India at 75: Upper caste Muslims have kept casteism in Islam hidden for personal benefit

Social activist and Unani doctor, Faiyaz Ahmad Fyzie, has ruffled many feathers among India's Muslim community. He has become a marked man with his mother getting threatening phone calls about the safety of her outspoken son.
Social activist and Unani doctor, Faiyaz Ahmad Fyzie. (IANS)
Social activist and Unani doctor, Faiyaz Ahmad Fyzie. (IANS)

Social activist and Unani doctor, Faiyaz Ahmad Fyzie, has ruffled many feathers among India's Muslim community. He has become a marked man with his mother getting threatening phone calls about the safety of her outspoken son.

Hailing from a family of freedom fighters, who were closely aligned to the Congress, Fyzie has been often found supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is also the man who is putting the hitherto hidden problem of casteism among Muslims on the frontline of debate and discussions in India.

On the occasion of India's 75th independence anniversary, India Narrative speaks with Fyzie about raging topics like Hindu-Muslim relations, social harmony, the Modi government's relations with the minority community, and why the Muslims do not discuss caste discrimination within the community as fervently as the Hindus discuss their relationship with caste. Fyzie says that almost all Muslim bodies are undemocratic and represent the views of the miniscule upper caste Muslims.

Excerpts from the interview:

IN: We complete 75 years of independence. Where has Indian society reached in these decades?

Fyzie: Socially India has progressed. We have completed a satisfactory journey till now. I will say we have done better than average.

I say this because the political dispensation and the administration have tried to deliver social justice in the country. Efforts at eliminating social inequity were more pronounced among the Hindus than among the Muslims because even the Brahmins agreed that the upper castes have wronged the low castes. But the leaders among the Muslim community do not allow the low caste Muslims to break out of the social barriers because they deny caste and discrimination among Muslims.

I will say that people professing the ideologies of the Left, liberal and Muslim right wing did not allow the Muslims at the lowest socio-economic ladder to come up in the social hierarchy because of personal selfish gains.

I, as an Indian, as a Muslim and as an individual from a low socio-economic class would say that the country is on the right track in terms of uplifting the society. This is because government schemes have benefited low caste Muslims while schemes targeted at minorities have only benefited the upper caste Muslims because they garnered the gains from such schemes.

IN: You speak about caste-based fissures among Muslims. Can you elaborate about casteism in the community?

Fyzie: We look at this from the context of caste among the Hindus-which is largely-occupation based discrimination.

Among the Muslims the highest caste of people are the Ashraafs-which comprise the ruling classes in India who came from abroad. Here we also have the Rajputs who had converted as they too were the ruling class in India.

Next come the Ajlaaf-most of the working class of people comprising weavers, ironsmiths and artisans.

The lowest in the Muslim castes are Arjaals-sweepers, scavengers and those who work with leather.

Among these three castes in the Muslims, we have clubbed the Ajlaafs and the Arjaals together as the 'Pasmanda' Muslims. I call them 'desaj samaj' or indigenous Muslims. These are the Hindus from the Other Backward Classes (OBC), the SCs and STs who converted to Islam.

The Ashraafs-the upper caste Muslims say that casteism in the community seeped in from the Hindus. This is a widely-accepted view among the Left, the Hindus and everyone else. But I do not agree with this argument-I ask them that after having lived with the Hindus for centuries you only absorbed the vice of caste from the Hindus. Why did Muslims not absorb the positives-liberal values, secularism and harmony, from Hinduism? It is because the Muslims had their own discriminatory practices based on classes, races and sects as it spread from the Arab world.

IN: Do the Muslims in the other countries of the sub-continent also practice casteism, for example, in Pakistan and Bangladesh?

Fyzie: Both Pakistan and Bangladesh are basically India. Therefore, the caste issues that we see in India are to be found there also. However, in India, the constitution and government schemes have improved our social condition. In Pakistan, the Pasmanda Muslims are in a bad shape because the rulers treat them like slaves.

Pakistan is a heaven for the ruling Ashraaf Muslims while it is a hell for the Pasmanda Muslims.

We have to go back to the Arab world and the pre-Islamic tribes to understand casteism and discrimination among the Muslims. Though Prophet Mohammed tried to control racism related issues, he could only succeed partly.

We have to understand that the Saudis, the Turks, the Iranians, and now the Afghans, have practiced discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity. What I am trying to say is that discrimination exists in Islam from ancient times. It is not entirely a Hindu import.


IN: Why is it that casteism among Muslims is not discussed by the community as it has been discussed and debated within the Hindus?

