Ali Anwar Ansari: the Crusader against Inequality and Oppression
Coming from a poor background, Ali Anwar Ansari has marched through trials and tribulations of various kinds to reach a position of eminence. Son of a labourer, he went on to become Member of Rajya Sabha, and has garnered huge respect as a politician who cares for the deprived. His relentless fight against inequality of all kinds particularly for the cause of Pasmanda Muslims that constitute an overwhelming majority of Indian Muslims has been the hallmark of his social as well as political career. From an impoverished beginning of life, he became Member of Parliament of Rajya Sabha in 2006. In between, he has served as a government employee, activist, journalist, and author and has successfully founded a movement for Dalit and Pasmanda Muslims. He has also been a popular face on TV often appearing in debates as an independent commentator or as a leader of Janata dal United, the party he belongs to.
Ali Anwar was born at Dumraon, Distt. Buxar (Bihar) on January 16, 1954. His father was Shri Abdul Mannan Ansari and mother was Shahidan Bibi. He studied in difficult circumstances and graduated from D.K.College, Dumraon and M.V.College, Buxar (Bihar). He joined students’ politics in 1967 and led several mass movements and was sent to jail a number of times. In 1998, he formed all India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz.
From his earlier days as the crusader against backwardness, Ali Anwar has grown substantially moving to the national scene with his areas of concern becoming much broader covering almost the entire spectrum of the national affairs. Tall, handsome and witty, he has learnt the art of delivering his messages with aplomb. His political career may well be reaching its zenith in coming years, as he is expected to play a much greater and much more effective leader of the country. If the newly formed Janata Parivar is able to rejuvenate itself and emerges as a credible alternative to the NDA, being one of the most noted Muslim political leaders of the dispensation, his role will certainly be watched with keen interest.
It happens with almost all notable leaders that they begin their social or political career by focussing on a certain issue or a certain section of society. This is true of Anwar Ali also. Ali Anwar Ansari of today is conscious of not being recognised as merely a leader of backward Muslims and wants to look as a representative of all sections of society, but his emergence on the national scene certainly started with championing the cause of Pasmanda Muslims. This has often been criticised in past by a section of Muslims. Muslim leaders of India have generally maintained that Islam is all about equality and that Muslims are brothers to each other. But this unfortunately is not the truth on the ground, at least in India. Ali Anwar found that caste practices are prevalent in Muslims as well. He found examples of even separate graveyards and mosques for different castes. This was certainly not acceptable for him and he did not hesitate to raise voice against this.
He worked over the years to create awareness about issues of Dalit Muslims. He was particularly concerned about the 1950 Presidential Order, which has in effect kept Christians and Muslims of Dalit background away from the benefits provided to other Dalits. This has of course been a big constitutional anomaly, and needs to be corrected. The work done by him and Muslims of Dalit background has yielded results. Assemblies of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh have passed resolution supporting the demand for inclusion of Christian and Muslim Dalits among Scheduled Castes. This has in fact become a universal demand of Indian Muslims now.
He vehemently denies the charges that his movement was an attempt to divide the Muslims in terms of caste. He says that “What his movement was asking for, was to get constitutional benefit as it is given to Dalits of Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. The benefit will help a large number of Muslims to get educated and access to employment. Their progress will help lift Muslims out of the economic and educational backwardness they find themselves in.”
Ali Anwar clarifies that the term, “Pasmanda” means deprived Muslims. This is why the name of the forum he formed uses Pasmanda before Muslim signifying the fact that these classes existed much before they converted to Islam. He felt anguished when “an important leader of a well-known Muslim research organisation” tried to portray him as “casteist” dividing Muslims. Obviously, he rejects the charges and argues that he did not want caste polarisation in the country and demanded Reservation for Backward Classes only because the present Constitution allows reservation on the basis of social and educational backwardness and not on the basis of religion. He also supports his case by citing the Prophetic traditions, which kept Saiyyads away from the Zakah and Fitra benefits and gave special privileges to slaves. He argues that Prophet (SAW) did not differentiate between poor sayyids and rich Sayyids, which counters the “economic” criterion. Al Anwar feels that a large section of Indian Muslims have been the victims of casteism.
Ali Anwar’s book, “Masawat Ki Jung“ was released by no less a person than Former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, the celebrated champion of Backwards’ cause, at Gandhi Maidaan, Patna, and he attended the function despite his illness. This assumes even greater importance because his visit was criticised by another Muslim opponent of Anwar’s fight against backwardness, Syed Shahabuddin in a letter to the editor in a newspaper. Singh however showed confidence in his mission and did not change his programme. In fact, it was the only time he visited Patna in about a period of 7 years. He did not visit Patna for several years before the programme and then till his death.
