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Rethinking the Dalit Muslim Movement

Thursday, August 13, 2009 05:07:22 PM, Khalid Ansari

The Pasmanda Movement (PM) refers to the contemporary caste/class movement among Indian Muslims. Though the history of caste movements among Muslims can be traced back to the commencement of the Momin Movement in the second decade of the twentieth century it is the Mandal decade (the 1990’s) that saw it getting a fresh lease of life. That decade witnessed the formation of two frontline organisations in Bihar—the All India United Muslim Morcha (1993) led by Dr. Ejaz Ali and the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz (1998) led by Ali Anwar—and various other organisations elsewhere. Pasmanda, a word of Persian origin, literally means ‘those who have fallen behind’, ‘broken’ or ‘oppressed’. For our purposes here it refers to the ‘dalit’ and ‘backward’ caste Indian Muslims who constitute, according to most estimates, 85% of Muslim population and about 10% of India’s population.

By invoking the category of ‘caste’ Pasmanda Movement (PM) interrogates the notion of a monolithic Muslim identity and consequently much of ‘mainstream’ Muslim politics based on it. By and large, mainstream Muslim politics reflects the elite-driven symbolic/emotive/identity politics (Babri Mosque, Uniform Civil Code, status of Urdu, the Aligarh Muslim University and so on) which thoroughly discounts the developmental concerns and aspirations of common Muslim masses. By emphasising that the Muslim identity is segmented into at least three caste/class blocks—namely, ashraf (elite upper-caste), ajlaf (middle caste or shudra) and arzal (lowest castes or dalit)—PM dislodges the commonplace assumption of any putative uniform community sentiment or interests of Indian Muslims. It suggests that just like any other community Muslims too are a divided house with different sections harbouring different interests. It stresses that the emotive issues raised by elite Muslims engineer a ‘false consciousness’ (to use a Marxian term) and that this euphoria around Muslim identity is often generated in order to bag benefits from the state as wages for the resultant de-politicisation of common Muslim masses. When PM raises the issue of social justice and proportional representation in power structures (both community and state controlled) for the pasmanda Muslims it lends momentum to the process of democratisation of Muslim society in particular and Indian state and society in general.


Besides, the PM also takes the forces of religious communalism head on: one, by privileging caste over religious identity it crafts the ground for fomenting solidarities with corresponding caste/class blocks in other religious communities, and, two, by combating the notion of a monolithic Muslim identity it unsettles the symbiotic relationship between ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ fundamentalism. In short, PM holds the promise of bringing back Muslim politics from the abstract to the concrete, from the imaginary to the real, from the heavens to the earth!


But despite these brave promises PM has been unable to make the impact that was expected of it. Any mass movement must strive to maintain a balance between the ‘social’ and ‘political’. The pioneers of caste movements—Jotiba Phule, Periyar EV Ramaswamy or B R Ambedkar—were quite alive to this notion. Apart from raising radical political demands like the one for a separate electorate for the depressed castes, Ambedkar is also remembered for social campaigns like the Mahad Satyagraha and also for raising labour and gender issues on more than one occasion. Periyar too raised the social question when inspired by a rationalist worldview he put to fire religious texts (which he considered exploitative) on the streets of Madras. Phule too defied the standard conventions of his day when he decided to open a school for the education of girls. One can scarcely fail to notice the vigorous social and cultural critique of Indian society that they offered both in theoretical terms and in action. The PM has unfortunately not taken this aspect seriously.


Right from the days of the All India Momin Conference (its pre-eminent leader being Abdul Qayyum Ansari) way back in the 1930’s to its present post-Mandal avatars, the PM has singularly concentrated on affirmative action (now the politics around Article 341 of the Constitution) and electoral politics at the expense of other pressing issues. It has been completely ineffective in developing a comprehensive alternative social/cultural/economic agenda and the corresponding institutions and mass mobilisation that it necessitates. As a result of this perennial weakness it has failed to preserve an independent outlook and has incessantly been subsumed by one political formation or another. If the Momin Conference was assimilated by the Congress, both Ali Anwar and Ejaz Ali have been co-opted by Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) in Bihar. Moreover, it has been lackadaisical in forging alliances with corresponding caste/class movements in other communities thereby shying away from the task of forming a broad coalition of suppressed communities across religious identities or the Bahujan alternative as Phule labelled it. Consequently, it remains captivated by its limited electoral agenda and has been transformed into an easy route for realising the petty political ambitions of the nascent middle-class elite in pasmanda communities.


Need to Focus on Social

If the PM is to do justice to its potential, it is imperative that it incorporates the social into its agenda. I can think of at least three interventions in this regard as of now, and all of them flow from the main features of caste system itself. The caste system is premised on three essential features: (a) the principle of hierarchy in accordance with the elaborate rules of purity-pollution as registered and legitimized in the canonical religious texts; (b) endogamy; and (c) hereditary occupational specialization. These three features apply to the Muslim community too in varying degrees. While caste as a principle of social stratification is not acknowledged in the Holy Quran (the inclusion of a close category ‘class’ is a contentious issue though) but for all practical purposes it operates as a category in the Islamic juristic/legal corpus and interpretative tradition as it has evolved in India (See: Masood Alam Falahi, Hindustan Mein Zaat Paat Aur Musalman (in Urdu) (Delhi: Al Qazi Publishers, 2007)). Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that the process of Islamisation has only worked to reinforce rather than weaken or eliminate caste distinctions.


