Muslim-Dalit Unity: Dalits need to think beyond Ambedkar

There is absolutely no doubt that not only Dalits and Adivasis but all Indians have reasons to feel proud of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. He was a visionary whose role is no less important than anyone else in laying the foundation of modern India. Dalits have an added reason to feel proud: he was one of their men. They rightly credit him for whatever they have got in Independent India. For them he is no less than a Bhagwan in the typical old Hindu way of thinking, which magnifies every benefactor, from animals and plants to kings and saints into deities. This is another matter that Dalits in increasingly large numbers do not regard themselves Hindus anymore.

I have heard many Dalit intellectuals arguing against Dalits being considered by the Constitution as Hindus. But time has come when Dalits have to move beyond Ambedkar. Whatever the great man did was in accordance with his understanding of the social conditions prevailing in his time. More than half a century has passed since then, and lots of water has passed down the Ganga since his time. In the immediate aftermath of Partition, he felt that Islam was not the right choice for Dalits and he decided in favour of Buddhism. In all probability, he constructed his arguments against Islam mainly on the basis of his perceptions of the social reality then.

After Partition, the mood in the country was heavily tilted against Muslims who had grown considerably weak due to Partition, which had in effect portioned Muslims. India was declared a secular country, but the contours of its secularism were being decided mainly by Hindus. In order to keep Dalits with them, they made sure that Dalits should not move towards Islam. The Constitution ensured that though Dalits would be given reservation, the privilege would cease if they chose to convert to Islam or Christianity. So, even in secularism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism were more equal than Islam and Christianity. Ambedkar might have thought that if he converted to Islam, he would become a pariah for the Hindu majority. So, apparently his decision to convert to Buddhism was more out of social compulsions than ideology. 

If Dalits have not yet developed a strong bonding with Muslims, Muslims will have to share the blame. Muslims need to realise that Islam stands for equality, and if there is any criterion of differentiation in Islam, it is based on the quality of performance. This quality of performance however makes one privileged in the eyes of God and not in terms of any social privileges in this world. The Qur’an speaks of the equality of the whole mankind by stating that all men and women had the same father and mother, Adam and Eve. The holy book shuns supremacy of one person over another on any basis other than the superiority of deeds. Islam knows no race and caste; in religious matters, social obligations and also in the eyes of law all are equal. If discrimination has to be there, it has to be only between the right and the wrong, and between the evil and the virtuous.


The Qur’an says:

Mankind! We created you from a combination of a male and female, and formed you into races and tribes so that you may get introduced to one another. The noblest among you in God’s view is the one who is best in dutifulness. (49:13)

How would you know what the Path of Progress is! It is the granting of freedom to a slave; providing food at the time of widespread hunger to an orphan close to you or to the needy at the time of misery. (90:12-16)


When Muhammad (PBUH) announced his status as the apostle (Rasul) of God, slavery was prevalent, almost throughout the world, in its most abominable form. Slaves were treated much worse than animals; they were purchased and sold like cattle. Islam started eradication of slavery in a systematic manner. Several steps were taken: First came the lessons of kindness towards slaves. They should be given to eat what the masters eat and to wear what the masters wear. This was followed by the Qur’anic directive to consider slaves for marriage; for believing slaves are better than non-believing slaves (4:25). The Qur’an further directed that slave-girls cannot be forced into prostitution (verse 24:33). This was a clear warning that slave-girls can be taken as wives, but cannot be forced into flesh trade. Another step that was taken by the Prophet was the directive that any slave-woman who became pregnant would become a free woman. This implies that a mother can never be a slave; and also that the children of slaves would not be slaves.  The prophet did clearly express his displeasure at the practice of some Companions’ practice of azl (coitus interruptus) with slave-women so that, in case they became pregnant, they would not have to be given the status of free wives. The most important step that the Qur’an took that paved way for the eradication of slavery was that freeing slaves was declared an extraordinarily virtuous act (2:177) for which man will be given special reward in the Hereafter.  This was further complemented by the declaration of freeing a slave as compensation or punishment of some crimes and   mistakes (4:92; 5: 89; 58: 3). The Qur’an was kind to slaves in matters of punishment, too, declaring that the punishment for immorality by slaves would be half that for free women (4:25).