He narrates the travails of his early life and his struggle for backward classes in the following words:
“My family is from the Old Shahabad district in Bihar. My grand-father was a horse-cart driver and father was a mill-worker, and before me there was not a single graduate in my family. My parents and relatives, even I as a child, were forced to take to rolling beedis to supplement the meagre income of our family.
As a child itself I was sensitized to the caste oppression and poverty that I saw all around me. As a student I got involved in leftist politics. This was partly due to the influence of my father, who was a trade unionist, associated with the All-India trade Union Congress of the Communist Party of India (CPI). In 1963, my first involvement in student struggles was when some students of my high school in Dumraon started a movement against collection of school fee after one month closure of school after firing in patron and kins of a student……….
My association with the CPI inspired me to take to writing in order to document and highlight the oppression of the poor and their struggles against feudal and class/caste oppression. I worked for many years as chief reporter with CPI's Hindi magazine 'Janashakti' based in Patna.
My perception of the reality of caste oppression, both among Hindus and Muslims, was further strengthened as I travelled around Bihar as a journalist, and this was reflected in the kind of articles that I began writing after Janshakti closed down and I joined Navbharat Times. Later I joined Jansatta and then Svatantra Bharat.
In 1996 I received the K.K.Birla Fellowship for journalists to do a study on the Dalit Muslims of Bihar, a subject about which very little has been written, although these Muslims constitute the vast majority of the Indian Muslim population. Owing, among other factors, to caste prejudice, Muslim writers as well as non-Muslim scholars have displayed little or no interest in writing about the conditions of Dalit and Backward Muslims. This is one reason why I thought it was crucial to write about them and to highlight their pathetic conditions and their struggles for equality and justice.
Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz is a broad front of a number of Dalit and Backward Caste Muslims from different states of India. In the course of conducting the research for the book that I was doing I realized that the Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims are hardly organized at all and that they have few effective leaders. Till now they have been following the lead of the so-called ashraf, both professional politicians as well as maulvis, who have, as I said, taken no particular interest in addressing their pathetic socio-economic conditions. Like their Hindu counterparts, they want us to focus only on communal controversies or narrowly-defined religious issues, and in this way seek to completely displace the harsh reality of the lives of Dalits and Backward Castes from political discourse. Hence, I, along with several of my friends, set up the Mahaz in Patna in 1998, to organize the Dalit/Backward Muslims so as to help evolve a leadership that would be responsive to their concerns and would also seek to build alliances with non-Muslim Dalit/Backward groups so that we can engage in a broad united struggle for our rights.
We participated in several people's struggles for justice to the Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims through staging demonstrations, presenting memorandums and bringing out publications. Once, we launched a Hindi magazine 'Pasmanda Awaz' ('The Voice of the Oppressed').
The Mahaz started pressing with the demand that the State include Dalit Muslims, as well as Dalit Christians, in the Scheduled Caste list. Due to an extremely discriminatory Presidential Order issued in 1950, the state denied to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians all the reservation and other benefits that had been provided in the Constitution for Dalits. It declared, going completely against all notions of secularism, democracy and social justice, that such benefits would be limited only to those Dalits who claim to be 'Hindus'. Later, due to political compulsions, the state was forced to extend these benefits to Dalit Sikhs and Dalit Buddhists. So, why, we ask, should Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians, too, not be included in the list of Scheduled Castes?
Ali Anwar explains his position on the basis of his interpretation of Islam:
“We Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims are believing Muslims. We take our faith in Islam seriously. Islam, as the Qur'an says and as the Prophet Muhammad showed in his own life, stands for social equality and justice. It is completely opposed to social hierarchy. So, when we are protesting against inequality and injustice, how can we be said to be going against Islam? On the contrary, what we are doing is, in my view, actually mandated by our religion. On the other hand, those who keep silent on the plight of the Dalit/Backward Muslims are actually working against Islam, for they are indifferent to its mandate of social justice and equality. Among these are several maulvis who have elaborated fanciful theories to argue the case for caste hierarchy in the name of what they call in Arabic kafa'a! And few of these maulvis take any interest in our plight, being more concerned with the details of minor fiqh or jurisprudential issues or with promoting their own sectarian brand of Islam while denouncing other Muslim sects as deviant.
