Islam and the Dalit Quest for Liberation in Contemporary India


The ‘Untouchables’ of India, consisting of several hundred caste groups, taken together form some fifteen per cent of the total Indian population. Victims of ‘upper’ caste Hindu persecution in a centuries-old system that has sought to legitimise their oppression by granting it religious sanction, the ‘Untouchables’ are today growing increasingly assertive, demanding their rights and articulating their protest against ‘upper’ caste Hindu hegemony through different channels. Because the subordination of the ‘Untouchables’, reducing them to the status of non-humans or even worse, has been given religious sanction in the Hindu scriptures, one of the most important means that the ‘Untouchables’ themselves have historically resorted to in protest against the Brahminical system in their quest for equality and self-respect has been conversion to other religions.

In post-1947 India, conversion of ‘Untouchable’ people to various religions carried on apace, as a new generation of educated ‘Untouchables’ grew increasingly resentful of the subordination that they were subjected to in the traditional caste order. No longer willing to be treated as untouchables, as passive victims of Hinduism, they sought to articulate a new identity for themselves. Thus emerged the consciousness of being ‘Dalit’, or ‘oppressed’, a term which was sought to be given a militant and revolutionary import, inspired by the example of the Black Panthers in the United States. Leading the militant and uncompromisingly anti-caste Dalit struggle till his untimely death in 1956 was the charismatic barrister and brilliant scholar, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, known to his followers as Babasaheb. Ambedkar insisted that the Dalits, being considered outcastes and hence outside the fold of the caste system, were not Hindus. Rather, they were a separate people whom the Brahmins had sought to Hinduise in order to incorporate into the caste system as slaves. The Hindu religion, he argued, was based, at root, on the caste system, legitimising the most cruel oppression of the Dalits. Hence, if the Dalits were to free themselves from the shackles of caste oppression, there was no way out but for them to convert to a non-Hindu religion.

Ambedkar’s firm conviction of the need for Dalit conversion developed gradually. At first, he pinned his hopes on the efforts of ‘upper’ caste Hindu reformers, believing that this might open new spaces the Dalits which traditional Hinduism had denied them. Soon, however, he seems to have been disillusioned by the reformists, going so far as to accuse M.K.Gandhi of being ‘the greatest enemy of the Untouchables’. In 1935, at a public meeting he declared, ‘I was born a Hindu, although this was not in my power. But I can certainly choose not to die a Hindu’. From then on, Ambedkar devoted himself to the study of various religions, including Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism, finally converting to Buddhism along with 400,000 of his followers in a mass conversion ceremony at Nagpur in 1956. One month later he died under mysterious circumstances, but the Buddhist conversion movement that he inaugurated still continues in India, with considerable numbers of Dalits having embraced the faith in various parts of the country in recent years, following their master’s footsteps in a search for social liberation and a new identity.

Ambedkar’s conversion marked the rebirth of Buddhism in the land of its birth, it having earlier been driven out or appropriated by an increasingly aggressive and assertive Brahminical revivalism from the fifth century C.E. onwards, culminating in the complete extirpation of Buddhism from India save in the remote mountainous borderlands with Tibet and Burma. In the centuries following this, conversion to Islam seems to have been a particularly attractive option for many Dalits, and scores of them did resort to this, with numerous cases being reported right into the twentieth century till 1947. The Partition of India in 1947, accompanied as it was by fierce Hindu-Muslim rioting, reduced the Muslims of India into a relatively powerless and insecure minority. This, coupled with growing anti-Muslim prejudice, manifesting itself most strikingly in the form of bloody anti-Muslim pogroms on an increasingly menacing scale, meant that for the Dalits, conversion to Islam for social emancipation no longer remained a practical, feasible choice. Thus, accessions to Islam in post-1947 India witnessed a dramatic decline. Indeed, scores of nominally Muslim ‘lower’ castes in northern India actually consciously renounced their Muslim identity for fear of ‘upper’ caste persecution, claiming to be Hindus instead.

