Monday, June 17, 2024

Kerala: Mosque panel’s ban on youth from public meeting expose casteism

A Muslim youth belonging to the Ossan community, a marginalised group among Muslims, was subjected to discrimination by the ruling council of the historical Puthoorppally Mosque, Changanassery, Kerala’s Kottayam District. 

34-year-old Aneesh Sali was issued a notice by the Puthoorppally Muslim Jama-ath council on 3 July 2023, restricting him in future from taking part in public meetings of the mahal committee citing that laws had restricted his descendants from the same.

The notice undersigned by the secretary of the Puthoorppally Muslim Jama-ath, M H M Haneefa says, “You had attended the public meeting of Puthoorppally Muslim Jamaath on 2/07/2023 and had written your name and surname on serial number 15 in the public attendance. Since the days of your forefathers and their descendants, they have not attended public meetings. Under sub-section (f) of section (16) of the Code of Conduct, the members are those who stand in accordance with the practice. On the contrary, your participation in a public meeting is considered ignorance. It is informed that this step should not be repeated any further. The public attendance on which you have signed has been cancelled”.

A community of traditional barbers and circumcisers among Muslims in Kerala are called Ossan Muslims. Cutting hair was considered a menial job and done only by those who were considered inferior and outcasts in the caste society. The Ossan Muslims were originally lower-caste Hindus and Dalits before they embraced Islam.

During the feudal period, they were employed by Muslim and Hindu landlords until the emergence of salons. The continuing discrimination against Ossan Muslims reflects the caste supremist idea of occupation and birth-based caste.

In the book, “Caste and Social Stratification among Muslims in India”, Social anthropologist, Imtiaz Ahmad says that the sociological study of caste in India is extensive, primarily focusing on its Hindu context and there is a lack of comparable research on how caste operates among Muslims and other non-Hindu communities despite acknowledging that these groups also adhere to caste-based social structures.

Notice issued by the Masjid Committee

In the same book under the chapter, “Status Groups among Moplahs of the south-West Coast of India ” by Victor S. D’souza, various groups within the Moplah community are mentioned. These include Thangals, Malbaris, Arabis,  Pusalars, and Ossans. He says that Thangals, who trace their lineage back to the Prophet’s daughter, hold a status similar to Sayyads in Muslim society and Brahmins in Hindu society. Arabis are descendants of Arab traders who married local women. Malbaris are local converts, while Pusalars Muslims are a fishing community that recently converted from the Mukkuvar community. The term “Pusalan” is an abbreviation for “Puthiya Islam,” meaning “neo-converts.”

Ossans are considered the lowest among these groups due to their traditional occupation and previous caste identity. Ossathi women worked as midwives for the upper castes and were hired as singers for weddings.

Speaking to Maktoob, Aneesh who owns a mobile shop said, “I unexpectedly understood the depth of discrimination faced by Muslims of the Ossan community after attending the mahal meeting on a public issue related to roads. I was told by the committee office bearers that my ancestors were traditional barbers and circumcisers, so they were not granted equal rights and were denied rights for voting and participation in meetings. The Mahal constitution and rules prescribed these discriminatory rules and it was formulated long ago.”

Aneesh pointed out the practice of endogamy present among the elite Muslim community who consider themselves as upper caste and class due to the casteism among Muslims.

He said, “Islam doesn’t have caste but Muslims in India have made it like there are subcastes in Islam. Discrimination is more visible when it comes to marriage. Marriage alliance of Ossan men with women belonging to forward Muslim communities is not at all encouraged fearing exclusion due to hypogamy, but hypergamy with Ossan women is rarely seen. The mosque committee also mentions Ossan in brackets whenever our name is added to documents. When my relative paid fees for marriage registration with the Mahal committee, they didn’t give the receipt for it. When asked for the same, the office bearers mocked and said, “Giving you receipts will encourage you to ask for voting rights.’”

