Nazreen completed her Master’s in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University.

yuñ to sayyad bhī ho mirzā bhī ho afġhān bhī ho
tum sabhī kuchh ho batāo musalmān bhī ho
(You are Sayyid, Mirza, Afghan; But tell – are you a Muslim?) 

The couplet captures with the greatest accuracy the paradox of the Indian Muslim Community. India inhabits a population of 135 Crores. This population is characterized by diversity in terms of religion, language and culture. It is also home to innumerable castes and tribes. India’s caste system is one of the longest-surviving systems of social stratification. Its survival and its operation in Indian society even in the 21st century can be attributed to its heavily adaptive nature.

The Indian social system is characterized by a distinctive category called caste which is an occupationally specialized group. The practice of Endogamy (marriage within one’s own community) which is central to the caste system contributes to the close-knit nature of a caste. It creates a hierarchy of the component groups on the basis of ascriptive status (determined by the chance of birth) in matters of social status and privileges, dominance and subordination. By impact or otherwise, caste also extends to other religious communities in India, such as Muslims and Christians (Ashraf,1983)

Dumont thinks that Caste was consciously adopted by the Muslims in India as a compromise that they had to make in a predominantly Hindu environment. (Dumont,1970) Also, the proportion of local converts to Islam is much greater than the foreigners who came here as traders, preachers, saints, rulers and the like. These local converts, who came in large groups, brought with them their rituals, beliefs, and customs. Some acculturative influence of Hinduism was thus inevitable. (Ahmad, 1978)
Islam as a religion has always embarked on the journey to create a society built on the foundations of equality. It is only on account of piety and moral excellence that a Muslim can command a distinguished position in society. By distinguished position, I by no means imply that he/she has the right to discriminate against those who are not pious or moral or learned let alone discrimination on the account of race, nationality, or ancestry because the belief in the principles of equality and being respectful to all irrespective of their identity forms the core of the values of piety in Islam. Thus, the concept of caste is in ideological contradiction with the basic tenets of Islam.

Present-day Muslim society in India in the first instance is divided into four major groups i.e. (i) the Ashrafs, who trace their origin to foreign lands such as Arabia, Persia, Turkistan or Afghanistan, (ii) the Hindus of higher births converted to Islam, (iii) the clean occupational Castes, and (iv) the converts from the Untouchable Castes such as Bhangis (scavengers), Chamars (tanners) etc. The people belonging to these four groups are seen as belonging to either of the two sections, Ashraf and Ajlaf. The first meaning noble or of high family, includes all Muslims of foreign blood and converts from higher Hindu Castes. Ajlaf, implies degraded or unholy, and thus embraces all the remaining low-ranking Castes. In Bihar, U.P. and Bengal, Sayyeds, Sheikhs, Mullicks, and Pathans constitute the upper Caste Muslims, while the carpenters, painters, milkmen, grasiers, artisans form the low Caste Muslims. A third class, called Arzal or lowest of all, is added in some places. It consists of Halalkhor, Lalbegi, Abdal and Badiya. (Ansari,1960)

On the Eid ul Adha, also called “Festival of Sacrifice” in 2003, in a colony (most of the families were well educated) situated in Central Gaya, Bihar, 11-year-old Ahmed (name changed), faced discriminatory treatment on the account of his caste. Central to the celebrations of this Eid is the distribution of the meat of the animal sacrificed among relatives, friends, neighbours and the poor. Ahmed, adhering to the traditions of the day, was asked by his parents to distribute the meat in his locality. Little did he know that in one of his neighbours’ places he would be treated in such a manner that would leave an imprint on his mind forever. He gave the meat to the women in the house just like he had done in the previous cases, the only difference being that this time he was asked the name of the family to which he belonged, and the subsequent rejection of the meat to be kept with those meant for the family’s consumption and willingness of it to be kept with those meant to be distributed to the poor. All of this, just on account of the fact that the meat had been sent by a family that belonged to a lower strata in the caste hierarchy.

This instance sheds light on the fact that urbanization and education don’t necessarily lead to the erosion of the prevalence of casteist tendencies.

In Chandauti, Gaya, even to this date, the upper caste Muslims occupy the central zones of the area endowed with greater amenities and the lower caste Muslims occupy the outskirts of the village, subsequently characterized by lack of accessibility to better amenities and opportunities. The most common justification provided for this pattern of residence owes to the efforts taken up by the members of the upper caste Muslims in the creation and development of the village. However, the underlined dimension of this argument lies in the intergenerational transmission of privileges and resources of the concerned upper-caste families.

Sometimes, even the masjid which is the common place of worship for Muslims even though stands as an embodiment of the house of Allah, is not free from the display of casteist attitudes and caste-based prejudices. In Bharwa Sadir, Siwan, two neighborhoods are divided into caste lines with most of the upper castes attending one masjid and lower castes attending the other. Even in cases where the population attending the congregation at the Masjids is not divided on caste lines, the socialization that takes place on a daily basis is discriminatory at many levels and interaction is unequal to the core, with one end (people belonging to lower castes) always being looked down upon.
The most common instance where members of lower castes, mostly Ansari’s, are subjected to degrading behaviour is during marriage processions when the Ansari groom is made fun of by upper castes like the Pathans for sitting on the horse. The kids from the Pathan community also actively take part in such actions. These instances throw light upon the fact that casteism forms an important part of our lifestyles which are manifested in several ways. These practices and attitudes of domination and subordination are well ingrained among the younger generations through socialization and its practice observed through generations.

