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In Allahpur, a Moment of Truth

September 15, 2011

(First published in Untold Stories)

Imam Shamsuddin calls for prayer. Photo credit: Shivam Vij

Like nearly every village in South Asia, Allahpur, in the east Indian state of Bihar, is geographically divided on the lines of caste. On one side of a dirt track live the upper-caste Muslims (Syeds, Sheikhs and Pathans) and on the other side live the lower-caste Muslims (Ansaris, Dhunias and Raains). There are only four Hindu families in Allahpur, and they are all lower castes, their houses amid the low-caste Muslim houses.

For five years now, the low caste Muslims have been praying at a ramshackle mosque they built, boycotting the mosque in the upper-caste Muslim area, a stone’s throw away.

The low-caste Muslims of Allahpur do not own any significant land, and they used to earn a living as agricultural laborers on the land owned by the upper-caste Muslims. But they have stopped doing that. Instead, many have migrated to India’s big cities where they work as manual laborers. The upper-caste Muslims of Allahpur must now hire labor from other villages. The two sides are not on speaking terms.

How did things come to such a pass? The more time I spend with Mohammed Shamsuddin, the imam or preacher at the low caste mosque, and Akbar Ali, the leader of the Ansaris, the more they tell me of the history that has produced this moment.

At one level, it was simply about the humiliating discrimination the Ansaris and other low-caste Muslims faced at the upper caste mosque. The Ansaris recall how they used to be made to sit in the back rows even if they were the first to arrive for prayer, nudged behind with elbows, derogatory caste terms hurled at them.

In 2005, the year before the low-caste Muslims built their own mosque, a dispute broke out over local village council elections. The upper castes wanted to vote en masse in the names of the lower castes, as had been the practice for as long as anyone could remember. The lower castes, for the first time, refused to go along.

“Our point was that we will go and cast our own votes, no matter who we vote for,” says Akbar Ali Ansari, the local leader.

The upper-caste Syeds and Khans wanted the lower castes to vote for one of their own, Munir Khan. On election day, when it became clear the lower castes had other ideas, the upper castes fired gunshots in the air and threatened the lower castes, trying to force them to go away. They did for a moment, but returned and a round of physical fighting followed. The election in this section of the village council (made up of a few villages) was suspended, and Munir Khan lost.

The winning candidate, although an upper-caste Muslim from a neighboring village, was with a political party that in 2005 won the Bihar state legislature elections with the deft move of appealing to lower-caste Muslims. This strategy ended 15 years of control by a political party whose core voter base was made up of Muslims and the Hindu middle-caste Yadavs. (This came to be known as the M+Y formula.) As in Allahpur, it was a case in which upper-caste Muslims took the lower-caste Muslim votes for granted. Now, things had changed.

The architect of this new strategy was Ali Anwar, a journalist turned politician who was himself from a Muslim low caste background. He was immediately rewarded with a seat in the upper house of India’s legislature.

Emboldened by the experience, the Ansaris decided to build their own mosque.

“We feared even going to their mosque, because in that tense atmosphere after the election there could have been violence inside the mosque, too,” says Imam Shamsuddin.

And so they opened their own mosque in July 2006. Days later, when the Ansaris were away tilling their fields, the upper-caste Muslims arrived, accompanied by the police, and demolished the mosque. This was done on the basis of a false claim that the land on which the mosque stood was owned by an upper-caste Muslim. The Ansaris came running, surrounded the police and called up district officials. More police reinforcements came to prevent violence. But days later, the upper-caste Muslims set fire to some huts of the lower-caste Muslims. The people survived, but not their belongings and livestock.

After these incidents, the Ansaris of Allahpur contacted Ali Anwar. It has been smooth sailing since then. The Ansaris cut off all links with the upper castes, the police are no longer taking sides with the upper castes, and those whose houses were burnt got compensation to build new ones.

“Ali Anwar is the one who helped us,” says Akbar Ali. “Until now, all Muslims in power and public offices were upper-caste Muslims who would side with their own in such disputes. That is changing.”