Although isolated cases of Dalit conversions to Islam continued to be reported from time to time, this did not take the form of a mass movement, as in the case of the conversions to Buddhism. However, in February 1981, a group of Dalits in the village of Meenakshipuram in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, for the most part educated youth, collectively decided to embrace Islam, as a protest against their continued oppression at the hands of the dominant ‘upper’ castes in the village. Soon, reports came flooding in of hundreds of Dalit families in nearby villages and districts in Tamil Nadu, and even in other states including in distant north India, converting to Islam, inspired by the example of Meenakshipuram. Meenakshipuram was now no longer simply the name of a remote village. Rather, it had turned into a powerful metaphor for Dalit resistance and rebellion. Conversion to Islam, which had reduced to a trickle in post-1947 India, was now once again an option that some politically aware and conscious Dalits were considering.

Relatively few Dalits did actually convert to Islam in the years following the Meenakshipuram conversions, however, and the much-predicted flood of converts failed to materialise. The Meenakshipuram conversions provoked panic in ‘upper’ caste ranks, with the Hindu chauvinist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the apex body of Hindu fascism, reviving the by then moribund Vishwa Hindu Parishad (‘World Hindu Council’), one of whose major aims was now to prevent Dalit accessions to Islam through a well-thought out strategy of Hinduising the Dalits and instigating Dalit-Muslim conflict in large parts of India. Further, the Indian state, which prided itself on its ‘secular’ foundations, itself made Dalit conversions to Islam an unviable choice, by denying the special benefits that Dalits enjoyed in government services and programmes to Dalit converts to Islam. While this has put a brake on Dalit conversions to Islam, it has not had any significant impact on Dalit-Muslim unity efforts, which are increasingly emerging as an important agenda for the Dalit movement in India today. With the growing political consciousness of the Dalits that emerges from increasing education and participation in social movements, many Dalit ideologues are now advocating Dalit-Muslim unity as an indispensable means for the overall liberation of all oppressed groups in India. Such unity does not rule out Dalit conversion to Islam, but conversion, they argue, is not indispensable to the unity project.

This chapter is divided into two parts. The first section looks at the case for Dalit conversion to Islam and Dalit-Muslim unity put forward in the writings and statements of a well-known Dalit convert to Islam, Rashid Salim ‘Adil, a social activist and advocate based in Delhi, to see how conversion to Islam is sought to be presented as the antidote to the continuing oppression of the Dalit people. Religion, to ‘Adil, like to most other Dalit ideologues, is seen as a powerful social force, rather than simply as a system of morals and beliefs. Conversion to a non-Hindu religion is advocated not simply for the sake of the presumed superiority of its doctrines over Hinduism, which is assumed, but, more importantly, as a means for Dalit empowerment, arming the Dalits with power to counter their oppression by the ‘upper’ caste Hindus. Conversion, therefore, is explicitly recognised as an indispensable means for a worldly purpose—the liberation of the oppressed. What ‘Adil in effect argues for is nothing less than an Islamic liberation theology.
The next section analyses a text produced by another well-known ideologue of the Dalit movement, Dr. Ram Nath, which deals with the issue of Dalit-Muslim unity. While not opposed to Dalit conversions to Islam as such, Ram Nath, who is himself a non-Muslim Dalit, argues that at this juncture, more crucial than unity at the religious level is Dalit-Muslim collaboration on the political and social plane, a unity of the oppressed, in order to challenge the might of Brahminism. He sees this as the key to the liberation of all oppressed sections in India.

Dalit Conversion to Islam : Adil’s Case for an Islamic Liberation Theology

Rashid Salim ‘Adil, christened Ram Singh Vidyarthi at birth, was born in 1945 in the village of Mukimpur near Ghaziabad, a small town near Delhi, in a family of belonging to the Chamar caste of hereditary leather-workers. Looked down upon as untouchables for their caste occupation of dealing with leather, seen by orthodox Hindus as a ritually ‘impure’ substance, the Chamars of western Uttar Pradesh had, in contrast to most other Dalit communities, witnessed a degree of economic progress in the years following 1947, with the increasing demand for leather products. Growing numbers of Chamars now began taking to modern education. This brought in its wake an increasing dissatisfaction with the subordination and discrimination that they were subjected to by ‘upper’ caste Hindus. This manifested itself in increasing Chamar political assertiveness and, from the late 1950s onwards, in several thousand Chamars converting to Buddhism, following in the footsteps of Ambedkar.