Some so-called ashraf accuse us of dividing Muslims. They say that caste has no sanction in Islam and they accuse us of injecting the poison of caste into Muslim society. Such people are completely blind to social reality. Islam, it is true, has no conception of caste, but Muslim society is, by and large, characterized by the existence of multiple castes. And the so-called ashraf, for centuries, have taken pride in being of foreign extraction, Arab or Iranian or whatever, and considering the other Muslims, who are all of indigenous Indian extraction, as being of 'low' caste. So, all this while the so-called ashraf have been championing caste and division among Muslims based on caste, but this does not strike our opponents as 'casteism' or as 'un-Islamic', but the moment we non-ashraf begin to speak oppose this system of ashraf hegemony we are dubbed as divisive and 'anti-Islam' and so on. This reaction is no different from that of many 'upper' caste Hindus, who brand the Dalit and OBC movement as 'divisive', accusing it of reinforcing caste, simply because the Dalit movement seeks to do away with 'upper' caste hegemony.
We are not setting the Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims against the so-called ashraf Muslims. Our movement is not directed against them. Rather, we seek to strengthen and empower our own people, to enable them to speak for themselves and to secure their rights and justice from the state. We welcome well-meaning people of so-called ashraf background as well as non-Muslims who are concerned about the plight of our people to join us in our struggle.
When we are accused of dividing Muslims, our response is, 'You so-called ashraf have kept us divided for centuries by fanning sectarian (maslaki) differences. Why don't you put an end to this instead of telling us what to do? You have created and magnified these sectarian divisions for your own interest, to run your own little religious and political shops, for which you have not stopped even at promoting bloodshed and hatred. First you put an end to this sectarian hatred and division that you have created and then talk to us'.
Today, numerous maulvis of different maslaks, Deobandi, Barelvi, Jamaat-i Islami, Shia, Ahl-i Hadith and who knows how many more, issue statements against each other, some going to the extent of branding all Muslims but themselves as 'apostates' and even as 'enemies of Islam'! Is that not 'dividing the Muslims'? Why don't those who accuse the Dalit/Backward Caste movement of dividing Muslims condemn the way these maulvis are spreading such serious sectarian conflict and dividing Muslims? Is it because the vast majority of the leaders of these maulvi groups are from the so-called ashraf, so that when they fight on sectarian lines it is okay because this does not threaten so-called ashraf hegemony, but when they see the Dalit/Backward Muslims getting together to struggle for their rights, they set apart their sectarian differences for the time being and come together to condemn them as 'divisive'?”
(Some parts taken from http://www.countercurrents.org/dalit-anwar051005.htm)
Ali Anwar was a leftist in his student life. He started activism in 1967 as a student leader. He had to leave college without completion of his graduation because of financial circumstances, which forced him to join the office of Executive Engineer as a fourth grade employee. He soon completed the graduation, gave up the government job and joined journalism. He started writing for various newspapers and magazines, which included Ravivar, Blitz, Current, Janashakti, Samachar Bharati and earned fame as an investigative journalist with special focus on human angle. When riots broke in Bhagalpur, and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited the area, he followed him on the airport. He broke the story of how the transfer of Superintendent Police was stalled and how the police jawans celebrated by siding with the rioters after the visit of the Prime Minister.
Another story by him that followed a similar story by another journalist was about how Dashrath Manjhi, carved a road through a mountain in the Gehlour hills so that his village could have easier access. The story became a talking point and is now even reported in the Wikipedia. Later, Amir Khan devoted one episode of “Satymev Jayate” to Manjhi, now popularly known as “Mountain Man”.
Another story he wrote was on how, as in the case of the Hindus, many so-called ashraf or 'upper' caste Muslims use fake 'Backward Caste' caste certificates to get jobs reserved for the Backward Classes. One such case was that of the nephew of a Muslim Former Chief Minister of Bihar. This article, which was published in the 'Hindustan', created a great stir and he received many threatening calls for having exposed this racket!
He also did stories against both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism. These included stories on Shila Pujan, Syed Shahabuddin’s flop meeting at Patna Jama Masjid and the appointment of a Dalit as Head Pujari of Mahavir Mandir, which later proved to be only an exercise for false.
Another remarkable story by him was about New Police Line at Patna where there were separate kitchens and other arrangements for police personnel belonging to different castes. This issue reverberated even in the Parliament and several newspapers wrote editorials on it.
