We merely want to raise the curtain

Noor Hasan Azad and Khalid Anis Ansari

Mohammad Noor Hasan Azad, one of the founding members of the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, discusses the contemporary lower caste movement among Indian Muslims.

Khalid Anis Ansari (K): Tell us something about yourself, your native place, education and upbringing...

Noor Hasan Azad (NA): My full name is Mohammad Noor Hasan Azad. I was born in Rajapur, Patna, in Bihar. I got my initial education from Bihar Vidyapith. I also studied in a madarsa for a while. After that I received my education of elementary Hindi and English at home. Our neighbourhood had a specific spatial arrangement. There were different cemeteries for different castes. Here, I would like to emphasize the subtle element of untouchability present in this organization of cemeteries. It is important to note that all the land was in the possession of the feudal landlord (zamindar). He gave away that land to be employed for this purpose but he insisted or rather condoned the division of cemeteries on the basis of caste. To quote another incident, the zamindar donated a well to the village mosque. But he wanted it to be within the premises of his mansion, again to regulate the access to the well. Many people objected to it as the properties in the possession of the mosque were meant to be open for public use. The issue got heated at that time (1977-78) as there used to be a shortage of drinking water in Patna and people were dependent for drinking water primarily on the wells like this. My father was prominent among those involved in this battle around the issue of the well, probably because he was the only educated person from my caste. Aadmi padhne ke baad ghulami bardasht nahi karta (A man cannot accept servitude after he is educated!). So, (the point I want to make is that) we are not fighting any new battle, and it is not that we are making untouchability and discrimination an issue (out of nothing). In fact, these are age old issues, but remained concealed under the curtain. Ham pardah uthane ki koshish kar rahe hain (We merely want to raise the curtain!).

K: A question that is widely echoed is that the ‘pasmanda movement’ is producing division among Muslims and that it is funded by some external groups. Would you like to comment?

NA: The movement known as 'pasmanda tehreek' (movement) is not coming with (any new divisions like those along) caste. In fact, the division is produced and maintained by the elite Muslim castes as it is in their interest. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, an upper caste, who also got entitled as Khan Bahadur by British Government, can be seen backing the inequality of the caste system. Many scholars (vidwaan) and priests (mulla) remain instrumental in this hierarchical construction. We are highlighting the issue, invoking the same category of caste, which was earlier maintained to sustain inequality, to demand justice (haq).

K: When and why did you associate with the pasmanda movement? Tell us something about the rationale for its foundation.

NA: We are associated with the pasmanda ideology right since our birth. At that time it did not have a structured form (ruprekha) but there was a battle in our consciousness. We could never associate ourselves with upper caste Muslims. I asked a question from my father why he gave me the name ‘Azad’, as this name/title is not used by anyone else in our family. I asked him if he was impressed by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (a Muslim leader, belonging to upper caste). He replied: “No, rather we were impressed by Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad. We could not use Bhagat Singh, and we were left with Azad.” As far as Muslim backward caste movement is concerned, I would like to mention first the Backward Muslim Morcha, which was founded by Dr. Ejaz Ali on 1st July, 1994. But, it witnessed a downfall because ‘Mallik’ and ‘Sheikh’ (considered as upper castes among Muslims) tried to be part of this organisation in the ‘Jihad Conference’ of October 1998. We got an impression that when Malliks, who have a high position in Muslim caste hierarchy, are going to be part of a backward class Muslim organisation, it will no longer be representative of pasmanda muslims. These were the issues that generated a great amount of discontent among many of Morcha members and followers. Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz was founded to address this discontent.

We had lost one ‘knight’ in the battle (in the form of Backward Muslim Morcha); hence we were a little anxious and wanted a thorough intervention. Then, on 25th October 1998, Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz was founded and from then onwards we have been articulating our concerns under this banner. Even when we had come up with a new organization, we were representing age old concerns. In fact, a movement is like a river which will never stop. Names and titles do not matter, what matters is the ‘motto’, the spirit. Around the same time when the Mahaz was being established, an elite Muslim organization, the Institute of Objective Studies (IOS), organized a 2-day seminar in AIIMS, spending lots of money. At that conference they declared pasmanda movement as a threat for Islam and Muslim politics. They never tried to negotiate with us (even if they supposed that we were wrong). Woh chahte the ki bam la ke ham par patak dein, taaki theek se khade bhi na ho sakein (They wanted to nip us in the bud!). They also used mediums like internet to defame us.

