Monday, June 17, 2024

Muslims in India: The last subaltern

This competitive victimhood has clouded the subaltern studies for so long that it is nearly impossible to find any reliable literature by an Indian scholar, which focuses solely on the predicament of Muslims.

In May 2023, CPI (M-L) Liberation’s general secretary, Dipankar Bhattacharya received the ‘Ambedkar Sudar’ Award. In his speech, he mentioned the increasing marginalisation faced by minorities in India today. He said – “Today, while Dalits experience renewed exclusion at different levels, Muslims, subjected to outright marginalisation and ghettoization, are emerging as India’s new Dalits, even as Christians too face increased prejudices and even violent attacks in many parts of India.”

‘Muslims, subjected to outright marginalisation and ghettoization are emerging as India’s new Dalits.’ This statement follows a long history of drawing parallels between the Hindu Dalits and Muslims of India and claiming the former to be at the lowest rung of the ladder.

The Subaltern Studies gained prominence as a discipline in India, after the publication of Gayatri Spivak’s famous essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’. However, when Subaltern Studies was introduced in India, in 1982, a sizeable section of the scholars focused on the Dalits. Later, comparisons were drawn between Muslims and Dalits, and it was majorly concluded that Dalits were the most oppressed amongst all the subalterns existing in the country. Many claimed that Congress pursued an appeasement policy towards the Muslims, to maintain their secular image and a sizeable vote bank. The Shah Bano case is an example on point. Thus, it is generally assumed that Muslims were empowered before 2014, and the onset of BJP’s rule has pushed them to the margins, a place singularly occupied by the Dalits.

However, this is not entirely true. Publication of the Sachar Committee Report (2006), the Ranganath Mishra Commission Report (2007), the Report of the Expert Group on Diversity Index (2008), the 2011 Census, India Exclusion Report (2013-14) and the latest NSSO reports suggest that Indian Muslims are worse off than Dalits in all three spheres – social, political, and economic.

Based on a 2018 NSSO report, Christophe Jaffrelot and Kalaiyarasan A. wrote – “The proportion of the youth who have completed graduation among Muslims in 2017-18 is 14 per cent, as against 18 per cent in Dalits, 25 per cent among the Hindu OBCs, and 37 per cent among the Hindu upper castes.” 

In another article, published in May 2023, they wrote – “On the one hand, enrolment of Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs in higher education has increased by 4.2 per cent, 11.9 percent, and 4 percent respectively, compared to 2019-20. The upper castes whose share in enrollment had been declining with the implementation of Mandal II since the late 2000s, but who have come back with the highest growth rate of 13.6 percent. On the other hand, the enrollment of Muslim students dropped by 8 percent from 2019-20 – that is, by 1,79,147 students. This level of absolute decline has never happened in the recent past for any group.”

Another important aspect to discuss, when talking about these two subalterns, is the residential segregation they face. Here too, Muslims lag far behind. In his book, Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalisation, Jaffrelot points out – “Muslims, more than any other group, prefer living in urban cities, and while they are subjected to deliberate marginalisation by the state, many ghettos are ‘ethnic enclaves’, with real ghettos being an outcome of extreme violence, as seen in Ahmedabad.” “You won’t get housing easily if you are a Muslim. Even if you are elite or super rich, you will be relegated to a few neighbourhoods.”

In a 2015 paper titled – Urban Rental Housing Market: Caste and Religion Matters in Access, economist Sukhadeo Thorat wrote about the forms of discrimination faced by Dalits and Muslims in the rental housing market by conducting different surveys. He wrote – “The model thus yielded consistent findings that the home-seekers with Dalit and Muslim names were, on an average, significantly less likely to obtain a positive outcome to their quest for a rented house than equivalent home-seekers with an upper-caste Hindu name.

However, between the Dalit and the Muslim, the likelihood of a response from a high-caste Hindu was less for a Muslim (0.001) as compared to that for a Dalit (0.002), on the basis of the telephonic audit method. However, for the face-to-face audit also, the likelihood of a positive response was higher for a Dalit (0.019) as compared with that of a Muslim (0.007).” He further wrote – “It has been seen that though discrimination in the rental housing market exists for both Dalits and Muslims, incidences of the direct denial of houses are higher in the case of Muslims. There are fewer spatial variations in discrimination against Muslims, because in their case, the pattern is ubiquitous in nature, whereas discrimination against the Dalits exhibits more variations across geographical space.”

