How caste among Indian Muslims complicates Nagaraju's murder: Prof Khalid Anis Ansari

In an interview to TNM Executive Editor Sudipto Mondal, Professor Khalid Ansari says caste may have played a bigger role than religion in the murder of Nagaraju in Telangana.
A photo of Sutana and Nagaraju at their wedding in January 2022.
A photo of Sutana and Nagaraju at their wedding in January 2022.
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On May 5, Billipuram Nagaraju was killed by Syed Mobin Ahmed in full public view for marrying his sister Syed Ashrin Sultana. It is easy to see this crime as a result of the extreme tension between Hindus and Muslims in the country today. But a few observers have pointed out that there is more to the crime than the conventional Hindu-Muslim binary because of the caste of the victim and the attacker.

How is this crime complicated by the fact that Nagaraju was not just a Hindu but also a Dalit from the Mala community? Is it of any significance that his killer was not just Muslim, but also a ‘Syed’, the highest caste among South Asian Muslims?

There isn’t much academic work on how caste operates outside Hindu society, particularly among Muslims who are the second largest religious group in India. One of the leading South Asian scholars specialising in this rarely studied subject of caste among Muslims is Khalid Anis Ansari, Associate Professor of Sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) at Azim Premji University.

Khalid Ansari is a passionate advocate for the ‘Pasmanda’ or Muslim anti-caste movement. He has written widely on the subject in both academic and popular spaces. Following the murder of Nagaraju, he has argued against attempts to bracket the crime within the traditional Hindu-Muslim framework. Ansari drew attention to the larger social factors at play in the murder in this interview to TNM's Executive Editor Sudipto Mondal. Excerpts:

What do you think played a greater role in the murder, caste or religion?

If you look at the facts of this chilling tragedy, it is evident that Billipuram Nagaraju had offered to convert to Islam. When the woman’s family rejected the offer, the couple went ahead with an Arya Samaj wedding, and Syed Ashrin Sultana had to convert to Hinduism procedurally. Islamic theology, despite some recent rethinking in Tunisia, does not allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslims without converting the latter. Yet, if Nagaraju’s, a Mala-Dalit, offer to convert to Islam was rejected, one may infer that the Syed-Ashraf caste location of the woman’s family played a crucial role. The Syeds are the most revered caste among subcontinental Muslims, and their position is analogous to the Brahmins among the Hindus. Going by the evidence in hand, one may deduce that caste trumped religion in this case.

Nagaraju's wife Sultana told our reporter that she and her brother didn’t know Nagaraju’s caste. But she confirmed that she was aware of her Syed identity and that her caste sits at the top of the Muslim social order. How do you read this?

I believe there are conflicting reports on this point. Some reports suggest that the brother Syed Mobin Ahmed investigated Nagaraju’s family background in detail and was aware of his Mala-Dalit identity. Even the slums are often spatially segregated in terms of social identity, and it is easy to identify the “Muslim” and “Dalit” quarters and so on. However, the more pertinent point is that endogamy (marriage within caste) and the notions of purity of blood are the key factors that reproduce caste relations across South Asia. Intercaste marriages are rare and interreligious marriages more infrequent. The caste-religion boundaries are policed closely, and transgressions are often disciplined through spectacular violence.

However, it is also true that the penetration of capitalist values has allowed a more significant play of wealth in determining matrimonial alliances than before. The saying in Bihar is that “ladki dete hain bhaat dekh ke, ladki lete hain jaat dekh ke.” (Consider the groom’s wealth in the daughter’s marriage, and the bride’s caste in the son’s marriage.) This captures the negotiation between caste, patriarchy, and economics succinctly. One may point out that there is more social tolerance for inter-religious matrimonial alliances between higher castes/classes. However, there are always passions involved around miscegenation — racial intermixing — and one may not predict how the families and society will respond. It is tragic that in this case, the woman’s Syed-Ashraf family could not stand the union of their daughter with a Mala-Dalit boy, and resorted to murder.

The Hindu rightwing, which has launched a massive anti-Muslim hate campaign following the murder, doesn't want to acknowledge Nagaraju’s Dalit caste identity. This could be because of the overwhelming number of Dalits who are killed by Hindus for intercaste alliances. Why do you think there is also a section of Muslims intent on denying the caste angle? Some have pointed out that the killer is a poor fruit vendor who couldn't possibly be acting out of caste pride. 

Since the late colonial period, the higher castes of all religions have employed religion as a proxy to invisibilise their numerical deficit. A small minority of privileged castes managed to secure their material interests, and deflect anti-caste assertion through religio-cultural fantasies and communal violence. Higher castes across religions have instrumentally used religious discourses and institutions to iron out the question of internal caste/class inequalities by emphasising the external religious ‘Other’. Therefore, it is very intuitive for the Hindu right and the Muslim right to respond to these events through the Hindu-Muslim lens. There is also a simultaneous erasure of caste because that is what strengthens the position of these two groups. It is a time-tested strategy, and there should be no surprises here.

