Re-thinking the Dalit-Muslim political unity

By Shahid Siddiqui

(This Paper was presented on 22nd Oct’09 at Dalit-Muslim Dialogue: A Youth Workshop/Seminar held in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. )

During the Round Table conference in London, BR Ambedkar and Gandhiji fought a battle over the question as to who represented the untouchables. Within India, there is intense debate on who mirrors Dalits' sufferings and their geniuses.

The question remains unresolved as many non-Dalit intellectuals, politicians and activists claim to be representing Dalits.

While it is always great to have non-Dalits to speak up for Dalits, it often gets complicated, even disastrous, when they represent Dalits. For instance, when non-Dalits argue that Dalits ought to hold on to their traditions, they don't realise what it means to Dalits if they remain rooted to their traditions.

By tradition, Dalits are to serve society without any rewards. This situation arises because non-Dalits will never know how it feels when Dalits have to skin dead cows or clean toilets.

Do non-Dalits eager to represent Dalits camouflage themselves as Dalits or lead a life as a Dalit for some time to get a feel of being Dalits?

By definition, the caste order rests on the dogma of inequality from where Dalits can never pull off equality. Then what happens to all the Dalit movements whose sub-currents find origin in the idea of equality?

And then there are other questions. Can Dalits and non-Dalits be equally placed in all the spheres - be it political power, asset ownership pattern and knowledge?

Or, can all individuals irrespective of their social roots and abilities be equally affluent and powerful. Can, within Dalits, all be equally placed in all the spheres of public existence?

If the answer is in the negative, or ambiguous, it is time that Dalit movements decide their notion of equality. Forget the Dalit masses, even within the Dalit families not all members are equally placed.

In caste India, all are born unequally. Elsewhere too, all are born unequal, yet, they are free. In India, by birth, all fall into social groups innately unequal in caste hierarchies. Elsewhere, barring in multiracial societies, individuals are born potentially equal as their status is not predestined.

Since Dalits' status is predestined, Dalit movements demand that basic grammar of pre-destiny to change, and hence, dream for equality. If equality doesn't exist as a reality anywhere on the planet, are we then chasing a delusion?

Most leaders of Dalit movements belong to a class from within the larger Dalit mass. They are former and serving Government employees, school teachers, professors, professionals, parliamentarians and writers. They represent the entire Dalit mass - but do not fight the class divide within the community. Needless to say, without this accomplished class of Dalits, the Dalits would have remained voiceless.

Dalits in the past have been successfully mobilized by various political parties across the Indian landscape. The Congress has effectively managed a large chunk of dalit votes from the beginning, however there was little shift in dalit votes in areas where the Republican Party of India (RPI) emerged in late 1960s and early 1970s. Since 1977, the dalit vote got divided between the congress and Janta Party (Later Janta Dal).

Even though the Congress still receives the largest chunk (27%) of the dalit vote nationally, its monopoly over dalit votes has shrunk considerably. The rise of regional parties in the states during the years of party system fragmentation and the simultaneous arrival of the BSP as a major claimant of political loyalty from dalits are seen as the major reasons.

In UP's 2002 Assembly elections, BSP garnered 23.06 per cent of popular votes and won 98 seats. In 1996 Assembly elections, the BSP had garnered 19.64 per cent of votes and won 67 seats. In Parliamentary elections held in 2004, the BSP garnered 24.67 per cent of votes, and won 19 seats. In Parliamentary elections held in 1999, the BSP had garnered 22.08 per cent of votes, and won 14 seats.

The BSP between 1996-2004 has contested four elections in UP and averaged 22.36 per cent of votes. In all the elections, the BSP's Dalit vote base was 21 per cent. So unless the BSP gets 30 per cent of votes there is no way the party could emerge as the leading political player in UP. The Bahujan thesis of leading a social coalition of Dalits-OBCs-Muslims has been failing repeatedly. The BSP has to be realistic – an artificially engineered social coalition of Bahujans will ultimately swallow BSP itself.

