Caste-based quota to Ajlafs will strengthen Muslim unity

In response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Akhil Maharashtra Muslim Khatik Samaj, stating that there were Dalits within Muslim community who needed reservation and demanded inclusion in the SC list, the Supreme Court has issued notice to the Centre seeking its reply. Further, the judge referred to the strict dictates of Quran prohibiting practice of any forms of caste system within Islam and it asked the petitioner if Islam permitted caste system. (Times of India, Jan. 26, 2008). This observation of the apex court has initiated a debate whether there is caste system in Islam or among Muslims? In the DV of March 1, 2008, the Editor has rightly said that ‘Muslim leaders should not oppose quota for Backward Muslims’. The current debate on the issue in the national and Muslim media establishes the DV analysis of castes among Muslims. All social scientists agree that though there is no caste system as much in Islam, the Indian Muslim society did develop a hierarchical structure by characterizing numerous biraderis. The Quran and the Prophet’s sayings are crystal clear that all human beings are equal; all are brothers and sisters of each other.

However, some Muslims established superior status for themselves as ashraf or noble on the basis of their foreign descent, while descendants of indigenous converts are commonly referred as ajlaf or ‘lowly’. Some Islamic jurists too, deviating from Islamic teachings, in the name of kufu i.e. parity in marriage between the parties, legitimize castes. Even the Muslim law of marriage recognizes the doctrine of kufu in all vital respects including social status and descent, which, in India, means nothing but casteism.

The Sachar Committee Report, on the existence of castes among Indian Muslims, says:

“the present day Muslim society is divided into four major groups (i) the ashrafs, who trace their origins to foreign lands, (ii) the upper caste Hindus who converted to Islam, (iii) the middle caste converts whose occupations are ritually clean, (iv) the converts from the erstwhile Untouchable castes – Bhangi (scavengers), Mehtar (sweeper), Chamar (tanner), Halalkhor (Dom) and so on”. (p. 192) On the level of backwardness, the Sachar report finds that out of every 100 workers about 11 are Hindu OBCs, three are Muslim-general and only one is Muslim OBC (p. 209), whereas the population of OBC Muslims is as much as 75% of the total Muslims’ population. Similarly, the Justice Rangnath Misra Commission finds prevalence of castes among various sections of the Indian citizenry. It concludes: “The caste is in fact a social phenomenon shared by almost all Indian communities irrespective of their religious persuasions”. (Para 16.3)

Historically, a good number of Dalits converted to Islam. But after conversion their socio-economic status remained impoverished, backward and downtrodden. By joining the fold of Islam they did not get such a boost to their talents and abilities that they could face equal competition with all others. They were still treated as Untouchables in the society. Most of them continued with their traditional professions as artisans, peasants and labourers, except when it was considered impure or unacceptable in Shariah. Nevertheless, of late, some of these Muslim caste groups got Islamised. They also became organized and given themselves Muslim nomenclatures. They identified and associated themselves with Islamic personalities. For example, the butchers designated themselves as Qureshi; the weavers as Ansari; the tailors as Idrisi; the Bhishtis as Abbasi; the vegetable vendors as Raeen; the barbers as Salmani; the carpenters and blacksmiths as Saifi etc.

In a democratic state, each socially identifiable group aspires to see its face in the development. Millions of Dalit Muslims, who are occupationally akin to the SCs, demand inclusion in the SC List to enable them to avail the benefits of reservation.


However, on this issue Muslim leaders are divided. One group demands reservation for the Muslims as a whole. They argue that the constitution talks about protective discrimination in the context of class not caste.

Syed Shahabuddin, ex-MP says: “if caste can be interpreted as class, why not religion; that all Muslims are, socially and educationally, marginalized and deprived”.

Taking same line, Dr. Abdul Haque Ansari, ex-President of Jamate-Islami, in his presidential address to the workshop on Sachar Committee Report, called the categorization of Muslim as ‘bad in taste’. He questions: ‘if the entire community stands as backward class, where does the question of other categorization on caste line arise?’

