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‘No reservation please, you are a Muslim’

Feb 04, 2008

Islam may have been perceived as an egalitarian religion without any oppressive and hierarchal social order, but Indian Muslim society is typically caste-ridden. OneWorld South Asia takes an overview of the prevalence of poverty and backwardness among what is now referred to as pasmanda Muslim community.

Islam may have been perceived as an egalitarian religion without any oppressive and hierarchal social order, but Indian Muslim society is typically caste-ridden.

Since majority of those who converted to Islam to escape the rigid caste structure found among Hindus were from communities regarded as untouchables, their social and economic status remained unchanged even after conversion and they continued to face the similar kind of oppression and exploitation.

India is home to the third largest population of Muslims in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan. According to 2001 Census, there are 13.8 million Muslims in the country, constituting about 13.4% of the total population.

Today it is estimated that there are more than 100 million of them who can be categorised as dalit Muslims. The Muslim nobles, tracing their origins to Iran, Arabian countries, or Central Asia, and known as ashraf, look down upon them in the same way as their counterparts among the Hindus do and they are contemptuously referred to as ajlaf and arzal, corresponding to the Other Backward Castes and Scheduled Castes (SCs) or dalits among Hindus respectively.

Prof Imtiaz Ahmed of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) testifies to this kind of discriminatory behaviour in his family. “While offering paan (a sweetened beetle leaf with variety of ingredients in it is offered as a mark of hospitality) to an arzal, my mother would drop it in his hand without touching him,” he confessed during his address in a conference [about which later].

The term dalit-Muslims was coined by the All India Backward Muslim Morcha, formed in 1994 by Ejaz Ali, a medical doctor from Bihar.

It is this identity which is now in the process of taking a shape and is asserting itself to demand an equal status.

Sachar Committee

Justice Rajender Sachar committee was constituted by Government of India to look into the socio-economic status of Muslims in the country. The committee’s report was tabled before Parliament in November 2006. The report acknowledged that the development scenario of the marginalised sections among the Muslims was pathetic.

For instance, the Sachar committee had these startling facts to reveal that only 4% of Muslims graduated from schools; only 4.9% had representation in government employment; their per capita expenditure was less than that of SCs and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in many areas; only 1.9% of them benefited from the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (a government-run programme to prevent starvation); only 2.1% farmers owned tractors; and just 1% owned hand pumps for irrigation.

Javeed Alam writing in Economic and Political Weekly [Vol XLIII No2; January 12-18, 2008] has argued citing the Sachar committee report that there is an astounding backwardness wherever Muslims have a sizeable presence.

He then goes on to cite the 2001 Census, according to which, there are 11 districts in the country where the Muslim population is above 50%, another 38 districts where it is above 25% and where about third of Muslim population lives. There are 182 districts in the country where Muslim population is between 10-25% and 47% of Muslims live in these areas. All these areas are poorly provided with urban infrastructure and other civic amenities.

He also argues that the government welfare schemes hardly reach the Muslim population, saying: “Muslim areas are deliberately ignored in the state provision of public services of all kinds.”

The Sachar committee also reports that many areas of Muslim concentration have been designated by banks as “red zones” meaning that banks should be very cautious in granting loans in these areas.

‘No reservation please, you are a Muslim’

Representatives of several Muslim organisations recently came together to deliberate upon the issues of poverty and backwardness among Indian Muslims and chalk out strategies in the context of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to address the host of problems that they were faced with.

Among participants were also Minar Pimple, Director - Asia, United Nations Millennium Campaign Asia; Prof Imtiaz Ahmed of JNU; Surender Goyal, Member of Parliament from Ghaziabad constituency; and Ashok Bharti, Chairman, National Conference of Dalit Organisations.

The conference was organised, on January 30, by Pasmanda Samaj Sangathan and the Tehreek-e-Pasmanda Muslim Samaj at a school in a nondescript town of Loni on the border of Delhi-Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh.

“When we ask for reservation the government says ‘no reservation please, you are a Muslim’ and that the Indian Constitution does not recognise you as SCs,” said Haji Hafeez Ahmed Hawari, President, All India Jamiat-ul-Hawareen.

Minar Pimple while delivering his address also pointed out that in India it was the adivasis or tribals who were the most backward and the poorest social group and then came the Muslim community, who were poorer than even dalits among Hindus.

Despite the fact that the dalits among Muslims live in excruciating poverty and backwardness, the Indian Constitution does not provide them the benefit of reservation in government jobs or educational institutions, as it does to the SCs, STs and OBCs.

Questioning the entire logic of removing Muslims from the SC list, Aariz Mohammad of Center for Minorities Empowerment remarked in a recent interview to a US-based website TwoCircle.net: “[The] 1950 Presidential order removed Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, and Muslims from the SC list. Then in 1956 Sikhs and in 1992 Buddhists were included back in the SC list. So which religion is missing from this list?”

Prof Imtiaz Ahmed, however, was of the view that instead of demanding reservation for the entire Muslim community, the focus should be on the poorest and the most backward among the community. Otherwise the elite among the Muslims would be accruing the real benefits.

Hafeez Ahmed Hawari who represented the Muslim dhobi (washermen) community rued: “The entire world is talking about removing poverty and our Delhi government is busy removing the poor.” He gave the example of the way in the name of cleaning the Yamuna river, the Delhi government evacuated thousands of Muslim dhobis from the banks of the river leaving them jobless and shelterless, without any resttlement or compensation package.

So how did this myth get perpetuated that the Mulsims were a favoured community in pre-colonial era because of a long period of Muslim rule and that they continued to be appeased in post-colonial period for reasons of vote-bank politics?

Javeed Alam writes: “The Hindutva chauvinists are being utterly dishonest in harping on the theme that the ordinary Muslims have been a favoured community….Feudal self-aggrandisement is not a favour nobody does to anybody.”

The Sachar committee findings also establish that appeasement, if at all it was there, was nothing more than a mental construct.

Looking forward

According to Prof Imtiaz Ahmed it was in the interest of the community that it looked within to find out the reasons for its backwardness before it accused others.

Sardar Anwar felt that although the fight was necessary but this was still not clear as to what was the best path to take. He was also of the opinion that in this struggle for justice it was important to take along the people from dalit and other backward communities from among the Hindus.

Minar Pimple in his concluding remarks said: “Unless we focus on marginalised groups such as the dalit Muslims, the success in fight against poverty and social development will remain elusive.”

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