Untouchability is worse than slavery, said Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, one of India’s greatest statesmen and the undisputed leader of the country’s Dalits.
Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) are some of the republic’s most wretched citizens because of an unforgiving Hindu caste hierarchy that condemns them to the bottom of the heap.
Although untouchability among Hindus is widely documented and debated, its existence among India’s Muslims is rarely discussed.
One reason possibly is that Islam does not recognise caste, and promotes equality and egalitarianism.
Most of India’s 140 million Muslims are descended from local converts. Many of them converted to Islam to escape Hindu upper-caste oppression.
Their descendants form the overwhelming majority – 75% – of the present Indian Muslim population, and they are called the Dalit Muslims, according to Ejaz Ali, leader of an organisation representing socially disadvantaged Muslims.
“But caste and untouchability is a lived reality for Muslims living in India and South Asia,” Dr Aftab Alam, a political scientist who has worked on the subject, told me. “And untouchability is the community’s worst-kept secret.”
Studies have claimed that “concepts of purity and impurity; clean and unclean castes” do exist among Muslims groups.
A book by Ali Anwar says while Dalits are called asprishya (untouchable) in Hindu society, they are called arzal (inferior) among the Muslims. A 2009 study by Dr Alam found there was not a single “Dalit Muslim” in any of the prominent Muslim organisations, which were dominated essentially by four “upper-caste” Muslim groups.
Now a major study – possibly the first its kind – by a group of researchers reveals that the scourge of untouchability is alive and well among Indian Muslims.
Prashant K Trivedi, Srinivas Goli, Fahimuddin and Surinder Kumar polled more than 7,000 households across 14 districts between October 2014 and April 2015 in the populous northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.