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India's Dalit Muslims: Will Policymakers Take Note of Forgotten Lower Caste?

Muslim elites may hail equality in Islam but have overlooked that Indian Muslims have same caste structure as Hindus

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Opinion
4 min read
India's Dalit Muslims: Will Policymakers Take Note of Forgotten Lower Caste?
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We have been hearing about the Dalit struggles and their fight for rights from childhood days. From ancient India's Karna to modern India's architect Dr B R Ambedkar, the battle for social transformation of Dalits are not new. No dwelling into the theoretical discourse on the plight of Dalits is needed to comprehend their oppressed status as the everyday stories from the country quite explicitly show the same.

Undoubtedly, Dalits' economic, political, and educational status has changed considerably in contemporary India but the same cannot be said about their social status. Dalit ideology and literature in India are as old as the struggle of the Dalit community.

When we talk about Dalits, we often overlook Muslim Dalits.

Snapshot

Dalit ideology and literature in India are as old as the struggle of the Dalit community.

Medieval India witnessed the conversion of a large number of high caste Hindus to Islam along with the Hindu Dalits, bringing their caste system with them.

Muslim lower castes are not recognised as Dalits. They, on the other hand, are recognised as other backward classes (OBCs) by constitution and are not benefitted by the affirmative actions extended to Hindu Dalits.

The Sacchar Committee Report (2006) identifies Muslims in India, particularly those from Muslim OBCs as more marginalised.

Debate about Pasmanda Muslims may offer a fresh approach to integrating these Dalits, but it requires greater policy consideration and implementation to enhance socio-economic conditions

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In the desire to get rid of the hierarchical caste system in the Hindu religion and attracted by the Islamic social equality, these Dalits converted to Islam. However, it was probably unanticipated by them that the conversion was not enough to liberate them from the holds of caste system and the power elites who occupied the higher tiers of the hierarchy.

Medieval India witnessed the conversion of a large number of high caste Hindus to Islam along with the Hindu Dalits, bringing their caste system with them. While upper caste Hindus like Brahmins, Rajputs and Tyagis announced their caste superiority when they converted to Islam, lower caste Muslims such as Dhuniya, Dhobi, Manihar, Nat, Bhisti, Fakir, Darji, halalkhor, lalbegi, bhatiara, gorkan, bakkho, pamaria, mirshikar and other lower caste Hindus claimed social equality but were alienated from it.

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Muslim Dalits Left Out in Hierarchy of Discourses

Following independence, numerous affirmative policies were put in place to improve Dalits' economic, political and educational prospects. The Indian Constitution grants them special quotas for education and employment in government institutions as well as reservations in political representation in elections.

These, however, exclude Muslim Dalits since Muslim lower castes are not recognised as Dalits. They, on the other hand, are recognised as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) by the Constitution and are not benefitted by the affirmative actions extended to Hindu Dalits. Even though the government provides reservations to the Muslim OBCs, it is not enough to lift their socio-economic status owing to their multi-dimensional marginalisation.

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Dalit castes which are easily identifiable by their caste-based occupation, exist among both Hindus and Muslims. When it comes to weddings and religious gatherings, Muslim Dalits face the same discrimination as Hindu Dalits where they are forbidden from marrying in upper caste Muslim.

What Explains Backwardness of Dalit Muslims

Though they could be experiencing the same levels of prejudice, poverty and marginalisation as Hindu Dalits, Muslim Dalits are excluded from political representation, thus policy-making processes. The Sacchar Committee Report (2006) identifies Muslims in India, particularly those from Muslim OBCs as more marginalised.

The study found that OBC Muslims have similar socio-economic and educational status as Dalits in Hindus. According to a report from a survey by the Giri Institute of Development Studies in Lucknow, Muslim Dalits in Uttar Pradesh are primarily landless, have poor levels of education, and experience multifaceted poverty.

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Dalits in Islam Continue To Face Identity Conundrum

The Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)-led administration has recently begun to focus on the Pasmanda Muslims (i.e., Dalits and backwards among Muslims) as they make up around three-fourths of all Muslim population in India. Even while the earlier governments’ long-standing ignorance has given the BJP a chance to garner their support, it is true that the elite Muslim intelligentsia has not publicly advocated for the advancement of Muslim Dalits and backwards.

While Dalit movements and renaissance have been the centre of social revolution, Dalit thinkers also paid only scant attention to the Muslim Dalits. Though few of the scholars have given attention to the Muslim caste hierarchy, their scope was limited to social identity such as Ashraf (elite Muslims), Ajlaf (lower or backward caste Muslims), and Arzal (non-touchable caste Muslims). This is certainly not enough for the upliftment of the Dalit Muslims as it is a matter of serious concern.

Muslim Dalits typically live in the shadow of the aristocratic Muslims. Under the religious minority identity and its politics, they forget their social identity. This has also made the government not to recognise the deprived classes within the Muslims for affirmative actions.
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Even after several decades of independence, political representation among Muslim Dalits is negligible. They lack a voice and are excluded from the Dalit movements in India. Sadly, they have no place in Dalit literature or discourse and are unable to capture the attention of Dalit thinkers.

While bragging about Islam's equality and brotherhood policies, Muslims aristocrats seem to conveniently overlook the fact that the caste structure among Indian Muslims is similar to that of Hindus.

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Without a caste census, India lacks data on Dalit Muslims, although it is possible to infer from the 1901 census that Dalit Muslims make up a bigger proportion of the Muslim population. It is now appropriate to classify this marginalised population as Dalits in order to grant them access to government’s affirmative actions.

It's important for policymakers to acknowledge that these Muslim Dalits are also Dalits by guaranteeing their reservations in government facilities, as well as in employment and education. The issues of Muslim Dalits are a serious concern, and both Dalit thinkers and policymakers must pay serious attention to them.

The recent debate about Pasmanda Muslims may offer a fresh approach to integrating these Dalits, but it required greater policy consideration and implementation to enhance socio-economic conditions rather than political and opportunistic discussions.

(Balhasan Ali is a Senior Research Fellow at The International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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