Bengaluru: Although the understanding of caste has been largely limited in the mainstream to Hinduism, "caste is the storehouse of social power in South Asia that cuts across religions", said Khalid Anis Ansari, associate professor of sociology at the School of Arts & Sciences at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru.

"Muslims are not monolithic and are differentiated into caste-based hierarchical groups," said Ansari, a researcher on caste movements within Muslims. In an interview, he highlighted the need to understand caste, and the Pasmanda movement, which aspires to mobilise backward, Dalit and Adivasi Muslims against the power structure of high caste Ashraf Muslims.

He also spoke about the need to conduct a caste census that cuts across religions. While the 2021 census has been delayed due to the pandemic, there has been a demand to conduct a caste census as no such census has been carried out since 1931. The caste-specific details of the 2011 socio-economic caste census are yet to be made public. This is significant because government policies, schemes, reservations in government jobs and educational institutions are based on caste data that were collected nearly a century ago.

The earlier we understand the caste census as a nation-building exercise, the better it will be for the future of India, Ansari said.

Since 2021, Ansari has been a research partner with the Simagine International Research Consortium and a visiting scholar at the US-based South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) advocacy collective. In an interview, Ansari speaks about the caste movement within Muslims, the need for a caste census, the monolithic perception of Islam in India and the denial of caste in Muslim cultures.

Edited excerpts:

The census has been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But there has been a long-standing demand from some political parties and from civil society to collect data on caste, as existing data are now nearly a century old. Successive governments have not released data on caste from the 2011 socio-economic and caste census. What has been the impact of this lack of data?

Caste is the storehouse of social power in South Asia that cuts across religions. Historically, caste has been intimately connected with the distribution of power and resources, labour and production, sexuality and reproduction, social violence in the form of caste atrocity, communal riots, lynching, sexual violence, etc. We are still debating the relevance of including caste in the census because of various critical moves made during the colonial era.

The first was the enumeration of identities which removed the grey areas that existed around identities like caste and religion, and created a comparatively rigid system, through the Census and other colonial administrative instruments like ethnographies, gazetteers etc. The second was the deployment of religion as the overarching identity, wherein caste was subsumed within faith, particularly in Hinduism. The "religionisation" of caste [by associating it primarily to Hinduism] was critical in underplaying the dynamic link of caste with power and political economy. The third was the orientalist-colonial rewriting of history from a "Hindu-Muslim" lens. Here, Hinduism was associated with tolerance and inegalitarianism, and Islam with intolerance and egalitarianism. Interestingly, the native pan-religion caste elites [for instance, Brahmins in Hinduism and Syeds in Islam] played the interlocutors in the colonial knowledge project [for instance, compiling the Hindu law and the Shariat Act].

The caste elites, across religions, would have been a minority, once semi-parliamentary practise began from 1920s onwards, based on the colonial electoral system. Therefore, it is not surprising that these classes rallied around religion as a category to mask their privilege and hide that they are minorities, numerically, and appointed themselves as spokespersons of all-India communities like the Hindus and Muslims. Politicised religion became a proxy for the interests of caste elites across religions.

Interestingly, secular nationalism, represented by the Congress, or religious nationalism, represented by the Hindu Mahasabha or the Muslim League, was deeply informed by the religious lens and were challenged by lower caste mobilisations. In the case of Muslims, the Momin Conference led by Abdul Qaiyum Ansari strongly opposed the two-nation theory and the demand for Pakistan advanced by Jinnah's Muslim League. The Momin Conference mobilised the lower Muslim castes, mainly the Julahas (weavers), against the Muslim League and characterised it as a high caste Ashraf formation. Interestingly, both the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League, otherwise against one another, were united in their advocacy for retaining religion and their opposition to including caste in the colonial census.

In India, caste constitutes the leading site where 'class' is 'lived' and contested by most Bahujan castes, comprising working classes, peasants and artisans. In contrast, religion, and paradoxically liberal-secular idioms (like the nation, citizen, development, corruption, etc.), often work as handmaidens of dominant classes. That explains the retention of religion and the dropping of caste in the decennial census by the postcolonial Indian state.

