Mirage of Muslim-Dalit Unity


The Dalits have struggled on the margins of Indian society, suffering in silence, for thousands of years. Being born at the bottom of the caste hierarchy is the ultimate curse in the ancient land of ours. This is an issue that is as old as Mahabharata. The earliest voice of protest raised against the social and caste order of Hindu society had been that of Buddha. But even the Wise One did not have much success against the forces of status quo. Indeed, Buddhism that conquered much of Asia was rooted out of India, its land of birth.

Successive Hindu reformers, from Raja Rammohan Roy to Vivekananda to Gandhi, all did their best to fight untouchability and discrimination sanctioned by scriptures. The Mahatma was perhaps the first leader to realize that without the involvement of all sections of Hindu society, nothing could be achieved — especially freedom.

Gandhi went out of his way to rope in Dalits, making them part of the independence movement and the national mainstream. To change the whole social perception and discourse about the Dalits, he insisted on calling them Harijan — God’s own people. Gandhi did not entirely succeed in his attempts though. As some stoical Indians would explain, you cannot escape your birth however you might try. The Shudras may now be called Dalits or Harijan and may have massive state support in affirmative action or reservations. But little has changed for the Dalits in terms of respect and societal acceptance, even when they managed to taste power in the country’s largest state.

Untouchability and discrimination remain a fact of life. Not long ago when the Dalit chief minister of Bihar visited a temple, it was followed by a thorough “purification” of the shrine with special rites.

Despite all the talk of national integration and pontification against discrimination and untouchability, the sharp dividing line that separates the noble, upper caste Hindus from the wretched of the earth remains as powerful and forbidding as ever.

This shows itself from time to time and at every stage, including during elections. Since the Mandal revolution and rise of caste-based parties, they have largely voted according to their sectarian loyalties.

This is why it is truly extraordinary what the BJP under Narendra Modi accomplished in the 2014 elections and successive assembly polls that followed. The strategic role that Dalits and other backward communities have played in the spectacular success of the BJP in the general elections and state polls is the critical footnote that most commentators have ignored.

The so-called social engineering project that the Parivar has been meticulously working on for decades delivered a windfall in 2014 when the Dalits and other backward groups en masse deserted the Congress, BSP and SP to vote for Modi. However, it was in Gujarat under Modi that it was first put to use with deadly efficacy in the 2002 pogrom.

Senior Hindutva men and ministers may have choreographed the massacre of Muslims that went on for months but it was mostly the Dalits and other marginalised groups, who have historically shared good relations with Muslims and saw each other as friends and allies, who did the real work. They are the ones who were used as the cannon fodder and attack dogs of Hindutva carrying out killings, rapes and looting across Muslim neighborhoods. The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2012 which drove thousands of Muslims from their homes after their Jat neighbors, again a community historically close to Muslims, turned on them were part of the same “social engineering” process.

Indeed, 2014 saw the peaking and most successful demonstration of the Gujarat experiment. For the first time in India’s history, lower caste communities which saw the BJP as a party of the rich, upper caste Hindus, voted for the Hindutva party in such overwhelming numbers, largely thanks to the so-called orchestrated Modi wave.

But give the devil his due. Instead of being brought down by his toxic past, he used his past to burnish the image of a tough Hindutva hero with working class roots who could also “deal” with Muslims.

No wonder ordinary Hindus, including the Dalits and backward classes, found it hard not to identify with him and his message of a “strong, clean, prosperous India.” In any case, with an ostrich-like Congress in total meltdown and the rest of opposition clueless, it wasn’t too difficult to connect with a disenchanted, corruption-weary voter.

More important, the much-trumpeted Muslim vote bank has been rendered totally redundant and irrelevant. BJP candidates comfortably won even from Muslim-concentrated constituencies.

The Parivar managed to unite the extended Hindu family, even if temporarily against the “enemy.” After long years of indoctrination, brazen lies and continuous hate propaganda targeting Muslims, not to mention canards like “love jihad,” large sections of the backward communities including Dalits turned against an already demonised and marginalized minority.

This was the most disturbing and defining outcome of the 2014 and successive assembly polls. Something that should have come as a wake-up call to Muslims and other minorities. Yet it has been business as usual with our leaders and intellectuals continuing to be either fast asleep or wasting their time and energy on fighting phantoms and non-issues.

The alienation of Dalits and other marginalized communities not just means Muslims are left totally friendless and without allies in this vast and complex melting pot of a country; things could get even worse now that their votes are seen as totally worthless and useless.

The sooner Muslims woke up to the new political realities of India the better for them. Else they wouldn’t even have time to repent.

It is time for the community to think of effective ways and means of ending their splendid isolation. Instead of wallowing in self-pity and further withdrawing into their shell, they must close their ranks and reach out to make new friends and win allies.

Moreover, they must ask themselves what has gone wrong in their equation with Dalits and other communities and what they could do to mend fences. We also need to build bridges and alliances with other minorities such as Christians and Sikhs. This is not possible without sincere and relentless efforts. Inaction is not an option.

For far too long, we have remained too self-absorbed and wrapped up in our own world and its daily battles of survivals to look around and care for fellow travellers.

We must speak out more and stand up for others, just as we expect others to share our pain and concerns. There was a time when Dalits and other communities looked up to Muslims for guidance. How are we to provide leadership when we are totally clueless ourselves?

What in God’s name has gone wrong with us? We have had such a rich past in this country. Where did we lose ourselves? It is time to ask ourselves some hard questions. It's about time we rediscovered ourselves and our sense of direction and purpose as a community.

— Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award winning journalist and former editor. Email: Aijaz.syed@hotmail.com