If the caste system among Christians in Kerala is an often discussed subject, the murder of 25-year-old Kevin P Joseph in Kottayam district last month, allegedly by his wife’s family members, has kicked off a debate on whether caste is practiced among Muslims in the coastal state.

Kevin P Joseph, a Christian convert from a Hindu Dalit family, was killed after he married 20-year-old Neenu Chacko, the daughter of an inter-faith couple, on May 24. His body was found floating in a canal in Kollam on May 28. He had been abducted two days earlier. Neenu Chacko’s father, Chacko John, is a Catholic, and mother Rahna, is a Muslim. The First Information Report stated that Neenu Chacko’s brother and first accused Shanu Chacko had planned and executed Joseph’s murder with the knowledge of their parents.

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Nearly two months ago, a comment by a Syrian Christian priest put the spotlight on the fact that some Christians in the state practice the caste system. The alleged involvement of Rahna in abetting Joseph’s murder has extended this discussion to Muslims.

A contentious debate

Islam does not recognise caste and guarantees equality. Muslims in India, however, seem to have been unable to completely break free of caste. Studies have established that Muslims are divided into three hierarchical sections here. The ashraf are people with foreign lineage, who are regarded as superior. The ajlaf, or those who have converted locally, are considered to be inferior; while the arzal, or degraded, are those Muslims who converted from the lowest strata of Hindu society.

Some Muslim scholars in Kerala argue that Muslims, who constitute 26% of the state’s population, do not follow the caste system. “It might be common in other parts of India, but not in Kerala,” said historian Hussain Randathani.

But others disagree. “It is hard to deny the existence of caste among Muslims in India, including Kerala,” said Malayalam writer MN Karassery. “The Sachar Commission report, which studied the backwardness of Muslims, had clearly stated the caste divisions.”

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Karassery acknowledged that Islamic religious texts did not endorse the practice. “Caste in Islam is an Indian phenomenon,” he said, adding that Muslims from the Ossaan and Pusalan communities bear the brunt of caste prejudices in Kerala.

Ossaans perform circumcision and hair cutting jobs for a living. The word Ossaan is derived from the Arabic word “Khattaan”, which means an expert practitioner of circumcision.

Pusalans live in the coastal region and make a living from fishing. Pusalan is the abbreviated form of Puthiya Islam, meaning neo converts to Islam.

Caste discrimination in Islam

Thirty-one-year-old Shihab*, who owns two hair salons in Kerala’s Malappuram district, belongs to the Ossaan community. He specialises in bridal hairdo, and customers have to book him in advance. But he says that despite his prosperity he cannot escape his caste identity. “I am financially well-settled, but money cannot erase my caste identity and buy reputation in society,” he said. “For my Muslim compatriots, I am still an Ossaan, a person from inferior caste.”

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Shihab’s brother is also doing well. “Our families prospered with our combined efforts,” said Shihab. “But priests still do not eat food from our home. This is big proof that the caste system exists [among Muslims].”

Fifty-five-year-old Abdulla*, who also owns a hair salon in Malappuram district, said caste preferences among Muslims become obvious when they seek matrimonial alliances. “The elite Muslims will never seek alliances from Ossaan and Pusalan families,” he said. “So people from lower castes end up marrying within their communities.”

But this argument does not convince Randathany. “They do menial jobs,” he said. “Hence people are hesitant to give them equal status in society. It is wrong to consider this as caste discrimination. Families prefer equal status matrimonial alliances.”

Randathany said that if Ossaans and Pusalans were discriminated against due to caste prejudice they would be prevented from entering mosques. “No such incidents have been reported in Kerala,” he said.

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‘Time to talk about it’

Dr R Nandagopal, a research fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at University of Gottingen in Germany, is following the debate keenly. He said those who argue there is or there isn’t caste in Islam work with the example of Hinduism in mind. “Some say caste exists in Islam in the same way as it does in Hinduism, while others say it does not exist in Islam as it does in Hinduism.”

He said the question of caste in Islam cannot be addressed by looking at how Hindu religious texts explain caste (purity-pollution, for example). “Neither can we say Islamic texts do not endorse caste so there is no caste in Islam,” he said. “For that matter, the Bible doesn’t talk about caste, but we talk about Dalit Christians.”

Dalit activist Sunny M Kapicadu said Islam may not have caste divisions of the kind followed by Hindus, but added that researchers have observed the existence of caste-like institutions among the Muslim community. He said the Sachar Committee report too described the presence of caste hierarchy among Muslims. “Caste does exist in Muslim community and it is high time we addressed it,” he said.