Reaching out to Pasmanda Muslims

Muslims offering Eid-ul-Adha namaz in Agra.

Muslims offering Eid-ul-Adha namaz in Agra. | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

At the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national executive meeting in Hyderabad recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi advised the party workers to reach out to the marginalised and weaker sections of the minorities. This was also the party’s first official attempt to win over the Pasmanda Muslim community. This was predictably welcomed by sundry Pasmanda Muslim leaders in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but sent more than just ripples across the Muslim community. Many read in it the government’s attempt to break the unity of India’s largest minority. Some scoffed at the thought of caste-based divisions in the community, pointing out that there is no caste system in Islam and that attempts to ameliorate the lot of the deprived are mere tactics to augment the party’s vote bank.

What the scriptures say

On paper, their claims are borne by the tenets of Islam. It was the casteless, classless society that Islam offered that attracted many lower caste Hindus to Islam. Indeed, Islam recognises no distinctions based on birth, caste or class; the accent all along is on universal egalitarianism. The Prophet in his last sermon told his audience, “An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab or a White over Black, except by deeds of piety”. To this day, Muslims stand together in a prayer, shoulder to shoulder, in mosques across the world. Who stands to one’s left or right or in front is immaterial. The imam too can be from any segment of society. The differences of race or creed never overpowered unity. As the famous poet Muhammad Iqbal, who penned Saare Jahan Se Achcha, wrote on the subject, “ Ek hi saff main khade ho gaye Mahmood-o-Ayaz/ Na koi banda raha, na koi bandanawaz (Sultan and slave stood side by side/ Then there was no servant nor master, nothing did them divide)”. There is a Hadith which says all Muslims are like a body: if any part hurts, the whole body should feel the pain. The Quran’s Surah Al-Hujurat, verse 10, calls believers as brothers and encourages them to settle quarrels, if any.

A unique category

Beautiful and inspirational as it is, this often remains confined to the scriptures. The modern Indian Muslim society is not a replica of the one envisioned by the Prophet. While it seeks to uphold all the tenets of faith in matters of prayer-fast-pilgrimage, socio-historical factors make Indian Islam a unique category where an unwitting blend of Hindu tradition and Islamic value coexists in harmony. Of course, the overwhelming numerical superiority of the majority community has had a crucial role to play in this. So has the fact that Indian Muslims include millions who changed their religion but brought along their socio-cultural practices with them to the new faith. For instance, Indian Muslims have concepts such as ‘teeja’ and ‘ chaleesva’ (roughly third and 40th day of mourning the dead), much like the ‘tehrvee’ (13th day) concept among Hindus. Similarly, if among Hindus, girls often had the suffix of ‘Kumari’ added to their name before marriage and ‘Devi’ afterwards, Muslims girls had suffixes such as ‘Jahan’ or Parveen’ but seldom used their father’s name or surname.

Muslims are divided into the Shia and Sunni sects. The Sunnis have further sub sects, such as Hanafi (a majority of Indian Muslims subscribe to this school), Hanbali, Maliki and Shafi. Most differences pertain to their interpretation of Shariah.

While almost all the differences among them are ideological, and in some ways, universal, what is uniquely Indian is the presence of caste among Indian Muslims. As they say, in India you can change your religion but not your caste. Thus we have the anomaly of terms like Dalit Sikhs and Dalit Christians, though both faiths do not subscribe to the caste system. Among Muslims, we have Syeds, often called the Brahmins of Islam. They trace their descent to the family of the Prophet. Along with Shaikhs, Mughals, Pathans and others, they bring up the Ashraf category of ‘noble’ Muslims who are said to hail from the Arab peninsula or Central Asia. Then we have Ajlafs or commoners, usually converts. Finally, we have Arzals whom some sociologists equate with Dalits.

Social stratification

Keeping the Hindu caste system as the reference model, the caste system among Muslims is far from exploitative. The ‘purity and pollution’ model is largely absent. For instance, there are no restrictions on pursuing education at an institute of one’s choice or even purchasing a house in a certain locality. A Pasmanda Muslim or a Muslim OBC — say, a Saifi (carpenter) or an Ansari (weaver) or Salmani (Hajjam or barber) — is considered as capable of leading prayers in a mosque as, say, a Syed or Shaikh and Khan. What men of these categories might struggle to do is to marry Syed or Shaikh women. Again, the rules are different if a Syed or Shaikh man marries a Pasmanda woman. The same norms of male hegemony apply as in Hinduism, where too it is easier for an upper caste man to marry a lower caste woman than for a Dalit man to marry, say, a Brahmin woman. In fact, the clearest example of acculturative influence of Hinduism among Indian Muslims can be seen in the matrimonial advertisements in newspapers where it is common to find expressions like, ‘A Syed family seeks match for their boy’ or ‘A Sheikh family seek a suitable match for a girl’. The advertisements, without putting in so many words, are as much about a hunt for like-stationed and like-birthed families as exclusion of those hailing from other social strata. It is a mind-boggling blend of Islamic identity and Hindu social practice.

Of course, this social stratification is widely prevalent though considerably more rampant in the West Bengal-Bihar-Jharkhand-eastern Uttar Pradesh belt. Here, if a man gives only his initial name while meeting a person for the first time, it is not unusual to be asked, ‘ Is ke age kya lagate hain (What do you use after the initial name)?’ It is a far from a subtle take on the caste origins of the person. In Bihar, there are reportedly caste-specific cemeteries. In places like Delhi and in the towns of Uttar Pradesh, the ‘reservation’ in cemeteries is subtle. People from certain parts of the country or certain vocations are buried, while others are often denied this. Under the circumstances, almost 30 years ago, Pasmanda Muslims started uniting under banners such as the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, the All India Muslim OBC Organisation, and the All-India Backward Muslim Morcha, said to be the umbrella body of 32 backward castes. According to the Sachar Committee Report, 40% of Indian Muslims are ‘pasmanda’. Around the same time, we heard the slogan, ‘Dalit pichhda ek saman, Hindu ho ya Musalman (All Dalits-Backwards are alike, whether Hindu or Muslim)’.

It is this schism that the BJP seeks to encourage and exploit. Paradoxically, some of the policies of the government since 2014 and the right-wing party’s foot soldiers have united the Indian Muslims like seldom before. On the one hand, we saw how Muslim women led the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests across the country with no questions being asked of their caste origin. On the other, we saw repeated attacks on Muslim dairy farmers and animal transporters, sending the community into a huddle with not just Syeds and Saifis uniting, but even the Shias and Sunnis burying the hatchet and telling each other, ‘The mob does not ask for your sect or caste when it attacks. Being a Muslim is enough’.

The larger question today is, ‘Is being Muslim enough for all faithful?’ Or, as the BJP insists, ‘Is it all about being a Pasmanda Muslim today?’

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2022 4:45:10 pm |