Dakshina Veedhi, the southern street in Eluru, West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh is a warren of streets and zig-zagging alleyways. Dust gathers on the doors and buildings; the stench of gurgling sewers fills the air. Some of the houses are loud, with gaudy colours, some have a lost-world feel with peeling paint and weather-beaten doors.

In these labyrinthine streets live about 10,000-15,000 Muslims among approximately 60,000 to 70,000 Hindus. They have lived here for hundreds of years. Amid the throng and crush of people and houses stand a temple and a dargah, drawing people to their sanctums for centuries.

The street takes people as it finds them, as they come upon it, and gives them residence. It’s on the street that the many trajectories of life collide. The shared space and daily grind make people of different religions live together, and the street bears witness to this.

Kazim Malli of the Hazrat Pasha Shaheed dargah says life is good and there is no dispute. He is the 10th generation of a family tending to the dargah. “When we have Razab Vurusu festival, the temple priests provide help, if necessary, and accept the sacred food.” In turn, Kazim Malli donates to the Ganesh festival, accepts prasad, and provides electricity to the pandals. He also helps with giving dargah space for parking. But his cooperative attitude doesn’t always sit well with his co-religionists.

“We mingle with each other. It depends on our behaviour, how we interact with people. We respect their practices,” he says. He credits this way of life to his upbringing and shared sense of place. “This is my place, we’re brought up here. Even if given crores, I wouldn’t move out of here.”

People living in other areas may not have the same outlook, he says. “Since my birth, I have been here, the affection from the people is there; and also we are not into high-handed things.”

Asked what he feels about the violence, Kazim says, “In our books there is no violence. They’re going against God. They are destroying religion by foolishness.”

Whenever Kazim sees violence on television and reads about it in newspapers, he feels pain. “What is the use of that violence? You should be broad-minded enough to live among others.”

Kazim is 64 and says he has seen many things. Among Muslims, there are both the wealthy and the poor. Asked why the wealthy don’t come to the poor’s rescue, he says it’s “because of self”.

“We don’t have cooperation among ourselves. If anyone grows, people feel jealous. When one falls down, they laugh.”

Kazim says the level of education is not high among Muslims. This is because “from childhood itself, one has to work, support one’s family, and settle for small jobs.” In addition, “we have people of different castes.” Relations among them are increasingly determined by money, he feels.

The Muslim community is not monolithic. It’s beguilingly diverse. Among them, as a Muslim historian says, Muslim scholars have so far identified 1,262 sub-castes (or classes, since Muslims say they are not caste-based) worldwide. There are 629 sub-castes (or classes), and 46 in combined Andhra and Telangana. All of these classes are profession- or craft-based, categorised according to the work people do.


According to historians, Islam came first through traders coming from Arabia, and later through invaders. The first conversion took place in Kerala and the first masjid in India was built there. Some of the traders went back to Arabia while others stayed behind. Those who remained married local women and brought forth a composite culture with both Hindu and Muslim elements.

The same thing happened in north India, when some invaders stayed behind. Local customs and practices were incorporated into Islamic culture. This explains why there is so much variation in north Indian and south Indian Muslim cultures. Muslim scholars say the largest percentage of Muslims in India are converts. They say that one of the reasons for conversions is the oppressive caste culture. Islam, which preaches brotherhood, invited them.

As it happens, the last Hindus to convert to Islam were cotton-weavers in 1262. They were the most backward among Muslims in every way—culturally, socially, economically and educationally. 

As it happens, the last Hindus to convert to Islam were cotton-weavers in 1262. They were the most backward among Muslims in every way—culturally, socially, economically and educationally. This vast underclass is known as Dun in Kashmir; Mansuri in West Bengal; Duniya Momin in Bihar; Mansuri and Duniya in Rajasthan; Duniya in Uttar Pradesh; Koya in Lakshadweep; Panchikottu in Tamil Nadu; and Dudekula Pinjari, Laddaf and Noorbasha in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Higher-class Muslims look down on them and discriminate against them socially. Till a few years ago, in the higher-class Muslims’ eyes, Noorbashas are not Muslim enough because they don’t speak Urdu, don’t go to masjids, and they don’t do namaaz. The Noorbasha say their community was so poor that unless they worked throughout the day, they wouldn’t survive, leaving them with no time to go to the masjid.