Once he joined Parliament as a member of Rajya Sabha, his role changed from being merely a chambion of backward cause to a leader who has views on almost all the major issues confronting the country. As a Parliamentarian, he has been active on various fronts and has raised questions on various issues. Contrary to his popular image, less than one fifth of the questions were related to the issue of backward classes and covered a host of other issues confronting the country. After coming to Parliament, in fact, his vision considerably widened, as he could now concentrate on the larger national issues.
As a Parliamentarian, he also represented India on international forums and delivered three lectures in the UN General Assembly. Speaking on ROLE OF THE UN IN PROMOTING DEVELOPMENT IN THE CONTEXT OF GLOBALIZATION AND INTERDEPENDENCE AT THE SECOND COMMITTEE OF THE 64TH SESSION OF THE UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY ON OCTOBER 28, 2009.
When riots broke in 2013 in Muzaffar Nagar, he visited the area to have adirect assessment of the situation. However, he was prevented from visiting the riot-hit areas there and detained at the railway station by the UP police.
Ali Anwar Ansari, raised the issue of AMU (Aligarh Muslim University) Kishanganj Centre in Parliament during zero hour on September 5, 2013. According to newspaper reports, Ansari said:
“The tenure of UPA II government is about to end in next few months, but still there is uncertainty about the release of fund for AMU Kishanganj. The district of Kishanganj and its adjoining areas namely Katihar, Purnia and Araria has dense population of Muslim minorities and the literacy rate very less. People and activists groups are running campaign to get the university established in Kishanganj. Human Chain – a frontrunner non-government organization has done many agitations in Bihar and Delhi, and also knocked the doors of concerned ministries, but the token grant is yet to be released. I demand the immediate release of funds from the Central government for AMU Kishanganj”.
Ali Anwar Ansari is no longer a regional political leader speaking only on selected issues. He is now regarded a national leader of stature who is respected both by friends and foes. He is an active participant in debates, inside parliament, on TV channels and in public discourses. He speaks on the need of national unity, on the issues concerning all the deprived sections of society, on foreign affairs and on other social, political and economic issues. His comments demonstrate a visible mixture of serious opinions and witty remarks.
“India always strives to improve ties with Pakistan..India has been trying to strengthen the relations between both the countries but some people and groups are always engaged in kicking off controversies to ruin the peaceful environment.
“War was the last alternative and there were many other ways to sort out border and other issues with the neighboring country.”
Participating in the Rajya Sabha debate, Ali Anwar Ansari (JDU) sought inclusion of Mev kabila under Scheduled Tribe (ST) category on par with Meena tribe.
He argued that the community, which fought against Babar’s invasion and sacrificed 1200 lives, was not included in the list simply on basis of their religion.
Ali Anwar has also been active in helping the victims of crimes and police brutalities. According to a story published in Milligazette, he helped two sisters from Bihar in continuing with higher education after the murder of their father and brothers. Titled, “Inspiring Saga of Bihar Malalas” the story says,
“Mehar Jahan and her younger sister Gauhar Jahan from Madhubani district of Bihar did not give up hope for higher education even after the brutal murder of their father and two brothers.
“Ali Anwar, now mentor of these girls, said, “I came to know about these girls very late. But now I will help them out as far as possible.” He added that people from our community should come forward to help such girls so that they could stand on their feet and give back to the community when they become successful professionals.”
He also spoke against police atrocities against women and children on the night of July 4 2014 in Ismail Ka Baas village, Haryana when “large scale atrocities were done by the members of the so-called Cobra team.” Women offering Namaz during the holy month of Ramjan were attacked. Cobra team members led by An IPS office entered a mosque with shoes on. According to a Hindustan Times Report, Al Anwar, Ali Anwar visited the village and approached Women’s Commission and Human Rights Commission. He also raised the issue in Rajya Sabha.
Helped an Indian Dalit woman’ safe return from Saudi Arabia
He also helped an Indian Dalit woman safely return from Saudi Arabia.
Ali Anwar Ansari also helped the return of a group of Indians from Makkah’s prisons. A report entitled, “Indians back after infernal year in Makkah’s prisons” in Hindu reported:
“Forty one Indians, from six States, in addition to a Nepalese and a Pakistani worker spent the last one year in several Saudi prisons for rioting after Haroon’s death due to an electric shock on June 12, 2013. The South Asians were among 10,000 odd workers from eight countries working on the Jabal-e-Umar Development Project to accommodate pilgrims who come to the birthplace of Prophet Mohammed.