The lower-caste Muslims stopped sending their children to the madrasa—religious seminary—run by the upper castes after Ali Anwar helped start a public school. Using discretionary funds to which he was entitled as a member of the Indian Parliament, he is building a community hall that will also serve as a school building.

One major problem that remains is the road. The upper-caste Muslims have extended the boundary wall of their graveyard into the dirt track, illegally, so that a four-wheeled vehicle cannot enter the Ansari area.

“They want to control us, make sure that cars have to go through their area, so that they can block such access and blackmail us,” said Akbar Ali.

The wall was first extended in 2004, when an Ansari brought his marriage procession into the village. The bridegroom was in a car. Incensed with such display of pomp, the upper castes beat up the marriage guests.

And so, on and on—Akbar Ali and Imam Shamsuddin and others who gather around me tell stories of more such incidents and the discrimination they used to face. “When we passed by their area, we had to take off our slippers,” says Akbar.

In the upper-caste section of the village, the prosperity shows. The houses are bigger and built with concrete.

The upper-caste Muslims deny all charges. I sit with a group of Syeds who say these stories are false. “There is no caste amongst Muslims. Islam does not permit such discrimination,” says one. In which case, do they marry between castes? “No, never,” replied Syed Mohammed Shoaib, 70. Why not? “I can’t explain. It has been like this since I was born.” So who are Syeds anyway? “We’re like Hindu Brahmins.” Which is not incorrect: almost all south Asian Muslims converted from Hinduism hundreds of years ago, but so pervasive is caste that it remains.

As I begin to take my leave of Allahpur, Imam Shamsuddin Ansari has yet more stories. He wants me to note down each one of them. “It’s embarrassing, but Allah knows everything,” he says, “There is no house among us where the upper-caste Muslims haven’t sexually exploited women and produced illegitimate children. We started resisting this some ten years ago and it does not happen anymore.”

The upper castes will deny this, of course, but everyone knows sexual exploitation and rape have long been a feature of caste relations in India and south Asia. One used to think caste was only about Hindus. People like Akbar Ali and Imam Shamsuddin are demolishing that myth and breaking the silence.

“What we have been fighting against is basically slavery,” says Akbar Ali.

Allahpur is in East Champaran district of the state of Bihar, near many ancient Buddhist sites that attract tourists from across the world. It was not far from here that Mohandas Gandhi started his first civil disobedience movement against the British colonial rule of India that ended in 1947. In Allahpur today, there is another kind of freedom struggle taking place.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2011 7:03 PM

    Caste is prevalent across religions…very insightful posting. It demolishes media created image of Muslims as one single identity for the demonizing intentions. Now we know there are Brahmanism operating actively amongst Muslims too. One may further infer that lower castes listed are ‘shudras’ of Manusmriti. Their conversion to islam has not ended Brahmanism. Another kind of freedom struggle in Allahpur and in rest of the Country has to be freedom from Brahmanism that through alliance with capitalism has further aggravated the situation of slavery and poverty – out of 120 crore people 83 crore people are living with daily income ranging from Rs.6 to Rs. 20/-.

    Sexual exploitation mentioned in this post is revealing though embarrassing for one who speaks, listens, writes, reads and responds to this. Yet this is a reality of our country in the grip of Brahamanism. Its complete enslavement of the human spirit, body and mental outlook. This is not limited only to lower caste muslims alone, it is all pervasive to all communities that not revolted as yet.

    The story of revolt here is inspiring. The villagers identified that the root of their problem and began to deal with the same. Brahmanism manifested in innumerable different ways is also problem of this country currently for many centuries. Bharat Morcha Morcha led by Waman Meshram organised rally in Ramlila Maidan, Delhi on September 01, 2011 and attended by 5 lakh people to protest Cenral government’s betryal of OBCs by not carrying on caste based census. This is conspiracy to prevent Brahmanical rule in India from melting away from power. Faster this freedom struggle spreads all over the Country better it is. Salute to lower caste muslims of Allahpur.

