Dalit Muslims

The national convenor of the All-India Backward Muslim Morcha (AIBMM), which was set up in 1994 as an umbrella group of over 40 Backward Caste Muslim organisations on the movement he leads.

Dalit Muslims

Dr Ejaz Ali isnational convenor of the All-India Backward Muslim Morcha (AIBMM), set up in 1994 as an umbrella group of over40 Backward Caste Muslim organisations. He talked to Yoginder Sikand about the work of the movement thathe leads. Excerpts

You have coined the term "Dalit Muslim'. Whatexactly do you mean by it?

Almost all Muslims in India are descendants of local converts. Our ancestors did not come from Arabia.They were locals who converted to Islam. One could categorised them into two broad groups. Firstly, Dalits whoconverted to Islam en masse, to escape from caste oppression under the Brahminical order. They were visiblyimpressed by the simplicity and brotherhood of the early Muslims, especially the Sufis. They saw them eatingtogether from the same vessel, praying together shoulder-to-shoulder in the same mosque. They saw that anyonecould become the Imam to lead the prayers. The Sufis welcomed them with open arms. At the Sufi langars (freecommunity kitchens), they saw people of all castes eating together. All this visibly impressed them and theyconverted in large numbers to Islam in search of equality and self-respect. Their descendants form theoverwhelming majority--seventy-five per cent--of the present Indian Muslim population. These are the DalitMuslims.

The other Muslims in India are descendants either of Muslims who came to the country over the centuries fromIran, Central Arabia or Iran, or of local converts from 'high' caste Hindu families or else from the groupscollectively known today as the Other Backward Castes. They form only a small minority of the Indian Muslimcommunity.

Why have you set up a separate organisation for Dalit Muslims?

 Despite their conversion to Islam, the social, economic and educational status of the Dalit Muslimsremains pathetic. Under centuries of Mughal rule they remained as neglected as their Hindu counterparts. TheMughals were interested in ruling, not in improving the conditions of the Dalit Muslims. That is why you findthat while they built hundreds of massive palaces and forts and the Taj Mahal, not a single school was set upby any Muslim ruler for the education of the Dalit Muslims. Under the British the situation remained the same,and it still continues to be the same even after 1947. Hence, we felt the need to set up an organisation tostruggle for the rights of the Dalit Muslims which are even today being denied to them.

What are the aims and objectives of the AIBMM?

We have, at present, a one-point agenda--to undo the injustice that is being done to the Dalit Muslims by theunfair laws that have been promulgated denying them their rights. As the law stands today, Dalit Muslims aredenied reservation rights as Scheduled Castes although their conditions are the same as the Hindu Dalits.Under the Government of India Act of 1935, a list or schedule was drawn up of castes which were recognised asextremely backward. These were the scheduled castes. They included castes which were considered Hindu, Muslimanimist, Christian and Sikh. Some of these castes, such as Dhobi (washermen), Mochi (cobblers) and Halalkhor(sweepers), had both Hindu as well as Muslim members. Special provisions were made for their social andeconomic uplift. However, in 1950 a Presidential Order was passed according to which these special benefitswould be available only to those Scheduled Castes who professed to be Hindu, and, accordingly, an amendmentwas made to Article 341 of the Constitution of India that authorises the President to declare certain castesas Scheduled Castes for special benefits. With one stroke of the pen, non-Hindu Scheduled Castes werehenceforth denied the benefits that the 1935 Government of India act had provided for them. We are strugglingto have the Presidential Order rescinded so that all Dalits, irrespective of religion, enjoy the samebenefits. In 1956, Article 341 was amended to extend the same benefits that Hindu Dalits enjoy to Sikh Dalits,and in 1990 this was extended to the neo-Buddhists. If these communities can enjoy Scheduled Caste statusdespite belonging to theoretically egalitarian religions, then why not Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians?

On what grounds have you sought to challenge the present law?

From the very outset we have been clear in our minds that our struggle has to be conducted within the ambit ofthe Indian Constitution. The Constitution declares India to be a secular country, where all people have thefreedom of religion and enjoy equality in the eyes of the law. If reservations are given only to Hindu Dalitsbut not to Muslim Dalits, although their socio-economic conditions may be identical, is this not a grossviolation of the very basic premises of the Constitution and its principles of secularism and equality? Underthe law as it stands today, if a Dalit Christian or Muslim converts to Hinduism he is automatically entitledto special benefits, but if a Dalit Hindu changes his religion and accepts Christianity or Islam, he losessuch benefits at once. What is this but an inducement for Dalit Muslims and Christians to accept Hinduism, anda threat of punishment to Dalit Hindus seeking to convert to other religions in search of social equality? Isthis not a gross violation of the secular principle? Our argument is that the law as it stands today iscompletely at odds with the basic principles of the Constitution which guarantee equals rights for all intheory.

Dalit Muslims and Christians have been included by the Mandal Commission Report in the category of OtherBackward Castes (OBCs). Why then are you insisting that they be put in the Scheduled Caste category instead?