However, the second part of the question, which indicates that the descent from a higher caste status to a lower economic class, as evident in the case of the woman’s family, will make them less casteist, deserves some reflection. Historically, there was a very neat correlation between caste and class in South Asia, meaning lower caste also meant lower class. But the deepening of capitalist relations and uneven development has also somewhat ruptured this correlation. The ongoing agrarian crisis has seen many land-holding upper caste communities across religions, for instance the Rajputs and Pathans, fall down the class ladder. These upper caste sections also held on dearly to the anti-labour “Sanskritic” and “Persianate” traditions. They could not westernise themselves or learn English. These sections are confronting enormous difficulties in adjusting to the neo-liberal economy.

An interesting paradox emerges here. While the “poor” upper castes subjectively feel higher in the status hierarchy, they have descended to the bottom of the class ladder. The contradiction between their higher social status and the low economic class fills them with immense angst. At the same time, the poor higher castes are also envious of the lower caste sections that have witnessed upward mobility due to their pro-labour culture and the state policy of reservations, among other factors. The caste memory is the last bit of prestige that the poor upper castes hang on to. They are more prone to lumpenization and violence to restore lost pride and glory, making them ready recruits for right-wing politics. The violent response of the woman’s family, high caste but low class, may be interpreted along these lines.   

How have caste relations been impacted by extreme polarisation between Hindus and Muslims? What has happened to relations between Syed-Ashrafs and Brahmin-Savarnas, or Pasmandas and Dalits?

Historically, Savarna Hindus and Ashraf Muslims worked together from the mediaeval period and up until the British colonial period. The Mughal courts are a prime example. Take the “navratnas” (or nine eminent scholars) in the court of Akbar. They combined Brahmin-Savarna men such as Birbal, Todar Mal, Tansen, Raja Man Singh, and Syed-Ashraf elites such as Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak and Faizi. While the Persianate culture took precedence over the Sanskritic culture during the mediaeval period, there was also a great deal of accommodation and exchange going on between the two cultures at the elite and subaltern levels.

This growing confluence was represented by the Sufi/Bhakti figures like Bulley Shah, Amir Khusro, Nanak, Kabir, Dara Shikoh, Taju, Daryadas, etc. However, this evolving cultural synthesis, often humanist, anti-caste, and transcending the Persianate/Sanskritic dichotomy, was tragically aborted due to the British colonial intervention. More pertinently, with the creation of Islamic Pakistan, the Sanskritic culture became the default for India.

It is only due to the wisdom of our founding fathers like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar, and Azad, that India averted the theocratic route immediately after Independence. However, the subsequent Gandhian/Marxist/Anti-Caste emancipatory movements did not pay adequate attention to the cultural question, and the orientalist-colonial reading of Indian history through the Hindu-Muslim lens remained dominant at the mass level. Of course, some exemplary scholarship and radical revisionist history were advanced, but they seldom became a part of the popular movements.

The radical majoritarian forces have latched on to this cultural blindspot of the progressive movements. They use the Sanskritic imagination at the cultural level and the Hindu-Muslim binary at the political level to consolidate themselves. If one considers the Ashraf-Muslim class, it clubs two subsections together. One section is the immigrant Muslims that trace a West or Central Asian origin. The other section comprises native Hindu upper castes (Brahmins, Rajputs, Kayasthas, etc.) who converted to Islam to benefit from royal patronage. While both the classes invest in the Hindu-Muslim binary, the former is more emotionally invested in the Persianate culture. At present, a new social contract is underway. One cannot predict what shape the accommodation between the Savarna-Hindus and Ashraf-Muslims will take owing to these complications.

On the other hand, while lower caste Muslims and their Hindu counterparts share the everyday experience of caste indignities and suffering, this does not automatically translate to lower caste solidarity or collaborative projects of emancipation across religions. The Bahujan-Pasmanda identity is complex and influenced by state classification and policy, religious discourses/institutions, and organised communal violence. There are pushes and pulls of various kinds. The lower castes often confront a disjunction between their actual location in the social structure, and the fantasies that have been used to co-opt them.

Among Muslims, the Ashraf cultural worldview is the hegemonic norm. Many Pasmanda Muslims try to imitate the Ashraf culture to transcend stigma. A lower-caste Muslim rickshaw puller in Delhi-Agra might take pride in the Qutub Minar or Taj Mahal, mistaking himself to be in the lineage of the historical Ashraf royalty. Similarly, a Hindu Dalit or OBC who was hardly a part of the Hindu social and spiritual fold, might find meaning in “Akhand Bharat” and so on.

