Lecture at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome.
India is passing through turbulent times. There is a concerted attempt to create enmity and hatred between diverse religious groups in the name of religion. In the last three decades minorities, Dalits, and tribals bore the brunt of communal politics. In India Muslims are a big minority (14%) and Christians (2%) are a tiny minority. I believe that to engage effectively with people of other faiths and especially, with Muslims in the given context, it is necessary to have a vision for Christian-Muslim relations in India. This vision must look beyond regular interfaith meeting with Muslims and explore and find Muslim communities who are marginal and exploited, especially the Pasmanda Muslims, in the emerging new India. This vision shall demand serious studies in Muslim social structures and histories.
In this presentation, I share my reflections on some new possibilities for deep dialogue with Muslim communities, especially Pasmanda Muslims in India. The aspirations, desires, worries, and anxieties of these communities are, to my knowledge, not adequately represented in regular interfaith dialogue among Christians and Muslims in India. In the first section, I briefly present the dominance of a particular vision of India, that is divisive in its DNA, and how this vision is antithetical to the vision of India, that is enshrined in the Constitution of India. In the second section, I discuss the rationale for dialogue between Pasmanda Muslims and Dalit Christians. Pasmanda Muslims are the weaker section of Muslims who are converted to Islam from the backward, most backward and Dalit communities. In the concluding remarks, I shall point out to the work of a group of scholar-activists, from both Pasmanda Muslims and Dalit Christians, who explore Christian-Muslim dialogue at Vidyajyoti, Delhi.
An Inclusive Vision
There are two visions for India that are sharply contesting with one another in the emerging new India. One vision is inclusive in its nature that embraces diversity respecting diverse identities of the people of India and the other is exclusive and that negates ‘difference’ and forces ‘uniformity’. In the context of the freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Baba Saheb Ambedkar envisioned an India as a pluralistic nation. However, they knew intuitively that it would be Himalayan task to achieve an Indian consensus on history, culture, and an idea of a People. They had gone to great lengths to animate the Indian National Congress (founded in 1885) which was powered by a sense of anti-colonial grievances into a political party that represented all sections of peoples. Gandhi’s political ideas and anti-colonial strategies were designed to extend Congress’ pluralism to the new epoch of mass politics. Mass politics to Gandhi meant adapting the style of civil disobedience he had learned in South Africa to the vastness of India. His politics embraced the poor of India and the largest minority of India, the Muslims. On gaining independence, these leaders along with many others were determined to enshrine the pluralistic nature of India in the Indian Constitution. Ambedkar and the framers of our Constitution made this vision into a reality after many an intense debate and the Constitution was adopted on 26th November 1949.
An Exclusive Vision
This inclusive vision of the Constitution was contested by another competing vision, Hindutva, which imagines a nation that is founded on one language, one religion and one culture. Hindutva is the political idea of the Hindu Right and the ideology of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, “National Volunteer Organization founded in 1925”). Hindutva (Hinduness) seeks to do away with diversity and to make India, a Hindu Rashtra. This orthodox type of nationalism in India, which calls for homogeneity, is advanced by right-wing Hindutva groups. They invoke uniformity by basing themselves on one religious (Hindu) identity. This neglects diversity and equates nationalism with majoritarianism. Such majoritarianism creates first-class and second-class citizens. One dominant community corners power for oneself with a powerful political rhetoric. The RSS and their ideological associates hold on to such a truncated vision and threaten to destroy the face of a diverse nation. This vision has been bought by dominant castes and affluent sections who have vested interests. The BJP government, the political associate of the RSS, that runs the central government and the many state governments, wants to do away with unity amidst diversity, and dreams of a single culture for the whole nation.
The Challenges of the Hindutva
One of the ideologues of the Hindutva, Savarkar, wrote a foundational text for the movement. According to him a Hindu alone can claim citizenship in India. At the heart of this theory, Hinduism is not stressed as a religion among many religions in India, but as a culture. This theory embraces a few faith traditions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. What about Christians and Muslims, who have been part of the country? Well, Christians and Muslims may share the land but not the culture since they accepted alien cultures, with roots not in India but elsewhere. Thus, Christians and Muslims are branded as ‘foreigners’ in our own land! What is the locus standi of these two sets of believers? Golwalkar wrote: “The foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture…Or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment – not even citizens’ rights”.
