Khalid Anis Ansari
Historically, while the category ‘majority’ has been by default occupied by the most dominant cultural collectivity within the national territory, the notion of ‘minority’ has carried connotations of alterity, injury, subordination or disadvantage. The culture of the majority —which often masquerades as national culture or secularism— frequently defines the centre through which other cultures are evaluated and addressed, thereby invoking fear of cultural assimilationism or economic subjugation in the officially defined minorities. In the case of India too, there has been a rich debate on minority rights along these lines in recent decades. However, while the discussion on minority rights has acquired centre stage, what is further striking is that, with the deepening of pluralism and democracy, new subterranean political subjectivities have emerged that are putting severe strains on official minority discourses. Some of these so-called ‘internal minorities’ or ‘minorities within minorities’ that are now struggling to inscribe themselves onto the registers of justice may cut through the majority-minority dichotomy and find it to be deeply inhibitive in addressing their concerns. Are we therefore reaching the limits of dominant minority discourses? Is the minority space really capable of addressing the emerging questions around difference and inequality that internal minorities bring to the table? While gender has dominated the discussions on internal minorities in India so far, I would like to flag the discursive ruptures in minority space in India instantiated by the Pasmanda movement, which is a movement of subordinated castes within the largest religious minority, the Muslims.
Religion as difference, Caste as inequality
That Indian modernity was constituted within the colonial gaze and resulted in the consequential systematization and politicization of identities for purposes of governmentality is a commonplace in academic discourses now. In fact, in the post-independence phase minorities were subdivided into sections that were granted ‘cultural rights’ (referring to religious and linguistic groups) and ‘political rights’ (referring to caste and indigenous tribal groups) respectively. Hence, social policy largely conceived religious identity, which also became a suspect category due to the Partition, in cultural terms and recommended protection for the same. In this sense, minority religions, like Islam or Christianity, were constituted as permanent minorities and became a subject of minority rights. Caste and indigenous tribal groups, on the other hand, were conceptualized in terms of hierarchy, disadvantage or stigma and therefore necessitated annihilation in time. Hence, castes and tribes became the subject of social justice and beneficiaries of positive discrimination policies (reservations or quotas). The Constitution therefore constructed the official categories of Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (OBCs) and Minorities (religious and linguistic) to capture this complex reality for policy purposes. However, while SCs referred to the Dalits (formerly untouchables), STs to the indigenous tribes, and Minorities to the religious and linguistic collectivities, the OBC category was curiously left ambiguous without any clear referents.
Broadly, two key political consequences of the aforementioned constitutional consensus are relevant for this discussion. One, while all faith traditions in India are deeply divided on the basis of caste, sect, and language and so on, the majority and minority categories were defined exclusively in terms of religion and cumulatively produced over time as holistic and undifferentiated categories. Religion was re-signified as the master and overarching category through the intervention of law and state policy. Two, the majority-minority framework or the ideology of secularism, though articulated as a constitutional mechanism to guarantee safeguards and assurance to Muslims who chose to stay back in India after Partition, may have kept intact the broad discursive territory from where ‘communalism’ —understood as inter-faith violence or competitive segmentary political demands— as an ideology draws its force. Empirically, post-colonial India continues to be plagued by internecine discursive and violent clashes between majority and minorities, so much so that the term ‘Muslim’ and ‘minority’ have assumed equivalence in popular imagination. In this sense minority is not only an official state category but rather a political category in its own right.
