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Story Publication logo September 12, 2011

In Allahpur, a Moment of Truth


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Thought by some to be irrelevant in the "new" India, caste still determines access to opportunities...

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Ali Akbar Ansari outside the new community hall that will be a school in the morning. 'Everyone is welcome,' he says, 'but I know the upper caste Muslims will not come here.' Image by Shivam Vij. India, 2011.

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.

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