The condition of Dalits in India, throughout the ages, has been no better than that of slaves in the pre-Islamic era. One of the foremost reasons of Muhammad’s revolution proving to be the biggest ever revolution in the history of mankind was the attraction it had for the deprived classes. And this combined with the concept of absolute Oneness of God, made people throng to the fold of Islam because they realised that the concept of oneness of Muslim Society emanated directly from the concept of the Oneness of God. If the God of all is One, it automatically makes none more privileged than the other.

The problems of Dalits and Muslims are similar in many, if not in all, ways. Dalits have the privilege of several constitutional provisions on their side which have helped them in improving their condition. Muslims are deprived of the benefits despite their all too known backwardness because of their religious identity. Apart from that, both Dalits and Muslims face discrimination at many levels. Both of them are likely to be the victims of discrimination in the judicial system.  According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). In India, you are more likely to be lodged in prison if you are a Muslim, or belong to the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Communities (OBCs).

Though Muslims comprise only 14.2 percent of the population of the country, according to a recent census data, they constitute 26.4 percent of the prison population.

Moreover, 60.3 percent of all inmates are classified as belonging to OBCs, SCs, and STs. Other communities constitute the remaining portion of the prison population. OBCs and STs constitute 38.1 percent of all detenues. Detenues are persons detained in prison on the orders of a competent authority under relevant preventative detention laws


The report adds:

“While Muslims constitute around 30 percent of all prisoners, in the pre-trial phase, the number of convicted Muslim prisoners stands at only 16.4 per cent. Activists point out that the last statistics clearly points to a prejudiced police system across the country, where minorities are targeted by law enforcement agencies.”

Both categories have very little share in big business, and in a world dominated by corporates, this is bound to affect their fortunes in a big way. Both will have to plan a combined strategy to increase that share not only through their own efforts, but also through a nationwide campaign against the policies favouring the corporates at the cost of common masses. They will have to wage a long struggle against economic disparity. 

The conditions have changed since Partition.  Dalits of today are vastly more confident and vocal than they used to be in Ambedkar’s days. A large number of them are highly educated and many are or have been in high administrative or academic positions. Muslims, too, have come out of fear psychosis partially, if not wholly, since Partition. The new generation of both Dalits as well as Muslims are more eager to play a role in the functioning of the country. Both want to enjoy the fruits of progress. Both feel they have not yet got what they deserve, and have reasons to believe that they can achieve more if they work together rather than if they fight alone. Demography is on their side.

When I want Dalits and Adivasis to look beyond Ambedkar, it does not in any way mean disrespect to the great man. It only means that Dalits need to analyse what Ambedkar would have done in the current situation if he were alive today. His strategy would have surely been different from what he planned in 1940s and 50s. He would have perhaps been keener to have a closer look at Islam and develop a long-lasting bond with Muslims. Ambedkar might have had some reservations in his time, which kept him away from Islam, but such reasons are no more tenable. If they come together, socially and politically, even if not in terms of religion, nothing can move in the country without their active participation. Combined, they will be in a better position to ensure that discrimination on religious or caste grounds finds no place in future India. 

If however, Dalits and Muslims along with Adivasis decide to come together, it should not be aimed at sidelining the other communities. Rather than basing the campaign on religious or caste identity, it should be aimed at ensuring justice and equality for all. Dalits have to understand that they have to fight Brahamanwad, not Brahamins. Even otherwise, the truth of today’s India is that Brahamanwad has been replaced by Vaishyawad. It is Vaishyas who are calling the shots now. Muslims have to understand that they have to fight against Hindutva, not Hindus. 

God’s help to the deprived comes only when they work for it with determination and perseverance.

The author is a Delhi-based thinker and writer with over a dozen books including his latest, Muslim Vision of Secular India: Destination & Road-map. He may be contacted at

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 June 2016 on page no. 2

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