Blind Spots

Caste in contemporary Muslim autobiographies

30 April 2020
The narrative of the steady disenfranchisement and marginalisation of Indian Muslims is important. But there is another story that gets neglected: the role of caste in the Muslim community remains almost entirely secret.
Pedro Ugarte / AFP / Getty Images
The narrative of the steady disenfranchisement and marginalisation of Indian Muslims is important. But there is another story that gets neglected: the role of caste in the Muslim community remains almost entirely secret.
Pedro Ugarte / AFP / Getty Images

ON A DELHI PLAYGROUND in the late 2000s, five-year-old Azania was about to kick a football with her white canvas shoes, when a boy from the rival team screamed, “Get away from the ball, you Paki.” When the author Nazia Erum heard about this—one of several instances of Islamophobia in elite schools in the National Capital Region, she writes—she wondered whether she should give her own daughter a Muslim name. When did schools become like this? She remembered that her elder brother was called “Hamas” in the 1990s, but that had felt somewhat light-hearted by comparison.

A few years before the playground incident, another child in a different part of the city found that there was an unexpected problem with her new home. After moving near her workplace in a Muslim-dominated locality near Jamia Millia Islamia, the author Rakhshanda Jalil sent handmade cards to her daughter’s classmates to invite them home for her birthday. Most of her daughter’s friends declined the invitation. Over the phone, their mothers explained to Jalil what had changed. It was different when Jalil lived in Gulmohar Park, an elite outpost where Muslims are not conspicuous, they said, but “we have no idea about the Jamia side.”

In 2008, after night-time discounts for phone calls kicked in, the writer Neyaz Farooquee and his friends used to spend hours gossiping and mocking each other. They spoke about the women they were interested in, college life, and their friend Kafil’s obsession with trivia regarding guns and weapons. Days after the Batla House encounter in September that year, Farooquee deleted the numbers of his closest friends from his phone.

Shireen Azam is a freelance writer. She is due to start a PhD later this year, on caste among Indian Muslims, at the University of Oxford.

Keywords: Muslims in India Casteism caste discrimination
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