Fyzie: The Muslims do not want to discuss casteism in Islam. The Ashraafs-the Muslim upper castes, want to protect their turf. They feel that social justice in India will take the power out of their hands. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) does not hold elections because its luminaries fear that they will lose control. In fact, no Muslim organisation has democracy.

Even if the Muslims are a minority in India, the benefits go to a small section of upper caste Muslims. A low caste Muslim finds it easy to get admission to the Benaras Hindu University (BHU) but not in the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) because the Muslim leaders have cornered the benefits for themselves.

That is why the low caste Muslims-the Pasmandas, do not want minority status. We do not want benefits based on our religious identity. We can only uplift ourselves through government schemes that provide us socio-economic benefits.

IN: You say that Indian society has made progress. We also have many Muslim activists and NGOs, so how is it possible that Muslims from the lowest classes and castes have not progressed?

Fyzie: No social reforms exist among the Muslims. There is no concept of social justice in the community because it is led by the upper caste Muslims. There is no discussion or acceptance of criticism in the community.

The NGOs are all run by the Ashraafs. They run such organisations under the garb of ideologies-Left, minority and some are run by Maulanas. Yeh sab log aapna varchasv banaye rakhna chahtein hain (They all want to maintain their hegemony).

When I contrast the situation with the Hindus, I find they realise the need for social reforms. That is why they accept the evil of casteism and debate its elimination. Indians have always been diverse for 5,000 years. They do not bother about the differences and have accepted diversity.

We feel that we are still being led by Mughal rulers. Would you believe that the low caste Muslims were not allowed to go to madrasas by the Mughal rulers. Similar examples of discrimination and racism against the low caste Muslims abound in times of Islamic rule.

IN: Is India becoming communal?

Fyzie: If the Hindus are becoming communal, they talk about it and then take steps to eliminate it. But then we also see that communalism among the Muslims is not discussed. The fact is that communalism among the Muslims is very strong.

For example, the Muslim League was formed much earlier than the Hindu Mahasabha.

My take is that if you want to finish off communalism from India, then you have to eliminate Muslim communalism first. The communal thinking among the Hindus will reduce on its own.

IN: Do you think India is becoming Islamophobic?

Fyzie: Regarding Islamophobia in India, the Ashraafs use Islamophobia as a tool. The moment you talk about social reforms and social justice among the Muslims, the upper caste Muslims begin alleging Islamophobia. If you ruffle the Muslim society by talking about reforms, the Muslim right wing immediately labels you Islamophobic.

These concepts are harming the Indian social fabric. The secular, Left and liberal establishments accept whatever is said by the upper caste Muslims.

There are Hindus who are communal but they are very less in number.

IN: The BJP government has been criticised over a number of policy decisions it has taken related to the Muslim community. What is your take on these?

Fyzie: I think the Modi government has taken steps to bring about reforms in the community.

Banning triple talaq has benefited the Pasmanda Muslims, particularly women. Divorce among the lower levels in the community brings shame not just to the woman but her family also. Divorce and remarriage are acceptable among the upper classes, but not among the people at the bottom of the hierarchy.

The elimination of Article 370 will benefit the Pasmanda Muslims. Certain castes or sections of Muslims like the Bakkerwals, the Gaddis and the Van Gujjars will be benefited. Till now all the political power in Kashmir was with the Ashraafs. The low caste Muslims did not enjoy the benefits of government schemes in Kashmir.

IN: Can there be truth and reconciliation among the Muslims and Hindus? How can we see religious harmony among the communities?

Fyzie: Jab aap Pasmanda samaj ko aage karanege tab aasani se Hinduon aur Mussalmano mein samjhota hoga (If you uplift the Pasmanda Muslims, harmony will happen automatically between the Hindus and Muslims).

We have to remember that the low caste Muslims have always identified themselves with Hindu customs and traditions because they have co-existed with the Hindus for ages. The Pasmanda Muslims will wear sarees, use sindur, and gift shringar during weddings-all of which are Hindu customs. But the high caste Muslims call these Hinduana (Hindu beliefs), therefore, gair-Islamic (non-Islamic).

This cultural discrimination has remained within the Islamic society because of Ashraafs.

Truth and reconciliation will happen if the Ashraafs are controlled. They still act as if they are the rulers, therefore, they look at us with the same mentality. When they go abroad, they give hate speeches against India and portray the Hindus in a negative light.

I think India has progressed well till now. In my opinion, the country has a bright future in terms of social progress and harmony between faiths. Meri rai mein 1947 se aab tak ka safar aacha hai (In my opinion, the journey from 1947 till now has been good).

I am optimistic about a bright future of India. Inshaallah! (AA/IANS)