Muslim Dalit and OBC Conference: A Report

By Yoginder Sikand

30 November 2005

Some weeks ago a conference was organised in New Delhi by the Prime Minister's High Level Committee, headed by Justice Rajinder Sachar (Retd.), which has been appointed to prepare a report on the socio-economic conditions of the Muslims of India. The conference brought together activists and leaders associated with various Muslim Backward Caste (OBC and Dalit) communities from different parts of India to deliberate on the problems affecting these groups, who, together, form the majority of the Indian Muslim population. The conference was probably the first of its sort, for Muslim conferences are invariably dominated by 'upper' caste Muslim leaders who rarely, if ever, take up issues related specifically to the 'low' caste Muslims.

In his address to the conference, the noted Mumbai-based Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer pointed out that while Islam does not recognise caste distinctions, Indian Muslim society is based on various caste and ethnic communities. Muslims may be a faith community, but in sociological and even theological terms are not homogenous. They are divided into numerous sects, and, in India, into various caste groups as well. Hence, to take them as a single unit and to deny these internal differences would only perpetuate them and to further reinforce structures of marginalisation. He critiqued those, mainly 'upper' caste Muslim spokesmen, who claim that raising the problems of the 'low' caste Muslim communities is 'anti-Islamic' conspiracy to divide the Muslims, seeing it as 'un-Islamic' on the grounds that Islam has no room for caste. He argued that this denial of internal caste differences among Muslims was a means to perpetuate the hegemony of 'upper' caste Muslim leaders and 'ulama, who present an image of Muslims as a seamless monolith. He also opposed the proposal, put forward mainly by 'upper' caste Muslim leaders, that all the Muslims of India be declared a 'Backward Class', and hence be eligible for reservations in government jobs. Instead, Engineer said, reservations should be available only to those Muslim communities recognised as Dalits, Tribals and Backward Castes.

A similar point was made by P.S. Krishnan, former Chairman of the Backward Classes Commission, who pointed out that caste is a pan-Indian, rather than simply a Hindu, institution. The mere fact of a Muslim or Christian OBC belonging to a non-Hindu faith, he argued, makes no difference to his or her poverty and the discrimination that he or she faces. He critiqued the state for not making publicly available data on the socio-economic conditions of the Muslims of the country, particularly of the numerous OBC Muslim communities, who rank among the poorest sections of Indian society. In fact, he questioned the necessity of the Sachar Commission itself, pointing out that the state has in its possession adequate data on Muslim socio-economic conditions. Despite this, he said, the state has done little at all for the Muslim OBCs, as indeed for other marginalised castes.

Krishnan also critiqued the state for denying Scheduled Caste status to Muslim and Christian Dalit communities. He referred to the Presidential Order of
1950 according to which only those Dalits who profess Hinduism can be considered as Scheduled Castes for the purpose of reservation and other benefits from the state. Later, this was extended to include Dalits who profess Buddhism and Sikhism as well. However, millions of Christian and Muslim Dalits are still denied, by law, Scheduled Caste status, although their socio-economic conditions, and the discrimination that they are subjected to by the wider society, is not different from that of those Dalits who are recognised as Hindus. Terming this as 'anti-secular', Krishnan demanded that the state recognise Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians as Scheduled Castes and provide them all the benefits that go with that status. In addition he stressed the need for the census to record the economic and social conditions of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians as well, so that the fact of their continued marginalisation is officially recognised, on the basis of which programmes for state intervention could be formulated. He commented that far from dividing Muslims, as some 'upper' caste Muslim leaders claim, reservations for OBC and Dalit Muslims will empower the most marginalised sections of the Muslim community, foster better relations between them and other communities and will also enable them to counter the challenge of Hindutva more effectively.

Pointing out that most Indian Muslims are descendants of 'low' and 'middle' class converts, Ejaz Ali of the Patna-based All-India United Muslim Morcha demanded that the state make special provision for these Muslim groups, as it has for other Dalit and OBC communities. He suggested that the numerous Dalit Muslim communities that are now categorised as OBCs and made to compete with other more powerful OBC communities for government jobs be officially recognised as Scheduled Castes instead. Shabbir Ahmad Ansari of the Maharashtra State Muslim OBC Organisation, made a similar point, and spoke of the continued marginalisation of the Muslim Dalits and OBCs and the different forms of discrimination that they suffer at the hands of dominant Hindu as well as Muslim castes. He critiqued the traditional Muslim leadership, drawn mainly from the minority 'upper' castes, for ignoring the problems of these communities and, instead, raising controversial issues in order to perpetuate their own hegemony.