In contrast to this narrow understanding, the Constitution of India stands tall and embraces all cultures, religions and traditions respecting the uniqueness of all without collapsing this diversity into some form of uniformity that never exists. All efforts to impose a ‘‘one-language-one-culture-one nation’ ideology is an insult to the nation that is blessed with such diversity. The Constitution envisions that all who live within the territory of India are citizens of India, whatever culture, religion, or social group they belong to. Phrase it differently, the idea of India enshrined in the Constitution is an essentially territorial, consequently, all who live within the geographical area of India are citizens with equal rights and responsibilities. As pointed out, the Hindutva vision opposes radically this grand vision of the Indian Constitution.
In 1947, when India was partitioned into Pakistan and India, the Hindu Right expected a Hindu India to be born along with the Muslim Pakistan. As mentioned, the Constitutional Assembly dismissed the idea of a nation founded on one religion, after intense debates. However, the BJP, which is in power now, strives for making citizenship based on religion, a move that will alienate the minorities and other vulnerable groups and endanger their lives.
Christian-Muslim Relations in India
The previous section presented the context of India. In this section, we shall discuss the task of building relations between Christians and Muslims in India. We have a long history of Christians and Muslims living together harmoniously along with people of other faith traditions. Millions of Muslims and Christians over the centuries interacted with one another as neighbours sharing cultural heritages of their contexts. In their day-to-day interactions, they did not bracket out their faiths. Though they did not emphasise doctrines, in their lives, they tried to give witness to their faiths in harmonious ways. Thus, they saw religions not as barriers but rather as bridges that connected them. They listened to one another and lived lives enriched.
History also records a few religious conversations in the royal courts that focussed on doctrines. Students of Christian-Muslim relations know the historical event of a Jesuit and a Dominican at the court of ‘Alī ‘Ādil Shāh (d. 1580), Sultan of Bijapur debating Christian doctrines. Again, Jesuits held debates in the Court of Mughal Emperors Akbar (1542-1605; reigned 1556-1605) and Jahangir (1569-1627; reigned 1605-27). Jesuits sent three missions to the courts of the Great Mughal emperors Akbar and Jahangir. The first mission consisted of Fr. Rudolf Acquaviva, Fr. Antony Monserrate and Brother Francis Henriques. Fr. Acquaviva and his companions reached Fatehpur Sikri in 1580. Fr. Edward Leitao, Fr. Christopher de Vega and Brother Stephen Ribero were members of the second mission, that reached Lahore in 1591. In the third mission, Fr. Jerome Xavier was accompanied by Fr. Manuel Pinheiro and Brother Bento de Goes. They arrived in Lahore in 1595. It must not be forgotten that when the Jesuits expounded Christian tenets a Portuguese artist who accompanied them to the Mughal court in 1597 CE was pressed into the service to produce scores of small oil paintings of Christ and making copies of the Madonna, including copies of the emperor’s extensive collection of European Renaissance religious pictures and prints. The Jesuits often used the emperor’s paintings to illustrate their arguments. “It is an episode from one of the most remarkable cultural exchanges in the history of East-West relations: the three Jesuit missions to the Great Mughal Emperors Akbar and Jahangir”, writes G. A. Bailey.
The Agra debates (1854) between Karl Pfander and Rahamatullah ibn Halȋl al-‘Utmȃnȋ al-Kairȃnawȋ are another set of examples for polemical approach between the representatives of Christian Missionaries in India and Indian Muslims. Polemical approach adopted by Karl Pfander fostered animosity between Christian missionaries and Muslims. In the words of Christian W. Troll, debating or confrontationist approaches “sowed the seeds of enmity and hatred in the hearts of Indian Muslims and they started to suspect the missionary efforts of the Christians as a plot to destroy Islam in India”. In the 20th century, we recognise a new Spirit in Christian-Muslim relations, through the three pioneering Jesuits: Victor Courtois, Christian W. Troll and Paul Jackson.
