community in the state. Among them 9% speak Urdu as their mother tongue. A point to be noted here is that, although the Karnataka Minorities Commission made a study on the educational, economic and social conditions of these communities they are still jointly viewed as a monolithic community. There is no information on the distinct identities of the subgroups. Some specific information is provided though, on jataka pullers, agarbatti workers, sericulture workers, and beedi rollers.
However it must be acknowledged that the attempt made by the Minority Commission is commendable. The Government has implemented some of the recommendations made by the Karnataka Minorities Commission. The Commission headed by Dr R Nagan Gowda in the year 1960, enlisted nine backward communities among Muslims. They are Mapillas, Pinjara, Chapparband, Laddaf, Kasab (Kasai), Katharga, Dudekula, Labbe and Pindare. A majority of the members of the Committee have felt that the Muslim community as a whole should be classified as socially backward.In the second Backward Commission report, Justice Venkataswami mentions that:
"Muslims form the major minority community in Karnataka as elsewhere in India. Although Muslims are not supposed to have caste distinctions as seen in Hindu Dharma, many castes and sub-groups have been reflected in our 1984 survey, based on their vocations. These are Bagawan, Chapparband, Darvesu, Fakeera, Hanafi, Jathagera, Kalal, Katukaru/ Kasai, Labbe, Laddaf/ Nadaf, Madari, Mapillai/ Moplas/ Kaka/ Byari, Mohamadiya, Momin, Pathan, Pendar, Phoolmali, Pinjar/ Doodekalu, Qureshi, Syed, Shafai, Sheik, Shia, and Sunni."6
The third Backward Classes Commission (Chinnappa Reddy Commission) noticed that "the problem of backwardness is a direct result of the defective social order, and the caste system of Hindu society has influenced to some extent, the creation of high and low classes even among Muslims and Christians." 25
The Karnataka Public Service Commission has enlisted the entire Muslim community under backward class based on its socio, economic and educational backwardness. It has also enlisted occupational communities under different categories.
There are some discrepancies observed in enlisting different caste-like communities in the various Backward Class Commission reports. For example, Mapilla, Katharga, Labbe, Pindare, Bagwan, Jathagera, Kalal, Madari, Byari, Momin, Pendar were listed in the first Commission Report, but were not enlisted in later reports. Whereas some communities like Phoolmali, Chapparband, Darvesu, Qureshi and Nalband are enlisted as most backward castes.
Reservation controversies and Muslims communities
Not long ago, the Government of Andhra Pradesh issued an ordinance to create 5% reservation for the Muslim community. But behind this action lay a political motive. It was a strategy put forth by the Congress party to get more votes from the Muslim community during the Assembly election. The non-Congress parties raised their voice against this ordinance and the Andhra Pradesh High Court rejected the appeal for creating the reservation and ordered the Backward Class Commission to verify the basis for it. When the Andhra Pradesh Government made another appeal for creating the reservation in the Supreme Court, it was again rejected. The Government faced great insult. It was suggested that on the basis of social backwardness only the Dudekula community could be enlisted as a backward class. Although the Constitution gave clear direction not to provide reservation on the basis of religion, the Andhra Pradesh Government disregarded this.
On the other hand various Muslim communities enjoy reservations in different states and in different forms. The Marakayyars and Rautar communities in Tamil Nadu have been brought under the scheduled caste category based on their social and economic backwardness and receive reservation facilities.
Identification of castes on the basis of the occupation of the community has been practiced since pre-independence. Reservation and other facilities are received based on the criteria of caste and its status. Today, ‘caste-based politics’ and ‘caste-based representations’ are considered seriously because directly or indirectly, social, economic, and educational backwardness is equated to caste identity and numerical strength.
The declaration for the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report and violence by anti-reservationists in the ‘90s, are landmarks in the history of this country. These developments gave way to a new era of politics with ‘caste-identities’. The then coalition government headed by Prime Minister V P Singh made a detailed investigation into the Constitutional provisions of reservation to backward class communities, the nature of implementation and its impacts.
New political dimensions such as ‘identity politics’ have come into existence with the declaration of the Mandal Commission Report. The Commission has inspired downtrodden communities to take up different political strategies and since then, political equations have changed. The new political formula of caste politics has received prominence. Muslim communities in different regions have also started to rethink about their caste identities. The Mandal Commission has identified several Muslim communities having close resemblance to Hindu caste groups that fall under the reservation category. These Muslim communities are considered as ‘socially backward’ and have distinct ‘caste identities’ within the Muslim world. With this background the roles played by North Indian social activists Dr Ezaz Ali and Ali Anwar are very significant. They organised the most backward communities among Muslims and presented the new concept of ‘Dalit Muslims’.
( Footnotes )
1 Taken from ‘Social Stratification Among Muslims in India
’ by Zarina Bhatti in ‘Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatar ’ edited by M N Srinivas, Viking, New Delhi, 1996
2 Muslim and Dalit OBC Conference: A report by Yoginder Sikand, Milli Gazette November, 2005
3 2002, By Lok Sabha Secretariat
4 Hindustan Times, September 25, 2005
5 ‘A New Indian Muslim Agenda: The Dalit Muslims and the All India Backward Muslim Morcha’, Internet source,
6 2nd Backward Classes Commission report Vol. III, 1986, Government of Karnataka, Page 50

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