Casting aspersions on the ‘monolithic’ community

Caste may soon play a more important role in the community than Muslim leaders like to admit, saysYogesh Vajpeyi

As the dusk draws closer and muezzin calls for prayer, the space around Aligarh’s magnificent Jama Masjid turns into a debating forum. The hot topic is the community leaders. Taufiq Ahmed, an Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) student, reflects their confusion. “Musalman jahil hain. Unme ittehad nahin hai, apas men hi tafarqa hai, (The Muslims are ignorant. Instead of evolving a consensus they are fighting each other.)”

And behind this infighting is the fact that casteism has found a foothold in the community. And this is standing in the way of them acting as a millat (community). Repre-senting a vocal minority, Sarfaraz questions the present day Muslim leadership’s claim to the community’s allegiance on another count. “Why should they expect us to act as a millat? The elite families that have represented the Muslims in political fora have done nothing for us jahils,” he asserts. He has hit the nail on the head.

Right from the hardboiled Majlis-e-Ittehadul Musli-meen (MIM) president Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi of Hyderabad to the latest votaries of Hindutva like Arif Mohammed Khan, the community’s leaders are scattered through all the parties. And they have one thing in common. Most are from the Ashraf upper castes that account for less than eight percent of Muslims.

These leaders have played the politics of identity centred on a few cultural-emotive issues — the AMU, Muslim personal law, Urdu, the Babri Masjid etc. The resolutions and declarations passed by various Muslim conferences and organisations such as Muslim League, Jamait-e-Islami, Jamait-e-Ulema Hind, to name a few, stand testimony to this.

“This has stymied attempts towards democratisation within the community,” says sociologist Imtiaz Ahmed, whose pioneering work on casteism in Indian Muslims reveals a highly stratified picture of the Muslim society.

Taking up such grievances sharpens the myth that the community is a monolithic whole and the minuscule elite has thus perpetuated its domination over a community that is as fragmented and caste-ridden as any other.

Examples abound. West Bengal’s Congress leader ABA Ghani Khan Chaudhury, 77, could not uproot the Left in his home state. But he has managed to get elected from Malda seven times in a row and is set to repeat the performance this time.

Hyderabad’s MIM leader Salahuddin Owaisi has decided to pass on his mantle to his son Asaduddin after representing the constituency six times in a row.

In UP — a state that sent nine Muslim members to the outgoing Lok Sabha — most key contenders hail from affluent upper caste families. In the erstwhile princely state of Rampur, Begum Noor Bano of the ruling Nawab family is trying to retain her seat for the Congress. Salim Iqbal Sherwani of an Allahabad industrialist family is going for his fourth successive run for the SP in Badayun. The sitting BSP MP from Saharanpur, Mansoor Ali Khan comes from an old aristocratic family. In Farrukhabad, Salman Khursheed’s wife Louise Khursheed hopes to win because it is the home district of the family patriarch and former President, late Dr Zakir Hussain.

The upper caste Muslim elite has not only monopolised Muslim representation in legislatures, it also “controls resources and institutions of the community” according to Anwar Alam of Jawaharlal Nehru Unive-rsity. “Ten of the eleven office-bearers of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, for instance, are from upper castes. And in the 48-member executive of the All India Milli Council, only four are from the ajlaf castes,” he points out.

Casteism among Muslims has so far not thrown up powerful low caste political mobilisations as it has among the Hindus. But more and more ajlaf candidates are entering the arena. “The elite is now raising the cry of the millat being in danger again,” says Irfan Ahmed, an academic.

The new challenge from within the community has forced established Muslim leaders to keep changing their constituencies or to opt out. After losing Colaba Lok Sabha seat in 1998, former Maharashtra chief minister AR Antulay shifted to the safer, Muslim-dominated Aurangabad in 1999 without success. This time, he has returned to fight in Kolaba after Sharad Pawar’s assurance that his victory would be ensured. In Gujarat, despite cajoling, Sonia Gandhi’s aide Ahmed Patel has decided to keep out of the contest. The last time he won a direct election was in 1985.

So while the elite are losing their hold to some extent, they are not losing out to the lower castes but to dons and musclemen. Mohammed Shahabuddin from Bihar, Rizwan Zaheer Khan from UP and Abu Asim Hashmi are some of them. They don’t remind the Muslims that the millat is in danger; they have the physical and financial resources to command the voters’ ‘respect’. Another UP Mafia don, Mukhtar Ansari, is a ruling party MLA.

Though some of the dominant OBC castes like the Qureshis and Ansaris are climbing the political ladder, most of the 136 odd low caste groups like the Rangrez, the bhishits, the julahas, the dhobis and the Lalbegis are too poor and unorganised.

For the Muslim masses — whose socio-economic condition is as low as that of the Dalits — this is not good news. But a fringe minority has begun to be taken over by the captivating slogan of jihad against the forces of what it calls ‘non-Islam’. The mobilisation of low-caste Muslims started from Maharashtra in the 1980s and has now spread to parts of UP and Bihar and the All India Muslim OBC Sangathan has recently entered the political scene. It has openly challenged the Muslim elite’s demand for reservation for the Muslims as a monolithic community. Instead of relying on the upper-caste Muslim leaders, the authors of this new jihad are trying to join hands with leaders of the low caste movements among the Hindus, the Christians and the Buddhists.



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