INTERVIEW: Muzaffar Assadi

Muzaffar Assadi: ‘Muslims must reclaim their caste identities’

Print edition : February 11, 2022
Interview with Muzaffar Assadi, political analyst.

Muzaffar Assadi is Dean, Faculty of Arts, and Chairperson, Departments of Political Science and Public Administration, at the University of Mysore. A political scientist, he is a frequent commentator on the political economy of Karnataka. He has written 12 books in English and Kannada. His latest book, Alpasankhyaataru mattu Jaati Vyavasthe: Asmite, Vasaahatushahi mattu Meesalati (Minorities and Caste System: Identity, Colonialism and Reservation), in Kannada, explores the historicity of caste among Indian Muslims. The book, divided into five main chapters, discusses the pervasiveness of caste in the Muslim community in India and the existence of social stratification among Indian Muslims; enumeration and listing of Indian Muslim castes during the colonial period in the Census and in various regional gazetteers; identification of marginal Muslim communities as “criminal tribes”, nomadic tribes, martial castes, and so on; the methodology and validity of the classification conducted during the colonial period; and the issue of caste among Indian Muslims in the post-Independence period.

Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Your latest book looks at the historical development of caste among Indian Muslims. What are the main themes discussed in the book?

The book is a comprehensive study of caste among Indian Muslims at the national and regional levels [Karnataka] during the colonial period and in the post-colonial Indian state. I have attempted to dismiss the historical myth that Muslims are a homogenous community. My argument is that when Islam travelled to different parts of the world, it co-opted the existing, variegated social structure and the locally prevalent social practices. This is apparent wherever Islam spread. In this process it accommodated thousands of ethnic groups, folk traditions, diverse belief systems, deviant sects, tribes, and so on. Caste is one such social structure that Islam was able to encompass in India. The spread of Islam in the subcontinent has even led to the growth of fuzzy communities that are neither Muslim nor Hindu, creating syncretic cultures. These communities, which converted to Islam, may be Muslim but continue to follow Hindu social practices. History is replete with such examples—the Meos of Mewat and the Chhaparbands of Karnataka, for instance. My book primarily looks at the issue of caste within Indian Islam from two vantage points: as an identity marker and as a potential advantage in contemporary caste politics.

There have been scholars on caste among Indian Muslims. One such is the sociologist Imtiaz Ahmad. Scholars such as T.N. Madan, Irfan Ahmad, Azra Khanam, Anwar Alam, Remy Delage, Charles Lindholm, C.G. Hussain Khan, Mohd. Shakil Ahmed, Veena Das and Khalid Anis Ansari have also done work on caste among Indian Muslims. In Karnataka, we have scholars such as Victor Salvadore D’Souza and A. Wahab Doddamane, whose work is restricted to a socio-anthropological study of one or two castes such as the Navayats in coastal Karnataka. But all this scholarship is not enough considering the pervasive influence of caste in the Indian Muslim society.

You are primarily a political scientist, but this work draws from the disciplines of ethnography, anthropology and sociology. Your comments on the multidisciplinary nature of this work.

My research belongs to the domain of politico-anthropology, a new area in the social sciences wherein political science engages with anthropology and ethnography. In this framework, the state [both the colonial and post-colonial Indian state] becomes a part of the trajectory of my ethnographic study. I have tried to understand the way in which the Indian political system, particularly during the colonial period, documented, enlisted and classified castes among Muslims in different parts of India in both the presidencies and the princely states. I also focussed on ethnographic studies conducted by anthropologists, colonial administrators and travellers such as R.E. Enthoven, Edgar Thurston, Herbert H. Risley and William Crooke. This approach allowed me to study the interest of colonial authorities in documenting Muslim castes along with those among Hindus.

I also examine the influence memories of past conflicts between Christendom and Islam would have had on the colonial understanding of Muslims of India. I also analyse how colonialism misunderstood Muslim social structure when it conflated sects with caste. Colonialism had no consistency in dealing with upper castes among Muslims; sometimes the number would go up, sometimes it would come down. I have also gone into the larger politics behind caste enumeration: What was the effect of the nationalist movement over the system of enumeration? How did this game of numbers in the Census create conditions for binary opposition in Indian politics? Incidentally, the process of enumeration itself created caste as a fluid, flexible and dynamic social structure. It became one of the social spaces to change, construct, rework and provide flexible identities to thousands of social groups.

It is interesting that you should mention that colonial interventions such as the Census provided scope for communities to dynamically “improve” themselves, meaning they could ascend the caste hierarchy. This reminds me of M.N. Srinivas’ theory of ‘Sankritisation’—lower castes emulating the practices of higher castes and becoming upwardly mobile in the process. Were there any such social processes among Muslims as well?

There were similar processes among backward caste Muslims as well. My research says that there are two ways in which this happened: In the first case, backward castes such as Pinjaras [or Nadafs] in Karnataka would adopt the title of ‘Sheikh, Syed, or Pathan’ after their conversion to Islam to elevate their social status. In the second case, titles such as Syed, denoting an upper-caste status, could be bought. [This is documented in the 1901 Census report of the Gwalior princely state.] My preliminary research leads me to conclude that there is nothing called ‘pure’ community or caste among Indian Muslims. Those who have claimed upper-caste status among Muslims are really a blend of different castes through history.

Many scholars have argued that caste is a colonial construct. Having scrutinised colonial-era documents to see how Muslim castes were enumerated, documented and listed, do you agree?

I disagree with the idea. On the contrary, caste identity in the community can be traced back to the early medieval period when large numbers of Muslims started coming to India. Islam came to India through different forms: it came through Sufis, through trade and also war and conquest. In fact, many medieval-era Muslim writers have documented a caste-like structure operating during their lifetimes. A Muslim historian, Ziauddin Barani, who lived in the 14th century, had contempt for the people of the “bazaar” [by which he probably meant low-caste people]. He believed that the “bazaar” people should not be taught or allowed to hold administrative positions. His views are similar to that of Manu, who had contempt for shudras. There are others, too, such as the Iranian polymath Al-Biruni, who had made a reference to the existence of such a social stratification among Muslims during the medieval period.

Was caste as a category recorded among Muslims in Karnataka during the colonial period?

Colonial records pertaining to Karnataka [spread across the Bombay and Madras presidencies, Chief Commissionerate of Coorg and the princely states of Mysore and Hyderabad before unification in 1956] recorded caste among Muslims. Some of the Muslim communities here, such as the Chhaparbands, were listed as a “criminal tribe”. It also identified the forest-dwelling Siddis [in north-western Karnataka] as Muslims. Navayat, the trading community of coastal Karnataka, was identified as a “hybrid” caste as its members had descended from intermarriage between Arab traders and local Jains. The process of enumeration of different castes in the colonial period was not exhaustive as it left out many Muslim castes.

Various Backward Classes Commissions formed in Karnataka in the post-Independence period have left out many of these castes from the lists and backward caste Muslims have been denied the benefits of affirmative action. However, demands are slowly being made that certain Muslim nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes in Karnataka must be reclassified as Scheduled Tribes. Muslims must reclaim their caste identities and lobby at least for the sake of appropriating political dividends or else they will remain subalterns forever. Will a community that has undergone historical amnesia on the question of caste reclaim or recreate its caste identities?