In addition, since Noorbashas are the last converts, and relatively much later than the conversions affected by the traders, they carry a high imprint of local Hindu culture in the manner of how they lead their lives. They speak local languages fluently, and mingle freely and have long-lasting friendships with Hindus.

Today, the Noorbasha community is the thriving community among Muslims, though poverty exists too. The community’s rise didn’t happen automatically though. Abdul Khader from Kadapa (now Y. S. R. district), a Noorbasha man serving as a clerk in British India, was pained at the state of his peoples’ lives and took their welfare on his shoulders. He extensively toured the Andhra area of British India, encouraging his people to educate their children. Education, especially that of girls, was his mantra for welfare and a way out of poverty.

On December 1, 1940, Khader started the Madras Provincial Noorbasha Association at his native village, Maasapet, and pleaded with British officers of the then Madras presidency for scholarships and job reservation for his people. The British notified the Noorbasha community as backward in the Saint George Gazette.

“If other classes among Muslims tried for such a status, the British would have certainly looked into it and would have notified them too. But none came forward,” says a Noorbasha man.

I. Dawwod, now staying in Hyderabad, was the first beneficiary of the scholarship and reservation. He joined the Madras public service commission as a clerk in 1948 and retired as a joint secretary of the home department in the Andhra Pradesh government. In a first-of-its-kind book, Noorbasheeyula Charitra Samskruti (History and Culture of the Noorbashas), he chronicles the rise of his people from extreme poverty and backwardness, and the efforts made by Abdul Khader. “Abdul Khader transformed the very structure of Noorbasha community with his work,” he says in the book.

In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, they number around 40 lakh. A vast section of these people studied, availed of scholarships and reservation, and landed jobs as teachers and others. The following generations, supported by this financial security, went into professional courses. Now, many Noorbasha people are thriving in medicine, law, software, and other professional services. They have migrated to different countries, although they don’t usually disclose their class for fear of social discrimination.

Over the last 30 years, they have been learning Urdu, going to masjid, and reading the Quran. They make pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina, as other Muslims do. Ironically, higher-class Muslims are willing to give their daughters in marriage to the highly-educated, financially well-off Noorbasha professionals, but the prospective brides mostly are no match educationally. So, these newly-minted professional are opting for the educated Hindu brides.

As a Noorbasha man says, “I have come across 10 such marriages recently. Both bride and bridegroom are highly educated, and their marriages are compatible. That reflects the changes occurring in Noorbasha community.”

We are the bridge between the Hindus and Muslims.

The rise of these people, in due in some measure, to the doctrine of, as one Noorbasha man puts it, “love your religion and respect other religions.” Not extreme in their views but sufficiently anchored to their faith, they are seeing the best of both religions. One Noorbasha man says, “We are the bridge between the Hindus and Muslims.”

This particular class of people has a national character, in that they’re spread all over India. It’s learnt that in each state there were efforts to raise them in every way, like Abdul Khader did in Andhra Pradesh. Anyway, the classes among Muslims shows, as Swami Vivekananda said, “human society is a graded organisation.”

Back on the street, it’s the daily grind that people are occupied with. Sabira (name changed) lives with her three children in her father’s house, and rues her fate. Her husband left her for another Muslim woman. She didn’t want talaaq, to allow for her “children to be with their father.”

Sabira approached the man who conducts prayer and requested him to bring her husband to his senses, to bring him back to their three children. She went to village elders and requested them to talk to her husband. Her pleas had no effect. “Nobody helped me when I was down. Even now, my children ask about their father.”

Finally, Sabira went to court, and the court ordered the husband to pay an allowance. However, the husband proved smart in the court; he never lived with the children. Finally, the case was over, but she was back to square one.

Sabira says she does namaaz and reads the Quran. Her daily life is occupied by how to bring up her children. “Throughout the day, I think about how to provide for my children, how to bring them up well,” she says.
Asked about what she thinks about the larger world, she says, “Why should I worry about the whole world when my own life is in shambles? My children want their father and he doesn’t come.” Ironically, community people blame her for dragging her husband to court.


But not all stories are sad on the street. The street brought a Hindu man and a Muslim woman together more than 10 years ago. The woman, Nahreen Sultana, says her parents gave her and her sisters freedom, and stressed the importance of education.

