Leave alone permitting ‘low’ caste Muslims to study at the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College (which later became the Aligarh Muslim University or AMU), such Muslims were not considered to be equal even in religious terms at the institution that Syed Ahmad established. This is strikingly brought out, for instance, in a reference to the institution by the noted Deobandi scholar Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi (d.1943) in his book Ashraf al-Jawab, where he wrote:-
‘An Englishman once visited the Aligarh College where he saw the students, all sons of ra‘is, studying, and noticed their servants standing far from them. They could not sit near their masters. But when they prayed [in the mosque] they stood next to them. The Englishmen asked those sons of ra‘is if their servants, by standing together with them during prayer, were not insulting them. They replied that [the servants] dared not even in the least try to act as their equals after the prayers gave over. The rules [of prayer] required them [they said] to observe equality while at prayer, but for everything else the rules were different.’
It appears that in the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College it was not only the ‘low’ caste Muslims who were subjected to such inhuman and un-Islamic treatment. Even the so-called ashraf were treated differently according to their wealth and family background, this being the official policy of the College. Atiq Siddiqui, a former teacher at the AMU, writes that –
Owing to fierce opposition against him in the media, Syed Ahmad Khan expanded his college, entry to which had been restricted only to sons from leading ashraf families, to include some ashraf students from lower-middle class families as well.
Siddiqui explains that the students were divided into three categories, based on their class background and their ability to pay. Each category had separate boarding halls that served distinctly different types of food. The food in the third category of halls, which were meant for students from lower-middle class ashraf families, was pathetic and the halls themselves were filthy. This classification of the students played a crucial role in reinforcing class prejudices among them, which were already deeply ingrained owing to the overall very feudal culture that the Aligarh College, and, later, University, represented and championed.
It is not an exaggeration to claim that the sort of casteism and caste-based hierarchy that Syed Ahmad so fervently defended is still to be found in the AMU even today. I spent four years in that university, between 1999 and 2003, doing my graduation, and I could not help noticing how deeply-rooted caste consciousness and other such feudal attitudes still remained. Students, especially from ashraf background, tended to treat bearers, cooks and other helpers with disdain and scorn. Even today the university refuses to allow for reservation of seats for ‘low’ castes in any important professional courses, in contrast to most other Indian universities.
In the course of my interaction with some Muslim teachers at the AMU who were personally opposed to caste I learned that caste plays a very important role even in the selection of teachers in the university. A senior professor of the university, who happens to be a Syed, and is very opposed to caste discrimination, believing it to be un-Islamic, once addressed an Islamic programme wherein he talked about the need to end caste discrimination among Muslims. He mentioned that once he heard some professors of the AMU, which is considered to be the ‘educational fortress’ of the Indian Muslims, gossip among themselves, complaining,-
‘This person is a Julaha. That person is a Kunjara. And that person is a Dhuniya. Now the low caste folk have reached all the top posts, and have even become imams of mosques!’ The professor related that he sternly admonished these other professors, saying,-
‘Don’t you have anything else to talk about than this un-Islamic practice?’ The other professors fell silent in embarrassment.
This professor’s experience is not an isolated one. In the course of the years I spent at the AMU I heard students and even bearers and cooks talk about caste on numerous occasions and even labelling others as of ‘low’ caste.
Despite the fact that casteism remains so deeply rooted in the Aligarh Muslim University, to date no steps have been taken to address this menace. In this regard, the contrast with the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, which is considered to be a bastion of Communism and, therefore, ‘irreligiousness’, is striking. I speak from experience here because I spent two years, from 2005 to 2007, at the JNU doing my post-graduate studies. The JNU has a very active cell where complaints about discrimination against ‘low’ caste students and employees can be registered. I have personally witnessed several ‘upper’ caste Hindu, including Brahmin, student leaders of JNU, belonging to leftist organisations like the All-India Students Association and the Students Federation of India, and even to the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, staging demonstrations, taking out marches and even going on hunger-strike for the rights of ‘low’ caste students that were being overlooked in the university. Nothing of this sort has ever happened at the AMU, where the problems of ‘low’ caste students receive virtually no attention. Students’ groups at the AMU have never demonstrated any such concern for the ‘low’ castes, not even for the Muslims among them. All this is a reflection of a deep hostility to, or, at the very least, total indifference towards, the plight of the ‘low’ castes in this ashraf bastion. Another reflection of this undeniable and very deeply-rooted prejudice against the ‘low’ castes is the fact that ever since it was founded, not a single ‘low’ caste Muslim has been appointed as the Vice Chancellor of this institution.
It is very instructive to compare the attitudes of Hindu and Muslim intellectuals, as represented, for instance, by numerous ‘upper’ caste Hindus in the JNU and ashraf Muslims in the AMU, on the case question. Although Hinduism is based on caste and is inconceivable without it, many ‘upper’ caste Hindu intellectuals vehemently denounce casteism, have written extensively on the problems of the Dalits and other oppressed Shudras, and are engaged in socio-political movements against caste discrimination. The contrast with the Muslim case is striking. Although Islam sternly denounces caste, the ashraf intellectuals have shown no interest in the myriad problems of the ‘low’ caste Muslims. They have written virtually nothing at all about them. Nor have they organised any movements to end the menace of caste and caste-based discrimination within the larger Muslim fold.
This article has been taken from www.newageislam.com and is a part of the series of essays written by Masood Alam Falahi and translated by Yoginder Sikand on Caste & Caste Based Discrimination among Indian Muslims.