It is within this policy context that the key elements of majority-minority discourses are performed on a quotidian basis. Muslim discourse has been mostly arranged around emotive religio-cultural aspects—for instance, Babri, AMU, Personal Law, and Urdu—at the expense of issues related to social justice. The aforementioned elements of minority discourse may be sharply contrasted by a counter majoritarian discourse by Hindu revivalists (Hindutva) that often raise the question of appeasement of Muslims by the state. Such mutual discursive contestations and accommodation between majority and minority communities have dominated the political landscape in India since Independence thereby ushering in a deep discontent among other marginalized constituencies that consequently experience their own justice claims or political arrival to be perpetually displaced and deferred. However, the policy consensus —religion as difference, caste as inequality— reflected in minority politics or social justice politics respectively began to be seriously undermined by new social mobilizations and significant events of the 1990s—mainly, demolition of the Babri Mosque, the acceptance of Mandal Commission Report and neoliberal economic reforms. These critical events produced dislocationary effects in the Indian social imaginary and the key elements in the official Indian ideology, especially the articulation of minority rights (and secularism), social justice (quota politics) and state socialism were destabilized. Consequently, these ruptures led to an acute crisis of social identity and created the space for new political subjectivities to emerge in India.2
Minority as Sharif Politics: Pasmanda Ruptures
As far as the minority space is concerned, the emergence of the Pasmanda Movement was critical as it activated the repressed caste based segmentations within Indian Muslims. ‘Pasmanda’, a Persian term meaning ‘those who have fallen behind,’ refers to Muslims belonging to the subordinated caste groups which constitute about eighty per cent of Indian Muslim population in demographic terms. Broadly, three kinds of Muslim status groups can be identified: One, those who trace their origin to foreign lands and the converts from Hindu higher castes (ashraf), two, the converts from clean occupational castes (ajlaf) and three, the converts from the formerly untouchable (Dalit) castes (arzal). In the context of Muslim caste,
The Ashraf constitute the highest stratum within this structure. Their position and rank within the Muslim caste system is almost identical with that which the Brahman and Kshatriya grouped together is granted in the Hindu caste hierarchy. Thus both the Sayyad and Shaikh, as competent religious pedagogues and priests, are almost identical with the Brahman; whereas both the Mughal and Pathan, being famous for their chivalry, appear to be equal to the Kshatriya.3
The ashrafs, ajlafs and arzals are further internally differentiated into various ranked, occupational and endogamous groups like julahas (weavers), mansooris (cotton carders), telis (oil pressers), saifis (carpenters), bakhos (gypsies), and so on. Muslims usually use the term zaat or biradari for referring to caste and there are about 705 such groups according to the People of India project. The Pasmanda movement attempted to mobilize the “dalit-backward” Muslims by enacting the Pasmanda as an oppositional identity to that of the hegemonic higher caste ashraf Muslims and instilled a radical negativity within the field of minority politics by employing caste analytics. The Pasmanda counter-hegemonic discourse challenged the key elements of high caste sharif politics by advancing arguments and symbolic inversions as far as the questions of identity/solidarity, social reform, secularism/communalism and recognition/redistribution/representation were concerned.
The movement literature is peppered with stories of humiliation, discrimination and violence on caste grounds that various Pasmanda communities have to undergo on a daily basis at the hands of ashraf counterparts. It is this culture of shaming that the disenfranchised Muslim caste groups have attempted to overcome by crafting a new identity that may become a vehicle for publicizing experiences of misrecognition and enabling resistance against their second-grade status within the Muslim body-politic. Even historically the term qaum (community) was employed to refer to high caste Muslims exclusively and the Muslim lower castes were usually addressed by their caste locations. It is only due to the challenge of democracy and privileging of numbers from late 19th century onwards that both high caste Hindus and Muslims repositioned themselves as religious majorities or minorities in order to invisibilize their microscopic numerical strength and become natural leaders of large all-India religious collectivities. In a symbolic inversion the Pasmanda ideologues have countered the high caste notions of vertical solidarity based on religious identity and emphasized on crafting a horizontal solidarity of subordinated castes across religions. As Ali Anwar, one of the key leaders of the movement says: ‘…there is a bond of pain between Pasmanda-dalit Muslims and the Pasmanda–dalit sections of other religions. This bond of pain is the supreme bond. We face the same issues’. This reworking of the hierarchy of identities and solidarity is also evident in Ali Anwar’s statement ‘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) or in the Pasmanda slogan of “Dalit-pichda ek saman, Hindu ho ya musalman” (All dalit-backward are alike, whether they be Hindu or Muslim).
In terms of theological hermeneutics, Masood Alam Falahi’s work Hindustan mein Zaat Paat aur Musalman persuasively demonstrated how the notion of kufu (rules about possible marriage relations between groups) was read through the lens of caste by the casteist ulema and how a parallel system of graded inequality was put into place in Indian Islam. In these discussions the distance between the Islamic norm of equality and the extant hierarchies in actual-existing Indian Islam is emphasized. The Pasmanda commentators have also critiqued maslaqi (sectarian), gender and language politics (Urdu) as being dominated by elite Muslims. As far as the socio-political sphere is concerned, there is a rich discussion on caste-based disenfranchisement of Pasmanda sections in community organisations like madrasas, personal law boards, representative institutions (Parliament and State Assemblies) and state departments, ministries and institutions that claim to work for Muslims (minority affairs, waqf boards, Urdu academies, AMU, Jamia Millia Islamia, etc.). Also, the Mandal Commission Report by listing 82 Muslim lower caste groups as “backward” unleashed the long suppressed debate on positive discrimination within Muslims. In this context the Pasmanda sections have consistently contested the ashraf claim that reservations should be articulated on the lines of religion and have highlighted that the social reality of Indian Muslims was caste-informed and reservations should legitimately be on the basis of caste. There is a sense that in state and community institutions, while the ashrafs are over-represented, it is the Pasmanda Muslims that are grossly underrepresented.
