An estimated 100 million or more “Dalit Muslims” live in India. Activists and social scientists argue that affirmative action policies for ‘scheduled castes’ should also apply to this group.

The caste-related problems of India’s Dalit Muslims are rarely addressed, neither by the government nor their own religious community. Contrary to Dalit Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, they are not classified in the ‘scheduled caste’ category, but the fact remains that they often face similar types of discrimination as fellow Dalits of other religious backgrounds.

This has yet again been confirmed by a survey assessing ‘untouchability’ practices by non-Dalit Muslims and Hindus towards Dalit Muslims in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It clearly shows that such practices do exist – although at a lower level than caste discrimination against Dalit Hindus.

Almost a third of the survey’s respondents state that they are barred from burying their dead in an “upper-caste” burial ground. Many Dalit Muslims are not invited to non-Dalit weddings. Some are seated separately at non-Dalit Muslim feasts and have to eat later than people from dominant castes. Some children are seated separately in classrooms and during lunch breaks. And a significant proportion of Dalit Muslims feel that “upper-caste” Muslims and Hindus distance themselves from them.

“It leaves no room for any confusion that the practice of untouchability is not confined to Hindus alone. It spreads far and wide and perhaps no Indian religious community can escape it, including the Muslims. However, one has to admit that when it comes to enforcing these social sanctions with zeal, upper caste Muslims are no match to their Hindu counterparts,” the researchers behind the survey concluded in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly.

The exact number of Dalit Muslims in India is unknown. The official number of Muslims (as per the 2011 census) is approximately 172 million, and according to some estimates, as many as 75 per cent of them are Dalits. If this is the case, the number of Dalit Muslims would by far exceed 100 million, and there would be more than 300 million Dalits altogether in India.

Apart from the lack of official classification as ‘scheduled castes’, the plight of Dalit Muslims receives less attention because Muslims clerics consider the caste system – and the ensuing discrimination – un-Islamic. Hence they refuse to acknowledge that caste discrimination can take place among Muslims. The gap between the living standards of Dalit and other Muslims is also less significant than among other groups.

“The Muslim community as a whole tends to be very badly off compared to other communities, especially in the urban areas, and consequently the intra-community gap between Dalits and non-Dalits is by far the smallest for Muslims,” a report commissioned by the National Commission for Minorities noted in 2008.

One of the authors of the Uttar Pradesh survey, Prashant K Trivedi, told the BBC that “a belief that caste is a Hindu phenomenon since the caste system derives legitimacy from Hindu religious texts, has dominated the thinking of governments and academia since the colonial period.” He believes that Dalit Muslims – and Dalit Christians as well – should be classified as ‘scheduled castes’ and be entitled to affirmative action benefits just like Dalit Hindus.

Even if this should happen, caste discrimination is likely to remain one of the most serious human rights issues in India for many years to come, because laws against it may look good on paper, but are not implemented. Obviously, converting to other religions than Hinduism will not solve the problem either. As a BBC Correspondent concluded in a recent piece:

“You can try to leave caste in India, but caste refuses to leave you.”

More information:

Does untouchability exist among Muslims? (Economic and Political Weekly)

Why are many Indian Muslims seen as untouchable (BBC News)

Dalit Muslims of India (42-minute Al Jazeera World documentary)

Muslims and Dalits come together to fight divisive politics (Times of India)

Dalits in the Muslim and Christian Communities (2008 Government report)

Social, economic and educational of Muslims in India (2006 Government report)