    • aaronv permalink
      September 16, 2011 12:48 PM

      The plague of Brahminism has to be eradicated from Indian society. Brahmins have surreptitiously entered the fold of nearly every religion in India, causing the rot of each from within to preserve their tyrannical grasp on power.

      This is nothing new. Buddhism was almost destroyed in India when the Brahmins appropriated Buddha and made him just one, nearly irrelevant, deity among their thousands of lewd, abhorrent, and depraved ‘gods.’ If it had not been for the crucial work of colonial historians and most of all, Dr. Ambedkar, Buddhism could not have been revived in India.

      • Kitapati permalink
        September 19, 2011 2:36 PM

        Come on folks wake up and smell the coffee. Just blaming some evil brahmins, vedas and manusmiriti for social equality is meaningless and does not help understand the reality of the situation. If you extend this logic further, social equalities in every corner of the world from africa to japan can be ascribed to the evil brahmins.

  2. September 15, 2011 7:07 PM

    Thank you kafila for bringing such stories to us..

  3. September 15, 2011 7:59 PM

    Ambedkar demanded Independence (not reservations/affirmative action) for Muslims/Christians/Anglo-Indians/Sikhs/SC/ST communities.
    Mahatma Gandhi begged/blackmailed these communities to NOT seek Independence from India.

    http://goo.gl/u0QNW

  4. September 15, 2011 8:08 PM

    Great story. Will share further.

  5. shuja permalink
    September 15, 2011 9:05 PM

    They are Muslims but haven’t understood the essence of Islam.It is unfortunately at global level also.The monarchs in some countries exploit Islam to further their own rule and in this case the so called upper castes do it to grind their own.

    One of the important reasons for offering Nimaz in congregation is that it increases social bonding.when you stand in a row you get to understand that before Allah everyone is alike and the formation of those rows has to be in the order of entering the masjid without any other differentiation.There are strict instructions to complete the first row and then proceed to second.Ek Hee Saff Mein Khaday Huvay Mehmood o Ayaaz, Na koi banda raha na koi banda navaaz. But by making separate masjids on basis of caste they are doing what is not part of Islam.Things like these are bound to happen when emphasis is on distorted versions of Islam because then anyone is free to use it the way it suits him.Syeds are a creation of such a thing where people in older times used to see them as something blessed as having some special access to God.And they used to create myths about themselves or about their forefathers.

    Much has been emphasized in Islam about education and that is for the purpose that it renders all equal be a syed or an ansari.An ansari can become a syed (basically a preacher) if he is educated. But the hegemony created by these so called upper castes will be resulting in road blocks in that also.Somebody enlighten these guys what is Islam about.

  6. MahboobSaeedi permalink
    September 15, 2011 10:58 PM

    Very unfortunate story perhaps this must have been started on land dispute or rivalary on personal grounds,and this lead to caste system , and so an exagerated story,Islam does not allow it at all ,even Islam does not consider any difference in non -muslims on the basis of caste.

    • September 19, 2011 8:51 PM

      :)

    • September 21, 2011 11:14 AM

      @MahboobSaeedi,

      What a hypothetical Islam allows or disallows is irrelevant. What matters is the ground reality. This is very typical of the defenders of every faith. If Hindus have failed to curb the practice of casteism, it is precisely because of this push-the-dirt-under-the-rug attitude. Muslims (and Hindus) will do well to wake up to the 21st century and keep good things and discard bad things, no matter who said what when.

  7. September 15, 2011 11:09 PM

    While there is no concept of caste hierarchy within Islam(Quranic and Prophetic traditions vehemently opposed caste system), but it is very prevalent among Muslims world over. Even more so is Indo-Pak region.

    Some claim superiority because of blood and other claim it because of social stature/position but it is there and needs to be brought out in open and opposed.

    While almost every Muslim is ready to point out casteism in other religions, very few are willing to look inside their own collars.

    Keep up the great work Shivam. I am a great admirer of your work.

    PS: I hope you remember our [heated] discourse sometime back on FB on the same issue.