Lastly, the secular-communal duopoly is framed as the key hegemonic apparatus that displaces the emergence of the Pasmanda as a political subject. In the words of Dr. Ambedkar: ‘A caste has no feeling that it is affiliated to other castes, except when there is a Hindu-Muslim riot. On all other occasions each caste endeavours to segregate itself and to distinguish itself from other castes’. Following this various bahujan commentators have conceived the riot as a key instrument in ironing out the internal caste contradictions within the putative Hindu community by displacing the violence to an external Other, the Muslim. On an empirical level communal violence has mostly followed periods of mobility and assertion on the part of the subordinated castes. However, while most reflections have taken serious issues with the forces of Hindu nationalism there seems to be little engagement with Muslim nationalism as such. The Pasmanda discourse has foregrounded the complicity of upper caste Muslim elite in sustaining and reproducing communal discourse that is often instrumental in legitimizing episodes of communal violence. In fact, there is a stress on the dialectical relationship between majority and minority communalisms and the Pasmanda movement proposes to contest minoritarian fundamentalism from within in order to wage a decisive battle against majoritarian fundamentalism at the national level. Ali Anwar opines thus:
We see that the politics of communalism, fuelled by both Hindu and Muslim elites, is aimed at dividing us, making us fight among ourselves, so that the elites continue to rule over us as they have been doing for centuries. This is why we…have been seeking to steer our people from emotional politics to politics centred on issues of survival and daily existence and social justice, and for this we have been working with non-Muslim Dalit and Backward Caste movements and groups to struggle jointly for our rights and to oppose the politics of communalism fuelled by Hindu and Muslim ‘upper’ caste elites.
There is also a realization that in instances of communal violence or false framing of Muslim youth in cases related to terror it is the Pasmanda sections who are the key victims. It is only recently that the caste breakup of victims of communal violence has received some academic/media attention. At least two recent papers on Muzaffarnagar riots (2013) have employed the caste category in their analysis due to the influence of the Pasmanda discourse.4 Also, in some recent communal episodes in Dadri, Bijnor, Jharkhand and elsewhere sections of the media have emphasized on the lower caste locations of Muslim victims.5 Even if one concedes that during episodes of communal violence the perpetrators may have only religion and not caste of the Muslim targets in mind, there is a case for ascriptive aspect of the violence to be complicated by the spatial/class distribution of vulnerability. Is it not the case that in episodes of communal violence it is mostly the poor individuals, neighbourhoods, slums, mohallas or villages that are attacked? If so then in the light of the close correlation between caste and class one may ask which Muslim caste groups inhabit these spaces. Should not communal violence be evaluated as another instance or manifestation of caste violence per se? Obviously, while the differential in power between Hindu and Muslim communalism is quite apparent what the Pasmanda discourse has brought out forcefully is firstly, the casteist motivations and the symbiotic nature of putative contending communalisms, and, secondly, the need to forge a horizontal solidarity of subordinated castes across religions in order to contest it. If communalism is framed as a key instrument to perpetuate the power of privileged caste groups then can secularism be conceived as an adequate response to it? In Pasmanda writings the answer seems to be in the negative as secular scholarship/activism has been historically inhabited by the liberal-left elite belonging to the hegemonic caste groups across religions and has been responsible, whether by default or design, for repressing the question of caste. Not surprisingly on the question of repressing caste the forces of secular nationalism and religious nationalisms have historically found an interesting congruence.
Broadly, in Pasmanda literature there is a sense that minority politics is basically sharif politics and employs the notion of Muslim backwardness or victimhood to preserve the interests of high caste Muslims. There is an attempt to destabilize the monolithic image of Indian Muslim community constructed from colonial phase onwards by revealing the internal differentiations in terms of caste and power. Consequently, the field of minority politics which has been quite content in raising symbolic and emotional issues so far has been interrogated for having failed to address the bread-and-butter concerns of the Pasmanda Muslims, who come primarily from occupational and service biradaris and may be said to constitute the majority within minority in demographic terms. The disillusionment with minority space is reflected quite succinctly in Ali Anwar’s statement that ‘The identity of Pasmanda Muslims was hitherto obscured in the name of minority. Now we fear the word minority and feel that it is a fake (chaliya) word’.