Traumatised by the (upper) OBC aggression, Dalits and Brahmins were looking for a common platform to tackle the OBC menace. Mayawati read the social pulse adequately, and called for a Dalit-Brahmin coalition. The new thesis is at work, and the BSP is about to hit the 30 per cent mark in the ongoing elections. The average Dalit and the average Brahmin is celebrating this Dalit-Brahmin thesis.

But, what about the Dalit and Brahmin elite?

For records sake, there are hardly any Dalit elite as a 'social class'. By Dalit standards however, there is a social class - government officers, professors, professionals and independent entrepreneurs who can be described as Dalit elite.

Take a survey of a 100 Dalit elite, more than 95 per cent will dismiss Mayawati's Dalit-Brahmin thesis. Then why is the ordinary elite Dalit charting a course conflicting in nature?

The Dalit elite in their 50s' have roots in the villages. They have seen the Brahmin guile at work and have seen as how OBCs acted as the social police of the Brahmins. The Dalit elite as officers or teachers are located in workplace contexts dominated by Brahmins. The Dalit elite thus in their day-to-day life suffer silently.

But, whenever they get an opportunity to express, they relocate Brahmins in the villages and in the past, and further, relate that to their urban context and the present. Based on the twin contexts - of the countryside-urban experience and the past travelling into the present, they theorise Brahmins as perpetual tormentors.

To the Dalit elite therefore, a continued assault on Brahmins must continue. To the average Dalits however, the OBC aggression is part of their life. In the past, OBCs would hit Dalits on behalf of Brahmins. Today, they hit Dalits to show their own dominance.

Sandwiched between the twin parallel social contexts, the Dalit elite are fighting the past. Desirous of a better future, the average Dalit is fighting the present. The Dalit elite thus, are failing to re-adjusting with the changed social contradictions. Sadly, the larger strata of Dalit elite are standing with Dalits' head hunters.

But, why do the Brahmin elite continue to despise the Dalits?

Rooted in the past, the Brahmin elite are self-condemned doubly. Arrogance as one of the fundamental features of the Brahmin consciousness, the Brahmin elite would not submit before Dalits. A Brahmin academic would resist Dalits' entry into the world of academia lest their history writing, economic theories, theories of change come under any new intellectual inquiry. To a Brahmin CEO, Dalits ought to be resisted lest this new social class dent their dominance.

At this critical phase of history when the mainstream Indian polity has begun abandoning Dalits, we must ask certain questions to ourselves- "why the post-Ambedkar Dalits couldn't add to what Baba Saheb Ambedkar had fought and won for us"?

The answer is very simple, in the post-Ambedkar era, the narrative on dalits politics in the country is more often confined into the binaries of “identity assertion” or “opportunistic- politics”.

Similarly, Muslim Community in India is also passing through great churning and transition. It is by now clear that discrimination in India is widespread and not confined to any single community or group. There is on the other hand the live experience of day to day discrimination, in education, employment, housing and public services, which entrap the community in hopeless conditions of poverty and want. This is fostered in a situation of pervasive communal prejudice in all institutions of the state, especially the police, civil administration and judiciary; and also the political leadership of almost all parties; large segments of the print and visual media; and the middle classes, and the systematic manufacture of hate and divide by communal organisations.

Muslims are not being able to rent accommodation in cosmopolitan areas or buildings, leading to their ghettoisation. But it is hard to establish the existence of any discrimination against Muslim in Public employment but points to evidence (in the form of court cases) that Muslim feel they are affected by biases in selection. The Sachar committee cites a number or instances of discrimination against Muslim Minority.

The Sachar committee report has a whole chapter dedicated to the politically controversial issue of Muslim demographic trends in India.The relevant pages in the document are from Page no 48 to 68.

The report says that according to the 2001 census the Muslim population in the country was enumerated at 138 Million. The report estimates that as of 2006 it must have crossed 150 Million people.