Victor Courtois broke new ground in Christian-Muslim relations by crossing the bridges to meet Muslims who were kept out of bounds. He initiated a cross border community building process through a deep knowledge of Islam and a profound love for Muslims.
Christian W. Troll expanded the scope and contents of interaction between Christians and Muslims by touching several wider contexts of their lives, histories, cultures, literature, modern politico-religious movements and theologies through acquiring deep knowledge of Islam in South Asia and through his committed love for freedom and dignity of his Muslim brothers and sisters.
Jackson sharpened his focus on making Christian-Muslim relations a blood and flesh reality, in other words, an experience to discover the True Muslim. He opened the Spiritual treasures of Islam that are found in the life and teachings of Maneri to Christians and others. He built bridges between Christians and Muslims founded on love for Muslims and their spirituality. The Catholic Church in India is rather slow to wake up and appropriate the contributions of these great Jesuits.
It is observed by some that Christian-Muslim dialogue is often ‘churchy’ in India today. There are several dialogue meetings organised by parishes and many religious congregations across India on various occasions like religious feasts of various religions and on days of national importance. In these meetings, Christians and Muslims speak about their faith convictions, necessity of peace and interfaith understanding among them. Such meetings are indeed wonderful initiatives. Interfaith celebrations offer spaces for people to share their faith convictions and give witness to their faith comfortably in a peaceful manner in a trustful ambience. They are fruitful as it brings people together, help them to overcome their many prejudices about one another, and help them to learn something new about others and oneself.
I call them ‘churchy’, since most often such meetings are organised and sponsored by Church organisations. They stop there without much follow-up. In my opinion, it must not stop there. It must go beyond perfunctory routine. It must be critical and creative. Further, if dialogical relations had to expand and bring desired fruits, such efforts must not overlook the context of India, an India of competing visions that were pointed out in the introductory sections. As a student and practitioner of Christian-Muslim relations, I believe that to engage effectively with people of other faiths and especially, in the given context, it is necessary to have a vision for Christian-Muslim relations in India. This vision must look beyond regular interfaith meeting with Muslims and explore and find Muslim communities who are marginalized and exploited, especially the Pasmanda Muslims. This vision shall demand serious studies in Muslim social structures and histories.
From 2019 onwards, a few Pasmanda-Muslim intellectuals, scholars, and activists along with a few Dalit-Christian scholars and activists gathered and deliberated on issues both communities confront in the ‘emerging new India’. One of the first tasks was to bring out a little booklet on Pasmanda Muslim icons presenting their contribution to the Freedom struggle and to the upliftment of marginalised Pasmanda Muslims.
Who are the Pasmanda Muslims?
Although casteism is primarily rooted within a Hindu religious framework, caste consciousness has made deep in roads into the lives of Indian Muslims. Indian society is marked with hierarchical classification of people into four categories. These four varnas unfold into a caste system: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. The boundaries are rigid between the castes, and they are organized by occupation and maintained through endogamy. There are three broad Muslim caste groupings in India: the Ashraf (‘the nobles’), the Ajlaf (‘the lowly’), and the Arzal (Dalit). The Ashrafs are of Arab, Persian, Turkish or Afghan origin. Some Ashrafs claim that they belong to prestigious lineages that are traced back to the Prophet (in the case of Sayyids) or his tribe (in the case of Qureshis). The Shaikhs (supposedly descendants of the Prophet’s companions), Pathans (descendants of migrants from Afghanistan), and Mughals (originating in Central Asia and Iran) are also included among the Ashrafs. Many Ashrafs are either ulama landowners, merchants or businesspeople. Birth in this group constitutes a major criterion for defining their social status. One can notice here that the distinction between Arabs and non-Arabs remains fundamental.
We find Ajlafs (low-born) in the middle, and their status is defined by their ancestral profession (pesha). They are descendants of local converts to Islam. Many castes of intermediate status fall into this category, such as farmers, traders and weavers. Many Ashrafs believe that this category should remain outside of any emancipation process. At the bottom of the social scale, we find Arzals (‘vile’, ‘vulgar’). Arzals are Muslims who are descendants of converts from castes that are today considered as Dalits. Ajlaf as well as Arzal Muslims together are called ‘Pasmanda’ Muslims. In other words, the OBC (Other Backward Castes) and the SC Muslims together comprise the ‘low castes’ (Pasmandas) among Muslims.