Muhammad Ibrahim Qureshi, a leader of the Qureshi butcher community from Madhya Pradesh, echoed much the same views, and opposed the demand put forward by several 'upper' caste Muslims that all Muslims be considered as a Backward Class by the state. He saw this as a means to deny OBC Muslims the benefits of reservation and argued that it would only further exacerbate Hindu-Muslim tensions. Further, he argued, this demand was unconstitutional, because the Constitution of India provides for reservations only on the basis of social and educational backwardness and not on religious lines. Adopting a somewhat different position, Zafaryab Jilani of Anjuman-e-Islahul Muslimin, suggested a separate provision for Muslim OBCS within the 27% quota in government services reserved for OBCs under the Mandal Commission. He argued that as of now Muslim OBCS have hardly benefited from the existing quota, having to compete with more influential Hindu OBC communities. Prof. Sukhdeo Thorat of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies offered a different solution. He argued that Muslims as a whole are economically and socially marginalised as compared to Hindus and that they should be given 'special consideration' in the general economic development programmes of the state. However, reservations in government jobs should be provided only to Dalit and Muslim OBCs.

Another suggestion, one that did not meet with unanimous approval, was proposed by Iqbal Ansari of the Minorities Council of India, who claimed that the entire Muslim community, being under-represented in all sectors of public life, should be treated as a Backward Class deserving affirmative action, including reservations in educational institutions and public sector jobs. However, the 'creamy layer', defined in terms of occupation and education, should be excluded from this. There could be a sub-quota within this category for castes that have been traditionally 'backward', with their 'creamy layer' also excluded. In case of non-availability of suitable candidates from these 'backward' castes, the remaining share in the sub-quota could be made available to the general Muslims. In case the entire Muslim community cannot be categorised as a Backward Class, Ansari argued, Muslim OBCs should be provided a separate quota within the general OBC quota.

This view was contested by Ali Anwar of the Patna-based Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, who argued that it would only lead to conflict between Hindu and Muslim OBCs to the benefit of the 'upper' castes, both Hindu and Muslims. Instead, he suggested that OBCs be categorised into two groups, as has been done in Bihar: Other Backward Classes and Most Backward Classes, both of which would include various Hindu, Muslim and other castes depending on their level of marginalisation. Anwar also expressed his scepticism about the Sachar Committee, noting that successive governments have instituted several such committees in the past but yet have done virtually nothing at all for the Muslim OBCs and Dalits, using these committees simply as vote-grabbing gimmicks. 'It is the best way to do nothing and garner Muslim votes', he claimed. Like most other speakers at the conference he condemned the demand that all Muslims be declared a Backward Class for purposes of reservations. 'This is a ploy on the part of the upper caste Muslim elites to promote their own interests and deny us our rights', he insisted. Besides, he said, this demand would only promote Muslim 'separatism' and Hindu-Muslim confrontation.

While Muslims in the country, irrespective of caste, face similar 'security' and 'emotional' issues, said Ashfaq Husain Ansari, former Member of Parliament, member of the Uttar Pradesh Backward Classes Commission and President of the Gorakhpur-based Centre of Backward Muslims, OBC and Dalit Muslims face particular problems specific to them that need to be recognised both by the state as well as other Muslims. He noted the lack of adequate political representation of Dalit and Muslim OBCs, pointing out that from the first to the present Lok Sabha, only around 400 Muslims had been elected, out of which only around 60 were Dalit and OBC Muslims, the rest being so-called 'high' caste Syeds, Shaikhs, Pathans, Mughals, Maliks and Rajputs. Likewise, in public-sector jobs reserved for OBCs and in various government commissions Muslim OBCs have hardly any presence. There is not a single OBC Muslim, he claimed, in the National Backward Classes Commission. He also critiqued the demand for 50% reservation for Muslims in the Aligarh Muslim University, pointing out that such reservation should only be for poor Muslims, particularly Muslim OBCs and Dalits.

In his presentation, the renowned social scientist Imtiaz Ahmad argued that reservations in public sector employment are no solution to economic 'backwardness', given the fact that the number of government jobs is limited and rapidly declining in the face of privatisation. However, reservations for OBCs and Dalits are still important to promote democratisation in the country as a whole as within each religious community. Ahmad also stressed the need for the state to recognise Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians as Scheduled Castes. He argued that the other Dalits would welcome such a move as it would increase their numbers and augment their political power. On the other hand, many 'upper' caste Hindus would obviously oppose it, fearing that it might lead many Dalits to convert to Islam and Christianity. Large sections of the 'upper' caste Muslim leadership, too, he said, would also probably be against this move as it would threaten their politics based on what he called the 'artificial homogenisation of Muslims'.