The report also confirms that Muslims have higher population growth rates and higher fertility rates than the rest of the population even when adjusted to regional variations such as the North(with a higher population growth rates) or south(with near replacement level growth rates). In both instances the Muslim Population growth rate is slightly higher than that of the other Socio-religious communities in the said region.

The report says that in the field of literacy the Committee has found that the rate among Muslims is very much below than the national average. The gap between Muslims and the general average is greater in urban areas and women. 25 per cent of children of Muslim parents in the 6-14 year age group have either never attended school or have dropped out.

Muslim parents are not averse to mainstream education or to send their children to affordable Government schools. The access to government schools for children of Muslim parents is limited.

Muslim community has a representation of only 4.5% in Indian Railways while 98.7% of them are positioned at lower levels. Representation of Muslims is very low in the Universities and in Banks. Their share in police constables is only 6%, in health 4.4%, in transport 6.5%.

Most of the variables indicate that Muslim-OBCs are significantly deprived in comparison to Hindu-OBCs. The work participation rate (WPR) shows the presence of a sharp difference between Hindu-OBCs (67%) and the Muslims. The share of Muslim-OBCs in government/ PSU jobs is much lower than Hindu-OBCs.

The Sachar committee helped in a big way to expose stereotypes that had been used by right wing communal groups as part of their propaganda.

Now, It is fairly well-understood after about 60 years of experience in public life that neither dalits nor Muslims are able to influence the country Politics. The predominant finding of the muslim insecurity is that there is an intense, almost universal sentiment of fear and growing despair among muslim citizens of the country. Many of those who testified in the meet went so far as to declare that they felt reduced to second class citizenship. They shared their mounting disillusionment with all institutions of governance, and more so with the police and judiciary, as well as with political parties and to some extent the media.A dozen speeches are made and discussions are organized, seminars in everywhere to spare our thoughts for India’s most “wretched of the earth”, the Dalits and insecured muslims.

The rising tide of communal violence from the decade of 1980 has consolidated the communal politics, politics in the name of religion. The party riding on the chariot of religious nationalism became the second largest party and tasted power at center for six long years and is now entrenched in few states and is knocking at the door of power in few other states. The hope that its recent defeat in Lok Sabha elections will reduce the impact of communal politics in society or will ensure that all communities can breathe the air of civil rights and equal citizenship rights with ease, seems to be like distant drums!

The impact of the rise of this politics and accompanying effect on minorities has resulted in worsening their lot. This downward slide in the condition of minorities is very obvious, is going from bad to worse, to worst. It has resulted in the conditions for minorities where they have to live in fear, alienation and the impact of constant profiling in different walks of life. This communal politics has been talking of Hindu nation, has been spreading hate against minorities, against Muslims in particular. The Muslim community has been the major target of attack and has been bearing a huge brunt of the divisive politics being spearheaded by RSS, its progeny and by those influenced by the RSS ideology. They are not only there in the state machinery and media but also in other crucial spots of Indian social, economic and political life.

Those Muslims having successful business have been targeted to ensure breaking their economic backbone. This not only in Gujarat but also in other BJP ruled states. This economically marginalized community is practically boycotted by financial institutions, telephone companies and other. There are many cases where the community is being denied space for graveyards, which are either being taken away or not allowed to expand where there is need for more space.

The plight of Shabana Azmi or Imraan Hashmi not getting the house in desired locality is not isolated; this phenomenon is becoming more widespread. The walls of separation along religious community lines are becoming stronger. The Sachar Commission and the Prime Minister’s 15 point program remain a showpiece for purposes best known to the state!

The myths and stereotypes in the media and social space are very much there. The large section of school text-books reinforces the stereotypes and myths about the community. So where does all this lead us? In a democracy, in a secular state the minorities should be provided safety and dignity irrespective of their religion. The present condition of Muslims in India is nothing but abysmal from the point of view of security, economic condition and social life. A large section has started feeling the deprivations in a very painful manner.