Vidyarthi’s family was poor and almost entirely illiterate, his father being the owner of a small shop in the village that catered to its ‘Untouchable’ population. Like most other Chamar children of his times, Vidyarthi was unable to continue his education because of acute poverty, failing the high school final examinations. He then came to Delhi in search of a job. There, after flirting with atheism for a while, he joined the Arya Samaj, a Hindu revivalist movement, but soon after converted to Buddhism in 1970. He was by this time a convinced Ambedkarite, having read almost all of Ambedkar’s many books. Vidyarthi managed to go on to college and then university, earning an M.Phil. in Buddhist Studies and a law degree from Delhi University. Shortly after, he was appointed as a legal officer in the Delhi Development Authority, an undertaking of the Delhi government. In these years, Vidyarthi played an important role in the growing Dalit Buddhist movement in Delhi, establishing a number of Buddhist temples (viharas) in the city.

The Meenakshipuram conversion of Dalits to Islam in 1981made a deep impact on Vidyarthi, as in the case of many other assertive Dalits. Shortly after, the Delhi Development Authority, for which he worked, ordered the demolition of an illegally constructed Buddhist temple in the Yamuna Vihar slum in Delhi which Vidyarthi had built, sparing a nearby and also illegal Hindu temple from being bull-dozed. This incident provoked Vidyarthi to realise that despite having converted to Buddhism, the Dalits of the area remained as powerless as before in the face of ‘upper’ caste Hindu aggression. While Ambedkar had promised the Dalits that conversion to Buddhism would lead to their empowerment and their ability to counter Hindu oppression, the demolition of the vihara suggested to Vidyarthi that the Dalit Buddhists were no better off than before their conversion in being able to resist ‘upper’ caste tyranny. This is when he began to critically re-examine the Buddhist path that Ambedkar had advocated, now turning to reading about Islam through literature produced by the Jama‘at-i Islami as well as the Hindi translation of the Qur’an. On 6 December, 1981, Ambedkar’s twenty-fifth death anniversary, he converted to Islam along with his family at Delhi’s historic Jami‘a Masjid, being given the name of Rashid Salim ‘Adil by the Imam of the mosque, Sayyed ‘Abdullah Bukhari. The event was flashed in several major newspapers of the city, for by this time he had emerged as an important spokesman of the Dalits of Delhi, having also served as general-secretary of the Lok Dal, a powerful political party with a largely peasant support base. The conversion ceremony was attended by numerous Dalit activists and representatives of Dalit organisations. Shortly after, he travelled to Lucknow, there to take the oath of allegiance (ba’iat) at the hands of the renowned Islamic scholar, the late Sayyed Abul Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi.

The Mission to the Dalits

Following his conversion to Islam, ‘Adil continued with his job at the Delhi Development Authority till his resignation in 1989, but in his spare time he engaged in Islamic missionary work among the Dalits, principally through writings and public lectures. For this purpose, he set up a publishing company, Aman Publications, to produce tracts in Urdu and Hindi to popularise Islam among the Dalits and to remind Muslims of their Islamic duty of spreading Islam among non-Muslims. The company also published several speeches of Ambedkar and the militant ideologue of the Dravidian movement, Periyar Ramaswami Naicker, attacking Brahminism for its oppression of the Dalits and advocating religious conversion as a means for their social emancipation. Besides, ‘Adil also set up the All-India Muslim Society (AIMS), an Islamic preaching society working principally among the Dalits.

‘Adil’s major case for Dalit conversion to Islam is presented in a booklet published in 1995 titled Baba Saheb Doctor Ambedkar Aur Islam (‘Doctor Ambedkar and Islam’), originally in Hindi but later translated into Urdu as well. Given the centrality of the image of Ambedkar in the Dalit movement even almost half a century after his death, ‘Adil is forced to argue his case by constant reference to Ambedkar. Thus, Ambedkar is frequently quoted in support, and the mass Dalit conversion to Islam that ‘Adil advocates is sought to be presented as what Ambedkar himself is said to have believed was the most appropriate and effective means for Dalit liberation. Islam is seen here not primarily as a body of beliefs and doctrines, but, rather, as a powerful social force as represented by the worldwide Muslim community. It is striking to note that references to the religious tenets of Islam are almost completely absent throughout the text, appearing only as a two-page appendix. Even here only a few lines are devoted to core Islamic beliefs, such as faith in one God, the prophethood of Muhammad and life after death. Instead, the overwhelming focus is on Islamic social ethics, particularly on the great stress that Islam places on brotherhood, equality and social justice.

