Dr Ejaz Ali is
national convenor of the All-India Backward Muslim Morcha (AIBMM), set up in 1994 as an umbrella group of over
40 Backward Caste Muslim organisations. He talked to Yoginder Sikand about the work of the movement that
he leads. Excerpts
You have coined the term "Dalit Muslim'. What exactly 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 who converted to Islam en masse, to escape from caste oppression under the Brahminical order. They were visibly impressed by the simplicity and brotherhood of the early Muslims, especially the Sufis. They saw them eating together from the same vessel, praying together shoulder-to-shoulder in the same mosque. They saw that anyone could become the Imam to lead the prayers. The Sufis welcomed them with open arms. At the Sufi langars (free community kitchens), they saw people of all castes eating together. All this visibly impressed them and they converted in large numbers to Islam in search of equality and self-respect. Their descendants form the overwhelming majority--seventy-five per cent--of the present Indian Muslim population. These are the Dalit Muslims.
The other Muslims in India are descendants either of Muslims who came to the country over the centuries from Iran, Central Arabia or Iran, or of local converts from 'high' caste Hindu families or else from the groups collectively known today as the Other Backward Castes. They form only a small minority of the Indian Muslim community.
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 Muslims remains pathetic. Under centuries of Mughal rule they remained as neglected as their Hindu counterparts. The Mughals were interested in ruling, not in improving the conditions of the Dalit Muslims. That is why you find that while they built hundreds of massive palaces and forts and the Taj Mahal, not a single school was set up by 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 to struggle 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 the unfair laws that have been promulgated denying them their rights. As the law stands today, Dalit Muslims are denied 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 as extremely backward. These were the scheduled castes. They included castes which were considered Hindu, Muslim animist, 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 and economic uplift. However, in 1950 a Presidential Order was passed according to which these special benefits would be available only to those Scheduled Castes who professed to be Hindu, and, accordingly, an amendment was made to Article 341 of the Constitution of India that authorises the President to declare certain castes as Scheduled Castes for special benefits. With one stroke of the pen, non-Hindu Scheduled Castes were henceforth denied the benefits that the 1935 Government of India act had provided for them. We are struggling to have the Presidential Order rescinded so that all Dalits, irrespective of religion, enjoy the same benefits. 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 status despite 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 of the Indian Constitution. The Constitution declares India to be a secular country, where all people have the freedom of religion and enjoy equality in the eyes of the law. If reservations are given only to Hindu Dalits but not to Muslim Dalits, although their socio-economic conditions may be identical, is this not a gross violation of the very basic premises of the Constitution and its principles of secularism and equality? Under the law as it stands today, if a Dalit Christian or Muslim converts to Hinduism he is automatically entitled to special benefits, but if a Dalit Hindu changes his religion and accepts Christianity or Islam, he loses such benefits at once. What is this but an inducement for Dalit Muslims and Christians to accept Hinduism, and a threat of punishment to Dalit Hindus seeking to convert to other religions in search of social equality? Is this not a gross violation of the secular principle? Our argument is that the law as it stands today is completely at odds with the basic principles of the Constitution which guarantee equals rights for all in theory.
Dalit Muslims and Christians have been included by the Mandal Commission Report in the category of Other Backward 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, consists of 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, as is the case at present. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, because presently, the OBCs are given only benefits of reservations in government jobs and some limited concessions in the matter of education. On the other hand, the Scheduled Castes are provided not just job reservations, but also political reservations in state legislatures and the Parliament, and facilities such as housing schemes, interest-free loans, special courts to try cases of atrocities against them and so on. As a result of these benefits, the Hindu Dalits have been able to make a considerable headway, leaving the Dalit Muslims lagging far behind them. Is it not right that the Dalit Muslims too should be granted similar benefits so that they can also progress? Further, by placing the Dalit Muslims in the same category as economically, socially and educationally far more powerful and advanced Hindu and Muslim OBCs, they have been put at a considerable disadvantage. How can you expect the extremely poor Dalit Muslims to compete with these groups for the limited benefits that are provided for the OBCs? Little wonder then that it is these powerful groups who are cornering all the advantages from the limited implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission Report, while the Dalit Muslims have gained almost nothing from it.
Some Muslim leaders have accused you of attempting to promote division and casteism among Muslims in the name of Dalit Muslim rights. What do you have to say about this?
To begin with we did counter considerable opposition from certain 'forward' Muslim quarters. They said that we were trying to inject the poison of caste hatred into the Muslim community and to divide it. But we countered them saying that all we were trying to do was to help the poor and backward Muslims and that to do so was fully in keeping with the teachings of Islam. We pointed out that while Islam does not recognise caste and preaches the equality of all Muslims, Indian Muslim society is characterised by the presence of groups that exhibit caste-like features. We have to recognise this social reality and then take measures to rectify the situation. How can one say that recognising 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 for Dalit and Backward Caste Muslims, but this did not lead to any increase in caste feelings among Muslims.
So, how can the mere shifting of the Dalit Muslims from the OBC to the Scheduled Caste category add to the problem of caste division?
On the other hand, I say that providing Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Muslims will actually help solve the problem of caste divisions among the Muslims. By providing special facilities for the Dalit Muslims they will be able to come up in life and once that happens inter-caste marriages between Dalit and other Muslims would begin to take place and slowly the caste system among them Muslims would begin to disintegrate. Is this not in accordance with the teachings of Islam? We are not opposed to 'forward' Muslims at all. All we ask for is that the Backward and Dalit Muslims be given opportunities to progress.
Some Muslim leaders have countered your demand for reservation for Dalit Muslims by putting forward the demand that reservations be made for Muslims as a whole. What is your position on this?
We are opposed to reservations for
Muslims as a whole. The Indian Constitution itself prohibits reservations on a communal basis, for an entire
community, and provides for reservations only for socially and educationally backward sections of religious
communities. Furthermore, demands for reservations for Muslims as a whole will only further strengthen
inter-communal antagonisms, and even if introduced the benefits would accrue to economically and educationally
better-off Muslims, not the Dalit Muslims, who form the vast majority of the Muslim population and who need
such 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 the traditional Muslim leadership. By getting involved in sensational issues such as the preservation of the minority character of the Aligarh Muslim University, Urdu, Muslim Personal Law or Babri Masjid, Muslims were prevented from focussing on substantial issues such as educational advancement and economic and social progress. In this the Hindutva forces, which do not want to see Muslims progress, and the traditional Muslim leadership, which wants to maintain its hegemony and control over the community, seem to be acting in tandem with each other, playing on emotional issues and diverting the attention of the Muslim masses from issues of vital 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 very survival and this must be tackled first before we can turn our attention elsewhere. What we are saying is that there 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 the community. Tragically, the traditional Muslim leadership has evinced little interest in the plight of the Dalit 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 Dalit Muslims, who suffer the most. The Dalits are made to attack and kill each other in the name of religion. We thus 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 our differences and live in harmony with each other, we can also become a solid political force, for if we combine we form the overwhelming majority of the Indian population. Jointly, we can struggle against all forms of communalism, for Dalits of all religions have all along been the worst victims of communal strife. Further, if all Dalits unite we can insist that real, substantial, bread-and-butter issues that affect our livelihood and survival 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, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, and in all these states we are working 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-faith relations 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 writing to him at firstname.lastname@example.org