India-Empowerment of Pasmanda Muslims is a Must

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Pasmanda, a word of Persian origin literally means 'those who have fallen behind', 'broken' or 'oppressed'. (Newage Islam)

The socio-political and religious movement of Indian Muslims has all along been a complex issue for social scientists.

However, a brief peep in the sociology of Islamic invaders and subsequent migration of people from the desert land of Arabia and its neighbouring regions for permanent settlement in the Indian sub-continent may throw some light as to how even after five hundred years of Islamic rule over 85% of Indian Muslims continued to be in the Pasmanda or marginalised group in the community.

Muslim theologians in South Asia claim social equality in Muslim society and claim that they are socially homogenous. But the ground reality is that the caste system of the community in South Asia is a social reality.

It is a fact that the Muslims of foreign origin in India who call themselves Ashraf never gave an equal status to non-Ashraf group of Muslims and always claimed and maintained their superiority over the latter. B.R.Ambedkar argued that social evils in Muslim society are "worse than those seen in Hindu society" (Wikipedia).

As far as Muslim population in India is concerned over eighty five percent of Indian Muslims are the descendents of the native Hindus who either under the threat of sword or through some allurement were converted to the faith of the ruling class. Of the remaining fifteen percent about ten percent are the descendents of the upper caste Hindu converts.

The rest five percent whose forefathers migrated to the Indian sub-continent from the desert land of Arabia and its neighbouring regions for their livelihood are proud of their so called superior origin and therefore always treated the Indian converts as inferior. In fact, overlooking the Islamic scriptural injunction against any socio-religious distinction on the basis of ancestry or regions they always remained alert to ensure that their traditional cultural character is not subsumed by the cultural character of the natives.

Claiming themselves Ashraf (Noble Muslims), they continued to maintain their socio-religious superiority over the native converts and treated them as Ajlaf (Low category of Muslims) and Arzal (Marginalised or degraded Muslims).

Thus, contrary to the general notion of a monolithic identity of Muslims, the Muslim society in the Indian sub-continent remained sharply divided into three exclusive segments - Ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal.

The Hindu converts belonging to Artisan or backward castes who are treated as low category of Muslims by the Ashraf are called Ajlaf. Similarly, the Muslims with untouchable Hindu past are called Arzal which in Arabic denotes marginalized or degraded. In the modern political context while the Ashrafs are in the forward caste group, the Ajlafs and the Arzals belong to the category of backwards and Dalits. This combined group of Ajlafs and Arzals is known as Pasmanda Muslims.

The term Ashraf is plural of Arabic word Sharif which denotes noble, highborn, exalted or eminent and particularly refer to someone having a line of descent from Prophet Mohammad and his clan. However, over the years all the Islamist invaders from Arabia, Persia, Turkistan, Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries claimed themselves as Ashraf.

In the South Asian context Shaikh, Saayeeds, Mirzas, Moghuls and Pathans are primarily grouped in the category of Ashraf. The upper caste Hindu converts due to higher social status in Hindu past also assumed the status of Ashraf even though they did not get equal treatment by the Muslims of foreign origin. They rather bracketed themselves with the ruling class Muslims and became partner in socio-political exclusion of Pasmanda.

Shaikh in Arabic is an honorific term which literally means elder or leader and used for conferring title in honour for Islamic scholars or even for a man of stature particularly of Arab origin. In India the title of Shaikh was initially conferred to Islamic scholars but subsequently the Brahmin converts also assumed it as title to maintain their superiority among the Hindu converts. For example Sheikh Abdullah whose grand father Ragho Ram Kaul a Kashmiri Pandit was converted to Islam and was named as Shaikh Ibrahim.

Even Allama Iqbal was a Shaikh as his fore fathers were also Kashmiri Brahmin. The Sayyids on the other hand are said to be the descendents of the Prophet through his grand sons Hasan bin Ali and Husain bin Ali and have wider social respectability even within Ashraf. The orthodox Sayyids are so particular about their ancestry that even the children of a Sayyida (feminine of Sayyid) mother but a non-Sayyid father cannot assume the title of Sayyid and are instead having the title of Mirja.

Approximately, only 3% of Muslim population in South Asia (14,444,000) claim their descent from the Prophet. Of them 56,96,000 are in India. Mogul in Indian context is used for the descendents of Babar of Turko-Mongolian origin who founded the Moghul dynasty in 1526. Pathans in India link their lineage from the Pashtuns from Afghanistan who migrated to India during Muslim rule. Since they belonged to fighters’ race, the Rajputs and the other land owing castes in India also grouped themselves in the category of Pathan.

So long as India was under Islamic rule, Ashraf had no problem in maintaining their socio-political and religious superiority not only over the native Hindus but also over the native converts. However, their diminishing influence in centre of power particularly after the decline of Moghul empire from the middle of eighteenth century particularly after the rise of Maratha and Jat power prompted them to start the divisive politics of uniting the Muslim masses in the name of Islam for their self-seeking interest to re-establish the political authority of Muslims in Indian sub-continent. Projecting the rise of Hindu power as a danger signal to Islam one Shah Waliullah Dehlawi (1703-1762) a well known Ashraf Islamic clergy of his time wrote a widely known hate-Hindu letter to Abdali, the then ruler of Afghanistan and other powerful Ashraf in the region which worked as a catalyst to create awareness among the demoralized Muslims of foreign origin. This was the starting point of Ashraf politics in modern India.