Muslims: The Common Enemy

Even if we overlook these parities, Muslims have always been a victim of the politics of ‘otherisation’. They have been discriminated against as much by the lower caste Hindus, as they have been by the higher castes. Most of the lynchings, pogroms and other anti-Muslim campaigns that have taken place over the years, even before 2014, have seen huge participation from Dalits as well. Two prime examples of this are the 2002 Gujarat pogrom and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

The 2002 Gujarat pogrom saw Dalits at the forefront of the mobs. But, time and again, their participation has been dismissed and ‘lack of education’ and ‘poverty’ have been cited as the main reasons for them being a part of the Hindutva project. However, the Gujarat pogrom saw the engagement of rich, upper-class Dalits as well. A report published by in 2011, threw light on the names of several lower-caste IPS officers, who were complicit in the inaction of the police during the violence and in arresting large numbers of innocent Muslims post the Godhra incident.

The same level of participation was seen in the demolition of the Babri Masjid and every campaign that preceded the incident. Kameshwar Chaupal, who laid the first brick for Ram Mandir in 1989, was a Dalit. Several leaders from the backward castes, like Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar and Sadhvi Ritambhara, were at the forefront. On 5 August 2020, sometime after the verdict of the Babri Masjid case was pronounced, a bhoomi pujan was performed in Ayodhya, to mark the building of the Ram Mandir. Here too, the Valmiki and other lower caste temples gave their soil to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, as a sign of their inclusion in the event.

Apart from this, lower caste Hindus are increasingly joining the ranks of Hindutva organisations like Bajrang Dal, Hindu Yuva Vahini, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other political affiliations of the BJP and the Shiv Sena. In an article, published by The Wire, several Dalits were asked about their decision to join Bajrang Dal and other Hindutva outfits. The answers ranged from wanting a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and a ‘casteless India’ to “strengthening Hindus in comparison to Muslims.”  Thus, they are treating Muslims as the common enemy, to eradicate their own entrenched divisions.

The Question of Caste

A reason which has been cited, primarily on social networks, that has argued against the collective oppression of all Muslims, is the presence of caste among Muslims in India. Again, several analyses have been done, comparisons have been drawn with the Hindu caste system, to conclude that Pasmanda Muslims are the most marginalised amongst Muslims and the upper caste Muslims or Ashrafs are responsible for this status quo. Caste among Muslims has been used to confer Islamophobic and discriminatory comments on the community. Often subaltern scholars have highlighted this caste stratification to show the ‘empowered’ positions upper-caste Muslims hold in the society, by oppressing the Pasmandas.

Caste among Muslims in India does exist and is quite prevalent, but that does not take away from the marginalisation of the entire community. One cannot say that upper-caste Muslims are not the victims of communal violence or lynchings. Ehsan Jafri was not a Pasmanda Muslim. Of the fifteen Muslims booked under the UAPA, for conspiring to instigate the 2020 Delhi pogrom, forty percent are Pasmanda Muslims, and sixty percent are upper-caste Muslims. It is not caste, but the principal identity of Muslims that has been under attack all this time.

Another aspect where caste comes into play is when communal riots are showcased to be a ‘distraction’ by the government, to shift focus from its casteist pursuits. Many caste scholars have focused on the aftermath of these riots and written about how more Dalits are arrested in such cases, than the upper-caste Hindus. However, one basic point that goes missing in such analyses is that the prime targets of these riots are Muslims. Muslims are the ones who majorly get killed. They are the ones who get arrested. It is a fact that upper-caste Hindus do enjoy impunity in such situations and more Dalits are arrested, despite them having less presence in the mob, than the former. But this pattern exposes the casteist nature of the state.

It does not imply that Muslims are not the primary target of riots or that religion does not play a role in communal violence. To quote Suraj Yengde, from his article, Delhi Pogrom is an Attempt to Divert Attention from Government’s Failures, published in the Indian Express – “Many are still downplaying the Delhi riot as an affliction of Hindutva or Hindu-Muslim binaries. It is neither. It is not religious, but caste tensions that encourage such treacherous acts.”  

To reduce the ‘anti-Muslim’ nature of the worst pogrom Delhi has seen in years and call it a ‘casteist’ act is in itself a move to sideline the plight of Muslims and engage in competitive victimhood. Caste was a secondary aspect of the pogrom. It did come into play in the mechanism of riot production. But the primary targets were Muslims, of both the rioters and the police.

This competitive victimhood has clouded the subaltern studies for so long that it is nearly impossible to find any reliable literature by an Indian scholar, which focuses solely on the predicament of Muslims. Of Muslim men and women, Muslim households, Muslim workers, Muslim students, Muslim teachers, and Muslims in universities and workplaces. How the waves of different ideological movements have affected them individually and as a community. There is always a comparison, always a shift of focus, always an attempt to paint the reality, and always a hesitation in accepting that – ‘Muslims are the most marginalised subaltern community in India.’

Varda Ahmad is currently a postgraduate student of International Politics and Area Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia.


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