Like other vocal and assertive Dalits, ‘Adil insists that as long as the Dalits remain within the Hindu fold they cannot prosper, for the Hindu scriptures sanction the practice of untouchability towards them and consider them to be less than human, indeed lower than animals. Hinduism, ‘Adil says, spells eternal ‘mental slavery’ for the Dalits. He argues that the continued cruel subjugation of the Dalits in India by ‘upper’ caste Hindus can be countered only through Dalit empowerment. Now, although the Dalits account for some fifteen per cent of the Indian population, they are divided into numerous castes and sub-castes, and there is no geographic region in which they form the majority. If they lack the power that can flow from numerical strength they also do not have any economic power, being among the poorest people in India. The only way, then, for the Dalits to gain power is to join the fold of another, more powerful community. Since the Hindu religion and scriptures are based on the caste system and on the stern disabilities that they impose on the Dalits, the search for Dalit empowerment necessarily calls for religious conversion, he argues. Hence, their quest for liberation must lead the Dalits to seek empowerment through converting to another religion and joining the ranks of another religious community. Such, ‘Adil tells us, was Ambedkar’s firm conviction.

Ambedkar’s views on conversion, ‘Adil suggests, underwent a gradual transformation and maturity over time. At first he had great hopes in the work of ‘high’ caste Hindu reformers, but later veered round to the conviction that Dalit emancipation could not but be a task to be led by the Dalits themselves. In May 1935, addressing a large gathering of his fellow Mahars in Bombay, Ambedkar declared that the Dalits must convert in order to liberate themselves. As long as they remained within the Hindu fold they would remain ‘Untouchables’, for the Hindu religion, he said, teaches that they are to be considered worse than slaves or animals. He added that the Dalits could choose between Islam, Christianity and Sikhism (interestingly, Ambedkar did not mention Buddhism here), remarking that of these, Islam seemed to provide the Dalits all that they needed. Islam, he said, preached a radical egalitarianism and placed great stress on social justice. Despite being in a minority in most places in India, he remarked, the Muslims were feared by the ‘upper’ castes because of the power of the Muslim community as a whole, which would at once come to the rescue of its any of its members if they were attacked by the Hindus. Hence, ‘Adil suggests, Ambedkar hinted that the Dalits should convert to Islam in order to escape from the shackles of the Brahminical religion as well as to merge with the powerful Muslim community, which would grant them protection from ‘upper’ caste Hindu oppression.

If this was the case, one may ask why Ambedkar himself did not choose to convert to Islam himself, and why, instead, he, along with some 400,000 of his followers, embraced Buddhism in a mass conversion ceremony in 1956. ‘Adil insists that Ambedkar believed that conversion to Islam and joining the ‘powerful’ Muslim community was the most effective means for Dalit emancipation. He argues that from 1935 onwards Ambedkar began closely working with Muslim leaders, receiving Muslim financial support for his educational schemes for Dalit students, Muslim assistance in his struggle against untouchability and help from the Muslim League in getting a seat in the Constituent Assembly in the face of ‘upper’ caste Hindu resistance. This, and the widespread belief that he was planning to convert to Islam along with his followers, is said to have led to considerable panic in ‘upper’ caste Hindu ranks. Hindu leaders, from the two major Hindu political formations of the time, the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha, are said to have greatly feared the prospect of the untouchables going over en masse to Islam, which would have resulted in the creation of a Muslim majority in the country. Hence, ‘Adil argues, they conspired to force Muhammad ‘Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League into demanding a separate Pakistan by not acceding to their demands for the protection of even the legitimate rights of the Muslims. With a large proportion of the Muslims now cut off from India, the ‘upper’ caste Hindus, ‘Adil says, launched on a virtual genocide of the remaining Muslim population in India. This was intended to serve as a warning to the Dalits of the fate that would await them if they dared contemplate converting to Islam. Because of the considerable depletion in Muslim numbers, the decline of the community’s power after 1947, and the resultant wave of anti-Muslim pogroms, ‘Adil contends, Ambedkar decided that conversion to Islam, although the ideal solution, was not feasible at the time and so, more out of compulsion than choice, took to the next best alternative, Buddhism. ‘Adil believes that Ambedkar had hoped that by converting to Buddhism his people would gain the support of the powerful Buddhist countries in India’s vicinity, who would guarantee their protection from ‘upper’ caste Hindu oppression.

