(From our archives: this article was featured in our January 2009 issue ‘The many faces of terror’)
On 6 December 1992, the demolition of the Babri Masjid by rightwing Hindu forces heralded a major shift in the Indian political landscape. In a way, it signalled that the long-cherished Indian variant of ‘secularism’, or the Gandhian notion of sarva dharma sambhava (‘Let all religions prosper’), which held as its ideal the symmetrical treatment of all religions, was now increasingly outliving its utility for the ruling classes. And no wonder: since that time, the academic community in India has unleashed vigorous debates on secularism, and Indians have been greeted with all kinds of communitarian and postmodern critiques of the same. While the times to come will surely pronounce a verdict of some type on these sophisticated intellectual endeavours, let us first digress in order to explore some areas less treaded by the Indian academic elite.
Some examinations of the Babri episode have linked it to the neoliberal shifts in the Indian economy that took place around the same time, particularly the ambitious economic reforms launched by the Congress government in 1991. Such an approach has also required studying the concomitant need to promote authoritarian and fascist tendencies by powerful interest blocs to divide and tame the working classes. While such a perspective is quite conceivable, whether there actually existed any formidable working-class challenge to bring about such a drastic response from the powers-that-be is worth investigating. Meanwhile, other readings of the event concentrate on a major incident: the acceptance of a single recommendation put forward by the Mandal Commission report by the V P Singh government in 1990, which reserved jobs for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the central government.
This one measure resulted overnight in V P Singh being hailed as a veritable messiah of social justice by the disadvantaged castes. At the same time, however, it also precipitated what has been dubbed by the sociologist Gail Omvedt as the “twice-born riot against democracy”, wherein the upper-caste youth took to the streets of North India, attempting to immolate themselves for what they saw as a ‘darkening of their futures’. After all, how could such a loud test of the upper-caste monopoly of privileged public-sector jobs have gone unchallenged? In fact, V P Singh, in his deposition before the Justice Liberhan Commission of 2001, opined clearly that, “Mr L K Advani undertook the rath yatra in 1990 to counter the Mandal Commission’s report, as the BJP was apprehensive that it might lose the middle class if the party supported the report.” Moreover, “the BJP also did not want to oppose the report as it feared that it might result in alienation of the backward classes, and thought that religious issues would be the proper answer to cloud the Mandal issue.”
Either way, the demolition of the Babri Masjid ensured that, in the conceivable future, religious identity in India would continue to dominate the political space at the expense of other identities, especially caste and gender. As a consequence, since the demolition Indian society has seen an increasing legitimacy accorded to both the forces of Hindutva and Islamism, even as the notion gained ground that religious communities are essentially monolithic. Why exactly the notion of ‘community’ has been so persistently sought to be defined monochromatically in religious terms in India is, meanwhile, an interesting but separate point.
When Ali Anwar, one of the leaders of the Pasmanda movement, made up of Muslim backward-castes and Dalits in Bihar, declared during a conference in 2007, “Hum shuddar hain shuddar; Bharat ke moolnivasi hain. Baad mein musalman hain” (We are Shudras first; we are the indigenous peoples of India. We are Muslims later), he was in a sense altering the semantics of Indian politics. By privileging caste over his ‘religious’ identity, Anwar was also upturning the notions of majority and minority that are commonly invoked by the mainstream political discourse. He stressed that the Pasmanda sections were a minority only when they identified themselves primarily as Muslims. But once they begin identifying themselves as Shudras, Dalits or moolnivasis (original inhabitants), they immediately transform themselves into a majority (bahujan). After all, he pointed out, even after conversion to Islam such individuals continue to be identified with their castes by the upper-caste ashrafiya Muslims. A Dalit who converts to Islam is labelled an arzal Muslim, while a Shudra who converts to Islam becomes an ajlaf Muslim. And does not the insistence on endogamy (marrying within a particular group) on the basis of caste by the ulema perpetuate and legitimise these hierarchies?
Of the three major theories on conversion to Islam in India – that is, the ‘religion of the sword’ theory, the ‘political patronage’ theory and the ‘religion of social liberation’ theory – it is the last that has been enthusiastically received by the Muslim elite classes. In a nutshell, this theory suggests that the lowest and most degraded castes in the hierarchical Hindu caste system converted to the egalitarian ideology of Islam in order to escape Brahminical oppression. However, this is a construction without much historical backing. Some historians have recently argued on the basis of their reading of the Persian primary sources that, in their presentation of Islam to Indians, traditional Muslim scholars did not stress the Islamic ideal of social equality as opposed to Hindu caste, but rather of Islamic monotheism as opposed to Hindu polytheism. Moreover, there is abundant sociological evidence to back the claim that those disadvantaged Hindu communities who converted to Islam to improve their status in the social hierarchy were scarcely successful, and caste stigma continued to weigh heavy on them. In contrast to the mythical claims made by elite Muslims, religious conversion to Islam has simply not been the great social solvent that it is often made out to be.