The Limits of Internal Reform
In the preceding section we have discussed how by employing caste analytics the Pasmanda discourse has attempted to rupture the key elements of mainstream Muslim or minority discourse. By taking recourse to a symbolic inversion it has trumped caste vis-à-vis religion and strived to displace the latter as the overarching determinant of the notion of community. In addition, it has engaged with other identifications within the minority space like gender, language or sect and has reconfigured their relationality through critical revaluations. In the Pasmanda narratives the majority-minority and secular-communal dichotomies are framed as upper caste constructs that play a key role in invisibilizing the injuries and marginal status of the subordinated caste collectivities across religions. From the vantage point of the Pasmanda experience the majority-minority (or secularism) framework has neither been able to contain inter-religious violence nor ensure justice to vast majority of marginalized castes. Once the caste principle is employed the distinction of majority-minority informed primarily by religion cracks and what emerges is a minority of dominant caste elite across religions lording over the majority of suppressed castes. Since caste movements are decentering entrenched categories which work for the interests of caste elite, the persistence of communal violence and fundamentalist trajectories in faith traditions may also be interpreted as restorative violence to arrest the democratic assertion of socially excluded caste groups. If such is the case, and some recent evidence points out at the large scale casualties of mostly Pasmanda Muslims in communal riots and other forms of Islamophobic violence, then we may have underplayed the role of Muslim caste as a factor in communal violence as well. From the emerging evidence there are indications that the politics arranged around the category minority has resulted in the gross underrepresentation of Pasmanda Muslims in power on the one hand and overrepresentation in catalogues of victims of communal or Islamophobic violence on the other.
However, while the deepening of democracy has clearly interrogated the extant minority framework and elements of mainstream Muslim discourse in India, it resonates with the experience elsewhere as well. Wilkinson, speaking from an Afro-American perspective, asks for a ‘systematic questioning of ingrained seductive words and value-based constructions like minority’ and radically suggests that ‘researchers, clinicians, and teachers must seek ways to incorporate race and ethnicity in all relevant contexts and omit entirely the “minority” concept’.6 A widely discussed volume has used the term ‘minorities within minorities’ to refer to the situation where ‘efforts to develop reasons why political relations between mainstream majorities and minorities ought to be renegotiated tend to present contending interests as though they are uncontroversial within the groups that hold them’.7 Mahajan, in the same volume, points that out of the three broad suggestions that have been offered to address the concerns of internal minorities, that is, ‘(i) prescribing the limits of permissible diversity by invoking a historically or politically shared universal; (ii) providing exit options for community members; and (iii) seeking a deliberative consensus within the community’,8 it is the last one that has found favour amongst most Indian commentators.
Partha Chatterjee, for instance, is one of the key exponents of the “reforms from within” approach. Chatterjee argues against state-led reforms of Muslim community and advances a ‘strategic politics of toleration’ which works on the principle that ‘if the struggle is for progressive change in social practices sanctioned by religion, then that struggle must be launched and won within the religious communities themselves’.9 One may tentatively remark that the frame of internal reform is beset with over-optimism with regards to the ability of community forums to judiciously represent marginalized voices at one level and from a closure with respect to the question of reform of the state itself. While the state is an extremely sedimented discursive space, but the process of modernity has an in-built reflexivity that keeps the question of reconfiguration of the state alive. I am saying this because in actual practice the subaltern communities cannot really afford strategic purism and have to negotiate and activate multiple levers that cut across state, civil society and markets in order to fashion out their emancipatory projects. One may fairly posit that the discussions around internal reform confine themselves to minority accommodation and fall short in interrogating the dominant consensus on majority-minority framework.