The men spent 17 days in the Al Hawali Mehata Naseeb police station before being sent to prison. More than five months later, they were sentenced to varying prison terms of few months on December 1 and 2, 2013. Eighteen of the detainees received up to 100 lashings. But, their employer Nesma and Partners pressed for compensation following which they remained in jail indefinitely.
“The families lobbied with several politicians, including former Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, for their release. In February this year they approached Rajya Sabha MP Ali Anwar Ansari, who raised the issue in Parliament and persistently lobbied with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj.
“There are 70 more Indians languishing there for years. I will raise it in Parliament. Their (Saudi) Islam does not evoke mercy or compassion,” Mr. Ansari told this paper. “There are not enough garlands in this world for Ansari sahib and Sushma ji. Even if we get palaces we shall never go there (Arabia) again,” said a choked Naushad. Others nod in agreement.”
After the BJP assumed power at the Centre the situation, as far as Muslims are concerned, the situation has turned grim as well as complicated. Commoners among Muslims are facing twin dangers-one from Hindu fundamentalists and the other from the fanatics of their own community. We have the likes of Yogi Adityanath, Pravin Togadia and Giriraj Singh on one side and, on the other, there are people like Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, and Akbaruddin Owaisi out to drive wedge between the communities through their hate speeches.
Therefore, commoners among Muslims need to shun their traditional leadership and join hands with not only the secular elements of Hindu communities but all those who cherish liberal values whether they belong to the left parties or socialists or Ambedakrites. Muslims should always distance themselves from emotive issues, especially at this juncture. They need to understand that those among them indulging in inflamable utterances are not the saviour of the community but are in fact its enemy. Muslims in India need to exercise utmost degree of restraint and refrain from getting carried away on emotive issues raked up by certain members of their society.
What has happened in Trilokpurind Bawana in Delhi and Atali Village Ballabgarh in Haryana is pointer to a bigger conspiracy. Living in adjoining region of Mewat Muslims are descendants of Hasan Khan Mewati, who had turned down Babur’s offer to become king of Alwar in lieu of supporting him. In a single day twelve thousand Mewati Muslims had laid down their lives fighting against Babur’s army in the battlefield of Khanwa. The same Mewati Muslims are now on Sangh Parivar’s radar. In a cover story the Panchajanya, the RSS mouthpiece, writes that Mewati Muslims are preparing to carve out another Pakistan. Like Gujarat, Mewat is too being sought to be converted into a laboratory for RSS ideology.
Mahatama Gandhi too had praised the patriotism of Mewati Muslims. Maulana Azad had won his first election from this area. But their Patriotism is now being doubted by the Sangh Parivar.
Considering the current scenario in the country, I consider it improper. It may in fact be a very dangerous trend. I feel, in a country like India, there should not be any political party of one religious community. Such people are only strengthening the hands of communal elements among Hindus, Both Owaisi and Ahmed Bukhari with their pocket of influence limited to old Hyderabad city and areas that surround (Delhi’s) Jama Masjid need to understand that India is a much larger country and Muslims live in all parts. They have no right to jeopardise the life and livelihood of millions of Muslims across the country. Muslims in the rest of the country dislike them for raking up emotive issues. Communalism is something that does not concern Muslims alone and they cannot fight alone without the support of other secular elements. The Islamic country of Pakistan that was created on the promise of Islamic unity got divided into two and is in danger of being partitioned further.
He married Jamila Bano in May 1975 and has four sons.
He held various positions, which include:
2000-2003 Member, Bihar State Backward Classes Commission
April 2006 Elected to Rajya Sabha
June 2006-March 2007 Member, Committee on Human Resource Development
Sept. 2006 onwards Member, Committee on Subordinate Legislation
Sept. 2006- May 2009 Member, Consultative Committee for the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment
March 2007- May 2009 and Aug. 2009 onwards Member, Committee on Coal and Steel Member, Consultative Committee for the Ministry of Corporate Affairs and Ministry of Minority Affairs ??
Nov. 2010 onwards Member, Committee on Provision of Computer Equipment to Members of Rajya Sabha
He attended Geneva Conference at U.N. office, to participate in the discussion on 'Interfaith Co-operation and the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity' on 1-2 September, 2008 and participated in the 64th Session of the U.N. General Assembly at New York, 20 Indian. He was also invited in his personal capacity to Boston (U.S.A.) to address a gathering of Muslim Intellectuals; Washington D.C. and Maryland, New Jersey and Baltimore by the Indian Muslims Council and the Aligarh Alumni Association there.
He authored a few books also, which are as under: