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Have Muslims in India fallen prey to the caste system?

In Islam, there is no caste system, however, the Muslims in India are divided into social groups. Until and unless Muslims are completely united, they will continue to face human rights violations in India.

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In its ‘2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’ to the US Congress, the Department of State found India wanting in more than a dozen significant human rights issues.

These issues include unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings perpetrated by police; and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by some police and prison officials; arbitrary arrest and detention by government authorities; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political and prisoners or detainees in certain states; corruption and tolerance of violations of religious freedom.

Read more: Op-ed: Looking at another report on India’s draconian human rights violations

The report pointed out that the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) received and investigated prisoner complaints of human rights violations throughout the year. “But “civil society representatives believed few prisoners filed complaints due to fear of retribution from prison guards or officials.

Following New Delhi’s August 2019 abrogation of a special constitution, Indian “authorities used a public safety law to detain local politicians without trial”. Those released were required to sign bonds agreeing not to engage in political activity.

The US report noted that the Public Safety Act (PSA), “permits authorities to detain persons without charge or judicial review for up to two years without visitation from family members.”

Read more: False Charges? India detains Human rights activists as “Maoists”

Contradiction of constitutional equality 

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The sermons in international reports or constitutional safeguards can’t equalize Indian citizens as the caste system is ordained in Hindu religious scriptures. According to the Constitution of India, “the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, place and birth or any of them.”

Untouchability was legally abolished and its practice in any form forbidden by the Anti-Untouchability Act, of 1955. Nearly two decades later, in 1976, the 1955 Act was reviewed in order to make it more stringent and effective, and the “Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955” (PCR Act).

In 1989, the government enacted yet another Act, namely the Scheduled Castes/Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act in order to prevent atrocities against members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

Read more: HRW accuses Modi of deliberately targeting Muslims in India

India’s Hindu majority is divided on the basis of “jati” or “caste.” While jati is derived from the Sanskrit word jāta (born), “caste” is derived from the Spanish/Portuguese word casta meaning race, lineage or breed.

India’s caste system was derived from “the Chaturvarna system or the fourfold division of society.” This divides the society into four varnas or classes that are hierarchical in nature. On the top of this ranking are the priests (Brahmins), followed by the warriors and erstwhile rulers (Kshatriyas).

The next to come are the farmers and merchants (Vaishyas), while the last in the hierarchy are the workers and craftsmen, among others (Shudras).

Read more: Victory or death: Indian farmers

A fifth group existed outside this fourfold classification, that of the non-classified (avarnas) who did work that was, and is still considered, physically and ritually polluting, such as cremation and the handling of dead bodies, removal and skinning of dead animals, removal and cleaning of human bodily fluids and excreta (manual scavenging) and basket weaving.

No caste system in Islam

Marc Galanter, in his 1969 paper, “Untouchability and the Law,” traces the relationship between the British legal system and the Indian “caste order” in colonial India.

According to the Sachar Committee Report, conditions of the Muslim in India are worse than that of dalits (downtrodden/untouchable). But, the Muslim itself is to blame for its current plight.

The Muslim literacy rate ranks well below the national average and the Muslim poverty rate is only slightly higher than the low-caste Hindu. The Muslim makes up only four per cent of the undergraduate student body in India’s elite universities. He falls behind other groups in terms of access to credit. So is the case despite the fact that the self-employed Muslim population exceeds other groups.

Read more: Muslims in India: who is responsible for their suppressed voices?

According to Islam, the Muslim society is homogeneous. There is no hierarchical caste-system of Muslims in Islam, like the Hindu varna system of social stratification in India. In Sanskrit, varna means type, order, color or class. The term refers to social classes in dharma-shastra  (religious text) books like the Manusmriti.

Hindu literature classifies society into four varnas: (a) Brahmins: priests, scholars and teachers. (b) Kshatriyas: rulers, warriors and administrators. (c) Vaishyas: agriculturalists and traders. (d) Shudras: laborers and service providers. Communities which belong to one of the four varnas or classes are called savarna.

The dalits and scheduled tribes who do not belong to any varna, are called avarna. This four-fold division is a form of social stratification distinguished from jati or the European term “caste”. The varna system is discussed in Hindu texts, and understood as idealised human callings.

