Social Justice and ‘Minority’ Institutions: A Response to Critics

This is a provisional attempt to address some of the responses that followed the circulation of ‘Social Justice and ‘Minority’ Institutions: An Open Letter to the President Ms.. Pratibha Patil’ (henceforth Open Letter)The text of the Open Letter can be accessed at:

In a sense all polemical scribbling suffer from a serious handicap. They often generate more heat than light. But they have their utility too. It is only through this genre that certain concrete issues can be foregrounded, with all the exaggeration and emphasis notwithstanding. An explosion is sometimes needed for the deaf and dumb. Not for the intent of demolition, but more so for setting up of the stage where a serious debate could be enabled. Our earlier piece should be read with this spirit in mind.

The storm is now showing signs of settling down. The open letter has achieved its purpose. We threw a stone in the otherwise stagnant pond.

In this text we intend to still continue in the polemical vein. More so for addressing the queries, questions and discomfort that were asked and raised of the open letter. We hope this text will take the debate to the next level where the issues could be discussed with some sobriety.

One of our young and well meaning friend commented during the course of this debate:

‘And yeah, even in FDR (Forum for Democratic Rights) which is a relatively large audience of Muslim intelligentsia reading your arguments have preferred to ignore you and your thoughts. You have written brilliant texts before also and have presented arguments very vocally, but people have kept quiet. I mean you know it and we have seen many times on FDR that you say one line against the conservative mullahs and we get strings of mails people quoting Quran and explaining how wonderful Islam is. But as far as I can remember, except for Yogi Sikand acknowledging your arguments, there was hardly any response. On the contrary what was expected is that your writings will initiate a debate on Muslim identity. Nothing happened.’ (Emphasis added)

I am wondering if he feels the same for the Open Letter too. This time a debate did take place, while our earlier writings invited a curious silence. Why? Largely because our earlier writings were commentaries or articulations of pasmanda issues/ themes of a very general nature. They were emphasizing on a politics which could bear fruit only in the long run. Hence, people could afford to ignore them. They could afford a conspiracy of silence. This time it is different. The argument is around a concrete issue and much is at stake. There is something concrete that some people stand to lose. And not in the remote and distant future but here and now. Hence, heavens are shaking and petty gods are squeaking. The masks are off for the better. The floodgates have opened. We cannot escape a debate now!

The basic point that we have been making is extremely simple.

We are emphasising on the legitimacy of the category of caste in non-Hindu communities and the structural discrimination that happens against lower caste members in these communities as a result of this. Caste is usually associated with the Hindu religion in the public imagination. So when one says caste movements in Islam, one is obviously raising a few eyebrows. However, in our understanding caste is not primarily a religious question but basically a structural question, a question of power. In India social stratification takes place along two axes: one, on the economic (or class) basis and, two, in status (or caste) terms. Moreover, there is a strong correlation between the two. Now this stratification no religious community (including Muslims) in India has been so far able to transcend, all pious hopes notwithstanding.

It follows then that with those who still intend to obfuscate social reality (caste) with theological reality (In Islam all are equal) we have no debate except to suggest that either they are living in a fool’s paradise or that their aspirations are not so innocuous after all. We have in mind the comments like:

I personally feel that there is no caste in Muslims rather everyone is just MUSLIM and not more than that. These types of caste identities would only crop up caste based system which has never been a part of Islamic system. It is either a Muslim or Non-Muslim, that’s it!

We are not discussing Islam here. Though we will still have much to say on that later. What we are discussing is the constitution of groups (interest groups if you prefer) and group rights in a plural and multicultural setting. We are talking of representation, social exclusion and social justice. We are talking of affirmative action and quotas. In short we are talking of democracy. All these categories may be unfashionable, trite and distasteful now for certain sections. But that is understandable. For the marginalised caste groups they are perhaps the only weapons in their arsenal as of now. For them their utility at present is beyond reproach.

Let us now take the main threads that evolved out of the responses to the open letter and address them in some detail:

The Politics of Social Location

In an ideal world we could have started from the abstract or may not have started at all. In the real world our own social locations (ethnicity, caste, gender, religion, race etc.) do matter. Paula Moya offers a useful clarification:

The significance of identity depends partly on the fact that goods and resources are still distributed according to identity categories. Who are we—that is, who we perceive ourselves or are perceived by others to be—will significantly affect our life chances: where we can live, whom we will marry, (or whether we can marry) and what kind of educational and employment opportunities will be available to us […] an ability to take effective steps towards progressive social change is predicated on an acknowledgement of, and familiarity with, past and present structures of inequality—structures that are often highly correlated with categories of identity. [Cited in S. Anand, ‘On claiming dalit subjectivity’, Seminar (558), February, 2006, p. 62]

