By Arshad Alalm for New Age Islam
29 Dec, 2012
Not far from where Gandhi gave one of his first calls to resist untruth, lies a village called Allahpur. This east Champaran village in Bihar is like any other multi-caste villages that dot the planes of India. The same logic of caste dominance plays here, sometimes with brutality and at most times in everyday routine fashion where upper caste men violate and humiliate lower caste men and women with abusive words, with segregation of spaces and marginalizing them to the extent they become uncomfortable with their very existence. So why should one then write about Allahpur when it is no different from any other village? This is because Allahpur is a Muslim village where the dominant upper caste Muslims have been harassing low caste Muslims for many years now. While one often hears about this phenomenon within Hindu society, Muslims and the larger Indian society is slow to take cognizance of the effects of caste structures on the Muslim society.
Recently, Akbar Ali, a low caste Muslim of the village was murderously assaulted by the upper caste Muslims. The only crime that Akbar had committed, it seems, was to file a case of concealing facts in the recent mukhiya elections, against one Sarfaraz Khan, who eventually won the elections. One might look at it as the democratic right of Akbar Ali to do so, but in Allahpur, this assertion of democracy left him with broken limbs after being brutally assaulted. As it happens in most of such cases, the police took an awful lot of time to even register a case against the perpetrators of the violence. Allahpur is not unknown to such expression of caste violence and this was not the first time that this was happening. Low caste Muslims have been facing severe discrimination since many years: in the mosque where they are not allowed to pray in the first line, at the madrasa where their children hear abusive language and in the fields where they are asked to do begar. In what would make a Muslim purist painful, the low caste Muslims of the village now have their own separate mosque and madrasa. Moreover, they are no longer willing to pay heed to the diktats of the upper castes and are asserting their dignity by refusing a number of enforced norms refusing to remove footwear when passing through the upper caste area and even insisting on using a car (hired of course) for special occasions like marriage, etc. This deepening of democratic consciousness is most welcome but what is troublesome is the refusal of Muslim leadership, both religious and secular, that caste structures exist in our society and that something should be done about it.
The problem is not much so much about ignorance as about a willful silence. Islam in India has always been aware of the caste distinctions within its fold. Muslim Ulama have written about it and even supported and justified the institution. Religious figures as diverse as Ashraf Ali Thanwi (Deobandi) and Ahmad Raza Khan (Barelwi) supported caste divisions among Indian Muslims and argued that for the superiority of the Ashrafs (upper caste) over the Ajlafs (low caste). Our very ‘modern’ Syed Ahmad Khan was extremely hostile to the idea of introducing modern education to low caste razil Muslim castes. In his opinion, low castes such as the Ansaris should only be taught the rudimentary religious education and should continue with their family profession. Fully wedded to the Waliullahi tradition which understood that Allah had entrusted learning and teaching to the four noble upper castes, they firmly held on to the idea that education would be useless for these low castes as they were not worthy of it.
These religious and secular leaders still command respect of the ordinary Muslims and is one of the reasons why the issue of caste is not openly discussed within the Muslim society. In order that we critique our present, we have to necessarily look at the past and break the idols that have almost become sacred. The present reluctance to talk about caste is also because most our leaders and intellectuals come precisely from the Ashraf sections of society. And it is in their interest to maintain a stoic silence on issues of caste discrimination within Indian Muslim society. This explains why something like the Allahpur issue is not covered by the Urdu media or relegated to small news item as a law and order problem. It is time that we start acknowledging at least that we have a problem at hand which needs to be redressed. Let’s start by saluting the courage of brave Akbar Ali.
Arshad Alam is a writer and commentator on Muslim minority issues. He teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.