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Published in the 16-30 Sep 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Prospects of Dalit-Muslim alliance

By Syed Shahabuddin

Dalits have the sorrow of centuries etched into their faces. On the whole, despite 50 years of reservation in legislatures, public employment and education, often drummed up as reparation and compensation for centuries of treatment as a sub-human species, they still constitute the most backward section of the Indian people, socially, educationally and economically. They are nearly 25% in population but constitute 50-60% of the BPL (Below the Poverty Line) population; they have less than 10% share in public employment, perhaps less in private employment; they have a higher proportion in starvation deaths, in epidemic toll, illiteracy, in school drop-out. Generally they live in their own rural and urban ghettos, engage in their traditional professions, they are mostly marginal farmers and landless labour and are often denied tenancy rights and even minimum wages by the owners, by use of force.
Muslims are nearly as backward as the SC/ST's but they are also the target of Hindu chauvinist and fundamentalist forces. In their eyes, the Muslims are not only responsible for the division of the country and the creation of Pakistan but the real obstacle in the Hinduisation of India i.e. transformation of the secular state into a Hindu state. The strategy of Hindu Nationalism is Hindu consolidation i.e. formation of a political alliance of the Hindu high castes and the Shudras under the time-tested leadership of the Brahmins.

However, by virtue of numbers, in a democratic system the SC and ST command political importance and there is a continuous tussle among political parties for their support.

Muslims are nearly as backward as the SC/ST's but they are also the target of Hindu chauvinist and fundamentalist forces. In their eyes, the Muslims are not only responsible for the division of the country and the creation of Pakistan but the real obstacle in the Hinduisation of India i.e. transformation of the secular state into a Hindu state. The strategy of Hindu Nationalism is Hindu consolidation i.e. formation of a political alliance of the Hindu high castes and the Shudras under the time-tested leadership of the Brahmins. Though the Achhuts and the Adivasis were for centuries treated as outside the pale of the Dharma, they are sought to be brought in because of the numerical power they possess. Political association, religious absorption or even educational and economic benefits do not mean social equality. So while 'pollution' which cannot be a factor in a modern urban setting, marriage of the Savarnas with the Panchmas and the Adivasis is still rare. However, Hindu Nationalists have succeeded, through welfare and educational attention, through ideological brainwashing and finally through economic support, in engaging their services as their foot soldiers. More often than not, in anti-Muslim riots, the Dalits are incited, armed and organized to attack Muslims.

Ambedkar has been pirated by Hindu Nationalists and included in its pantheon of Hindu heroes. While his writings and statements attacking Hinduism are ignored, his comments against Muslims are used to brainwash the Dalits. In many tribal areas, the penetration of Hindu upper castes and exploitation of Dalit labourers by them is ignored, while the tribal ire is directed against much fewer Muslim settlers, cultivators and shopkeepers. Polygamous marriages by Muslims with tribal women is represented as sexual exploitation and used to incite the tribal population.

There is no doubt that in urban areas, the few Dalits who live in Muslims areas enjoy peace and security. Yet there is no socialization between the two groups. In fact the Muslim society in general, which includes a large proportion of descendants of Panchma converts, particularly the well-placed Baradaris, look upon the SC's with contempt. This became evident during 1980 General Election when many Muslims who were against Indira Gandhi had reservation about her Janata Party rival Jagjivan Ram, only because he happened to be 'chamar' by caste!

Objectively speaking, there has always been a good case for Dalit-Muslim Alliance in terms of common suffering, common deprivation and common aspirations to secure equality and justice, except for brief spells on isolated occasions, no real alliance has ever crystallized. Sometimes, the Muslim leadership, often consisting of the so-called Ashraf, does not know which section of the Dalits to address, which common or separate grievances should go into the common agenda, and how to mobilize the two communities for the common cause of political empowerment, economic and social justice. Sometimes the Dalit leadership does not know which section of the Muslim religious leadership to approach or trust. Under the surface, there are misgivings and no common leadership has emerged.

With land reform and green revolution the Shudras have achieved an economic breakthrough. They constitute about 50% of the population. Some sections have made visible progress in education and found a veritable presence in professions. They are conscious of the discrimination and indignity they have suffered but their role model is the Kshtriya; they want to be accepted as equal members of the Chaturvarna; they are on the path of Sanskritisation. They are denied the sacred thread but they vie with the Savarnas in performance of rites and rituals, through Brahmin priests. After all, they do not challenge the religious supremacy of the Brahmins. In the long run, they want accommodation within the Brahminical system. Economically, also they find themselves competing with the Muslim intelligentsia for government jobs and in profession and their prosperity largely depends on the exploitation of the Dalit labour.