Pasmanda is a word of Persian origin, which literally means ‘those who have fallen behind’, ‘broken’, or ‘oppressed’. Dalit and Backward Class Muslimsmay constitute around 85% of India’s Muslim population, that is around 10% of Indian population. One can safely say that every tenth Indian is a Pasmanda Muslim. The Pasmanda experience is famously expressed by one of the important Pasmanda leaders and parliamentarians Ali Anwar Ansari in his 2007 speech at a Conference. He said, Hum shuddar hain shuddar; Bharat ke moolnivasi hain. Baad mein musalman hain. (‘We are Shudras first; we are the indigenous peoples of India. We are Muslims later.’).
It is important to highlight the fact that, like the Hindu caste society, relations among Muslim social groups are governed by a series of social taboos (sharing a table, marriage, sociability) and spatial restrictions (access to domestic areas, segregation in cemeteries and neighbourhoods). However, these taboos, which aim to distance the high castes from the low, are not based on the notion of ritual contamination in the strictest sense by which it is defined in Hinduism. Relationships between the Ashraf and Dalit Muslims are defined through caste endogamy.
Towards a Vision to Regain Dignity of All
Secular vision is the heart of the Constitution of India. To acknowledge and preserves this diversity, its preamble declared this nation as a ‘Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic, Republic’. It’s intension is to secure its citizens on the principles of ‘Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’. However, the divisive and discriminatory ideologies and creeds continue to dismantle these foundations. These divisive forces are bent on the exclusion of minorities, discrimination against the vulnerable communities, and marginalization of the poor. They stifle democracy and endanger communal harmony and thus pose an extensive threat to the very ‘life, livelihood and dignity’ of Dalits (16.2%) Adivasis (8.6%) Minorities (around 18%-Muslims, Christians, Sikh and Buddhists) and other marginalized (around 40% – the BC /MBC and OBC), who form majority in India. Thus, now, India witnesses a ‘bi-polar division’, as highlighted earlier, with a tiny minority of ‘dominant castes and affluent’ communities emerge as rulers who wield enormous power over the poor and socially excluded, further; and thus, the majority remain continually socially ostracized, economically exploited and politically powerless. As a result, the constitutional framework which carries the laudable values and guiding principles such as democracy, secularism, socialism, equality, liberty, and justice have no adequate place and space in today’s Indian socio-economic and political realm. Adding fuel to the fire, the right-wing party that is in office have the support ‘global fascists and corporate giants’ to loot and subvert this country, while the disadvantaged and the marginalized have been deliberately excluded, discriminated, and side-lined by the divisive and disruptive agenda and designs of the Casteists and Fascists. This reality warrants immediate attention of the marginalized communities to rise, challenge and change the oppressive scenario to their favour.
Here comes the role of ‘Dalit Christians and Pasmanda Muslims’ as they form the majority among Christians and Muslims respectively. Muslims constitute around 14% and Christians 3% according to 2011 Census in India. Among Muslims, the ‘Pasmanda’ Muslims who hail from untouchable groups form around 80%; and among Christians, the ‘Dalit Christians’ form around 70-80% in India irrespective of denominations. In short, among Muslims and Christians, persons from the ‘untouchable groups’ form the majority. Both Pasmanda Muslims and Dalit Christians face exclusion and discrimination without equality, dignity, assertion, power and peace, within their religions.
This alarming trend both in ‘secular and religious domains’ need to be challenged and set right for achieving equality, justice, and peace for all, especially, those who are victimized in both these religions. Therefore, Pasmanda Muslims and Dalit Christians need to come together with their unique faith identities and differences and emerge as a strong force both theologically and politically to challenge the oppressive status quo that prevails both in secular and religious domains’. This is something essential and urgent, considering the persecutions that they face both in larger society and within religions. It is high time that Pasmanda Muslims and Dalit Christians met and engaged in dialogue ‘to deliberate the current status and to evolve a strategy’ to take our common interests for their rights and space, forward.