In other words, identity (including caste identity) is not something to be subverted or transcended but rather something that needs to be engaged with and attended to. In a sense, we are all constituted in complex ways by our identities and ‘social locations’. However, to say that we are completely determined by them would be as absurd as to say that they have no bearing on our politics at all. To invoke an example: don’t we all know how the project of land reforms was largely subverted owing to the feudal (upper caste) social locations of our early bureaucracy. Even at present if one has lived in a village setting one could easily realize how important the social location of the Station Officer in the local police station could be. The examples and narratives of how the social composition of the state institutions affects the policy formulation and their execution are legion. Hence, the state needs to be socially representative if its policies are to be implemented with some conviction and force.

The same logic can be extended to ‘Muslim’ politics too.. While Muslim politics has been quick to note and address interreligious conflict and discord it has been lackadaisical in acknowledging intra-Muslim cleavages (especially, caste and gender). In the narratives of caste (and perhaps gender) movements among Indian Muslims mainstream Muslim politics largely conflates with the interests of the ashrafiya male elite. In this politics the claim of the lower caste and women are largely ignored or are at best uneasily accommodated as the case may be. This politics is highly emotive and symbolic and works against any democratization or social reform of the ‘Muslim’ community in any meaningful way.

The agitated responses to the Open Letter largely confirm our thesis. But still we have made head-way. A few people are willing to listen and are taking the debate seriously.

Our argument is basically simple. If ‘Muslim’ (read ashrafiya-male elite) is a legitimate interest group then so is ‘Pasmanda Muslim’ (read Pasmanda Male elite) or for that matter ‘Muslim Women’ and so on. No interest group has the right to label other groups as ‘imagined communities’ and take their own interest groups to be legitimate and real. As democracy in India deepens various interest groups who feel have been marginalized will proliferate and fragment existing collectivities. The march of social justice will be painful. But this fragmentation is only one aspect of the dialectic of social change. We will all be born again after this process has taken place: the early and painful fragmentation will lead to a more authentic unity at a higher and more humane level.

It is in this spirit that questions were asked of the empanelment process of JMI. When will social justice become an issue in so-called ‘Muslim’ institutions? When will the Courts, Search Committee’s, Executive Councils et al become socially representative? If Pasmanda sections form about 75% of the Muslim community then what is their representation in the governing and decision-making bodies in Muslim institutions? If women hold half the sky then what is their proportion in these decision making bodies? If there is a dearth of talent and suitable candidates in these communities then why is it so even after half a century after Independence? What are the forces that chain their upward mobility? If suitable and competent candidates are available what prevents their entry into these decision making bodies? These questions we think can no longer be elided. As someone said, ‘Things are changing…and things will change.’

We also thought that the Universities would be the right forum to begin our debate. These are the sites where discourses are usually constructed. These are the sites where debates are scuttled or reproduced. What better forum to discuss the question of intra-Muslim social justice than that of AMU and JMI, the twin Universities championing the cause of ‘Muslim’ identity?

Revisiting the Open Letter and the Responses


The open letter evoked many agitated responses. There was some discomfiture over the paragraph where we singled out and critiqued Mr. Syed Hamid. Let us quote at length from the response:

‘Please do not insult such a legendary personality of Syed Hamid sahib who has devoted his entire life for the uplift of the Community. At this age, he is still doing what the entire community collectively has not been doing. He is an idealistic and might have made mistakes due to harshness of his views but his integrity, honesty, commitment and sympathy to our community is unquestionable. I am sure he will not be part of any decision which is based on nepotism and favoritism. I believe it as I believe in Quran.’ (Emphasis added)

To begin with we think that personalities like Mr. Syed Hamid or Mr. Syed Shahabuddin are much more than mere individuals. They are metaphors and iconic figures for mainstream Muslim politics. Afterall, he is a ‘legendary personality… who has devoted his entire life for the uplift of the Community’. ‘[H]e is still doing what the entire community collectively has not been doing.’ The only problem in this line of argument is that for all practical purposes ‘our community’ here basically translates into the Ashrafiya Muslim Community. Let us illustrate why we say so.

Let us take the issue of reservations for Muslims. On this issue we all know there is a divided opinion. Whereas mainstream ashrafiya position veers towards blanket Muslim reservations, the Pasmanda politics strongly contests this logic. On this issue Mr. Syed Hamid has always supported the mainstream ashrafiya position. That is why the Pasmanda communities distrust him. They see him as the spokesperson of reactionary ashrafiya politics.