Ambedkar died barely a month after his conversion, and did not live to see if his conversion to Buddhism would indeed bring with it the empowerment of his people that he had expected. ‘Adil writes that conversion to Buddhism, far from empowering the Dalits, has actually further weakened them. Not many Dalits have converted to Buddhism, for one thing, conversion being limited largely to just two castes, the Mahars of Maharashtra and the Chamars of Uttar Pradesh. Even among them, this has not led to an overall strengthening of the community. On the contrary, these castes are now faced with sharp Buddhist—non-Buddhist cleavages and differences. Moreover, the support and assistance that Ambedkar had expected neighbouring Buddhist countries to provide did not materialise. ‘Adil thus contends that in terms of Ambedkar’s essential objective in advocating religious conversion—empowerment of the Dalits—the conversion movement to Buddhism has miserably failed.

In order to realise Ambedkar’s dream of the empowerment of the community, ‘Adil argues, the Dalits must convert to Islam, and this should take the form of a mass movement. This, he suggests, is what Ambedkar himself would have advocated if he had been alive today, for conversion to Buddhism has not brought the Dalits what they had hoped for. The Muslims in India number some 150 millions and they are said to be a ‘martial race’. By joining them, the Dalits would be absorbed into the Muslim fold, lose the stigma of untouchability and be guaranteed protection from ‘upper’ caste oppression, because ‘the Hindus fear the Muslims’. The basis of Islam is said to be ‘humanity and equality’, in contrast to Hinduism, which is based on ‘caste and hierarchy’. Islam calls for justice and hails the struggle against oppression. Hinduism, on the other hand, is but another name of cruel caste tyranny. Islam, then, is the mirror opposite of all that Hinduism stands for, and thus the most appropriate tool for the Dalit struggle for liberation. By converting to Islam, ‘Adil contends, not only would the Dalits be joining what is in theory a radically egalitarian religion, they would also become members of the world-wide Muslim ummah, merging into the Muslim community and thereby shedding the taint of their ‘untouchable’ origins. Interestingly, ‘Adil completely glosses over the fact of the continued existence of caste-like features in Indian Muslim society and the discrimination that ‘lower’ caste Muslims suffer at the hands of ‘upper’ caste Muslims despite the radical egalitarianism that he sees as a defining feature of Islam.

The social consequences of converting to Islam—empowerment of the Dalits and losing the taint of untouchability—clearly are of more immediate concern to ‘Adil than the spiritual fall-out of such an endeavour, although this is also recognised as when he suggests that conversion to Islam shall guarantee for the Dalits ‘success both in this world and in the hereafter’. Overall, however, it is the this-worldly benefits of conversion to Islam that are stressed, promising to put a firm end to ‘upper’ caste Hindu oppression. Conversion is seen in an instrumentalist sense, for, ‘Adil argues, and here he echoes Ambedkar, ‘Religion is the means for the attainment of certain ends’, the most important of which is the social liberation of the Dalits. He approvingly quotes Ambedkar’s 1935 speech to the Mahars wherein Ambedkar argued that religion exists for man rather than man for religion. If Hinduism does not provide the Dalits what they need in order to be full human beings, they should show no hesitation in renouncing it. Conversion is a must for Dalit freedom, unity, progress and happiness, Ambedkar insisted, a solution to the this-worldly torments of the Dalits. It is hardly the disinterested search of truth of the philosopher. Indeed, ‘Adil remarks, that is the way it should be, for what the Dalits need most is freedom from oppression, rather than intellectual or philosophical stimulation. ‘Our problem is not one of philosophy’, he says, ‘for the man in the village who kills our people knows nothing of philosophy. The only thing he knows is that these people are, in his view, low and despicable and to kill them is his right’.