Meanwhile, Muslim community is not a homogeneous community. Muslims are divided on caste and Class lines. In fact, they are conscious of their specific caste/tribal identities. For that reason, their interests and issues are different from each other. We must remember that the social stratification is a natural phenomenon. We must therefore, recognize that social stratification among Muslims is a social reality.

However, the priorities of Muslims have now changed. They want development, education and political participation.

Muslim political deprivation:

The new theme of contemporary Indian Muslim politics show that the question of Muslim political representation is no longer confined to the number of Muslim Mps. On the contrary, this under representation, or what is also called Muslim political deprivation reintroduces us to two fundamental questions:

1-Do Indian Muslim constitutes a political Community?

2-Is the notion of political representation linked to the Muslim politics of social justice in contemporary India?

The Sharp decline in the number of Muslim MPs in the 15th Loksabha has given a new impetus to the conventional debate is still dominated by the legal-constitutional debate on Muslim Political representation. There are total 28 Muslim MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha.

The future of India lies in the unity of Dalits and Muslims - not under the banner of any party or that because no party is aiming at providing an alternative to the existing social, political and economic setup.

Why no political party is thought to be neccesary? Is it a proletising work?

No, it’s not that. But, if it is, well and good; nothing wrong in that.

Another question arises that do the Muslims consider Dalits as non-hindus?

I think, it is the first necessity that they must make a distinction between "Hindus" and Dalits. Dalit leaders have time and again declared that. Leaders of all Dalit parties, of all shades and colours. But Muslim leaders do not think about this. I think this is the main hurdle.

No doubt, Islam is a great religion. Also it cannot be gainsaid that meeting of Ambedkar and Jinnah could not bear fruits. If the unity has to bear any fruits, today, it has got to be based on secular points.The basis has to be non-religious. It should be purely on political ideology.

I believe, that ideology could only be Ambedkarism. Our Muslim brothers have got to get themselves acquainted with Spirit of Ambedkarism, which is different from Spirit of Buddhism.

But unfortunately, the masses of Indian Muslims are pure: revolutionary and boiling with anger. And the problem is the masses — who form 95% of the Muslims of India — do not know who their enemy is. The Muslim leadership comprising three sections: religious, political and business, is hiding the enemy.

It is a shame that the Muslim ruling class — religious, political and business — nowhere in India is thinking of the Dalits. At least 90% of the Indian Muslims are converts from Dalits. Conversion liberated them from social oppression.

Dalit-Muslim Political Representation:

Politics is a means to achieve social justice. Dalit- Muslim Unity is something which is needed to influence the electoral system of the country in such a way that the Muslims and Dalits can secure their equitable share. Dalit-Muslim unity, particularly political unity, is often seen in national perspective. It is usually said that Muslim must unite at the national level and vote for a political party. In the context of coalition governments, voting for one political party is neither feasible nor desirable.

Similarly, the idea of only Muslim Unity at state level is also quite difficult because there are hardly eight or nine states where Muslims are in decisive position to influence any particular party.

So, unless Dalits and Muslims unity there is no other way to secure their national as well as local interest.In this case, by understanding the political diversity at various levels, there is an urgent need to work on the socio-economic unity of Muslims and Dalits of India. It is important for Muslim as well as Dalit groups to create functional political coalition to secure their political interests with in the broader scheme of existing political systems governed by our constitution. Muslims and Dalits have to do some kind of social engineering.

Infact, Muslims have seen some experiments in the past. The Dali-Muslim unity under the congress was the first such experiment. It was followed by the OBC-Muslim unity experiment in post Mandal India. But, that experiment failed because Muslim didn’t get the support of Yadav and Jats in political terms especially in UP.

And this new idea of Dalit-Muslim unity is something which might be helpful for both social groups. Dalit and Muslims are both exploited by upper caste Hindu forces and their unity is politically desirable, though it did not work in the recent elections.



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