Sultana says, “They didn’t raise us stressing differences and distinctions. They educated us well.” She did an L.L.B. and a post-graduate degree, and worked as an advocate for some time. Her husband is an advocate too. Her in-laws never once asked her to change her name or religion.

Her parents do regret giving her all the freedom when she married a Hindu man though. Her father, she says, thinks she misused the freedom given to her. But over the years, her good life at the home of her in-laws might have softened their views. She is not sure yet if they have reconciled to her marrying a Hindu man.

There are some of things she encounters in daily life that upset her equilibrium. For example, Sultana usually wears a bindi but she takes it off when her parents come to visit. “I want them to be happy. Anyway, there are here only for some time. My in-laws never tell me to wear it or remove it.”

In contrast, her sisters married into Muslim families and observe a strict code of dress and language. “My sisters are post graduates. One of my sisters used to wear a ‘midi’ skirt but now she wears burkha all the time. She was sort of a rebel but now she adjusted to that life.” “You cannot go against the family and raise some ruckus,” she says.

Despite the strict code of dress and manners, everybody looks for a bit of pleasure. Muslims enjoy themselves with their large families, she says. “Within that circle, they freak out.”

When her sisters’ children come to visit and her son, Susmit, who is in second grade, plays with them, he asks some questions. “In social studies, they describe Muslims’ life, things like speaking Urdu and going to masjid. He asks me about them, why they are speaking Urdu, and such things,” she says. As he grows, she says, she will teach him. “It depends on how parents mould their children,” she says.

Asked what she thinks of the violence, she says, “One need not be a Muslim to feel this. This is very painful. After all, we are all one humanity. Pain and suffering is the same everywhere.” Sultana feels Muslims in India are broader in outlook and thus co-exist with others. “Otherwise, the country couldn’t have accommodated them through centuries.”

For all this talk of the co-existence, suspicions linger on the street. Distances are scrupulously observed. A cross-section of conversations on the street highlights this:

“You cannot have deep relations with Muslims because their culture and eating habits are so different.”

“When they are less in number, they won’t fight; if they are more in number, they fight, wherever they are.”

“They’re unclean, their houses are unclean, they throw bones after eating. They won’t keep them in their proper places and dispose them later.”

“They always feel insecurity and play victims.”

“Beside all our temples, there is a mosque everywhere in India.”

In one of the streets, A. V. N. Raju runs the Indo-English High School. He is 78 years old and of slight build. He’s centred on being a Hindu. “My identity is Hindu, and I cannot leave that,” he says. He serves all classes of people and all religions. A retired college principal, Raju has been serving people all the time, giving his house for peoples’ needs. His has never been a clenched fist. A few days after Cyclone Hudhud in October 2014, he was in his school where students handed over relief material, food and water for cyclone-affected people to local leaders so that the load could be transported.

Raju started the school in 1982. After his retirement, the school became his shrine to service. When he started out teaching at a young age, he went to where Scheduled Caste people stayed and taught the children there. His village friends and elders asked him not to visit into those areas, and focus instead on his betterment. Determined, he stuck to it, seeking solace in teaching and seeking trouble.

“Nobody was interested in any contact with them, much less work in schools there.” So he went, and taught there. His village was divided, and later, came around. His wife, a retired Hindi teacher, participates in all his activities, and helps him in running the school. In the earlier days, she would cook for people of other castes when it was an anathema among the family.

Raju is of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) persuasion but says that hasn’t stopped him from “doing service to all. VHP helped me grow into society.” He explains what he means: once there was an altercation between different castes about a pillar in a temple. When they approached Raju, he learnt the history with the help of a pundit, and explained the antecedents of that particular pillar, and solved the issue. “You learn a lot.”

If anything, Raju is an indefatigable learner, delving into the intricacies of a temple structure, of a certain practice, and of bridging the misunderstanding between castes and also religions.

He is man of history and of present. He smiles, his face clean shaven, a bearing showing wholesome habits, ever-active life. His sons are in good positions, “I am running this school without any thought of profit,” he says.

He recommended Muslims for jobs, seeking better life for everyone. For all his reaching out, Raju is centered on being a Hindu. “This is my religion. Hinduism teaches me to expand myself, to include all.”