Reservation for Dalit Muslims

By M Naushad Ansari

In response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL), the Supreme Court, on January 4, 2011, stated that it would examine the constitutional validity of Ranganath Misra Commission recommendation for inclusion of dalit Muslims and Christians in the scheduled caste list to make them eligible for quota in education and jobs under the constitutional scheme. (The Times of India, January 5, 2011). Earlier, on January 25, 2008, on the similar issue, the Supreme Court had issued notice to the Centre seeking its reply to the petition filed by Akhil Maharashtra Muslim Khatik Samaj, wherein it was pleaded that there were Dalits within the Muslim community who needed reservation and demanded their inclusion in the SC list. The judge then had referred to the strict dictates of Qur’an prohibiting caste system within Islam and it asked the petitioner if Islam permitted caste system. (Times of India, Jan. 26, 2008).

Now, the Supreme Court, on January 21, 2011, has framed questions to test the validity of the demand based on the above said Ranganath Misra Commission recommendation. The issue has been listed for February 24, 2011 for the final hearing challenging the Presidential Order of 1950 limiting reservation to dalits among Hindus, Sikhs and Budhists. The Solicitor-General, on behalf of the Government, has said that any amendment to identification of caste and the basis of the Presidential Order of 1950 has to be left to the Parliament and could not be done through courts. (The Times of India, January 22, 2011)

Caste system in Muslim society: The existence of caste system or reservation for Muslim dalits/backward classes has always been a controversial issue. It is an undisputed fact that though there is no caste system in Islam; the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet’s sayings are crystal clear that all human beings are equal, Indian Muslims did develop a hierarchical structure by recognizing numerous biradaris. Some Muslims established superior status for themselves as ashraf or noble on the basis of their foreign descent, while some indigenous converts are commonly referred to 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 caste system. Muslim law of marriage recognizes the doctrine of kufu in all vital aspects 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 committee 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.

The Sachar Committee’s findings further suggests: “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.” (The Muslim OBCs and Affirmative action)

The committee recommends that ‘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”. 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. Most of them continued with their traditional professions as artisans, peasants and labourers, except those which were considered impure or unacceptable in Shariah. Nevertheless, of late, some of these Muslim caste groups became organized and have 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. 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.

Like any other socially identifiable group, Dalit Muslims too started searching their place in governance; in the services, particularly, at par with their counterparts among Hindus. In a democratic set up this is quite a natural and justified aspiration. They demand caste-based reservation as given in the constitution. They argue that according to Kumar Suresh Singh Report of SCs, there are some 35 Muslim castes that have SC background and are engaged in occupations traditionally associated with SCs. They demand that Muslim SCs be included in the SC category. If Sikhs and Budhist SCs, which religiously don’t sanctify casteism, can be given reservation, why not Muslim SCs?, they argue.

The Presidential Order of 1950: The Presidential order of 1950 bars dalit Muslims from reservation. This appears to be inconsistent with Article 14, 15, 16 and 25 of the Constitution that guarantee equality of opportunity, freedom of conscience and protect the citizens from discrimination by the State on grounds of religion etc. This denial of reservation is seen by many to be with an eye on the balance of power which is tilted in favour of Hindus. This seems to be an allurement to keep dalits within the Hindu fold. On the other hand, it attracts dalit Muslims to embrace Hinduism. Hence, the required amendment will surely be a step towards secularism, justice and equality.

On this, Justice Rangnath Misra Commission states 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 not”. It 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 Constitution prohibits any discrimination between the citizens. Hence, any religion-based discrimination conflicts with its letter and spirit.

Role of Muslim organisations: However, on the issue of reservation Muslim leaders are divided. One group demands reservation for the Muslims as a whole, arguing that the constitution talks about protective discrimination in the context of class not caste. Jamia Nizamia of Andhra Pradesh had issued a fatwa against the state govt. move to provide reservations for Muslims on the lines of castes. However most of the prominent ulama of the country, cutting across the lines of sects and organisations, had reacted sharply against the fatwa. Maulana Syed Ahmed Bukhari of Jama Masjid, Delhi, had declared that the fatwa will harm the interest of the community. Similarly, Dr. Abdul Haque Ansari, ex-President of Jamate-Islami, in his presidential address to the workshop on Sachar Committee Report, had called the categorization of Muslim as ‘bad in taste’. He questioned: ‘if the entire community stands as backward class, where does the question of other categorization along caste line arise?’

Caste vs Class: 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 alongwith, other occupational groups, classes and section of people. (AIR 582 SC 1993).

Syed Shahabuddin, ex-MP and President of All India Majlis-e-Mushawarat, says: “if caste can be interpreted as class, why not religion; that all Muslims are, socially and educationally, marginalized and deprived”. However, on the other hand, his alternative suggestions ‘to limit reservation to non-Ashraf only who constitute 90% of the community and thus about 12% of the national population. With their average level of backwardness being almost equal to that of SC/ST, they would be entitled to a separate sub-quota of 11%’ (‘Muslim Community, Muslim OBCs and Reservation’, Muslim India, May 2007) appeared to be more justifiable and acceptable to the pasmanda Muslims. The dalit/pasmanda groups’ 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 the purpose of endogamy and khilafat caste could be the criteria, why not for reservation also. They also argue that all Muslims are equally deprived is statistically 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. Advocating this view Professor Imtiaz Ahmed of JNU says that ‘en bloc reservation of Muslims is not a viable idea. Inclusion of Muslim Dalits as OBCs makes the most sense’. However, though most of the Muslim organizations support a separate reservation for dalit/pasmanda Muslims through their routine resolutions, by and large, they feel shy in talking about reservation for dalit Muslims publicly or initiating any concrete step. Many consider it insignificant. But at this time when the issue is being discussed in the national media and is being finally heard in the Supreme Court, instead of shoving the issue under the carpet or being a silent spectator, it is their duty to rise to the occasion and build public opinion. They should realise that this issue needs special attention and there should be no roadblock in the way of dalit/pasmanda Muslims getting fair and proportionate 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 is O.K., but foregoing the constitutional benefits, would not be a wise idea. May be some day in the future reservations will be based solely on the community’s impoverishment, but until then caste-based reservation seems to be perfectly justified and demandable. 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.

The writer is director of the Centre for Dissemination of Universal Message, New Delhi

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 March 2011 on page no. 14


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