Read more: Caste War: 10 killed as Dalit Protests cripple India

The concept is generally traced to the Purusha Sukta verse of the Rig Veda. Contrary to these textual classifications, many Hindu texts and doctrines question and disagree with the Varna system of social classification.

Social divisions among Muslims in India

Unlike the Hindu caste system in India, where it is easy to discern the stratification, caste identities among Muslims are not defined rigidly. As such, the reservation quota and other benefits, available to scheduled castes, do not trickle down to the needy Muslim.

It is bitter reality that the Muslim in India could not remain immune from Hindu caste-system. The Muslim is divided into into ashraf (Muslims of foreign lineage) and ajlaf (local converts).

The ashraf are regarded as the superior group and are mainly endogamous, while the ajlaf are considered to be inferior. Some scholars use another category, arzal, to denote the Muslim who converted from the lowest strata of society (bhangi, doom, choora or sweeper).

Read more: Many Indians don’t consider Dalits, Muslims and Tribals to be human, Rahul Gandhi

To ameliorate the lot of the downtrodden Muslims in India (arzal or ajlaf), there should be a caste-based census to identify those deserving `reservation’ in scheduled caste system. Is such a census in accordance with definitive text of Holy Quran Allah?

The Muslim hierarchy

At the top of the hierarchy are the Ashrafs (nobles), of Arab, Persian, Turkish or Afghan origin. They lay claim to a prestigious lineage that they trace back to the Prophet (in the case of Sayyids) or his tribe (in the case of qureshis).

The Shaikh (descendants of the Prophet’s companions), the pathan (descendants of migrants from Afghanistan), and even the Mughal (originating in Central Asia and Iran) can also be included in this group.

Many ashraf are either ulamas in the case of the sayyid, or else landowners, merchants or business people. One’s birth group constitutes a major criterion for defining social status. At the middle level, the ajlaf (low-born) represent the masses. His status is defined by both his profession (pesha) unlike the ashraf.

Read more: Opinion: Ulemas in Pakistan have an upper hand, but why?

Many castes of intermediate status fall into this category, such as farmers, traders and weavers (ansari and julaha). Social elite of many ashraf in rural areas believe that this category is not part of the Indian Muslim community (millat).

At the bottom of the social scale is the arzal (vile, vulgar). It is a group comprising non-untouchables and converted “untouchables” who, as in Hinduism, practice supposedly impure trades. This was the case of slaughterers, laundrymen (dhobi), barbers (nai, hajjam), tanners (chammar),  and so on.

Read more: Muslims in India continue to suffer at the hands of Hindu nationalism

Like the Hindu caste-ridden society, relations between Muslim social groups are governed by a social taboos sharing a table, marriage, sociability) and spatial restrictions (access to domestic areas and places of prayer, segregation in cemeteries and neighbour-hoods.

The ashraf opposes caste based count of Muslim community. But the ajlaf and arzal support it. The ashraf, being a “creamy layer”, obstruct any step that may improve lot of the downtrodden.

The Indian Supreme Court took a decision to exclude the “creamy layer” from the quotas in 2008. But, it was never implemented. Questions about Islam mostly relating to ibadaat  like hajj are asked in Indian parliament by the non-Muslim. No question about economic justice for all and sundry is asked.

Read more: Distortion of jihad by Hindu priests-another attack on Muslims in India?

Muslims should resist stratification

Religious equality in India is impossible until attitudes change. Since the Hindu caste system is rooted in scriptures, it is difficult to change.

The Muslim caste system has hampered their progress in various realm of life. The paradox of belonging to Islam, a religion that is premised on the notion of equality, and at the same time imbibing local traits which affirm inequality has to be admitted.

Muslims are segmented into different status categories on the basis of income, occupation, education and lineage.

It is the Muslim himself who can change his lot by following Islam in full. They should resist stratification and demand equality from their community. The Muslim world at large should help them with funds.

Read more: Indian Muslims say ‘can’t trust anyone now’

Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been writing free-lance for over five decades. He has served federal and provincial governments of Pakistan for 39 years. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies and magazines at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka et. al.). He is author of eight e-books including The Myth of Accession. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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