Muslim Untouchables: The Pervasiveness of Caste Discrimination in a Marginalised Milieu

The killing of George Floyd, a black American, has brought a moment of reckoning for the United States and triggered worldwide protests where people questioned deeply entrenched racist pasts. These conversations must enable Indians to look for the fault lines in their social system and the voices that go unheard among communities that are already marginalised. One such group is the ‘Dalits’ among Muslims. Due to the absence of studies and data, their stories of segregation on dining, wedding and studying go unreported and unrepresented. Professor Fahimuddin, a faculty member at the Giri Institute of Development Studies (ICSSR-UP government), shares the dismal profile of Dalit Muslims who are yet to be identified as ‘existing’.

The paramount question is the existence of ‘Dalits’ among the Muslim community. Both in social science literature and political discourse, this issue has been highlighted several times if there exists a group among Muslims whose lives are comparable to those included in Scheduled Caste communities belonging to other religious backgrounds.

In the absence of any reliable data and study, this issue is rather difficult to explore, especially because no caste other than those who follow Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism is included in the Schedule Caste category.

This is what writer John C Webster (1999;69) has referred to as the ‘communal analysis of caste’ that believes Dalits are people within the Hindu society who belong to a caste which the larger Hindu religion considers to be ‘polluting by virtue of hereditary occupation’.

This further ligitimises the idea that the caste system cannot exist outside the periphery of the Hindu religion. This understanding was initiated by British rulers in subsequent Census operations during the beginning of 20th Century and it continues even today in one form or the other.

Tracing back to the beginning of the communal analysis of caste in modern India, Webster (1999) said that in the 1911 Census, the castes and tribes which were excluded from the Hindu religion on some or the other ground, were discussed separately during the Census process.

For this purpose, the Census prescribed 10 criterion to determine excluded castes and those that were included in all aspects of Hindu religion.

Quoting Hutton (1933; 473), Webster noted that the 1931 Census recognised exterior castes as primarily ‘Hindu castes occupying a degraded position in Hindu social scheme’.

Hutton (1933; 484) treated them as Hindus because he said they worshiped the same deities though were not allowed to enter the temple. “It is significant that it was decoded that Muslims and Christians should be excluded from the term depressed class” (Webster; 1999).

This communal view of caste also found support among national and social leadership, especially by Mahatma Gandhi. Webster (1999) notes “not only his facts in response to the communal award but also his scrupulousness in having the Harijan Sevak Sangh confining its upliftment activities to Hindu Harijan was based on this premise”.

On the ground of disabilities imposed on Dalits, BR Ambedkar (1969; 92) considered Dalits not to be Hindus distinct from ‘one hundred percent Hindu’.

The same understanding initiated by British, who considered Scheduled castes only as a part of Hindu religion. This continued to persist even after Independence and it is reflected in the President’s Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order No. 19 of 1950 that categorically declared that ‘no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu religion shall be deemed to be a member of scheduled caste’.

This was amended in 1956 to include the Sikhs and in 1990 to include the Buddhists. In 1956, this religion criterion for determining caste membership was upheld by the Supreme Court which argued that caste was a peculiarly Hindu phenomenon.

Communal view of caste has also influenced researchers’ work and even the country’s Dalit movements. Researchers have a limitation that many times they have to base their studies on government data due to non-availability of alternative sources.

Webster (1999) notes that “most sociologists and political scientists in studying Dalit since Independence confine their samples to Hindus. Initially Dalit movement too, under influence of such view, treated Dalits who converted to other religion as no longer Dalit and therefore no longer part of the history of the Dalit movement.”

Research on the history of Dalit Christians indicates that this ‘communal’ framework of analysis does not do justice to the complexity of either Dalit social reality or the modern Dalit movement (Webster, 1999).

A similar experience was noted among Dalits who converted to Buddhism where a stratum of ‘Buddhacharyas’ has emerged to perform weddings and other ceremonies. And these ceremonies continue to follow the so-called Hindu rituals (Fiske, 1972), while the internal hierarchy among Dalits persists. Neo-Buddhist Mahars look down with contempt upon those belonging to Scheduled Castes, but have not converted to Buddhism.

Jayshree Gokhale (1990:34) observed that despite the intent of ideology to actualise equality and community among all Dalits, the conversion has so far not led to new relations promoting emotional ties of equality among Dalits (Shah, 2001;207).

Social status of Dalits converted to Sikhism also continues to be more or less similar to their Hindu counterpart. It was recognised that in the matter of caste, the Sikhs, like the orthodox Hindus, “hold aloof from the unclean classes, and even the Mazhabi Sikhs are excluded from the religious shrines and are left to the religious administration of granthis of their own caste” (Bingley, 1985).

The ‘communal view’ of caste is shared by those who claim that caste does not exist among Muslims because of its egalitarian ethos. Scholars working on issues relating to Dalit Muslims differentiate between ‘textual Islam’ and ‘lived Islam’.

They have underlined persisting socio-economic inequalities between ‘Dalit Muslims’ and other social groups while documenting instances of untouchability being practised in social dealings.

They argue that the false pride about there being no discrimination in the Muslim society on the grounds of caste constrained efforts at the community or the non-governmental level to improve the conditions of Dalit Muslims (Anwar, 2005).

