Why caste among Muslims must be studied

For the last two decades, the Indian public sphere has seen a slow but steady rise in discussions on caste among Muslims. A series of events has contributed to this: The influence of Mandal politics on Muslim organizations and the coming together of lower caste Muslim groups in Maharashtra, as well as in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh under the banner of “Pasmanda” (“left behind”) ; the commissioning of the Sachar Committee and Ranganath Misra Commission reports by the UPA government; and a rise in academic scholarship on several aspects of caste among Muslims.

The realisation that Muslims are too affected by caste has far-reaching effects: It has the potential to unravel how Muslims and “Muslim issues” are seen in India, most notably by those who claim to represent them. Scholars have pointed out that most Muslims of India belong to backward castes. Imtiaz Ahmed and Khalid Ansari have put the figure at 85 per cent — a number which, if accurate, would show several “Muslim issues”, including low socio-economic indicators, as first arising from caste factors.

However, the lack of data has affected comprehensive studies and claims on Muslim caste and their socio-economic backwardness. To start with, there is no reliable recent estimate of the proportion of Muslim caste groups across the nation. Data from the 1871 census suggests a ratio of around 19 per cent upper caste to 81 per cent lower caste Muslims. However, the Sachar Committee report put the figure of lower caste Muslims at 40 per cent of the Muslim population, based on NSSO data. The Mandal Commission report also put it at only 52 per cent (though it did not calculate the Dalit Muslim population).

The discontinuation of counting caste in the Census after independence (except for Scheduled Castes) has affected the understanding of the status of communities and castes across India. But in the case of Muslims — where the presence of caste itself is too easily denied by the state and elite Muslim representatives’ “egalitarian scriptures” — there is a dual denial in play. The absence of a caste census has meant the erasure of caste as a category to understand Muslims — their impoverishment, educational backwardness or occupational precarity. For instance, the Gopal Singh Committee report of 1983, commissioned to look into poverty, expresses surprise at the fact that Muslim artisans “who possess so much of talent in arts and crafts” are still landless, poor, and exploited. If the commission understood “art” among Muslim communities not as an ahistorical de-contextualised “talent”, but as traditional occupations steeped in caste structures, they would have been able to better understand poverty among Muslims.

In this context, two studies published this year come as a welcome addition to help us understand caste among Muslims better and help put some figures in perspective. First, a recently published paper in the Journal of International Development by Chhavi Tiwari, Srinivas Goli, Mohammad Zahid Siddiqui and Pradeep S. Salve looks at 7,000 households in UP to landholding, poverty, employment, education and health indicators at a sub-caste level for both Hindu and Muslim castes.

The study estimates that 76 per cent of Muslims are lower castes, with Dalit Muslims comprising 24 per cent of the Muslim population. The percentage of Dalit Muslims, in particular, comes across as quite significant as very few policy decisions take into account this section of the population which faces untouchability but (along with Dalit Christians) does not get any protection under the Scheduled Caste status.

The study reiterates the difference in indicators for upper caste and lower caste Muslims. Rural poverty among Dalit and OBCs Muslims is 53 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively, as against 31 per cent among upper caste (general) Muslims. The share of landless households is 80 per cent among Dalit Muslims against 44 per cent among upper-caste Muslims. Dalit and OBC Muslims face two times greater exclusion from formal financial services such as loans from banks.

The study suggests greater socio-economic disparity among upper caste and lower caste Muslims, and a higher percentage of lower caste Muslims than previous studies estimated. While NSSO approximates caste data about Muslims by cross tabulating responses under the heads of “religion” and “social group”, this study follows a bottom-up approach, directly asking “biradaris”(communities) in the survey, and matching them to the traditional caste-occupational structure for both Hindus and Muslims.

However, the study also reiterates that upper caste Muslims are still at a considerable disadvantage compared to Hindu upper castes across the spectrum of socio-economic indicators. For example, the poverty ratio in rural areas for Upper caste Hindus is 14 per cent, while the same is 31 per cent for Muslim upper castes. A similar disparity can also be found in urban poverty, land and wealth holding. Overall, upper-caste Hindus are at a greater advantage compared to any other group in the country.

Another recent study by Julien Levesque, Laurence Gautier, and Nicolas Belorgey is of note. Mapping the “social spaces” that Muslim leaders occupy, the study offers some quantitative insight into Muslim leadership. In his 2000 book Masawat ki Jung, Ali Anwar emphasized the overrepresentation of Syeds and Sheikhs in several Muslim bodies in Bihar (For example, at the time, out of 39 executive members of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, 36 were upper caste) . This study looks at a larger geographical spread, narrowing down to 164 Muslim leaders across India. It notes that 70 per cent of Muslim leaders belong to upper castes. Further, the composition hasn’t changed in the last 30 years.

These works are welcome and necessary. They underline that caste remains the fundamental unit of Indian society across religions and a caste census could unravel many questions about power, representation and “appeasement” in the country.

Azam is a DPhil researcher at the University of Oxford, and former assistant editor, Economic & Political Weekly and Goli is assistant professor, Population Studies, JNU

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