An Ossan Muslim residing in Kollam District also told Maktoob that they are not even invited to marriage functions of Muslims who converted from the upper caste Hindu community. A Muslim youth belonging to Ossan who owns salons in Malappuram district has claimed to the media that priests still do not eat food from their house and economic growth doesn’t improve their social status because of the Ossan identity.

Aneesh also told Maktoob that Muslims belonging to the Lebba community are not allowed to take part in the Mahal committee elections of the Puthoorppallyy Jama-at committee. He said, “There is also an angle of class discrimination despite tenets of Islam being against any form of segregation. Unlike Ossan who are both socially excluded and not allowed to vote, Lebbas are only not allowed to participate in voting”. Aneesh added, “We only need equal rights like other members of the Jama-ath and want to be treated equally with respect”.

Shanavaz Ismail, whose wife is from the Lebba community, was also at the forefront with Aneesh against this exclusion and spoke with Maktoob. He said, “When BJP is moving ahead by denying citizenship and equal rights of Muslims in India with NRC, shamelessly Puthoorppallyy Jama-ath council is also not granting equal rights to Muslims based on class and caste”.

Maktoob reached out to the officials of the Puthoorppallyy Jama-ath committee. The committee’s secretary who issues the notice on behalf of the committee, Haneefa, communicated to Maktoob that he would not discuss matters over the phone. The committee’s president, PS Mohammad Basheer, informed, “There are directions from the committee not to disclose any information to the media”.  However, when pressed further, he mentioned that there was an agenda to modify the constitution which was prepared in the 1950s. But the treasurer, Salim, contradicted Basheer’s statement by stating, “There was no plan to amend the constitution and no public demand for it, except for one individual who referred to a letter issued to him.”

In response to these statements, Aneesh said, “The committee was deliberately delaying the public meeting under the pretext of technical reasons because they were opposed to amending the constitution”.

Muslim Equality Empower Movement (MEEM) issued an official statement in solidarity with Aneesh. MEEM stated that what Aneesh faced is a vile reminder of the rooted caste ideology that is plaguing the Muslim community in Kerala. They also further added that the denial of the right of individuals from the barber community to participate in communal affairs makes their marginalisation more permanent and reinforces a hierarchical system that is contrary to the spirit of Islam.

President of MEEM, M Kunhu Muhammad told Maktoob, “What happened at Puthoorppally mosque should not happen anywhere in Kerala anymore. In Islam, everything is equal for Muslims, be it nikkah, graveyard, or mosque. Earlier there used to be a separate graveyard for Ossan Muslims called “injikkad”. We strongly condemn this injustice shown in the Ossan community living under the Puthoorppally. There is an urgent need for introspection and reform within the Muslim community to ensure that such incidents do not recur and that the dignity of the individual is respected and protected irrespective of their background. We had asked the religious and community leaderships much earlier to ensure justice and equality for the Muslim barber community facing discrimination. We are looking forward to having discussions and taking action afterward”.

Meanwhile, in a public speech aired on July 7, 2023, Islamic scholar, Dr PK Hussain Madavoor condemned the actions of Puthoorppally Jama-ath and said that every profession which is halal has its dignity. HE urged not to see the profession of a barber as low and should not discriminate against any humans.

Critics have said that, unlike Hinduism which has an ‘institutionalised form’ of segregation based on casteism, the segregation by Muslims is kept hidden and not documented properly. Only a minority of Muslims roots back to Arabia and the majority of Indian Muslims are converts from lower caste Hindus and Dalit communities. Despite their conversion to Islam, the social status of Dalit Muslims has not changed.

Meanwhile, Bhim Army leader Mansoor Kochukadavu has complained to the DGP of Kerala Police against the Mahal committee. In his complaint, he demanded that the people responsible for preparing and implementing the prejudiced letter should be identified and held responsible for their actions. He also emphasised the importance of implementing appropriate measures to address the larger problem of caste-based discrimination within the Muslim community in Kerala.

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