The last caste census was conducted in 1931 [the data of which are publicly available]. Many regional parties and civil society groups have demanded for a comprehensive caste census over the previous three decades. However, dominant caste elites do not favour such an exercise as it may expose their privilege and show that they are a minority, numerically. Most oppressed communities already know this intuitively from their experience. Due to these fears, the data from the 2011 Socio Economic and Caste Census has been held back.

However, the data on caste is imperative for enabling reasonable conversations on categorical revisions within Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) categories, the legitimacy of the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) category, targeted development programmes for the marginalised, and so on. In the absence of concrete caste data, we work with speculations that often foster misplaced antipathies and competitive envy between various castes and communities.

If India is to progress as a nation, it will have to work with tolerable unfreedoms and inequalities [for instance, reservations might be seen as an inequality because they are for only a part of the population]. The oppressed communities are increasingly politicised and conscious of their rights and interests. The elites must be more reflexive and choose enlightened national interest over myopic caste-based self-interest. A caste census, quintessentially, is a nation-building exercise. The earlier we understand this, the better it will be for the future of India.

How is caste seen among Muslims and how has a lack of political representation impacted those marginalised Muslims in India?

Religious sentiment is often abused by the elite for parochial ends. Indian Islam is not immune to that. From the colonial era to the present, the Muslim-minority discourse has been dominated by the high caste Ashraf classes. In mainstream Muslim discourse, Islam is framed as an egalitarian faith. The Indian Muslims are characterised as a monolithic, backward and subaltern community, subject to systematic majoritarian discrimination and violence. These are half-truths.

There is no "true" or "objective" Islam; instead, there are contending interpretations informed by various background discourses, some of which are more hegemonic or persuasive than others.

The diversity of communities and sects like the Shia, Sunni, Sufi, Mutazila, Ashari, Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahl-e-Quran, Ahmadiya, Qaramita, Salafi, Wahabi and so on, exemplify this. As Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, remarked, "this is the Qur'an, written in straight lines, between two boards [of its binding]; it does not speak with a tongue; it needs interpreters and interpreters are people."

There has been a tension between hierarchy and egalitarianism in Islamic thought throughout history. The dominant strains of Indian Islam are deeply hierarchical and casteist, as Ali Anwar's Masavat ki Jung (2001) and Masood Alam Falahi's Hindustan mein Zaat-Paat aur Musalman (2007) amply document. The overwhelming support to triple divorce and muscular interpretations of Islam offered by many Muslim organisations also reveal their patriarchal and supremacist inclinations. Most Muslim organisations like the Jamiat-Ulema-Hind, Jamaat-e-Islami, All India Muslim Personal Law Board, Popular Front of India and so on are dominated by the Ashraf sections.

Muslims are not monolithic and are differentiated into caste-based hierarchical groups. There are about 700 occupational or biradari (jati) groups among Muslims like the Dhuniya (cotton carder), Lohar (ironsmiths), Julaha (weaver), Raeen (vegetable sellers), Manihar (bangle makers), Dhobi (launderers), Halalkhors (sweepers), Ossans (barbers), Van Gujjars, and so on. The Pasmanda Movement aspires to mobilise the Backward, Dalit and Adivasi Muslims against the hegemony of the high caste Ashraf Muslims like the Syeds, Sheikhs, Mughals, Pathans and Rajputs, that either trace a foreign extraction or are high caste indigenous converts. The Pasmanda Muslims, low caste indigenous converts, constitute about 85% of the Muslim population.

The mainstream Muslim culture is by default the hierarchical Ashraf culture that employs language (Urdu, Persian, Arabic) as a boundary maintenance mechanism, and devalues Pasmanda culture based on their varnacular language. Ashraf culture has scant respect for labour, and establishes Syeds as a reverential class. The Syeds correspond in status terms to Brahmins within Hinduism, and the term Syedvad (Syedism) refers to graded caste inequality within South Asian Islam. The Ashraf culture devalues the Pasmanda lifeworlds because of their folk, syncretic cultural and labour practices. The Pasmanda narratives are rife with anecdotes about indignities, humiliations, untouchability and spectacular violence meted out to them at the hands of Ashraf sections.