K: In fact, both these organisations were formed after 1990 and some have also suggested that they were a product of the Mandal Commission. But, as we know, the roots of the pasmanda politics go back to the pre-Independence period, when Abdul Qayyum Ansari reinvigorated the All India Momin Conference in the 1930’s. How do you relate with it?

NA: There has always been one or other kind of caste movement within Muslims, even before Independence. Jamiat-ul-Quraish was founded in 1930. How else can one explain Abdul Malik, from raeen (vegetable sellers) caste, becoming MLC in 1937? People say that sarcastic remarks were made by upper caste Muslims then like, ‘even kunjras (another name for raeen) can now be MLCs!’. But there was no united front among Muslims to articulate the interests of lower castes at that time. What is novel in these recent movements is that they form a united platform to represent the concerns of otherwise discrete Muslim lower castes. It was only after the emergence of a united lower caste movement (in recent times) when people (dominant in politics) started feeling threatened. This feeling of being threatened actually means that the order of power which they maintained in the name of religion is threatened. Sab dharma ki baat karte hain, par le de ke kursi par chale jaate hain (They seem to be concerned with religion, but their real concern is power).

K: When you say that people objected to the pasmanda movement branding it as a threat to Islam, you claim that the threat was not to Islam but to their power. Where exactly are you pointing towards?

NA: Obviously, I am pointing towards the upper caste Muslims. All the organizations that claim to represent Muslims, be it Jamaat-e-Islami, Muslim League or Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind, are run by upper castes. Prominent Urdu newspapers like Awaaz, Agaaz, Tanveer, Tehrik etc are owned by them. Most of the time it is they who represent the so-called Muslim community in various conferences. You will hardly see any lower caste person representing the community there. Bhat bhatiyare to khair keede-makode hain, nali ki tarah hain , ansari, mansuri, raeen tak bhi nazar nahi aate (What to talk of castes like bhats and bhatiyare who are so insignificant that they can be compared to insects, even the comparatively developed castes like ansaris (weavers), mansuris (cotton carders) and raeens hardly get any invitation). Gone is the age of macro-politics. This is the time when identities with low numerical strength are getting space in politics. This is what makes us hopeful.

K: What are your reflections on your experience with the pasmanda movement?

NA: We are continuously struggling. Our movement has spread widely and we have managed to gain respect and trust of the people. Most importantly, we have started reaching out to villages. This is important because most other movements, even the Hindu lower caste movements, remained limited to the urban spaces and never touched the rural areas. As part of this initiative, we visited each and every locality and would talk of their rights and made both the people and administration aware of pasmanda movement. We brought a significant change in the perceptions of Muslim identity. Previously, the question was whether or not they were Muslim, but now the question is whether or not they are pasmanda muslim. With this new identity we were able to address the problems specific to the lower caste muslims. We also made pasmanda muslims aware of various state welfare schemes. There are some castes which are not recognized and hence are unable to get state benefits. We also raised this question strongly. All this was made possible only after the emergence of the pasmanda movement.

K: You and Usman Halalkhor also started a campaign named ‘Dalit Muslim Muhim’ (DMM). Why did you feel the need to start a new campaign?

NA: Ali Anwar, after he became Member of Parliament, was not adequately addressing the issues that concerned us. Na party ke rahe na jaat ke (Neither was he of any use to the party nor to the caste now). Let me give a few examples to illustrate further. One of our concerns was that we would address the issue of ‘dalit muslim’ [in contrast to the OBC (shudra) Muslim which kept Ali Anwar occupied] which didn’t surface during this period. Another point in our agenda was that we would commemorate the death anniversary of Ustad Bismillah Khan. Though he did not work for the upliftment of the dalit muslim community, he was a notable personality among us. Just as we remember people like Ateek-ur-Rehman Arwi, Abdul Qaiyum Ansari and others in our functions, we wanted to remember him too. But when it came to Bismillah Khan, Ali Anwar was silent. Later, when it was the question of appointing his Personal Assistant, he appointed his son instead of some member from Mahaz. We then realized that he was veering away from the pasmanda ideology and we decided to do something independently. As a result the Dalit Muslim Muhim was launched.

K: What are the dalit muslim castes in Bihar and what occupations are they related to?

