Protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), which began in December of the year gone by, have now taken a pan-India shape, bringing droves of people to the streets.
Although the protesters have raised different concerns and demands, the exclusion of Muslims from the CAA has been a common worry among them, specifically in ‘mainland’ India. The CAA ensures citizenship to all persecuted Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Parsi and Jain refugees, except Muslims from the neighboring Muslim-dominated countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Many see this exclusion of Muslim refugees on religious basis as a violation of the secular ethos of the Indian Constitution. But, for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the CAA is about fulfilling India’s “moral duty” towards “persecuted Hindu minorities”. Home minister Amit Shah has reasoned in Parliament that non-Islamic populations face persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
In his defence, Shah invoked the vulnerabilities of these non-Muslim minorities, more specifically the Hindus in the Muslim-dominated countries. He emphasised on ‘privileges’ of Muslim refugees stating that they have several Islamic countries to take refuge. Consequently, the BJP has successfully made it all about Hindus versus Muslims.
Nevertheless, does this Hindu-Muslim binary reveal the truth regarding the vulnerabilities of refugees from both the religions?
Do Islamic states ensure shelter and citizenship to Muslim refugees?
As refugees are often among the most vulnerable and displaced population who are forced to flee one’s own country, what is the social, economical and religious position of these Muslim refugees from the above mentioned countries?
Answers and inquiries to such questions jeopardise the logic of the Hindu-Muslim binary rationalised by the Union government in the CAA.
It is in this context, that the history, origin and socio-economical location of Bangladeshi Muslim migrants takes us beyond the much-discussed Hindu versus Muslim fight in South Asia.
Caste intersecting religions and regions
The majority of Bangladeshi Muslim migrants belong to lowered castes and erstwhile untouchable groups. Richard M Eaton (1993) in his research The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760 argued that in Bengal, Muslims mostly belong to lowered caste groups. They are mainly Rajbansi, Pod, Chandal, Kuch, and other indigenous groups who had converted to Islam. However, the ascribed status of caste remained unchanged even after conversion.
James Wise, in his 1883 book Notes on the Races, Castes, and Trades of Eastern Bengal, mentions that “in other parts of India, menial work is performed by outcast Hindus, but in Bengal, any repulsive or offensive occupation devolves on the Muhammadan. The Beldar — scavenger and remover of carcasses — is to the Muhammadan village what the Bhuinmali is to the Hindu, and it is not improbable that his ancestor belonged to this vile caste”. After the partition of India, East Bengal became a part of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
As Pakistan became an Islamic republic, caste was un-Islamic and thus not recognised by the ruling caste-class Muslims. With the claim that Pakistan was based on Islamic values, the upper caste-ruling Muslims denied the existence of untouchability and caste-based discrimination within Muslims and Hindus too. As a result, caste-based discrimination gained no attention and no legal measures were taken to empower lowered caste communities in Pakistan.
Human rights activist Zulfiqar Shah in his research study Caste-Based Discrimination in South Asia, 2007, observed that the majority of economically poor and socially exploited Muslims belong to lowered caste communities.
Moreover, caste and untouchability are determining factors of social stratification in South Asian society. Shah’s study reveals that caste exists not just among Hindus, but also among Muslims of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Buddhists of Sri Lanka, and among Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar.
Academics Surinder Jodhka and Ghanshyam Shah in their study Comparative Contexts of Discrimination: Caste and Untouchability in South Asia in 2010, have claimed that though its forms and ways of practice vary across regions, caste and caste-based discrimination exists in most of South Asia.
While the demand and birth of Pakistan was an outcome of the Hindu-Muslim binary then, it was BR Ambedkar, father of the Indian Constitution, who highlighted the question of caste discrimination among Muslims. In his Pakistan or The Partition of India, Ambedkar unraveled the much-ignored question of caste among Muslims in general and within Muslim leadership in particular.
He detailed the social structure of the Muslim society and argued that one finds the social precedence of castes within Muslim groups in exactly the same manner as one finds among the Hindus. He discussed the three structures of Muslim society in India. First are the “Ashrafs or better class Mahomedans, second are Ajlaf or lowered class Mahomedans and the third are the Arzal or degraded class who constituted Bhanar, Halalkhor, Hijra, Kasbi, Lalbegi, Maugta, Mehtar and other untouchable castes”.