I see this as a closure primarily because the extant minority space may not be rendering justice to the sheer scale and radical diversity of new identifications and spaces of social transformation in India. Arguing from the vantage point of the post-colonial South African experience, Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff take cognizance of the hyper-politicization and fragmentation of identities and suggest that ‘the term ‘multicultural(ism)’ is insufficient to describe the fractious heterogeneity of postcolonies’. They propose the terms ‘ID-ology’ and ‘policulturalism’ as postcolonial substitutes for the terms ideology and multiculturalism. While ID-ology refers to ‘the quest for a collective good, and sometimes goods, sanctioned by, and in the name of, a shared identity’, ‘the preﬁx, spelled ‘poli-” in policulturalism ‘marks two things at once: plurality and its politicisation’.10 For instance, in the case of caste while its politicization has been much discussed, the recent evidence suggests its increasing culturalization as well. More and more subordinated caste units across religions are now developing their own mythologies of origin, replacing symbolisms of humiliation with pride, tracing their own heroes/icons and reconfiguring community norms/ practices. Here caste is reinvented as a cherished identity, indeed a community in its own right with all its implied holistic meanings, and ceases to be a marker that in the main implied injury. As stated earlier Muslims have about 705 caste based groupings which are increasingly undergoing the process of politicization and culturalization. Is the minority space capable enough of accommodating the symbolic and material aspirations of such a large number of groups? Is a single window transaction around religious identity the best way to address the emerging concerns around cultural difference? Is there a need to rethink the dominant consensus on religion as difference and caste as inequality in the face of the increasing culturalization of caste?
One is tempted to say that the minority category probably invisibilizes more than it reveals as far as modes of misrecognition and systematic exclusion are concerned. Since the demographic question is central to minority politics and Pasmanda Muslims perceive themselves as a majority within minority one feels that the term ‘minorities within minorities’ may not be adequate in capturing the Pasmanda experience of injury and disadvantage. I therefore suggest that the extant social and political conditions that circumscribe the democratic aspirations of Pasmanda Muslims have probably exceeded the context that legitimated the earlier imagination of the minority space, and therefore the ensemble of emerging contestations around recognition/social justice, majority-minority and secular-communal duopolies, or reform may be provisionally termed as ‘post-minority’. It does not necessarily mean the negation of earlier concerns around religious communalism or majority assimilationalism that quintessentially defined the minority space, but rather an appreciation for the dynamic nature of social space and the democratic possibilities opened by recent normative/symbolic inversions inaugurated by subaltern movements.
1. This write-up is a condensed version of a paper that will be carried soon by an edited volume on Human Rights being published from Europe. I have dropped most references and footnotes in order to enhance its online readability.
2. The internal contestations within the SC category are reflected in the enactment of the “mahadalit” identity in Bihar, the contradictions between maala and madiga castes in Andhra Pradesh or the conflicts of arunthathiyars with other relatively dominant dalit castes like pallars or paraiyars in Tamil Nadu. The demand for chalking out a separate MBC (Most Backward Class) quota within the OBC category or various caste/gender based movements within religious minorities further indicate the crisis of entrenched categories.
3. G. Ansari, Muslim Caste in Uttar Pradesh: A Study of Culture Contact (Lucknow: Ethnographic and Folk Culture Society, 1960).
4, See: Ahmad, H. (2013). Muzaffarnagar 2013: Meanings of Violence. Economic & Political Weekly, XLVIII, No (October 5, 2013), 10–13; Singh, J. (2016). Communal Violence in Muzaffarnagar: Agrarian Transformation and Politics. Economic & Political Weekly, LI No. 31(July 30, 2016), 94–101.
5. See: Sajjad, M. (2016). The communal mood in UP is turning ugly. Retrieved November 15, 2016, from http://www.rediff.com/news/column/the-communal-mood-in-up-is-turning-ugly/20161013.htm; Naqvi, S. (2016). Why Bijnor Communal Villainy Did Not Spread. Retrieved November 15, 2016, from http://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/OldNewsPage/?Id=8802&Why/Bijnor/Communal/Villainy/Did/Not/Spread
6. Wilkinson, D. (2000). Rethinking the concept of “minority”: A task for social scientists and practioners. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 27(27), 115–132.
7. Eisenberg, A., & Spinner-Halev, J. (Eds.). (2005). Minorities within Minorities: Equality, Rights and Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
8. Mahajan, G. (2005), “Can intra-group equality co-exist with cultural diversity? Re-examining multicultural frameworks of accommodation” in A. Eisenberg & J. Spinner-Halev (eds.), Minorities within Minorities: Equality, Rights and Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 90-112.
9. Chatterjee, Partha (1998b), “Secularism and Tolerance”, in Rajeev Bhargava (ed.), Secularism and Its Critics. New Delhi, 345–379.
10. Comaroff, Jean; Comaroff, John (2003), “Reflections on liberalism, policulturalism, and ID-ology: citizenship and difference in South Africa”, Social Identities, 9(4): 445–473.
Khalid Anis Ansari is Assistant Professor (Sociology) in Glocal Law School, Glocal University (India). His doctoral work with the University of Humanistic Studies (UvH), Utrecht, the Netherlands, is on caste movements within North Indian Muslims. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org