Mumbai: Samnan Nawaz, the son of a butcher, grew up dreaming of three things: a white lab coat, a stethoscope and an abbreviation (Dr) in front of his name.
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In 1994, he applied for admission to medical colleges under the scheduled caste (SC) category. His friends from the Hindu butchers’ community —who were from a similar social and economic background—had told him he was sure to get admission in the reserved category. He did.
“I will never forget seeing my name on that computer screen, informing me that I was accepted at Grant Medical College and Sir JJ Group of Hospitals in Mumbai. All I had to do was to get a validity certificate from the government confirming that I was (from) a scheduled caste. That’s it. I was two days away from officially becoming a doctor-in-training,” says Nawaz.
But when a government official in Pune told him he did not qualify for the SC seat because he was Muslim, he could sense his dream unravelling. “Give me an affidavit (signed legal document) saying you profess the Hindu faith, I will give you the certificate,” the official reportedly told Nawaz.
“I was so young. This was the first time I realized my religion could work against me.” He refused to sign any such affidavit, pursued an MBA degree and now works in the marketing division of ICICI Bank Ltd in Mumbai. But even today, he says, he cannot help wondering—what if?
The demand for reservations for Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians under the SC category has become louder in the last few years, especially after the Rajinder Sachar Committee, appointed to evaluate the social, economic and educational status of Muslims, in its 2006 report exposed the backwardness of the 138 million strong community, of which 31% live below the poverty line.
Religious bias: Samnan Nawaz, the son of a butcher, with his mother at his house in Mumbai. Muslim and Christian leaders and activists now assert that the SC status cannot be reserved for Hindu Dalits alone. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
There are no statistics available on the number of lower class Muslims in India, says V. Chandrashekhar, research officer at the National Commission of Backward Classes, because, “after 1931, there has been no caste-based census in the country since we aspired to become a casteless society”.
With communities such as the Muslim butchers discovering how their Hindu counterparts have prospered under the protection of the title of SCs—social groups that were treated as untouchables and segregated in the old Hindu society and often abused by the upper castes—they see no reason why this title should not be applied to them, too.
“It is true. Islam has no caste system. But the social reality is such that caste is very much a part of Islam in India,” says Shabbir Ahmad Ansari, founder, president of the All India Muslim OBC Organization. OBC is short for other backward classes.
“While growing up in Jalna in Maharashtra, I have seen how badly the Muslim nawabs and zamindars treated the lower caste Muslims like the weavers, garbage collectors and butchers,” he says. “I know that even today, there is no beti-roti (food and marriage) relationship between most of these communities.”
Arguing that discrimination is also a part of Muslim and Christian societies in India, their leaders and activists now assert that the SC status cannot be reserved for Hindu Dalits alone. “What president Rajendra Prasad did in 1950 was absolutely unconstitutional,” says Syed Shahabuddin, a former member of Parliament, at a national convention on Muslim reservations in New Delhi earlier this month.
He was referring to a presidential order, issued by president Prasad in 1950, that laid down that “no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu (the Sikh or the Buddhist) religion shall be deemed to be a member of a scheduled caste.”
It is because of this order that Muslims and Christian Dalits have remained more backward than Hindus, several Muslim and Christian leaders say. “Such discrimination is against the spirit of the Constitution that prevents religious discrimination in a secular country like ours,” says Shahabuddin.
The butchers’ community
The reason why this argument resonates with a large section of poor Muslims is that they are witness to their Hindu counterparts becoming wealthier and more educated than them because of the benefits offered by the SC status.
In the Hindu butcher community in Mumbai, the difference is obvious. Bhalchandra P. Gaikwad, vice-president of the Maharashtra Hindu Khatik (butcher) Mahasangha, lives in a largely Hindu colony on one of the main thoroughfares near JJ Hospital in Mumbai.
His furnished, one-room apartment has a little kitchen and marble floor. His son is a practising doctor with his own apartment in another part of the city. His daughter goes to dental school and hopes to set up her own practice someday. His wife, member of the Congress party’s women’s wing in the city, actively participates in issues of importance to women and her community. “Our children are not forced into our profession any more,” says Gaikwad.
Not far from here, on Mutton Street and Chicken Street, where the Muslim butcher community resides, goats wander in and out of ramshackle buildings with broken staircases. “We have been promised an OBC status. But very few of us have been given the certificate. Those who have a certificate, have not been given the validity certificates, so they cannot use any benefits that we are supposed to have,” says Hasan Mia Ahmad Mia, a mutton seller in the Nal Baazar area of Mumbai who lives in a 250 sq. ft room with eight others.
“These days business is also bad. Mutton exports have driven domestic prices up. So no one buys from me. They are all eating chicken,” he says stroking his bright-red hennaed beard. “Our children have to leave the profession and find something else to do,” he says, looking at his son, who is hunched over a small table near the wooden window to fix orange fairy lights that had to be used to decorate a home for a wedding that evening. “My son has become an electrician. My business—who knows what will happen?”
Competing for benefits
Gaikwad explains that even though a lot of backward Muslim communities are given OBC status, they compete for those reserved seats with many other communities. “So, sometimes they get the benefits, sometimes they lose. In case of scheduled caste, the benefits are more and the number of people competing for them is less. So, there is a greater chance of succeeding in getting admission, or a house, or a job.”
Nawaz says it is critical not to deny such help to Muslims. “Sixteen years ago, I could have become the first doctor of my community. You have not seen them. They know nothing. They don’t know how to talk to outsiders, how to explain their problems to a doctor. Even today, there is no doctor among the Muslim butchers of Mumbai.”
By contrast, the Hindu butchers have at least 100 doctors, says Gaikwad. “But I don’t know the entire community and there may be more.”
Nawaz says his grandfather was the first person to clear the 10th grade exams in the Muslim butchers’ community of Mumbai. “He saw how education changed him and made sure to educate all his seven children. My father and his siblings are all postgraduate degree holders,” says Nawaz.
“He had wanted me to become the first doctor of the community. And when you are young your own dreams are shaped by the dreams of people around you. I will tell you honestly. I was tempted to sign that affidavit and change my name to Somnath or whatever to be able to become a doctor,” he says.
“If my parents had agreed I would happily have done it. I could always change my name and religion back to Islam after my degree, couldn’t I?”
This is the first story in a three-part series on the quest of non-Hindu communities for caste-based reserved quotas.