Another incident that took place in a village on the outskirts of Meerut, Uttar Pradesh centres around the practice of untouchability. The family of a Muslim Rajput kid broke the hands of a Dalit Muslim kid because he had touched a kid from their family. It is important to note that untouchability is very rarely practised among the members of the Indian Muslim community but nevertheless, the practice does exist in certain pockets and must be dealt with effectively.

It is a very common tendency among the upper caste Muslims with the numerical majority in a region to exercise their muscle power to subjugate the lower castes, pick up fights for trivial reasons and then engage in violent and brutal suppression of the lower castes in cases where they retaliate.

It is important to understand that none of the issues that plague our society can be viewed in isolation.

An intersection of caste and gender issues was manifested in a village near Chandauti, during the Mukhiya elections. A seat was reserved for an OBC candidate – an Ansari. However, the village was dominated by the Siddiquis. Somehow a marriage alliance was forged between a Siddiqui man and an Ansari woman (an instance of hypergamy, which in other cases would not have been possible or very difficult) who contested the Mukhiya elections and won. This alliance meant that even though a member from the Ansari community seemed to be in power, the dominant position of the Siddiquis in the village remained intact. Also, this instance is a reflection of the most common manifestation of patriarchy in Indian politics, where even though the woman may hold the office, the actual power rests in the hands of her husband.

In Bashirhaat, 66 kms. away from Kolkata, which is an area dominated by Syeds and Arabi Sheikhs, even the Graveyards are not shared. In some cases, specific portions within a particular graveyard are reserved for particular castes. A few common observations made during conversations include the fact that sometimes men engage in tracing their lineage from their mother’s side, if she comes from an upper caste family for acceptance or rather for the exercise of privileges which come attached to that identity, even though our society is patrilineal. In certain cases, the occupations of Muslim non-UC’s are used as slurs for example Kasai (butcher) or Kunjra (fruit seller).

All the above information is collected through narratives coupled with my analysis of the mentioned cases. During the collection of information, I came across people who at their own level, even when they want to protest against the caste-based discrimination practised by the members of their community towards others, fail to do so, because it is so ingrained in the structure. Even though efforts have been taken up by individuals and organizations from time to time to fight this evil, it is not enough to break this structure of inequality that has now found a home in the community.

Ideology ensures that the downtrodden experience maximum discrimination and accept the justification provided for their experience. The ruled are conditioned to believe that they are culturally inferior. Ideology plays a crucial role in framing the constitution of the mind and justifying a situation so that no question is raised against the prevailing order of society. The ideology of Brahminism ensures the social and cultural reproduction of the Caste system.

It must be noted, that economic upliftment of a lower caste does not always lead to social upliftment, in most cases the social disabilities remain attached to their identity. In the context of Muslim society, when a lower caste/class adopts the cultural practices of the upper caste/class on the account of economic upliftment, central to that culture is always looking down upon those who are below them in the hierarchy. This tendency of looking down upon those who are below the concerned caste in the hierarchy is central to Brahminism. Since, the caste system among the Indian Muslims has its roots in the Caste System among Hindus, the incorporation of such tendencies and attitudes seems inevitable.

The idea of the Caste System has no foundational basis in Islam, unlike Hinduism, where the caste system has been supported and justified time and again by furnishing religious scriptures. However, for any system to survive through generations, some form of social justification must be in place. Pride in one’s historical lineage and racial purity are the most common arguments cited by upper castes to maintain the caste system in the Indian Muslim Community.

In contemporary times, when religion plays a crucial role in Indian Politics, at the surface it might seem that caste consciousness among Muslims is slowly eroding, with the central focus on letting go of the differences (on the grounds of sects, caste, class) and subsequent unification and assertion of the common Muslim Identity. However, this reality is an outcome of the current political context and not an outcome of the understanding of the prevalence of the Caste system among Muslims as both a social and religious evil.

The very existence of the Caste System among Indian Muslims is not as dangerous as the lack of realization of its existence itself. Unless one realizes the existence of a particular social phenomenon, it is practically impossible to wage a battle against it. The need of the hour is to realize that the Caste System is very much a part of the social reality of Indian Muslims even though it has no religious basis. A major part of the responsibility lies in the hands of the members of the Indian Muslim community themselves, to address the issue adequately to ensure that people belonging to all rungs of the Muslim society feel safe and have a voice within the community. Those occupying the lower rungs must be given chance to represent thei own interest in national politics, rather than always being represented by those occupying the higher rungs of the community.


Dumont, L. (1970) Homo Heirarchicus :
The Caste System and its Implications.
Delhi : Rawat Publications pp. 7-22.

Ahmad, Imtiaz.(1978) “Introduction”,
Caste and Social Stratification among
Muslims of India. New Delhi : Manohar
Book Service. p.13.

Ansari, Ghous.( 1960) Muslim Castes
in Uttar Pradesh : A Study of Culture
Contact. Lucknow : Ethnographic and
Folk Culture Society, p. 41.

Ashraf, Ali and Sharma, L.N (1983),
Political Sociology : A New Grammar of
Politics. University Press


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