For argument’s sake let us not doubt ‘his integrity, honesty, commitment and sympathy to our community’. But does that mean that individual integrity translates automatically to progressive politics? There are many a RSS workers whose integrity is beyond question. Can the same be said of their politics? Even in the respondent’s comment the values he states are reserved for ‘our community’. What is Mr. Syed Hamid’s attitude towards those who lie beyond the domain of ‘our community’ as he understands it? For instance: the case of students from Bihar that the open letter highlighted, and failed to invite equally vehement criticisms.. Or, the many unpleasant narratives that we hear of the encounter of lower caste Muslims with this ‘legendary’ personality. Can we submit here that the personal experience of the respondent with Mr. Hamid may not be exhaustive? He may believe in him as he believes in the Quran owing to his personal encounters with him but there is valid possibility of others not sharing his sentiments. After all, there would be countless others who would prefer to believe in the Prophet as they believe in the Quran.

Quite clearly we are not in the business of manufacturing legends. We hold a healthy regard for iconoclasm in some measure. That does not mean we intend to belittle anyone’s achievements, which may be many. All we wish to suggest is that we need to avoid undue reverential tones for mortal human beings.. That clearly hampers their objective assessment and the political progress of the collectivity in question. The modes of internal dissent/critique needs to be established and tolerated. In our own case we started with internal critique first and the political compromises of Mr. Ali Anwar and Dr. Ejaz Ali have not been spared in our writings and commentaries.


Another question that the open letter vocally raised was the ignoring of a senior [OBC] IAS officer from the panel. One is left wondering what made the Search Committee reject his name in favor of other three bureaucrats when he was equally or perhaps more competent. Our hypothesis is that it was only owing to his caste location. If the Search Committee has better answers we think it should share them with the entire nation and come clean on this. Some comments are interesting in this regard:

‘Please do not foul cry in the name of caste and creed. What Muslims need today are the leaders and bureaucrats who are honest, sympathetic, hard-working and result oriented irrespective of their caste.’

‘The VC positions of AMU or JMI are very crucial for the Indian Muslim community. We should be expecting to see a person in such a position who brings in the vision of an academic, efficiency of an administrator, and can provide the intellectual leadership to the community rather that who comes from where.’

‘Besides, the VC of a University is chosen, not only on his academic qualification and his experience in educational field, but also if he can be a really good role model for the young students as well. The Search Committee to look for such a person comprised of 3 persons of impeccable record- who were of the highest calibre from the 3 main branches of the Government, comprising of the Judiciary, the Administrative branch as well as from the field of higher Education. If they felt that Mr. Anees Ansari , did not qualify on any of these points – then the decision must have been based on sound judgement and administrative discretion, rather than on social class prejudice ... Does, being from a Pasmanda community automatically gives one a license to be appointed to whatever post he or she applies for, regardless of having the necessary academic ,ethical or moral strength to carry the burden on his shoulders?’ [Bold in the original]

‘I have no hesitation in recording (even at the cost of being dubbed tactless, and worse) that in omitting the particular name the Committee acted with discretion and responsibility expected from that responsible body - let me say no more on the subject.’

One is led to question if ethics, morality, efficiency and vision are the sole preserves of the ashraf sections? On what grounds the [OBC] IAS officer in question is less ethical, inefficient or incompetent in comparison with: (a) the other three bureaucrats considered for empanelment; (b) the bureaucrats empanelled/ appointed as VC of AMU in these many years? These questions we think need to be answered. Surely, something ‘more’ needs to be said ‘on the subject’!


An interesting question was raised by someone in the public sphere:

As the issue of social justice in "Muslim" institutions has come under sharp debate, I wish to know, did the AMU and JMI ever empanel any non -Ashraf or non upper caste Muslim in the list/ panel of its VCs? Without credible information about this particular question, I am afraid, the debate would/ may lead us to nowhere. Discussing an individual will certainly not help us.

The only unambiguous answer offered so far is that one Mr Wahidul Hasan IRS (Retired) was on the panel in 2002..


Academic-Bureaucrat VC debate: Some friends have campaigned for an academic vice-chancellor for JMI. While the academic-bureaucrat debate is a long standing one in the context of JMI and AMU we are forced to ask them if they will apply the logic of social justice in the case of academic VC too? Are there any lower caste Muslim academics that they feel should be considered? Are they willing to press for the name of any Muslim women academic? At this point of time we would support her even if she comes from an upper caste location: e.g. Prof. Zoya Hasan’s candidature.

[Beisdes, prior to General Zaki, during the tenure of academic VCs, the acute lawlessness in JMI is something like a sore in the memory of the insiders of JMI. This fact also needs to be taken into account].