The successive Islamic theologians and Muslim elite like Abdul Aziz (1746-1822), Syed Ahmad Barelvi (1786-1831) and those who launched various movements like Deoband, Aligarh, Tabligh Jamaat and Jamaat-e-Islami who had enjoyed honourable status in the Muslim society-all belonged to the Ashraf category and carried forward the theo-political legacy of Waliullah which is popularly known as political Islam. They established Islamic institutions which gradually underlined the need for adopting methods appropriate to the changed political environment and adopted a strategy to mobilise the Pasmanda with a call to return to Prophet Era which ultimately led to the partition of the sub-continent. In fact all these movements had nothing to with any spiritual elevation of the Pasmanda but for the self-seeking political interest of the Ashraf.

After partition, a large number of Ashraf migrated to Pakistan and left the Pasmanda who played an active and aggressive role in Pakistan movement to their own fate. However, those who stayed back in India instead of mobilising the Pasmanda for national construction programmes revived the movement for their ghettoisation in the name of symbolic and emotive identity politics.

Since then even after over six decades of Independence the Ashraf-driven identity politics never allowed the Pasmanda Muslims to think beyond Uniform Civil Code, Muslim Personal Law, Urdu, Aligarh Muslim University and Babari Mosque. They formulated the strategy of their collective bargaining for fulfilment of grievances on these issues but never tried to raise the issues related to the educational, social and economic development of the Ajlaf and the Arzal.

After independence the two prominent Muslim leaders in India, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Dr. Zakir Husain ministers in the Nehru cabinet were Ashrafs. They however, did not do anything for the socio-economic or political empowerment of the Pasmanda Muslims. Even the successive political leaders in various political parties have treated the Pasmanda only as a vote bank without working for their social development or any material compensation to them.

Thus, despite their quest for upward socio-political mobility, the Pasmandas are still entrapped in the cobweb of mosque and madrasa as their job options continue to be limited in India. Some have managed to improve their financial status by taking some jobs even low category ones in the Gulf countries and yet it has not made them less subservient to the Ashrafs.

Even though, the Pasmanda Muslims constitute a larger majority in the community, they are too weak to assert for their emancipation from the Ashrafs. Against the so called alien cultural capital of the Ashraf, they are not in a position to unload the historical baggage of being the descendants of the converts belonging to the various Hindu backward castes and dalits. Leave apart their social equality; the Ashraf-controlled Muslim organizations have hardly done anything even for their educational and economic empowerment. In fact even the state-sponsored benefits are mostly grabbed by the Ashrafs. Unfortunately the Sachchar Committee report has combined the entire Muslim community together and has recommended reservation for them. If such a recommendation is implemented the benefits will again be grabbed by the Ashrafs and will not go to the really deserving marginalised classes of the Muslim community.

The Urdu news papers which are also having the monopoly of the Ashrafs mostly project the Islamic clerics and powerful Muslims of Arabian lineage as the leaders of the community. Since the Clerics are also mostly from the Ashraf class, they do not like the Pasmandas to think beyond mosque, madrasa and Urdu and as a result Pasmandas remain under the siege of the former.

It looks that the Asrafs would prefer to continue to keep the Pasmanda backward! One may ask why? One should look the Maulvis who have the power and the opportunity to have direct contact with the masses the Pasmandas. Instead they are seen to be courting the political leaders (both mostly Ashrafs) and have developed a common vested interest in keeping the Pasmandas away.

By and large the local Maulwis lack the intellectual ability as they have no knowledge of modern education and that is the reason that they often issue absurd fatwas which become mandatory for the poor and backwards.

Apart from it, even the Pasmanda clerics are in the pay roll of village mosques and madrasas run with funds managed by Ashrafs. Therefore, they do not dare to raise their voice against the latter.

Unfortunately even the Aligarh Muslim University, a leading Muslim centre for modern education is in the grip of the Ashraf-controlled governing body and is not ready to come out of conservative Ashrafism. Pasmanda students do not equal opportunity to gain admission in this modern university.

Asgar Ali Engineer a leading Islamic scholar in an interview has rightly suggested that “Indian Muslims need a leader like B.R.Ambedkar” who fought for the empowerment of Dalits. He further said, “"But unlike Ambedkar, Syed Ahmad Khan was hostile to the interests of the poor. The only people he was concerned about were the Ashraf or so-called 'upper'-caste Muslims, whose interests had been shaken with the advent of the British. And so he set up the Aligarh College to train sons of Ashraf families, strictly keeping out 'low' caste Muslims, so that they could get well-paying jobs in the British administration. I think that Ashraf mentality, a mentality rooted in an extremely feudal culture, is still very deeply-rooted in the psyche of Muslim organizations, especially in the Urdu-Hindi belt [northern India] . “Syed Ahmad Khan himself was, indifferent to the plight of the non-Ashraf poor”. (indianmuslimobserver.com. posted in January 2011).

Instead of sidelining the Islamic priestly class that still commands a visible impact on backward Muslims, the secular governments and their political parties continue to grant funds to such madrasas run by them. Ironically, though a large number of madrassas are funded by the Gulf Dollars and contributed by the Padmanda Muslims, the funds have only strengthened the power of the clergy class and have not improved the financial status or the social upward mobility of the Pasmanda Muslims Instead these funds have been used to perpetuate the division and brainwash the students in every Muslim village on conservative Islam.

Encouraged with the Mandalisation of backward politics, one Ali Anwar dedicated to the cause of emancipation of the Pasmanda Muslims from the neglect and persecution mobilised the Pasmanda Muslims in Bihar and founded a social reform organization known as Pasmanda Muslim Mahaj (Marginalised Muslim Front). Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar, patronised this group which played a vital role in the decisive victory of the NDA in the last Assembly election in the State.

The Ashrafs have already tried to supress the movement and have called the Mahaj as “un-Islamic heretics”.

Pasmanda movement has to succeed and this appears to be the only route for the emancipation of the backward and marginalised Pasmanda communities in India.

First published in http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/