The Alliance Matrix: Dalit-Muslim Unity or Dalit-Pasmanda Unity?

There have been discussions on the possibility of an enduring alliance between Dalit and Muslim community; however, in most of its attempt, it failed to bring both groups on a single platform at community level because of the presence of real or perceived prejudices among both communities. There is a need to reconsider the approach through which these social justice parties as well as civil societies are striving to achieve this objective. India is the land of caste, not religion, and caste is the basic unit of analysis for every aspect of individual life. Therefore, the article argues that there is a real possibility of alliances between socially marginalised groups of various religious communities. Instead of wasting time for seeking alliance between Dalit-Muslim we shall rather emphasise on the Dalit-Pasmanda alliance based on the shared feeling of lived experiences of subjugation and discrimination.

There have been many sociopolitical attempts in history to unite Dalits and Muslims as a political class but failed to foster this sociopolitical emancipation. This attempt is more visible at the time of election. But the idea of unity and related debate has some fundamental problems in order to achieve Dalit-Muslim organic solidarity in order to make a powerful impact on the election outcomes. One of the hindrances of this unity as one could find in the understanding of the Muslim community among the so-called social justice political parties. They mistakenly look at Muslims as a “homogeneous community.” Like any other social groups, Muslims are also socially ‘heterogeneous community’, divided into more than 700 caste groups. In this scenario the ‘Muslim community’ must be socially–politically addressed in terms of caste groups not as a religious group. At the same time, threat posed by the narratives of Hindutva juggernaut that the social justice parties and Congress party uses the Muslim community only as a ‘vote bank’ and hence able to sell their communal campaign in the form of various issues such as cow slaughter, triple talaq, love jihad, ghar wapsi, beef eating, Citizenship (Amendment) Act–National Register of Citizens, and now the latest hijab/burka ban to consolidate various caste groups as a single ‘Hindu unity’ against Muslims. In this background, we would like to discuss in this piece historical efforts initiated by various social reformers and ideologue for unity among depressed classes and why the so-called social justice political parties fail to make any impact on the issues of Dalit-Muslim unity. The last section of the paper will engage with the sociopolitical contradictions and prejudices present among the Dalit-Muslim community which further creates a gap between the two communities.      

The Complex Social Reality

As referred earlier, Muslims groups must not be seen as homogeneous and according to the Sachchar Committee and other governmental reports, 80-85% populations of the community are Pasmanda (backward classes) who are culturally and socially similar to Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The politics around binary such as majority–minority, Hindu–Muslim, secularism–communalism only reflects privileged upper caste and class interest of privileged few. Dalit and pasmanda failed to find space and their interests in these upper caste and class discourses and politics. For instance, B R Ambedkar strongly opposed the rule of majority and Hindutva nationalism, he said “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country.” Similar observations were also made by activist and economist Jean Drèze. He argues that “the surge of Hindu nationalism in India can be seen as a revolt of the upper castes against the egalitarian demands of democracy” (Drèze 2020). Therefore, according to him, the surge in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh/Bharatiya Janata Party (RSS/BJP) rule is not a reflection of majoritarian rule rather it is a hostility of the upper caste against constitutional democracy.  

The Dalit-Pasmanda-OBCs unity has complex social reality. One could easily understand from the experiences of social justice crusader Manyavar Kanshi Ram. He highlighted caste system and sociopolitical discrimination among Muslim society. For example, He had given his work experience with Muslim society. According to him, “I thought it was better to contact Muslims through their leadership. After meeting about 50 Muslim leaders, I was astonished to witness their Brahmanism. Islam teaches us to establish equality and struggle against injustice but the leadership of Muslims is dominated by so-called high castes like Syeds, Sheikhs, Mughals, and Pathans. The latter do not want the Ansaris, Dhuniyas, Qureshis to rise to their levels” (Singh 2007: 132). Similar observations were also expressed in the book Pakistan or the Partition of India by Ambedkar (2020: 230), he said “take the caste system. Islam speaks of brotherhood. Everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste. Regarding slavery nothing needs to be said. It stands abolished now by law…But if slavery has gone, caste among Musalmans has remained.”  

In the early 20th century when many anti-caste movements were organised and led by prominent leaders, similar kinds of anti-caste and self-dignity movements were also evident among lower-caste Muslims of India. For instance, Maulana Ali Hussain “Aasim Bihari was the leader of the first pasmanda movement and established a beedi worker society and worked for them along with pasmanda weaver. The All India Momin Conference of 1926 under the leadership of Hajiram Mohammad Farkhund Ali of Sasaram in Bihar started an organisation with the objectives to revive the traditional crafts of the weavers, to promote self-respect, devout religious conduct and economic independence. Contemporary pasmanda organisations of various forms also continuously asserting for a larger coalition among similar status of socio-economic marginalised communities.  

In addition to above, Masawat Ki Jung (The Struggle for Equality) a path-breaking work of Ali Anwar, a pasmanda leader also highlights the caste system among Muslims and the condition of their sociopolitical status in jobs and education institutions. Similarly, Masood Alam Falahi’s Hindustan Mein Zaat Paataur Musalmaan (2007) also reveals how theologically and socially justified caste-based discrimination among Muslim society at various point of time in the history of Islam in India.