Two other comments need to be engaged with:

‘[…] any person from "PASAMANDA" biradari, when crosses the limits does not any longer belong to that class. So considering Mr Anees Ansari for the VC position of JMI on the basis of caste/social class cannot be justified. Being an IAS officer he has defied the unwelcome burden of low social status.’

Your excellent proposal that since Dalit Muslims are 75% of the Muslim population they should be given their due share is flawed. Since only thing this will do is to benefit the creamy layer and a privileged few among the Dalits Muslims...But taking up this issue by your nascent Dalit Muslim forum shows how disconnected champions of Dalit Muslims are to the real issues. A great number of Muslims, Dalits or non-Dalits don't get educated beyond primary level but only thing concerns you is that VC of AMU and JMI should be given to Dalit Muslims because they form 75% of the
population? [Note: This is a response to one comment made by the Editor of the blog Indian Dalit Muslims Voice (IDMV)]

The autobiographical notes of Dr. BR Ambedkar suggest clearly how caste continues to weigh heavily on even those who have moved up on the class ladder. The first comment can be read in that light. The second comment requires a slightly detailed response.

As we all know we are working inside a liberal democratic state or a representative parliamentary democracy. Moreover, there is always a tension and gap between the state and society per se. The state does not always represent the social aspirations comprehensively though attempts towards that end need to be continuously undertaken. In a pluralist democratic set-up various interest groups keep on emerging and they negotiate with the state through their respective elites. The classical liberal theory is uneasy with direct mass-participation since it feels it would make decision making more cumbersome and tedious and is comfortable with co-opting the elites of various groups. The underlying idea is that various interests will be addressed by the elite of concerned groups and ultimately the political process would deepen and equilibrium will somehow return after the initial tension has passed.

Following this model (and we are not entirely convinced with it) it can be remarked that democratisation of state and the society are two different projects though not mutually exclusive ones. They must not be made to collapse into each other. If positive discrimination (the forms may vary) is intended to democratise the state, various social movements, grassroots initiatives and public action in general aspire to democratise the society. We have commented earlier on how the social composition of the state affects decision making and execution of policies. In other words, to privilege one over another would be a grievous mistake: both democratisation of state and society can and must go hand in hand.

It must be further stated that reservations/affirmative action/quota are not a poverty alleviation programme. They are meant to check the monopoly of upper caste groups in the system by making the system socially representative. The basic rationale being that monopoly of any kind—power, wealth or knowledge—breeds inefficiency in the long run. Now in the absence of positive discrimination of any kind who controls the Indian state? Obviously: the upper caste elite. Who can challenge these upper caste elite? None other than the lower caste elite: those among the lower castes who have had an opportunity to educate themselves and those who have moved up the class ladder. Do the upper castes fear the lower castes in general? No. The lower caste masses in general can never dream of challenging them. Only the lower caste elite have any remote chance of doing that. Hence, when the lower caste elite is dubbed in pejorative sense with terms like ‘creamy layer’ and so on and when it is coupled with this huge noble sentiment for the sections that ‘don't get educated beyond primary level’ and this talk of ‘real issues’ (development), the entire argument must be put in some kind of a perspective.

Who among the Pasmanda writers is suggesting that poverty, illiteracy, health, housing, employment, hunger are not real issues. They are of course undoubtedly the most important issues. But why is the obvious connection of these real issues with the question of democratisation of state and community controlled institutions underplayed? Where does one chalk out policies for addressing these issues? Obviously, the state and community controlled institutions. If these institutions are dominated by social groups who have never faced or shared a historical memory of hunger, unemployment, penury and marginalisation in general then what kind of policies will they formulate? Even if they formulate the correct policies will they execute them properly?

Summing Up: The state is a site of contest between the elite of various groups. The old and new elite will obviously contest each other for their own share thereby making the state socially more representative. But despite adequate representation of various interest blocs a gap will always remain between the interests of the state and society. This chasm needs to be addressed via public action where the masses can pressurise various parties, institutions, and centres of power for acknowledging and accepting their agenda.

So in our reading the democratisation of state and community institutions is as important and real an issue as is public action, campaigns and interventions on the real issues already mentioned. It is not an either/or affair. Both can go hand-in-hand. In short, to answer the respondent the democratisation of AMU and JMI are as relevant as concrete grassroots interventions for the issues of food, health, education and so on.

These are some of the broader concerns that we wanted to address now. On some more factual and empirical questions we shall attempt to write sooner than later.

Pasmanda Intellectual’s Forum (PIF)


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