Endogamy is still rampant in Indian Muslims as the various matrimonial columns in the newspapers/internet testify. As far as the link of caste with hereditary vocation is concerned the market economy has eroded it to some extent but still a large number of pasmanda Muslims find themselves engaged in caste-based callings.

Due to the above mentioned trajectory of caste in Indian Muslims, the task for the PM seems clearly cut-out. One, it must offer a critique of the Islamic interpretative tradition as it has evolved in India and if possible construct an alternative Islamic hermeneutics from the perspective of the marginalised. The dalit/bahujan movement has often rejected Hindu religion in totality and located its philosophical and ideological roots in the Indian mode of dialectical-materialist discourse and in their day-to-day interaction with nature. Hence, its epistemology has had a strong material basis and also inclination to link itself to the production process of the Indian subcontinent as expressed historically in the discourses of Lokayats or Buddhism. The PM, however, has correctly critiqued and protested the casteist interpretations of Islam forwarded by the Indian ulema and has reclaimed the strong emphasis of Islam on social equality. But what is its take on economic equality on which Islam is presumably silent? Is it willing to interrogate the interpretative methodologies of ‘‘imperial’’ Islam which has been bequeathed us and is being constantly indoctrinated to pasmanda students via the obfuscating and unimaginative curriculum and pedagogical practises in Islamic seminaries (madrasas)? Is it willing to discover the rationalist and progressive trends in Islamic history (the Mutazila and Qaramita for instance)? How does it relate to the materialist tradition in Indian society as earlier mentioned? How does it relate to the liberation theology movements in contemporary Islam in other locations (in South Africa for instance)?


Two, broad campaigns and effective social interventions need to be undertaken to encourage inter-caste marriages (and also love marriages!) in Muslim society. There is a strong link between caste and patriarchy in India. By resorting to these measures caste politics will be engendered and set on the libratory track.


Three, a rigorous analysis of the Muslim working class is imperative and strategies must be designed accordingly. The entire politics of reservations concentrates on challenging the monopoly of upper-castes in the organised public sector which constitutes only a small—though privileged—segment of the job market. While this is essential it only affects society indirectly by democratising the state in the long run. A majority of pasmanda Muslims, however, work in adverse conditions and depressed wages in the unorganised sector (which constitutes about 90% of Indian employment) either as labourers in sectors where caste plays a minimal role (farms, brick kilns, construction industry, bidi manufacture, etc) or in caste determined vocations (as weavers, potters, oil-pressers and so on). The PM would do well to make common cause with movements that are working towards narrowing this huge gap between the organised and unorganised sector at a macro level and also think of organising caste based occupations in cooperatives or retraining those skilled workers whose traditional skills have dated and no longer generate an appropriate demand in the market.


However, I must stress here that the above mentioned suggestions are provisional in nature and not well-formed intellectual positions as yet and I merely offer them here for a debate among individuals and groups who sympathise or are connected to the PM is some way. Also, many more issues could be taken up and added to the list—for instance, education, health, environment, models of development, art, popular media et al immediately come to my mind.


Reconsider Icons

Besides, I also feel a need to reconsider the icons that have been selected by the PM because the semiotics of any movement arguably defines and circumscribes its politics. Three personalities have usually been celebrated by the movement: Baba-e-Qaum Abdul Qayyum Ansari, Veer Abdul Hameed and Ustad Bismillah Khan.

 Abdul Qayyum Ansari, who belonged to the julaha (weaver) community, challenged the ‘‘two-nation theory’’ and Muslim League politics squarely but failed to see through the caste/class composition of the Congress politics and was ultimately subsumed by it. Abdul Hameed, who belonged to the darzi (tailor) community, was awarded with the highest gallantry award Paramveer Chakra posthumously for his bravery and martyrdom in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. Ustad Bismillah Khan, who belonged to the halalkhor (sweeper) community, as we all know, was a renowned musician.

I do not intend to underestimate their achievements but it must be said that all these icons are problematic in terms of their libratory impact. While Abdul Qayyum Ansari’s career ended in a political compromise and could not transcend the immediacy of electoral politics, Abdul Hameed’s contribution entails a danger of succumbing to apologetic nationalism (as was evident in the emotive slogans and songs inspired by his life that were rendered in the Pasmanda Waqaar Rally held in Patna recently on 1 July 2008). Moreover, Bismillah Khan’s symbol is so innocuously apolitical as to make us speculate if it serves any purpose at all. 


Can the PM move beyond these icons and rediscover more libratory figures in history? Can Kabir—with his working class background, his unflinching critique of both ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ religious pretensions and obscurantism and above all his explicit positioning against the caste system—be offered as a candidate here? Can other libratory symbols from Islamic and Indian history fit the bill?


All in all, the crux of the argument submitted here is that PM needs to grow beyond quota politics and rethink its abnegation of the social/cultural/economic aspects of the movement. Along with its present accent on democratisation of the state it would do well to also consider the more far-reaching issue of the democratisation of society at large. PM needs to engage in a balancing act between the political and social.  This will create the much desired synergy necessary for launching the libratory promise of PM on track.


(The author is a member of a research-activism group called The Patna Collective. He can be reached at This article was published in the Economic and Political Weekly, March 28, 2009, Vol. xliv no 13.)







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