  8. Inasu THALAK permalink
    September 16, 2011 2:59 AM

    This shows once again that the caste system prevalent in our country is all pervasive.
    It has corrupted the faiths which arrived in India long time ago: like Judaism, Xtianity and
    Islam all the three and universal brotherhood. Alas the collusion between those who wield
    ruling power, those possess the power of knowledge and those who can brandish the power of wealth contributes to create this situation. It the worst kind of apartheid with
    religious sanctions! What do the priests and preachers of the so called ‘high caste’ Muslims think about such wanton discrimination and disrespect for the Koranic texts?
    Consoling the ‘low caste’ Muslims are awakening in Allahpur, the city of Allah – what a name for such a place!

  9. veena permalink
    September 16, 2011 4:08 PM

    even after conversion the caste grip remains.

  10. September 20, 2011 9:12 PM

    caste system!! the muslims who doing such nonsense stuff that is dividing according to cast system are not mulims at all may ALLAH give them the knowledge about Islam Ameen

  11. September 22, 2011 2:17 AM

    Mr. Ravi.Thanks for your comments, I understand that the story of Allahpur is perhaps an isolated story of its own kind. It never happens that if, a person reaches in mosque in time or before any prayer is not allowed in ist row (SAF)on the basis of caste or otherwise,in MEwat (HARYANA) at Nuh which is a predominately Muslim area ,there the most people are illiterate mostly, but not not in terms of religion teachings THERE IS NO DIFFERENTIATION OF SYED PATHAN ANSARI etc,as mentioned in ALLAHPUR story,Even I observed in Hindu society in the 50-60 years a remarkable change has come ,majority of Hindu brothers do not differentiate in lower or upper caste, a very positive change has come (at least in north India),I believe if it is there it will go by by any SANT JI, Just like SATI PRATHA by ONE SAINT RAJA RAM MOHAN ROY ,when we are living in a mixed society ,of Hindu and Muslim population we have a symbiotic relationship, We learn many Good things of Hindu brothers and Hindu also GET some GOOD FROM MUSLIMS TOO ,But, otherwise. TOO ( no discussion on + _ %)In the last I believe by following basic of any religion it will keep away from any harbinger in our society.

    • September 23, 2011 12:28 AM

      Thank you Mr Mahboob for your thoughtful reply. I am convinced that there are good people in all communities and the good people must come together to make a statement and set a standard. My point was only that, no matter what our holy books say, if it is not consistent with modern day living, we should be willing to amend or altogether ignore them and move on. We can’t live by the standards set in 1500BC or 600AD either. There is no doubt there is some good in those books, but there is also some bad and we should be willing be acknowledge that. Secondly, we should accept that there are bad people in our communities and seek ways to reform them rather than disowning them. Disowning them will not make them go away.

  12. March 17, 2012 9:15 PM

    Reminds me of a couple of conversations I had in Bihar where I was gallivanting around in 1974-75.
    Both in Eastern UP and Bihar those days, most people would ask me “kahaan makaaan ba/dera kahan hai” and so on followed by a straight out “Kaun jaat ho/kaun janay ho/Aap ka taitil (title meaning the surname which gives away the game) kya hai” and so forth.
    One Brahmin gent let it be known that people with his surname were the highest sub-group of Brahmins.
    And then there were a couple of Muslim gents both of whom claimed that people with their respective surnames were the highest…
    The Brahmin and the Muslims both added a sentence: “Yeh/aisa hum nahin kehte hain. Aur log kehte hain” or words to that effect if I remember right, meaning: It’s not we who make this claim. Other people says so/acknowledge this fact.

    That caste and sub-caste identities are still so strong after all these decades is rather saddening.

  13. Raghu permalink
    March 18, 2012 5:23 PM

    This is news to me as I have been always told that there is no Caste System in Islam and Christianity and some natives of the Indian sub-continent converted to these egalatarian Religion to escape from the cruel caste system/brahminical suppression in Hinduism. If the caste system follows them into the new religions also, what is the use of converting to some other religions?

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