How are elite Muslims, Ashrafs, represented in Parliament compared to Pasmanda Muslims?

Ashraf Muslims are overrepresented in power structures--in both state and religious institutions--at the expense of the Pasmanda Muslims. The Muslim representation from the first (1952) to the fourteenth (2004) Lok Sabha was 5.3% which is very low vis-à-vis their population proportion of 10-14% . However, suppose we disaggregate the data in caste terms; Ashraf Muslims, with a 2.1% share in population, represented 4.5% [of seats] from the first to the fourteenth Lok Sabha. On the other hand, the Pasmanda Muslims, with a population share of 11.4%, merely had a 0.8% representation. The broad trend of Pasmanda political exclusion continued in the 17th Lok Sabha--of 25 Muslim MPs [Members of Parliament], 18 were Ashraf while seven were Pasmanda. Again, the Ashraf Muslims were adequately represented with just over 3% representation, while the representation of the Pasmanda Muslims was around 1%.

Pasmanda ideologues have demanded disaggregated data on Muslims in caste terms in other spheres like education, employment, health, victims of communal violence and lynching, etc. There is a sense that while the subjugated Muslim castes are often the most marginalised and critical victims of communal violence, the Ashraf politicians and theologians are the main profiteers of Muslim victimhood.

The mainstream Muslim discourse has privileged emotive-cultural issues (Babri Masjid, Urdu, personal laws, Aligarh Muslim University, hijab) at the expense of equity. While the politics organised around the Hindu-Muslim binary foregrounds the role of the external religious other, the Pasmanda ideologues want to emphasise the internal caste others within religious blocs.

In terms of identity, the Pasmanda discourse has privileged caste over religion. It has stressed that majority and minority [religious] fundamentalisms feed on each other. This must be challenged by democratic and anti-caste forces together.

Hannah Arendt's remark that "If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew" does not strategically work for Pasmanda Muslims. The politics arranged around the unhyphenated "Muslim" category favors the Ashraf classes. The Pasmanda Muslims are victims of majoritarian and minoritarian politics and strive to transcend the majority-minority or secular-communal politics through solidarity of subjugated castes across religions. I have captured the nature of these contestations on identity, equity, and security through the phrase "post-minority condition" in my work.

Are conversations around caste discriminations and daily experience of caste not taken seriously within the Muslim community? What are the problems in initiating the conversation, and how much is the lack of data and studies a challenge?

Of course, the mainstream Muslim intelligentsia, theologians and community organisations dominated by the Ashraf classes are in denial. One explanation could be the preservation of their interests. The second could be the long-standing habits of thought that frame Islam and Muslims in particular ways, making it difficult to appreciate the counter-intuitive logic of the Pasmanda discourse. However, the issue of the Muslim caste is hotly debated in lesser-known magazines, social media handles, and other forums operated by Pasmanda Muslims.

It is only a matter of time before the discussions reach a critical point, where it will be difficult to ignore the Pasmanda point of view. Yes, there is a lack of data, and more studies are required on the question of the Muslim caste. However, that is not the key reason for the denial of caste in Muslim cultures. The Pasmanda ideologues, writers and activists have produced sufficient material to enable a meaningful conversation. The reasons for the denial are interest-based, affective and cognitive, in my view.

You wrote about the need to understand the Muslim working class, considering the discussion on reservations in India is primarily focused on organised, public sector jobs. How must an analysis of the Muslim working class tackle the issue of caste?

To avail quota benefits in public sector employment, the minimum qualification is higher secondary education (10+2 or equivalent). Very few Pasmanda students reach that level. The organised sector employment, in which the public sector has a larger share when compared to the private sector, is about 10%, while 90% of employment is in the informal sector. Since most Pasmanda communities work in the informal sector as peasants, labourers, and artisans, one must rethink the overemphasis on reservations in anti-caste discourses, probably driven by the experience and desire of the upwardly mobile Bahujan-Pasmanda sections.