Understanding the role of caste in Asian society and witnessing the politics of the ruling caste of both India and Pakistan, Ambedkar continued his struggle for untouchables in Pakistan even after Partition. His worries about Dalit refugees in then-Pakistan are palpable from his letters to India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Hindu and Muslim Dalit refugees from Bangladesh
Ambedkar’s contemporary, Jogendra Nath Mandal — a Bengali Dalit leader — also struggled for the Dalit refugees. Mandal became the first law minister of Pakistan in Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s government. He joined the government of Pakistan with the promise of safeguards to untouchables given by the Jinnah government. However, within three years of becoming the law minister, he resigned from his position on the question of Dalit minority and left Pakistan.
Mandal felt betrayed by the Pakistani ruling class. In his resignation letter to Liaquat Ali Khan, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan, he wrote that “with a heavy heart and a sense of utter frustration at the failure of my life-long mission to uplift the backward Hindu masses of East Bengal that I feel compelled to tender resignation of my membership of your Cabinet”.
While Ambedkar and Mandal struggled to bring the Dalit question to the forefront in the Islamic state of Pakistan, the condition of Dalits from both Hindu and Muslim communities in Pakistan and later in independent Bangladesh remained miserable.
As caste exists among both Muslim and Hindu communities, there is little difference in socio-economic exclusion of Hindu and Muslim Dalits in Bangladesh. In his 2009 book, Caste based discrimination in South Asia: a study of Bangladesh, Iftekhar Uddin Chowdhury writes that in Bangladesh, “the Muslims in the villages are broadly divided into Khandan (high status Muslims), Girhasta (low status Muslims) and Kamla (labourers/lowest status Muslims)”.
The Muslims occupying the lowest status have to face untouchability. Chowdhury notes that these lowered status Muslims are not allowed to take part in local politics by upper caste Muslims in the village. As majority of Muslim Dalits work in the lands of high status Muslims, this section holds complete impunity over local politics and power.
In Bangladesh, Muslim Dalits like Tele (oil presser), Napit (barber), Tati (Urdu-speaking weavers from Pakistan), Darji (tailors), Hajam (quacks for circumcision), Mazi/Khottra (boatmen), Bhera (carrier of bride carriage), Kasai (butcher), Bede (river gipsy), Hijra (transgender people who entertain with dance/ songs/sex work), Bihari (refugees from Bihar, India), Rohingya (ethnic minority/refugees from Myanmar), as Chowdhury elaborates, are victims of untouchability, excluded from the mainstream upper caste Muslim society and face everyday caste humiliations.
According to Chowdhury, 76 per cent of Hindu Dalits and 91 per cent of the Muslim Dalits live in kutcha (Bamboo made/thatched/ wattle) houses. They live in small and densely populated houses without any civic amenities. The study reveals that the income of both Hindu and Muslim Dalits falls between 3,000 and 5,000 taka (Rs 2,540-4,240 at current exchange rates), which is far below the national average monthly income of 7,203 taka (Rs 6,110). They borrow money from Mahajans (money lenders) at high interest rates that lead to perpetual indebtedness and pauperisation. Landlessness, acute poverty, social degradation and political alienation have pushed them into a situation of statelessness.
Such situations force them to abandon their homes and illegally migrate to India. This illegal migration is carried out by an organised racket of human smuggling on both sides of the India-Bangladesh border.
This racket of human smuggling is one of the significant sources for India’s unorganised labour market as it provides cheap labour. These migrants are sent/trafficked to various parts of the India. Majority of them do manual scavenging and cleaning jobs, women are sent/trafficked to the domestic and sex market.
In this article, The Federal’s Sudipto Mondal discusses the vulnerabilities, complications and the everyday fears of both Hindu and Muslim Bangladeshi migrants.
The present Citizenship Amendment Act has possibilities of benefiting the Hindu Dalit migrants and ending the historical caste-injustice by providing them Indian citizenship. However, the CAA continues to be unjust to the Muslim Dalits who have the same social origin — caste — as the Hindu Bangladeshi Dalits. Majority of Muslim migrants coming to India belong to lowered or Dalit castes. Being victims of age-old caste traditions in Bangladesh and Pakistan, the rationale that Muslim migrants can be accommodated in Muslim-ruled countries stands untrue and unjust.
The historical injustice of caste and everyday inhumanity has trapped Muslim Dalits within the rigid walls of the caste system on both sides of the border. Muslim Dalits are the worst-affected victims of the Hindu–Muslim fight used by the ruling caste-class in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Protests across India have invoked the so-called secular feelings among the common people. However, the Hindu versus Muslim trajectory is once again invisibilising Dalits, the most marginalised sections from both the religions.
(The author is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)