Jamia Nizamia of Andhra Pradesh had issued a fatwa against state govt. move to provide reservations for Muslims on the lines of castes. However most of the prominent ulema of the country, cutting across the lines of sects and organisations, had sharply reacted against the fatwa. Maulana Syed Ahmed Bukhari of Jama Masjid, Delhi, had declared that the fatwa will harm the interest of the community.


The other group demands caste-based reservation as given in the Indian constitution. According to Kumar Suresh Singh Report of SCs, there are some 35 Muslim castes that have SC background and engage in occupations traditionally associated with SCs. They demand that Muslim SCs be included in the SC category. Their major arguments are that according to the Indian constitution religion-based reservation is invalid; that if the reservation will be given to all Muslims, the ashraf, who have historically been forward in all aspects, will corner the benefits of reservation; that if for endogamy and khilafat purpose caste could be criteria, why not for reservation also; that if Hindu, Sikh and Budhist SCs can be given reservation, why not Muslim SCs? Advocating this idea Professor Imtiaz Ahmed of JNU says that ‘en bloc reservation of Muslims is not a viable idea. Inclusion of Muslim Dalits as OBCs and MBCs makes the most sense’.

They also argue that all Muslims are equally deprived is incorrect. True, by and large, Muslims are deprived and face discrimination, but within the community backward Muslims, including Muslim SCs, are more under-privileged than ashraf Muslims.

The Sachar Reports says:

‘the incidence of poverty is highest among Muslim-OBC (38%) followed by Muslim General (35%)… Overall, the conditions of Muslim-OBCs are worse than those of Muslim-General …Within the Muslim community a larger percentage of Muslim OBCs fall in low income category as compared to Muslim-General…Within Muslims, Muslim-OBCs are slightly lagging behind the Muslim-General in high income group.’

In its recommendation the report says: “Being at the bottom of the Social hierarchy, the arzals [SCs] are the worst off and need to be handled separately. It would be most appropriate if they were absorbed in the SC list or at least in a separate category”.


Justice Misra Commission also says that ‘the caste system should be recognized as a general social characteristic of the Indian society as a whole, without questioning whether the philosophy and teachings of any particular religion recognize it or no”. It further recommends that ‘Para 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 should be wholly deleted by appropriate action so as to completely de-link the Scheduled Caste status from religion’. The denial of reservation to Dalit Muslims by the Presidential Order of 1950 appeared to be with an eye on the balance of power which is tilted in favour of Hindus. Hence, the required amendment will be a step towards secularism.


The Constitution prohibits any discrimination between the citizens. Hence, any religion-based discrimination conflicts with the letter and spirit of the provisions. In the famous Indra Sawhney Case the Supreme Court had decided that ‘a caste can be and quite often is a social class in India’. Further it conceptualizes: ‘If it is backward socially, it would be a backward class for the purpose of Article 16(4). Among non-Hindus, there are several occupational groups, sects and denominations, which for historical reasons are socially backward. They too represent backward social collectives for the purpose of Article 16(4) Identification of the backward classes can certainly be done with reference to castes among, and along with, other occupational groups, classes and section of people. (AIR 582 SC 1993). Reservation in public employment is specifically covered by Article 16(4) of the Constitution, for any backward class of citizens, which are not adequately represented in the services under the State.

Hence, it is expected that the Supreme Court would analyze the issue of reservation of Dalit Muslims keeping in mind the context of Indian Constitution, findings of various commissions and social realities.

Meanwhile, instead of shoving the issue of reservation for backward/Dalit Muslims under the carpet it is the duty of our ulema and community leaders to realise that this group needs special attention and there should be no roadblock in the way of their getting fair share, for they are, as suggested by the Sachar report, ‘cumulatively oppressed’. Repeated appeal to the Muslim community to maintain unity in the name of Islam, foregoing the constitutional benefits, will not be a wise idea. May be some day in the future reservations will be based solely on community’s impoverishment, but until then caste-based support seems to be perfectly justified. True, the Muslim community must reject the proposition of fragmentation, but they should apply the same principles of social justice as much within the community as it demands for itself within the nation.


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