Under Mandal, two categories of Muslims have been included as OBCs. The first are the Dalit Muslims,descendants of 'untouchable' converts to Islam. The other category, which is far smaller in number, consistsof the Muslim counterparts of social groups among Hindus recognised as OBCs, such as vegetable growers,milkmen and so on. We would like the former category to be recognised as Scheduled Castes instead of OBCs, asis the case at present. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, because presently, the OBCs are given onlybenefits of reservations in government jobs and some limited concessions in the matter of education. On theother hand, the Scheduled Castes are provided not just job reservations, but also political reservations instate legislatures and the Parliament, and facilities such as housing schemes, interest-free loans, specialcourts to try cases of atrocities against them and so on. As a result of these benefits, the Hindu Dalits havebeen able to make a considerable headway, leaving the Dalit Muslims lagging far behind them. Is it not rightthat the Dalit Muslims too should be granted similar benefits so that they can also progress? Further, byplacing the Dalit Muslims in the same category as economically, socially and educationally far more powerfuland advanced Hindu and Muslim OBCs, they have been put at a considerable disadvantage. How can you expect theextremely poor Dalit Muslims to compete with these groups for the limited benefits that are provided for theOBCs? Little wonder then that it is these powerful groups who are cornering all the advantages from thelimited implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission Report, while the Dalit Muslims havegained almost nothing from it.

Some Muslim leaders have accused you of attempting to promote division and casteism among Muslims in thename of Dalit Muslim rights. What do you have to say about this?

To begin with we did counterconsiderable opposition from certain 'forward' Muslim quarters. They said that we were trying to inject thepoison of caste hatred into the Muslim community and to divide it. But we countered them saying that all wewere trying to do was to help the poor and backward Muslims and that to do so was fully in keeping with theteachings of Islam. We pointed out that while Islam does not recognise caste and preaches the equality of allMuslims, Indian Muslim society is characterised by the presence of groups that exhibit caste-like features. Wehave to recognise this social reality and then take measures to rectify the situation. How can one say thatrecognising the existence of Dalit Muslims will introduce the venom of casteism in Muslim society? After all,such castes already exist. The Mandal Commission Report recognised this and provided for certain benefits forDalit and Backward Caste Muslims, but this did not lead to any increase in caste feelings among Muslims.

So, how can the mere shifting ofthe Dalit Muslims from the OBC to the Scheduled Caste category add to the problem of caste division?

On the other hand, I say thatproviding Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Muslims will actually help solve the problem of caste divisionsamong the Muslims. By providing special facilities for the Dalit Muslims they will be able to come up in lifeand once that happens inter-caste marriages between Dalit and other Muslims would begin to take place andslowly the caste system among them Muslims would begin to disintegrate. Is this not in accordance with theteachings of Islam? We are not opposed to 'forward' Muslims at all. All we ask for is that the Backward andDalit Muslims be given opportunities to progress.

Some Muslim leaders have counteredyour demand for reservation for Dalit Muslims by putting forward the demand that reservations be made forMuslims as a whole. What is your position on this?

We are opposed to reservations forMuslims as a whole. The Indian Constitution itself prohibits reservations on a communal basis, for an entirecommunity, and provides for reservations only for socially and educationally backward sections of religiouscommunities. Furthermore, demands for reservations for Muslims as a whole will only further strengtheninter-communal antagonisms, and even if introduced the benefits would accrue to economically and educationallybetter-off Muslims, not the Dalit Muslims, who form the vast majority of the Muslim population and who needsuch benefits the most.

Has the Muslim leadership been supportive of your struggle?

The idea of setting up the AIBMM stemmed partially from a recognition of the complete failure of thetraditional Muslim leadership. By getting involved in sensational issues such as the preservation of theminority character of the Aligarh Muslim University, Urdu, Muslim Personal Law or Babri Masjid, Muslims wereprevented from focussing on substantial issues such as educational advancement and economic and socialprogress. In this the Hindutva forces, which do not want to see Muslims progress, and the traditional Muslimleadership, which wants to maintain its hegemony and control over the community, seem to be acting in tandemwith each other, playing on emotional issues and diverting the attention of the Muslim masses from issues ofvital importance. I do not say that the Babri Masjid issue or that of Muslim Personal Law are to be ignored,but to my mind these are secondary. What is of the most primary concern to the Dalit Muslims is their verysurvival and this must be tackled first before we can turn our attention elsewhere. What we are saying is thatthere must be a complete change in our priorities and perspectives and a new Muslim leadership should emerge,championing the issues that concern the survival and progress of the poorest Muslims, the vast majority of thecommunity. Tragically, the traditional Muslim leadership has evinced little interest in the plight of theDalit and Backward Caste Muslims. We now demand that this must be changed.

Do you see the AIBMM playing any role in promoting communal harmony?

It is a fact that in any riot situations, it is the Dalits, irrespective of religion, particularly DalitMuslims, who suffer the most. The Dalits are made to attack and kill each other in the name of religion. Wethus see communalism as a basic issue with which the Dalit Muslim movement has to deal. If all Dalits,irrespective of religion, join hands, we can become a powerful force. Not only can we then do away with ourdifferences and live in harmony with each other, we can also become a solid political force, for if we combinewe form the overwhelming majority of the Indian population. Jointly, we can struggle against all forms ofcommunalism, for Dalits of all religions have all along been the worst victims of communal strife. Further, ifall Dalits unite we can insist that real, substantial, bread-and-butter issues that affect our livelihood andsurvival be made the agenda of Indian politics, not issues of Mandir-Masjid that have caused such havoc.Hence, we in the AIBMM have placed the highest importance in building bridges with non-Muslim Dalit groups,such as Ambedkarite neo-Buddhists and Dalit Christians. We now have branches in seven states--Bihar, UttarPradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, and in all these states we areworking in tandem with other, non-Muslim Dalit groups who are very supportive of our cause.

Yoginder Sikand is currently engaged in a post-doctoral research project on Islam and Inter-faithrelations at the University of London and has begun to edit a website.Copies of the Directory of Social Work Organizations in Kashmir, prepared by the author may be had by writingto him at