Why are Umar Gautam, Kaleem Siddiqi, and their colleagues are still languishing in Indian prisons? Why are human rights groups in the world silent? Why have Muslim organisations in India and abroad failed to mobilise religious voices to support the religiously persecuted people?
Gautam and Siddiqi are prominent Muslim activist scholars. Gautam is a former Hindu who accepted Islam in his youth and devoted his life to informing others of Islam. Siddiqi organised a grassroots movement dispelling malicious information against Islam and Muslims.
Nothing they did was against the constitution of India in letter and spirit. They did not serve as agents of any foreign government or organisation, and they did not conspire to commit any unlawful activities anywhere in India or the world.
They received funds from Indian Muslims to establish educational institutions and welfare activities for the poor and the needy. Furthermore, they did not force anyone to convert to Islam.
They did not bribe anyone in one, luring them to their faith. Some individuals accepted Islam on their own and sought help to learn more about Islam.
Those who change their faith face pressure from their families. They lose support from their previous religious community and live in isolation. Gautam and Siddiqi offered them social and moral support to be part of their new community and move forward in their lives. The two always taught these new converts to respect their families and never condemn their previous faith.
However, the Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh (RSS), and its religious and political outfits saw in Gautam and Siddiqi a conspiracy to convert Hindus to Islam and give Muslims a majority in the country.
It appears to be an absurd argument as, during the 1,000-year-old presence in India, Muslims could not get more than 10 percent of people attracted to their style of life. Neither their might nor missionary activities excited the locals, many of whom had suffered at the hands of upper-caste Hindus.
One of the main reasons Muslims could not convince the locals about the genuineness of Islam was the prevalent racism and casteism among them. Regardless of their claim, the Muslim community has division based on ashraf and ajlaf.
In South Asian Muslim society, the ashrāf (Arabic, plural of shārīf, “nobleman”) are supposedly descendants of Muslim Arab immigrants, Afghans, Turks, or converts from upper Hindu castes. The non-ashrāf or Ajlaf are from lower Hindu castes. The ashrāf group has four subgroups:
Sayyids, the descendants of Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fāṭimah and son-in-law ʿAlī.
Shaykhs (Arabic: “Chiefs”) are descendants of Arab or Persian immigrants, and some converted Rājputs.
Pashtuns, members of Pashto-speaking tribes in Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan.
Mughals, persons of Turkish origin, came into India with the Mughal armies.
The non-ashrāf Muslim castes have three levels of status: at the top, converts from high Hindu castes, mainly Rājputs, insofar as they are not the Shaykh castes; next, the artisan caste groups, such as the Julāhās, originally weavers; and lowest, the converted untouchables, who have continued their old occupations.
They observe endogamy in a manner close to that of their Hindu counterparts. Two of the main indexes of Hindu caste, principles governing eating and marital arrangements, do not appear as strongly in Muslim castes.
The Ajlaf comprises 85% of the total Indian Muslim population, with the least represented group within the Muslim leadership in India.
The author of the Indian constitution, Dr Ambedkar, was highly critical of the caste system among Muslims. After the 1901 caste census, he wrote, “The Muslims do not realize that these are evils and consequently do not agitate for their removal. Indeed, they oppose any change in their existing practices”.
He further stated, “Everybody infers Islam must be free from slavery and caste. Regarding slavery, nothing needs to be said. It stands abolished now by law. But if slavery has gone, caste among Muslims has remained. There can thus be no manner of doubt that the Muslim Society in India is afflicted by the same social evils as afflict the Hindu Society.”
In 2019, an Online news portal, Firstpost, published an article by Ajaz Ashraf that revealed that there were 7,500 members of India’s parliament between the First and the Thirteenth Lok Sabha (lower house). Four hundred were Muslim, and only 60 were from the Ajlaf.
The caste system among Muslims is so deep that Islam has no relevance for the lower castes and tribes. In the view of RSS ideologue, Gautam and Siddiqi’s movement for a caste-free Muslim society with equality to all and privileges to none based on their birth had the potential to impress the victims of Hindu hierarchy.
They viewed their work as a threat to upper caste hegemony. Consequently, they used the RSS-led Hindu government of UP to implicate the two under false charges and present them as anti-nations.
The government has yet to produce any concrete evidence regarding its false charges. However, many converts have refuted the official accounts of forceful conversions.
What is worst is the attitude of Muslim leadership in India. Most Muslim organizations have leaders from the Ashraf category of Muslims. As a result, they still have difficulty empathizing with the Ajlaf and the new movements calling for a caste=free Muslim society. Muslim leaders deny the existence of caste hierarchy, but the reality speaks louder than their voices.
Only a few Muslim groups in India have raised the illegal imprisonment of Gautam and Siddiqi. Many are afraid of the government’s power, but the sense of superiority among the so-called Ashraf may also contribute.
Most Muslim Indian organisations in North Americas and Europe have leaders who support the Ashraf-led Indian groups or are from the Ashraf. So Gautam and Siddiqi are not their priorities. Nor are they the priority of Muslim organizations.
When the Iranian government arrested a priest working in Tehran, the evangelical and other Christian groups turned that into a significant international issue, pressuring the Administration to take up the case at the highest level. Finally, the UN intervened, and the Iranians freed him reluctantly.
No one is there to take up the case of Gautam and Siddiqi; everyone talks of persecution of Muslim Indians, but the leaders soaked in their Ashraf ideology are least concerned about the challenges the Muslim community has faced for centuries.
As a result, Gautam and Siddiqi pay the price to free their community from the caste hierarchy. Their colleagues and families feel abandoned, and the RSS knows that.