The marginalised sections are vulnerable to distorted psychological incentives defined by the oppressors, which work against meaningful solidarity. So while caste humiliation could be invoked to work out pan-religion subaltern solidarities, it has to contest counter-logics that disrupt this solidarity ceaselessly. 

Muslims as a whole have been described by some anti-caste scholars as the new untouchables. How has the extreme segregation and social ostracism faced by Muslims impacted Syed-Ashraf relations with Pasmanda Muslims?

I think the framing of Muslims as the “new untouchables” is a hasty generalisation and an attempt to racialise a diverse community with significant cultural differences and internal inequalities. However, the discourse of “Muslim backwardness” is not new.

Ashraf Muslims trumpeted it in the late colonial period when the 4-5% Syed-Ashraf held nearly 30% of government jobs in the United Provinces in 1931. Their hegemony was being increasingly challenged by lower caste Muslim organisations like the All India Momin Conference. It is not unusual for the dominant communities to characterise the justice claims of the disenfranchised sections and redistribution policies as oppression per se. A hegemonic community like the Brahmins has been dubbed as “today’s Dalits” and has sought public employment quotas. The slogans of “Hindu decline” or “Hindus in danger” signify a majority suffering from a minority complex. The dominant communities use constructed perceptions of sentimental victimhood to their advantage. The Ashraf Muslims are no exception.

However, the reality of Muslim discrimination is differentiated. While one must wait for a comprehensive caste census for credible data, the existing studies indicate that the Ashraf Muslims are adequately represented in power structures at the expense of Pasmanda Muslims. On the other hand, if you look at the lynchings and majoritarian attacks on Muslims, the Pasmanda communities have borne the main brunt of this violence. While no one denies that some Ashraf sections may have been affected by majoritarian radicalism, it is a gross generalisation that all Muslims are the new untouchables in India.

What is your take on the much bandied about concept of Dalit-Muslim unity?

The electoral domain has some autonomy from the social relations on the ground; it often leads to unlikely alliances. The Dalit-Muslim unity as a political formula has been employed by the BSP, Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, and the AIMIM, with limited success. All the main Muslim political formations — AIMIM, SDPI, Welfare Party of India, etc — are led by Syed-Ashraf elites.

Dalit-Muslim unity would mean the unity of Dalits with the upper caste Muslim leadership. Now both these groups have entirely different worldviews and social experiences. The Syed-Ashrafs see themselves as an erstwhile ruling class and view Dalits pejoratively. The Muslim upper castes will never submit to the leadership of Dalits. Any political alliance between them can never be stable. 

In contrast to the fantasy of Dalit-Muslim unity, there is a real possibility for the unity of the Pasmanda Muslims with Dalit-Bahujan sections.

Why has the Pasmanda movement not grown in south India?

Despite the popular imagination, the play of caste is not absent from the Muslim communities in South India. Colonial census reports, district gazetteers, and recent anthropological works have discussed caste among south Indian Muslims. Rich Telugu poetry by Kavi Yakoob, Shaikh Peeran Boraywala, and Shajahana translated by Kuffir Nalgundwar (Naren Bedide) represent the caste experiences of lower caste Muslims. Muslim Marathi literary figures have also discussed the Muslim caste question in Maharashtra. Recently, an important book that documents caste relations among Muslims in Karnataka was written by Muzaffar Assadi. One encounters narratives of caste discrimination from Muslim puislam (fisherfolk) and ossan (barber) communities in Kerala.

However, it is true that despite the play of caste in south Indian Muslim communities, there has not been a similar public articulation as in the north in the form of the Pasmanda discourse. While one may have to investigate this scientifically, two developments are worth mentioning.   

Firstly, there was a significant migration of the Syed-Ashraf elite to Pakistan during the Partition from north India, probably easing the grip of these classes on the lower caste Muslims and creating a relatively favourable situation for the Pasmanda articulation. In the south, the Syed-Ashraf leadership is more deeply entrenched, and they have had an unbroken hold over the Muslim community for centuries. Secondly, the centre of gravity of Muslim politics is slowly shifting to the south. The south is the main base for prominent Muslim political organisations such as the AIMIM, PFI-SDPI, JIH-WPI, IUML, etc. Muslim discourse in major universities like the JNU, DU, IITs, JMI, and HCU is influenced by organisations like the SIO and CFI with significant representation of south Indian Muslim students. The driving force of this development is probably the relative prosperity of south Indian Muslims and the firm grip of the Syed-Ashraf leadership. 

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