The tendency to view Indian Muslims as a single, homogenous group overlooks the all-encompassing caste identity which pervades the community. Muslims also have an entrenched caste-system (sometimes politely referred to as ‘social stratification’), a phenomenon that even Dr. BR Ambedkar had analyzed at length. Although there are many theories and justifications for the emergence of this stratification, the fact remains that there is discrimination experienced out of such stratification which has resulted in great inequality.
Within the Muslim community, there are three main strata: The Ashrafs trace their lineage to foreign ancestors like the Arabs, Mughals or Afghans. They make up the elites within the Muslim community since they tend to be affluent, landowners and religious and civic leaders, who also occupy prominent political positions within the community. On the other hand, the Ajlafs do not claim noble ancestry and comprise the occupational groups and converts of lower ranks. An additional stratification of Arzals also exists in certain places. These are Dalit converts who engage in manual scavenging, sweeping and similar jobs. Arzals are on the lowest rung of the social ladder and are even forbidden entry into mosques or to use community burial grounds.
The economically and socially backward Ajlafs and Arzals are caught in a vicious cycle: Their economic backwardness perpetuates educational and social marginalization, which, in turn, further exacerbates their economic backwardness. Even after converting to Islam, the lower-caste converts continue to work in demeaning occupations and face social ignominy, including segregation. In the case of Arzals, they are not spared the humiliation of caste, even after death.
Cognisant of the stratification within Indian Muslims, the first Backward Classes Commission, 1955 (Kaka Kalelkar Commission) identified several communities within Indian Muslims which qualified for Other Backward Class (OBC) status. However, these communities could not be classified as Scheduled Castes (SC) even though their members were drawn from the same caste-pool as their Hindu brethren. This peculiarity arose due to The Constitutional (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, which declared that ‘no person who professes a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste’. This Order was subsequently amended to include Dalit Sikhs and Dalit Buddhists within the fold of Scheduled Castes but significantly, ignored Dalit Muslims. Likewise, the reservation afforded to the Scheduled Castes, as per the recommendations made by the second Backward Classes Commission (Mandal Commission) in 1980, could not be extended to Muslims belonging to the same castes. Muslims were only eligible for reservations under the OBC category, at best.
The situation today remains virtually unchanged, despite observations in the Sachar Committee report in 2006 that Muslims are amongst the most economically, educationally and socially backward sections of India. Even the recommendation made by the Ranganath Misra Commission in 2007, to delink the Scheduled Caste status from religion and make it religion-neutral, has not been implemented. To add insult to injury, Dalit converts to Islam do not fall within the protective ambit of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Despite the well-observed fact that caste atrocities are often religion-neutral, no concrete steps have been taken to remedy this problem.
Until such problems are fixed, the double-discrimination faced by Dalit Muslims, on account of their religion and their caste, will continue to perpetuate. The existence of these loopholes is a stain on the Republic’s duty to ensure justice, equality and fraternity to all of its citizens.
This blog is written by Neel D’Souza, a Public Policy Student from National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.