The up and coming brand Shudras have formed their parties, the Samajwadi Party/Rashtriya Janata Dal, representing the Yadavs, the Apna Dal and the JD(U) representing the Kurmis, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, representing the Jats and similar Shudra outfits, north of the Vindhya. Even south of the Vindhyas, there are parties which essentially represent the interests of some Shudra groups but they have a long history of revolt against Brahminism. Electorally, all these parties are anxious, like the Congress or the BJP, to secure the support of the Muslims and to snatch the so-called Muslim vote bank. The BJP has done its best to divide the Muslims and keep them from extending united support either to Congress or to its rivals and even tried to play the Muslim Card, but with little success.

Dalit and Muslims constitute the poorest and the most deprived sections of the Indian people. Their understanding is the first step towards establishment of a regime of social justice in India. The other religious minorities do not come in their category. The Sikhs and the Christians are largely happy with what they have, the Jains and the Parsis have the bedrock of affluence to lie on. Together the Dalits and the Muslims constitute 40% of the total population. Electorally together they could sweep a majority of seats in the Assemblies and in the Lok Sabha in the whole country. But first the miasma of misunderstanding and distrust needs to be dissipated. The Muslims must shed any contempt for the Dalits; the Muslims, as the relatively stronger section, should share their meagre resources with the Dalits, e.g. provide educational facilities for Dalit students in their institutions; Muslim cultivators and landowners should treat Dalit landless labour and share-croppers equitably and at least in accordance with the law; Muslim shop keepers should not double as moneylenders and economically exploit the Dalits; Muslims should abjure any organized effort to convert the Dalits to Islam; under any circumstances, even in retaliation, Muslims should not raise their hands against the Dalits living in their areas or attack Dalit clusters; Muslims should treat them with equality and respect in their tea stalls and catteries; Muslims should invite Dalit neighbours living in their tolas and mahallas on social occasions and break bread with them and accept their hospitality.

Above all, Muslim politicians should not look upon Dalits as their political fodder and vice versa. They should both support each other's legitimate interests and work out a system of mutual and reciprocal support, right from the Panchayat level to the Assembly and Lok Sabha. For example, the Muslim voters in reserved constituencies should support the Dalit candidates who command the affection of the Dalit masses, not those who are really banking on the support of the non-Dalit Hindus and of the high castes, as the candidates of big political parties generally do. Muslim and Dalit leadership should always extend support to the struggle of each other for security, equality and dignity, in accordance with the Constitution.

On the other hand, the Dalit leadership should not look upon Muslims merely as an ally in their struggle against the Brahminical order, but as a partner in the great, national task of reconstruction of the Indian Society on the basis of Democracy, Secularism and Social Justice. The Dalit leadership should take an unequivocal and consistent approach towards the forces of Hindu Revivalism and Chauvinism and of Hindu Nationalism - never shake hands with Hindutva parties, like the BJP or AIADMK or Shiv Sena. The Dalit leadership should counteract the pernicious influence of the Sangh Parivar among the tribals and ensure that the Dalits are not used as foot soldiers in a war against Muslims or Christians. The Dalit leadership, particularly among the Adivasis, should educate the masses to ensure that religion is correctly registered in the Census and they are not labelled as Hindus. They should stand squarely for suitable amendment to the Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order, which detracts from the freedom of religion of the SC's, by repealing the criteria of profession of Hinduism.

The formulation of a National Strategy for Dalit-Muslim Unity demands both sincere effort at the grassroot level and political collaboration at the national and state levels. Political understanding and cooperation will emerge only through intellectual interaction at Workshops, Seminars, Symposiums, and Conferences. Dalit-Muslim Alliance will be born out of a nation-wide campaign by a joint leadership which will emerge, if the Muslim and Dalit MP's and MLA's of all parties and leaders of Muslim and Dalit social and cultural organizations come closer to each other and form a consensus not only on matters and developments of concern to them but on all national issues which in the final analysis affect all citizens and also retard or accelerate our movement, as a nation, towards the goals of Social Justice.

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