October 15, 2023

Pasmanda Muslims’ Demand for Justice

Subhashini Ali

THE Pasmanda Muslim Mohaz (Backward and Dalit Muslims Front) was established by Ali Anwar, himself a member of a most oppressed community of Muslims, in September, 1998 and has now completed 25 years of study, activism and consistent advocacy of a cause that has not received much attention from scholars and social scientists.  At the time of its formation, Ali Anwar had published his book ‘Masavat ki Jung’ (Struggle for Equality) based on his extensive studies on the problems and conditions of lives of Muslims belonging to the same professions as Hindu dalits and extremely backward communities like weavers, washermen, barbers, sanitary workers, those dealing with the disposal of the dead, acrobats etc. The book and the formation of the front was met with violent opposition from the Muslim elite or upper classes/castes who alleged that since their religion was committed to equality, social divisions and discrimination did not exist in their community.  The facts brought to light by the book, however, could not be refuted and the Pasmanda Muslim movement that demanded access to the constitutional remedial measures available to Hindu dalits and OBCs. 

Ali Anwar’s book and the demands that his supporters put forward aroused the fury of both the Muslim elite (ashraaf) as well as the Hindu communalists.  The latter argued that if conversion to Islam had not done away with their social oppression, they should re-convert to Hinduism.

What Ali Anwar was saying, however, was not something that was entirely new. The existence of castes in the Muslim community was recognised very early by Dr Ambedkar himself.  In his 1946 article, ‘Pakistan or the Division of India’, he had written “The 1901 census report by the Census Director of the Bengal Province contains this interesting comment – Muslims are divided into two social communities 1. Ashraaf and 2 Azlaaf.  By Ashraaf is meant caste Muslims or those who are converts from high caste Hindus or else of foreign origin.  The Muslim converts belonging to the professional or low castes are considered Azlaaf or low or vulgar.  In some places, there is a third category, Arzaal, whose members are considered the lowest. Other Muslims do not eat or socialise with them and they are denied entry into public mosques and graveyards.  Among them are to found social categories and castes similar to the Hindus.”

Dr Ambedkar goes on to write that “On the other hand, Muslims are completely oblivious to these evils and do not show any interest in removing them. On the contrary, they oppose any attempt to change their social norms.”

Ali Anwar was relentless in his pursuit for social justice for oppressed Muslim communities.  Along with those fighting for the cause of Christian dalits, he raised the demand that denial of the benefits of reservation to these communities by the Presidential Order of 1950  which excluded non-Hindu dalits from access to these benefits was an act of grave injustice.  The truth of his allegations are borne out by the fact that, in later years, dalits who had converted to Buddhism (neo-Buddhists) and Sikhism (mazhabi Sikhs) were given the same access to reservation as that enjoyed by Hindu dalits. It is also important to remember that the Mandal Commission had included many groups of Muslim professionals who did the same work as their Hindu counterparts in the list of Other Backward Communities that went on to benefit from the  implementation of the Mandal Commission Report by the VP Singh government in 1990. These Muslim OBC communities also got the benefits of reservation of seats in the local body elections in many states of North India.

The demands for justice raised by Ali Anwar and his movement along with other movements for economic justice for Muslims bore some fruit when the UPA government, supported by the Left, took office in 2004.  The government set up two commissions:  The Rangnath Misra Commission to give its recommendation on extending benefits of reservation to the dalit Muslims and Christians based on the realities of their social oppression and the Sachar Commission to make recommendations to address issues of economic, educational and other forms of deprivation suffered by Muslims as a whole.

In 2007, the Rangnath Commission decided by a majority of three members to one that reservation for SCs should be ‘religion neutral’ and that this could be done by a simple presidential order restoring the right to reservation to Muslim and Christian dalits.

The Sachar Committee also suggested that dalit Muslims be given the same rights as other dalits.

The CPI(M) welcomed and supported the recommendations of both the Rangnath Misra Commission and the Sachar Committee.  Unfortunately, the Congress-led UPA government could not muster the political courage to implement these recommendations.  The fear of being labelled ‘appeasers of minority sentiments’ by the Hindu communal forces represented by the BJP deterred them from doing so.  In fact, the CPI(M) was the only political party to support these recommendations.  Even many dalit organisations were not prepared to ‘share’ their reservations with dalit Christians and Muslims.  The CPI(M) and other organisations committed to social justice, demanded that the completely arbitrary limit of 50 per cent placed on reservations by the Supreme Court be removed.

For some decades now the voices of dalit Muslims and Christians have been ignored.  This could change now after the Bihar government has conducted the caste census and released its results.  The results are significant.  They reveal that the upper castes in Bihar including about 3 per cent upper caste Muslims make up less than 15 per cent of the total population.  The SCs form 19.65 per cent and STs 1.7 per cent of the population; OBCs 27.1 per cent and extremely BCs 36 per cent.  Since Muslims form 17 per cent of the population, it is apparent that most of them have registered themselves in the OBC and EBC sections while fewer would have opted to register as SCs.  The results of the census are going to impact future political developments.  What is irrefutable is that the demand for removing the 50 per cent limit on reservations is going to gain immense traction.  There is no way that 27 per cent reservation for 63 per cent of the population can be justified and, in any case, it is going to be aggressively contested.  This will naturally open the way for oppressed Muslim communities to also press their claims in Bihar where they are already an organised force.  The path for Muslim and Christian dalits to benefit from the Rangnath Misra Commission’s recommendations all over the country will also now be forced open.