Neoliberal economic policies have also impacted the Pasmanda Muslims [like the artisanal community who have been pauperised] unevenly, opening economic opportunities for few and pauperising others by hitting hard on their traditional occupations. A comprehensive caste census is therefore imperative to track these developments.

The anti-caste discourse must move beyond the confines of reservations and electoral politics. It must also focus on other critical issues like reducing the gap between organised and unorganised sectors, land reforms and redistribution, workers/artisan/farmer cooperatives, primary education and reskilling, access to credit, modern machinery etc.

While there are reservations for backward Muslims in different states, Dalit Christians and Muslims are not recognized as Scheduled Castes, unlike Mazhabhi Sikhs and neo Buddhists. What has been the impact of not providing SC status to Dalit among Muslims and what changes must be made in terms of reservation and affirmative action for Muslims?

Historically, the Pasmanda movement had consistently challenged the Ashraf demand of 'Total Muslim Reservations' for five key reasons:

1) Muslims are a differentiated community in terms of status and class, and the Ashraf Muslims cannot be a beneficiary of reservations since they are socio-economically empowered and potentially adequately represented in public employment and education

2) Ashraf Muslims do not constitute a "socially and educationally backward class" because of their high caste location and historical membership of the ruling class

3) Most lower caste Muslims are already recognised in the OBC and ST category at the Centre and in most states

4) If Muslims are clubbed together as a separate category for reservations, then the higher caste Muslims will corner most of the benefits at the expense of the lower caste Muslims, owing to their cultural capital

5) A separate Muslim quota will lead to the charge of Muslim appeasement by the Hindu right and result in communal polarisation.

The demand for a separate Muslim quota was characterised as a proxy for the interests of the Ashraf classes. However, the EWS quota, by including Ashraf castes, has undercut the demand for a Muslim quota. In this context, the Pasmanda movement has sought a) a deepening of existing OBC quota through 'subcategorisation' wherein similarly placed caste groups across religions may be accommodated; b) inclusion of non-recognised Muslim lower caste in the OBC and ST category; c) status parity with Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist Dalits through the inclusion of Muslims and Christians of Dalit origin.

The continued exclusion of Dalit-Muslims and Dalit-Christians from the SC category violates secularism, which entails symmetrical treatment of all religions. The SC category must be made religion-neutral on the lines of OBC, ST and EWS quota. However, the exclusion continues because of the anxieties related to proselytisation and conversions raised by the Hindu Right and the latent conceptual distinction between 'foreign/indigenous' religions that inform public policy. But as mentioned before, a reasonable categorical revision depends on the caste data collected through a comprehensive caste census.

There have been cattle slaughter bans across different states in the last few years. Many of those impacted belong to marginalised sections, particularly among Muslims. How has legislation in recent years affected underprivileged sections within the community?

Several Pasmanda communities, like the Kasai (butchers), Ghosi (milkmen), Van Gujjar, Meo, etc., have been traditionally associated with animal husbandry, meat, leather and the dairy sector. On the one hand, the government's "Make in India" imagination stresses the ease of doing business for big private players in the leather, dairy and beef sectors. On the other, the stricter implementation of cow protection laws combined with cow vigilantism and mob lynching, particularly of Pasmanda and Dalit sections, is creating impediments for the traditional workers to carry on with their business.

Even a cursory glance at the list of Muslim victims of cow vigilantism reveals that most of them belonged to the Kasai, Meo, Ansari and other Pasmanda communities. There have been reports of police excesses on innocent Pasmanda individuals by threatening them with booking under illegal cow slaughter. Even during the Covid pandemic, many Pasmanda Muslims were unfairly arrested for alleged cow slaughter and even booked under the National Security Act in Uttar Pradesh. The combination of adverse policies and a culture of fear has led to many Pasmanda sections giving up their traditional occupation with severe social and economic costs. It is not surprising that Muslim organisations like the Jamiat-ul-Ulema Hind [a body dominated by Ashrafs] that benefit immensely from the Halal certification regime [mandatory for beef export by big business] have not been vocal enough on these devastating developments.

We welcome feedback. Please write to We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.