Conversion, for ‘Adil, is seen more in terms of joining a new social group, in this case the Muslim community, than simply as accepting a new set of religious beliefs. Conversion to Islam is, it is interesting to note, not seen as abandoning one’s ancestral faith for a completely new religion. Rather, it is said to be a fulfilment of the original faith of the Dalits. Islam, ‘Adil remarks, is the religion (din) taught by all the prophets of God, whom God has sent to all the peoples of the world. The followers of these prophets corrupted their scriptures, till God willed His last prophet, Muhammad, to come to the world bearing a message, the Qur’an, for all eternity, bringing back to its original purity the religion taught by all the previous prophets. There is no doubt, says ‘Adil, that prophets of God had come to preach God’s din in India too, among the Dalit people, whom he identifies with the indigenous pre-Aryan Dravidian race. Like the Muslims, the ancient Dravidian ancestors of today’s Dalits also believed in one formless God, in social equality and justice. However, the invading Aryans reduced them to slavery and imposed their own religion, Brahminism, with all its ‘crude’ beliefs and practices, its idolatry, polytheism, casteism and superstitions, on them. By joining the fold of Islam, the Dalits would, therefore, only be going back to the purified form of the faith of their own pre-Aryan ancestors, ‘Adil argues.

Dalit-Muslim Dialogue
For ‘Adil, the only hope for Dalit liberation lies in conversion to Islam. It is, he says, only by converting to Islam, after trying the Arya Samaj and Buddhism, that he has finally been able to do away with the stigma of caste that he was born with. He is now a well-known Muslim social activist, and has married into a family of Sayyeds, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Likewise, his children have also married into well-off Muslim families, and in this way the taint of their having once been ‘Untouchable’ has disappeared. ‘Adil continues to work for Dalit conversion to Islam and Dalit-Muslim unity through different means. He insists that even if the Dalits do not convert to Islam Dalit-Muslim unity must be cultivated, for the Dalits and the Muslims, he argues, have much in common. Both are victims of ‘upper’ caste oppression; both are largely poor and dispossessed and the targets of violent attacks; and many Indian Muslims are themselves of Dalit origin. Islam, he insists, demands that Muslims help all oppressed people, irrespective of religion, and in this way working for Dalit-Muslim unity is a religiously binding duty for Muslims. Of particular importance, he argues, is Dalit-Muslim collaboration at the political level, for if the two communities unite they can easily determine the fate of Indian politics. ‘Adil himself stood as a candidate in the general elections in 1989 from the East Delhi seat on the Republican Party ticket, earning some 37,000 Dalit and Muslim votes. In order to bring Dalits and Muslims and other such marginalised communities closer on the political plane, he along with some friends, set up the Sab Jan (‘All-Peoples’) Party in 1995, he being appointed as its Secretary. The main aim of the party is said to be promotion of harmony between different communities in India, and the establishment of an egalitarian society, with ‘special opportunities’ for such vulnerable sections as women, Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Tribals and the Backward Castes.

While he recognises Dalit-Muslim collaboration at the political level as vital, ‘Adil maintains that the Dalit-Muslim unity project must not be limited only to a handful of Dalit or Muslim politicians, for politicians can be easily swayed to abandon the best interests of their own people in search of personal aggrandisement. What is needed is, he says, to make Dalit-Muslim unity a mass movement, a people’s initiative rooted in the daily lives of Dalits and Muslims. He suggests the setting up of joint Dalit-Muslim councils in villages and localities in cities, where ordinary Dalits and Muslims can interact with each other. They must attend each other’s festivals and help each other in times of need. By thus cementing a strong bond between the two, the politics of aggressive ‘upper’ caste Hindu revivalism, which thrives on pitting Dalits against Muslims, can be effectively challenged. A grand unity of all the oppressed, particularly the Dalits and the Muslims, he argues, is the only way in which Brahminical tyranny can be countered and a just and egalitarian social order be established.

Ram Nath on Dalit-Muslim Unity
Like ‘Adil, Ram Nath, a professor at a college in Uttar Pradesh, is also of Chamar origin, but although he is a great admirer of Islam, he has not followed ‘Adil in converting to it. Ram Nath’s agenda is more clearly political than religious or spiritual. Ram Nath develops his thesis for Dalit-Muslim collaboration in a booklet titled Dalit-Muslim Unity: Why? And How?. Written in simple, populist style, this tract is intended for a mass readership, with no pretensions to academic sophistication.