NA: A few dalit castes among Muslims are mentioned in Sachar Committee Report. I will mention here mirshikars, bakhho, pamadiyas, gorkuns (grave diggers), halaalkhors (scavengers), mehtars (sweepers), dhobis (washermen), nats etc. Mirshikars are dependent on birds that they catch from forests for their livelihood. Nats are involved in their traditional occupation of caching snakes and playing sports like pahelvani (wrestling), kushti, tamashe (acrobatics) etc. Bakkhos sing on the streets and other occasions and receive small amounts of money from people. About bhatiyaras, there is a demeaning proverb, ‘sab jaat se haara naam pada bhatiyara’ (oppressed by all castes and thus called bhatiyara)’.

K: What are the problems specific to dalit muslims? Is there untouchability among Muslims?

NA: Untouchability is there but at a subtle level. It can be seen in places like cemeteries, where there are separate burial grounds for different castes. The situation of untouchability in Muslims is different from that in Hindus. Here, untouchability is practiced but people are not cast out completely. As this practice of untouchability is not obvious it is very difficult to counter it as it doesn’t result in the kind of reaction that we witness in our Hindu counterparts. In a district in Jharkhand, ansaris and kalals (alcohol distillers) casted out pamadias (singers), saying they were untouchables. Pathans evicted some dalit muslims using force in a recent incident. It was only when they approached MCC (Maoist Communist Centre) that these people, who had evicted them, started opening up to ideas of equality. Ironically, in that place the mosques are still separated along lines of caste.

K: Most of the pasmanda politics is concerned with the exploitation of lower castes by ashrafs, that is the Muslim upper castes. What about the dominant castes among the lower caste Muslims, like ansaris and raeens? To what extent do they play the role of exploiters vis-à-vis dalit muslims?

NA: There is both untouchability and discrimination even when it comes to relations between dalit muslims and OBC muslims.

K: How do the dalit muslims understand Islam?

NA: People do not follow the spirit of Islam. They neither read nor try to understand the religious texts properly. Whatever seems right, they follow. For example, when they visit some shrine, they call it offering Hajj. They do not offer zakat but only fitra. There is a caste called sai fakir (mendicants), who do not give fitra but only receive it, irrespective of their economic status.

K: What do the dalit muslims think about the mainstream issues of Indian Muslims like minority status of Aligarh Muslim University, demolition of Babri Masjid, changes in Muslim Personal Law and discrimination with Urdu?

NA: First of all, dalit muslim politics is of very recent origin. It emerged only after Mandal, when a consciousness of oppression emerged. The issues that you mention are raised by only few upper castes and only they are represented in popular newspapers. You talked about Urdu. I will ask whether Urdu is an issue of dalit muslims. Unfortunately, there is no data that can give exact number of Urdu-speaking people from different communities. Even Urdu Academy does not have this data. How many dalit muslims know Urdu? We print more organizational pamphlets in Hindi than in Urdu. Babri Masjid may have been an issue of all Muslims but the politics that happened over it is actually Muslim upper caste politics. They use mosques, especially Friday sermons, for their politics. This is a real threat to Islam.

K: Can it be said that Urdu is the mother tongue of dalit muslims?

NA: Of course not! The mother tongue (s) for dalit muslims is region-based. I went to Darbangha, a district of Bihar. All the conversations happened in Maithili, despite the fact that they know that I speak Urdu. Similarly, people speak Bhojpuri or Bangla in different regions. It is a false claim that Urdu is mother tongue of all Muslims. Neither Urdu, nor Hindi is their mother tongue. Unki matra bhasha to kshetriya hai (their mother tongue is regional).

K: What have been the limitations of the pasmanda movement till now? What changes are required?

NA: First of all, the frontline leadership should be changed. Secondly, it should be organization-based, not individual-based and rules and regulation should be standardized in such a way that nobody, however trustworthy he or she is, is beyond them.

K: What should be role and orientation of the pasmanda movement in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections?

NA: Pasmanda movement should support secular parties, as the alternative of Lal Krishna Advani (then president of Bharatiya Janata Party) becoming the Prime Minister or BJP coming to power is horrifying. People can support the existing secular union government (then United Progressive Alliance).

[This interview was conducted as part of a mapping study of the pasmanda movement undertaken by The Patna Collective (Patna) and supported by HIVOS (The Netherlands) and CSCS (Bangalore). It was transcribed and translated by Mohd. Sayeed. Date: 4 August, 2008; Place: Patna, Bihar; Duration: 27m 44s; Language: Hindi]


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