Comparing socioeconomic and ‘ritual’ status of Dalit Muslims with that of communities included in the Scheduled Caste, Ali Anwar (2005: 2) argues that our “journey started more or less with the same social, educational and economic status. We washed clothes like them. We too were called dhobi (washerman) like them. The only difference was that they had a Hindu name while we had a Muslim name. They too cleaned dirt like us. Again the only difference was, they were called dom and bhangi and we were addressed as maihtar and khakrobor, halalkhor. Likewise lalbegi, nachi, pasi, bhant, bhatiyara, pamaria, nat, bakkho, dafali, nalband, dhobi, saiin, etc and other numerous castes, who follow different religions (Hindu/ Muslim) but their professions, social, economic and educational status are similar. And were termed as ashpriya (untouchable) in Hindu society, while in Muslim society they are called arzal (inferior)”.

In his book ‘Masawat ki Jung’, Anwar presents how Dalit Muslims are discriminated on the basis of caste everyday life by the Ashrafs. Such discrimination persists in mosques and even after one’s death.

He provides a detailed description of the plight of Pamarias in a Pathan-dominated village of Bhojpur district where the community is not allowed to bury their dead ones in the upper-caste Pathan graveyards. He cites popular proverbs and stereotypes about the so-called low-born Muslims and dissects social formations with dazzling clarity.

Ali’s approach is criticised on account of losing sight of the political economic aspect of caste dynamism displayed in evolving to newer situations.

“This approach is static as it freezes the institution of caste once and for all and loses sight of its dynamic aspects. Economic mobility, in conjunction with available political matrix, does change the social status and as a consequence opens up new possibilities of marriage transgressing the otherwise closed walls of castes” (Ahmad, 2003).

On any social and economic indicator, Dalit Muslims are at the bottom of the ladder. The field survey by the Giri Institute of Development Studies has indicated that around 9 per cent children in the age group of 5-15 years among Dalit Muslims are child labourers compared to 4 per cent among all Hindus and 6 per cent among all Muslims.

The literacy rate among Dalit Muslims was found lowest (70 per cent) compared to all Hindus (79 per cent) and all Muslims (73 per cent).

In terms of attaining education, Dalit Muslims are most backward. The percentage of non-literate Dalit Muslims was 30 per cent as compared to 21 per cent among all Hindus and 26 per cent among all Muslims, according to a book, titled ‘Backward and Dalit Muslims: Education, Employment and Poverty’, by Surinder Kumar, Fahim Uddin, Prashant K Trivedi and Srinivas Goli.

Besides, a number of the Dalit Muslim households reported that they do not receive an invitation from non-Dalits for wedding feasts, etc. This is possibly a reflection of a settlement pattern segregated along the caste lines.

Responding to a question about seating arrangement, a section of Dalit Mumslims testified that they are seated separately in non-Dalit feasts. Almost a similar proportion of respondents confirmed that they eat after the upper-caste segment had finished the meal.

And yet another section reported that they were served food in different plates and their children were seated in separate rows during mid-day meals in their schools. Numbers here are relatively smaller generally in the range of 5-10 per cent but they do indicate the existence of untouchability among Muslims.

To elicit a response of Dalit Muslims on discrimination in religious spaces, a query on burial ground was posed to them. At least one-third of them stated that they were not allowed to bury their dead in upper caste burial grounds.

However, according to religious texts, Muslims offer prayer in the same mosque in some places, Dalit Muslims have a separate mosque because they felt discriminated in the main mosque.

A section of Dalit Muslims also felt that their caste is seen associated with menial jobs. Some Dalit Muslims have reported that they are served food and water in plates and glasses different from what was used by the upper-caste Muslims. Another section of the community reported that their children were asked to sit in separate rows in their schools.

On the basis of the above facts, there can be no doubt that Dalit Muslims were considered socially backwards and treated as a distinct group by their upper caste co-religionist. While the overall social status imposed on Dalit Muslims is that of an inferior group but the manner in which social supremacy is asserted by the upper caste Muslims varies across Uttar Pradesh.

The discrimination of Dalit Muslims included social and cultural segregation expressed in various forms of refusal to have any social interaction during marriages, social functions, graveyards and even in schools.

This is not an exhaustive study of untouchability among Muslims but indicators taken to investigate three sites viz home, food and religious places do give leads to explore these issues further. In fact, forms of untouchability such as settlement segregation, separate burial grounds, different utensils are exposed unmistakably by this data.

But on other indicators, a relatively lower number of respondents sharing the experience of caste discrimination may be just the tip of an iceberg. It is amply documented that the caste system operates among Muslims in a modified form, so is the practice of untouchability. One source of this modification is the absence of religious legitimacy to these practices which might have also influenced the reactions of respondents.

Relative backwardness among social groups, especially between OBC groups, has put Muslim OBCs is a worse-off condition than Hindu OBCs on all indicators.

A large proportion of them have been unable to even obtain OBC certificate and only a fraction of them could avail benefit of reservation for securing a job.

And their caste is considered socially backward by other Muslims. In fact, on most of the indicators they are either comparable or worse than Hindu SCs.

The data also reveals political under-representation of OBC Muslims. Any alleviation looks like a distant dream, as we are yet to even acknowledge the existence of the Dalit Muslims.

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