Although the issue of reservations in government jobs dominated the discussions at the conference, other crucial questions were also raised. Dalit Saleem, an activist from Hyderabad, spoke about the discrimination that 'low' caste Muslims are faced with, even from their own co-religionists in many parts of the country. He said that while Islam preaches equality, in India this equality is limited only to the precincts of the mosque. Among Muslims, as in the case of all other communities in India, caste is the principal factor in deciding marriages. 'Brahminised Muslims must change their attitude', he said, adding that 'Islam has no room for notions such as ashraf (superior) and razil (inferior) on the basis of birth'. He called for the extension of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act to Muslim Dalits as well. He also stressed the need for modernisation of madrasas, claiming that a large section of madrasa students are from Muslim OBC and Dalit families, and that because of the restricted sort of education that they receive in madrasas their employment prospects are bleak.

The issue of political representation of Muslim OBCs and Dalits was raised by Hafeez Ahmad Hawari, President of the All-India Jamiat al-Hawareen, an association of Muslim Dhobis belonging to the washermen caste. He claimed that such is the prejudice that OBC and Dalit Muslims have to suffer at the hands of their 'high' caste co-religionists that many of the latter would rather allow a Hindu candidate from the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win an election than vote for a 'low' caste Muslim. On the other hand, he said, 'Upper caste Muslim candidates routinely appeal to OBC and Dalit Muslims to vote for them, arguing that if they do not the BJP will win'. He lamented that while many 'upper' caste Hindus have struggled for reservations and other rights for their OBC and Dalit co-religionists, few, if any, 'upper' caste Muslims had done so for Muslim OBCs and Dalits. He demanded that Muslim Dhobis be also considered by the state as Scheduled Castes, as is the case with Hindu Dhobis with whom they share a common occupation and ancestry and similar socio-economic conditions. He recounted his own experience of filing his papers for the elections in 2001 in a reserved constituency in Delhi, only to have them rejecting by the returning officer for not officially being a member of a Scheduled Caste. He pointed out that while 'upper' caste Muslims routinely use the argument that Islam does not recognise caste to counter demands for reservations for OBC and Dalit Muslims, numerous 'ulama have, in their writings, misinterpreted Islam to argue the claim of the superiority of the so-called 'high' caste of ashraf Muslims and to denigrate the 'lower' castes. He insisted on the need to critique such 'misinterpretations' and to highlight what he called the true concept of Islamic equality. 'Muslim OBCs and Dalits', he forcefully asserted, 'now refuse to continue to be the slaves of the so-called upper castes. We will not vote as per their dictates but, instead, will support any political party or leader that is genuinely committed to our rights and demands'.

Pointing to the fact that the terms of reference of the Sachar Committee do not include the issue of representation of Muslim OBCs in educational institutions, Fakhruddin Bennur, an activist from Osmanabad, Maharashtra, said this was a crucial question, since Muslim OBCs could not hope to secure government jobs if they did not have access to higher education. The problem is being further exacerbated today, he said, with the rapid privatisation of education and the high capitation fees charged by professional institutes, which most OBC and Dalit families cannot afford. He called for the Committee to also look into the issue of the systematic destruction of the livelihood of millions of Muslim OBC and Dalit families as a result of privatisation and neo-liberal economic policies that are playing havoc with the poor. Another issue that the Committee's terms of reference have ignored, Parveen Abdi, a Muslim women's activist from Lucknow pointed out, were the specific problems of Muslim women. She called for state-sponsored affirmative action for Muslim women, while bitterly critiquing the conservative mullahs for what she called their 'misogynist misinterpretations of Islam'.

No one is expecting any radical changes to come about from this conference or similar ones that the Sachar Committee is organising or, indeed, from the recommendations of the Committee itself. Yet, the conference afforded what is perhaps the first opportunity for Muslim OBC and Dalit leaders from different parts of India to get together to articulate their voices and concerns. The discussions at the conference indicate a process of mobilisation and awakening among the most marginalised sections of the country's Muslims, reflecting a deep dissatisfaction with the established, largely 'high' caste, Muslim leadership and a growing demand that Muslim politics move from symbolic issues of identity to concerns of survival and empowerment.

Yoginder Sikand may be contacted at


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