The ascendance of the caste movement among Muslims had political repercussions in the last assembly elections in Bihar in 2005. Ali Anwar prominently dubbed Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav’s so-called M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) alliance as an FM-Y (Forward Muslim-Yadav) alliance. As a consequence, a substantial number of lower-caste Muslims voted for Nitish Kumar, leading to Yadav’s defeat – and leading to one prominent journalist to dub Ali Anwar a “minority spoiler”. One of the key aspirations of the Pasmanda movement has been to contest the emotive politics of symbols that have been fostered by the Muslim caste elite – the issues surrounding Urdu, the Uniform Civil Code, Aligarh Muslim University and the Babri Masjid itself – and instead to concentrate on more organic, development-based issues facing the community. Along these lines, a few years back another leader of Dalit Muslims, Ejaz Ali, offered a provocative though arguably simplistic slogan: “Babri masjid le lo, article 341 de do” (Take Babri Mosque, give us Article 341). Notably, the movement around Article 341 presses for the scrapping of the Presidential Order of 1951 that ejected the non-Hindu Scheduled Caste segments from the Scheduled Caste list, thus depriving them of the benefits of affirmative action. Ali Anwar has echoed unequivocal similar sentiments. “Our main concern is to raise the issue of economic deprivation and unemployment among the Muslims,” he has said, “and we want to take the community away from the fold of mosques and mullahs.”
Muslim Backward and Dalit Castes constitute more than 75 percent of the Indian Muslim population. The Pasmanda movement has therefore considerably unsettled the logic of upper-caste ashrafiya Muslim politics – if not necessarily on the grassroots level, then certainly in theory. Since the onset of the movement in the early 1990s, individuals and organisations representing ashrafiya interests (for instance, Imarat-e-Shariah, the Muslim Personal Law Board, Jamiatul Ulema-e-Hind, Jamaat-e-Islami-e-Hind, All India Muslim Majlis Mashaweraat, etc) have largely maintained a conspiracy of silence on the issues the movement has highlighted, though they have at times retorted by saying that the movement is trying to divide Muslims along caste lines, and that caste is antithetical to Islam. But this, the Pasmanda leaders have argued, is a blatant case of confusing theological reality with sociological reality. In fact, caste is very much alive within the Indian Muslim community, with considerable evidence to back up the contention. This socially variegated profile of the Muslim religious community was even officially acknowledged by the Sachar Committee report from November 2006, on the status of Indian Muslims. In the report, the committee’s members broke down the Muslim community into three blocs – ashraf, ajlaf and arzal, or forward, backward and most backward.
Now let us consider another event, which went almost unnoticed by India’s chattering classes. On the night of 6 December 2007 – and the date is indeed ironic, coming exactly 16 years after the destruction of the Babri Masjid – members of the upper-caste Muslim community in north Bihar’s East Champaran District set fire to six homes belonging to those from the lower castes of the same community, in the village of Rampur-Bairiya. The problem is reported to have begun a few months earlier, over the right to pray. One day, the upper-caste Meers (Syeds) and Pathans, both constituting the landed elite in the village, elbowed the backward-caste Ansaris and Mansuris (largely labouring groups) to the back of the queue at the local mosque. When this was resented and challenged by the latter two groups, they were forcibly driven out of the mosque. To avoid controversy, those who were elbowed out subsequently built a thatched mosque, in order that they could offer prayers with some dignity. As time passed, however, this newly constructed makeshift mosque became something of a thorn in the eyes of the upper-caste Muslims. As such, it was eventually assaulted and a significant portion of the mosque was damaged.
This had not been a lone incident in Rampur-Bairiya. In one previous incident, during the marriage of the daughter of a lower-caste Muslim family, the bridegroom made the grievous mistake of arriving at the wedding in a Maruti car, a clear symbol of status in the backward village economy. In so doing, he drove through a street along which lived upper-caste Muslims. Pandemonium subsequently broke out as henchmen of the upper-caste community members attacked the wedding guests, and mixed mud into the food. To top it off, it was not the perpetrators that were later harassed by the police, but rather the victims themselves. It turned out that the local inspector was an upper-caste Muslim himself.
A subsequent interview with the alleged architect of the Rampur-Bairiya mosque episode is telling. When the reporter asked his name, he replied “Mohammad Idrees”. But he was immediately interrupted by one of his female relatives standing nearby. “Why don’t you add Syed before your name?” she asked. Interestingly, later in the article, this same woman, when speaking of members of the Ansari community, kept addressing them with the derogatory term julaha (ignorant). During the subsequent conversation, Syed Idrees said: “We belong to the Syed Biradari [caste], which is just like the Brahmins of the Muslim community. Where does the question of our equality with them arise?’