Ram Nath’s plea for Dalit-Muslim unity grows out of a tradition that has its roots in the efforts of numerous radical Dalit leaders. In recent years in India, the Dalit-Muslim unity agenda has once again emerged as a prominent feature in Dalit political discourse, reflected in the rise of numerous political formations based on the ‘Bahujan’ (‘majority’) concept. Bahujan ideologues argue that the Dalits, Muslims, Backward Castes, Christians, Sikhs and Tribals, all, by and large, marginalised communities, when taking together, form the ‘Bahujan’ or the majority of the Indian population, accounting for some eighty-five per cent of all Indians. On the other hand, the ruling elite, the ‘upper’ castes, consisting of the Brahmins, the Rajputs and the Banias, comprise just fifteen per cent of the population. If the Bahujans were to unite at the political level, they stress, ‘upper’ caste hegemony can be easily challenged and put an end to. Ram Nath’s advocacy of Dalit-Muslim unity must be seen in the context of this growing appeal of the Bahujan concept among Dalits, Muslims and others.

Dalit-Muslim unity, argues Ram Nath, is an organic, almost natural phenomenon, because, he says, both peoples share much in common. Many Muslims in India are descendants of ‘low’ caste converts, who accepted Islam in order to escape from the cruel tyranny of the caste system. In other words, they and the Dalits are ‘blood brothers’ and are the original inhabitants of India. Both live, by and large, in common settlements—urban slums and ghettos as well as on the outskirts of villages. They share many practices in common that set them apart from the ‘upper’ caste Hindus, such as, for instance, eating beef, burial of the dead and widow remarriage. Both are subjected to varying degrees of untouchability at the hands of the ‘upper’ castes. Both are largely poor and uneducated, and are the victims of growing Hindu chauvinism that seeks to deny them their basic human rights and reduce them to slavery, and thus both have a common principal oppressor and oppressed condition. Both have had a long history of friendly co-operation. In medieval times, many Dalits converted to Islam and even among those who did not, millions flocked to Sufi shrines for spiritual solace and comfort, a practice that still continues today. Further, Muslims have consistently supported Dalit leaders in their quest for Dalit emancipation, seeing this as an Islamic duty. Anti-Brahminical ‘lower’ caste crusaders such as Jyotiba Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar and Narayana Guru all received the support of the Muslims. Historically, says Ram Nath, ‘nowhere in India […] has there ever been any contradiction between Dalits and Muslims’, arguing that it is only over the last century, particularly since what he calls the nominal independence of India in 1947, that strenuous efforts began being made by ‘upper’ caste Hindus to pit Dalits and Muslims in bloody pogroms against each other as part of their strategy of divide-and-rule. All this—a shared history, for the most part a common ancestry, and a common condition of oppression—he says, makes Dalit-Muslim unity the only means for the emancipation of both peoples.

Having provided the rationale for Dalit-Muslim unity, Ram Nath then sets about outlining how this unity should be developed. While recognising that unity on the political plane is crucial, for Muslims and Dalits together account for over thirty per cent of the Indian population, he argues, echoing ‘Adil, that political unity must be complimented with efforts at collaboration at the social and cultural levels to provide a unity that can be sustained and deeply rooted. He castigates the present Dalit and Muslim political leaderships for what he sees their elitism and their carefully cultivated distance from the common masses, going so far as to label them as ‘stooges’ of the ‘upper’ caste Hindus, charged with the responsibility of delivering Dalit and Muslim ‘vote-bank’ to ‘upper’ caste-dominated political parties, principally the Congress. He insists that the Dalit and Muslim masses must now shun all such parties and, instead, vote for parties that are led by Dalits and Muslims and that champion the interests of the ‘oppressed masses’.

At the social and cultural levels, Dalit-Muslim unity needs to be made an integral part of people’s lives, he argues, and this should assume the form of a popular social movement. Muslims and Dalits should participate in each others festivals and, more importantly, help each other in times of need, ‘co-suffering being more important than co-enjoyment’. Muslims should observe the birth anniversaries of great anti-Brahminical heroes such as Sant Ravidas, Jyotiba Phule and Ambedkar, these being social and cultural rather than religious events. Dalits should celebrate Id and the Prophet’s birthday (milad) with their Muslim neighbours. They should also participate in Muslim mass prayers and assemble in mosques to interact with Muslims. Conversion to any non-Hindu ‘egalitarian’ religion ‘which treats them as human’ is recommended, with Buddhism or Islam offered as the two ideal alternatives. In any case, the Dalits should give up all Hindu customs and cease calling themselves Hindus. Muslims must recognise that the Dalits, being outcastes, are not Hindus, for the Hindu scriptures do not accept them as such, considering them worse than slaves or animals. In addition, Muslims, being more organised and well off than the Dalits, should give ‘sufficient representation’ to the latter in the educational institutions that they run. Muslims, he argues, have a religious duty to help all persecuted people irrespective of religion, and in India the most severely persecuted are the Dalits. He quotes the Qur’an [4:10] to bolster his claim:

And what reason have you that you should not fight in the way of God and for the weak among the men and women and the children [of] those who say: Our Lord! Cause us to go forth from the town [whose people are oppressors] and give us from You a guardian and give us from You a helper?

Ram Nath writes that the ‘weak’ referred to in the above Qur’anic verse are, in the Indian context, all oppressed people, Muslim as well as other, whom God orders Muslims to defend against oppression. Muslims, he says, must also heed the following Qur’anic commandment [60:2], which lays down that:
God does not forbid you to respect those who do not [oppress you or] make war against you on account of [your] religion, and have not driven you out of your homes. So, show kindness and deal with them justly. Surely, God loves the doers of justice.

Islam, Ram Nath argues, positively commands Muslims to help the Dalits, and thus Dalit-Muslim unity is, he suggests, an Islamic duty binding on all Muslims, not something that they can choose to reject if they are to remain faithful to their commitment to their religion.
By thus gradually building up Dalit-Muslim unity at the local level as a strong social movement, Ram Nath contends, the Dalits and Muslims will be able to cement a strong political unity that can effectively challenge ‘upper’ caste rule and establish a more just and harmonious Indian society.

India today is in the throes of a serious crisis, with ‘upper’ caste Hindu revivalism assuming increasingly menacing forms, having succeeded in capturing political power at the Centre and in several states. Many Dalits as well as Muslims see themselves as victims of Hindu revivalism, and an increasing urge to collaborate in countering ‘upper’ caste chauvinism can be discerned at various levels, particularly the political. One striking illustration of this is the growing strength of political parties that explicitly base their support on Dalit, Muslim and Backward Caste votes. Dialogue at the level of party politics is being complemented by efforts at dialogue at the social and religious levels as well, and people like ‘Adil and Ram Nath represent a strong strand of opinion in Dalit-Muslim circles in this regard. Many Dalits recognise the role that Muslims and Islam can play in the project of the liberation of the oppressed in Indian society, and the most popular Dalit journal, the Bangalore-based Dalit Voice (discussed elsewhere in this book), is, it is instructive to note, an ardent champion of Islam as a means for Dalit emancipation. Growing numbers of Muslims from outside the charmed circle of the ‘ulama, many belonging to castes that are regarded as ‘low’ in the Indian Muslim social hierarchy, are now seeking to explore Islam as a manifesto of human liberation, seen from the point of view of the oppressed, rather than the fossilised set of rituals that a professional class of priests, seen as cut off from the oppressed masses, has reduced it to. ‘Adil’s is only one voice among these, but a significant one, no doubt. In this it appears that, as in many other parts of the world, some Muslims in India today are increasingly beginning to search for what Ally calls ‘the relevance of God and God’s guidance to the socio-political life of humanity’, fashioning what could be termed an Islamic theology of liberation.

If ‘Adil sees conversion to Islam as essential to Dalit emancipation, Ram Nath is less clear and insistent. He recognises the need for Dalits to convert to any ‘egalitarian religion which treats them as humans’ , suggesting Buddhism or Islam as possibilities, but conversion does not emerge as a central concern for him. Dalit-Muslim unity need not necessarily be based on Dalit conversion to Islam, he seems to suggest, for Islam commands its followers to help all oppressed people, irrespective of their religion, in the struggle against all forms of oppression. Both ‘Adil and Ram Nath advocate an Islamic perspective on pluralism based on the joint struggle for social justice, which, they argue, is indeed part of the basic agenda that Islam sets for itself. If mass conversions to Islam do not seem to be a distinct possibility in India in the near future, Dalit-Muslim unity efforts certainly do seem to be an increasingly salient development, to which voices like that of ‘Adil and Ram Nath are making an important contribution.


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