What are the implications of these stories? To begin with, the demolition of the Rampur-Bairiya mosque starkly brings to the surface the clear fissures within the Muslim community on the basis of caste and class, challenging the monolithic construction of the Muslim community by the Indian mainstream. What will become of the logic of rightwing Hindu politics, which whips up ‘Hindu’ sentiments by proclaiming loudly that All Muslims are united against us!, once the notion of a monolithic Muslim community is splintered? Will communalism be able to endure? Moreover, such a splintering does for Muslim society what the ‘temple entry’ campaigns by Dalits did for Hindu society: it underscores the mosque as a contested and political site.
There is nothing immaculate about religion or religious symbols – at least the lived versions. They are often either deeply intermeshed with or address the reigning power structures. Thus, if a community’s dominant sections interpret and appropriate symbols according to their interests, in time the non-dominant sections too will realise the need to interpret, appropriate and even invent symbols according to their own interests. More to the point, why did the mainstream Muslim leadership and institutions – the Imarat-e-Shariah, Muslim Personal Law Board, Jamiatul Ulema-e-Hind, Jamaat-e-Islami-e-Hind, All India Muslim Majlis Mashaweraat, etc – which were so vocal on the demolition of Babri Mosque, maintain total silence on the issue of the Rampur-Bairiya mosque? Likewise, why was the mainstream Muslim leadership silent on the Bathani Tola massacre in Bhojpur District of Bihar in July 1996, in which a half-dozen Dalit Muslims were raped and lynched by private feudal security personnel? Is it due to the overwhelming upper-caste content of mainstream Muslim leadership? Is it because lower-caste Muslims do not figure very large in the ashrafiya imagination, or that when they do it is strictly as second-class Muslims? Could the same charges of discrimination that mainstream Muslims level at the Hindu leadership ultimately be levelled against upper-caste Muslims by lower-caste Muslims?
Neither is this a new phenomenon. In recent visits by this writer to a village in western Uttar Pradesh, stories emerged about upper-caste Shia Syeds burning a mosque belonging to lower-caste Muslims in a riot that succeeded the 1946 elections, which is hailed as delivering the ‘consensus on Pakistan’. Most of the lower castes were at that point ryots, or tenants, to upper-caste Muslim landlords. The conflict is said to have broken out when the lower-caste Muslims decided to support the Congress party and oppose the ‘Two-Nation Theory’, in open defiance of the diktats of the upper-caste Muslims, who were strongly supporting the Muslim League.
The crux of the matter is that if lower castes have converted to religions perceived to be egalitarian, such as Islam or Christianity or Buddhism, in order to escape social persecution, then it is also true that in historical time the upper-caste Hindus likewise converted to religions to extract benefits from the so-called ‘Muslim’ rulers or ‘Christian’ white colonialists. No wonder that, as time passed, those of the converted classes were the sections that, due to their cultural capital, ended up monopolising the interpretational processes of these religions, and heavily influenced them with the hierarchical value framework of the caste system. Since its inception, the Pasmanda movement has striven to take these interpretations head-on. In an interview Ali Anwar said, “We Muslim Dalit and Backward Castes are ‘believing Muslims’: we take our faith in Islam seriously. Islam … stands for social equality and justice. It is completely opposed to social hierarchy.” He continued: “So when we are protesting against inequality and injustice, how can we be said to be going against Islam? On the contrary, what we are doing is, in my view, actually mandated by our religion. On the other hand, those who keep silent on the plight of the Muslim Dalit and Backward Castes are actually working against Islam, for they are indifferent to its mandate of social justice and inequality.”
The demolition of the Rampur-Bairiyya mosque by upper-caste Muslims quite patently underscores the complexities and cleavages of lived Muslim reality. This is not the uplifting story of a united ummah; rather, it is one abounding in deep fault lines. While the Babri Masjid demolition has been much theorised about and debated over, it is the destruction of this makeshift mosque in a remote village in Bihar that will, in the long run, lead to more probing questions of Indian polity and society. Increasingly, it will also provide a window through which to glimpse new and more meaningful solidarities across religious identities to be scripted in the future. Very recently, a wall along a Patna street bore some graffiti that read, Dalit dalit ek samaan, hindu ho ya musalman (All Dalits are alike, be they Hindu or Muslim). Surely slogans such as these are a sign of things to come.
~ Khalid Anis Ansari is a member of the Patna Collective, a research and activism group based in Patna.