In a recent interview, Khalid Anis Ansari, an intellectual voice of pasmanda movement, argues that “the pasmanda movement aspires to mobilise the backward, Dalit and Adivasi Muslims against the hegemony of the high caste Ashraf Muslims like the Syeds, Sheikhs, Mughals, Pathans and Rajputs” (Paliath, 16 March 2022). He further pointed out that Ashraf Muslims are continued to capture the power structures (state and religious institutions) in the name of Muslim representation at the expense of the pasmanda Muslims. Whatever representation Muslims got since the first general election of 1951–52 has been a representation of Ashraf Muslims, and not majority pasmanda. After seven decades of India’s independence, socio-economic status of Dalit and pasmanda is far below in every parameter of development index. These persistent declines of status of the both communities have been fastened specially with establishment of BJP regime at the federal level. Also, violence and discrimination rapidly increased against Dalit and low-caste Muslims.

Political Contradiction  

Despite having a significant number of support base, the Samajwadi Party (SP), BSP and other social justice parties failed to foster “unity of oppressed class” and galvanise them into political power. The BSP’s political experiment of ‘social engineering during 2007 election produced electoral success; however, since then the party has been declining after every election in term of vote and seats. Similarly, in a tactical experiment, BSP distributed 100 tickets to Muslim candidates in 2017 assembly election but miserably failed in election despite numerically strong in terms of vote percentage of combination of both communities. The slogan used by the BSP prior to 2007 was Bahujan sukhaya, Bahujana hitaya, but moved to be contradictory to its previous appeal. The BSP gave a new slogan Sarvajan hitay, Sarvajan sukhaya in order to attract upper caste and class voters in 2017 and 2019 elections but did not yield desired outcome. In the more recently concluded election of Uttar Pradesh (UP), BSP even started its new campaign with Brahmin sammelans. Though BSP changed its campaign name to Prabudh Varg Sammelan after criticism, however, it was actually targeted to get upper caste Brahmins vote. The SP) also followed the similar kind of campaign such as Parushram semmelan with similar objectives. Trends show that these social justice parties of north India are increasingly heading away from their founding principles and taking refuge in soft-Hindutva tactics for enhancing their support base. For instance, Akhilesh Yadav of SP said during a press conference (2 January 2022), if he comes to power then he will declare Parshuram Jayanti as a public holiday and a 68-feet-high statue of the god Parshuram would be built alone with the slogan of Barahman ka sankalp, Akhilesh hi vikalp (Brahmin's pledge, Akhilesh is the only option). On the one hand these parties spending a lot of energy to attract a group who are dissimilar to their social economic conditions like Brahmin and other upper castes, and on the other hand, leadership of these parties are reluctant to integrate most backward castes and pasmanda groups in their fold in order to foster a greater alliance based on their similar socio-economic conditions. In UP election 2022, again these so-called social justice political parties tasted a heavy defeat by the right forces. All these trends are suggesting that these parties are no more interested in continuing maxims of their founding fathers. Though, RSS-BJP-led Hindutva politics are getting success on riding the horse of Hindu-Muslim binary in north India particularly, but at the same time, DMK led by M K Stalin continue to hold the bastion of social justice with considerable success.

What Is to be Done?

In order to fight against Hindutva forces, left-liberal and even supporter of social justice groups, generally failed to address an important issue of diversity among Muslim community, whenever the question of cultural and political rights of pasmanda were raised. Hence their approach actually reinforces the myth of monolithic character of Muslim community (Dubey 2021). Consequently, it is strengthened the binary of religion and secularism-communalism which are an essential fodder for communal forces. Ideologue and social reformers like Kanshiram, Abdul Qayyum Ansari and Ali Anwar also reminded us regarding the need of caste-based unity rather religion-based unity. For instance, the slogan that has been raised by the pasmanda organisations is Dalit- peichada ek saman, hindu ho ya musalman (All Dalit-backwards are alike, whether they be Hindu or Muslim). Similarly, Dalit movement also asserts for Bahujan unity. It includes all other religious minorities whose social status is more or less same as Hindu Dalit or OBC. Pasmanda movements argues that in Indian society, social identity is more important and has always comes first before any religious identity.

Having said that, there are many real as well as perceived prejudices floating in both Dalit and pasmanda community that put severe challenge for any possible unity or coming of both groups on a single platform. Muslim community’s traditional leadership or Ashraf class often portray the community as homogenous entity which actually enforce the idea of oppressor among the Dalit community as Dalits and OBCs have similar experience of exploitation by these Muslim Ashraf caste. For example, in recently concluded UP assembly election 2022, majority of Dalits and OBCs voted for BJP candidate Shiddharth Singh from Allahabad West constituency, a Muslim-majority seat. Shiddharth Singh was not a popular candidate. He even lost his ministerial berth in the new UP government. Hindu Dalit and OBC voters in an interaction argued, “it is BJP who control the dominance of Muslims (Ashraf class) of the area as they identified Muslims as homogenous entity though majority of the Muslims of the area are similar in social and economic status of their counterpart of Hindu community.” Similar trends could also be observed if we analyse the profiles of the ticket distribution of Muslim candidates by parties like the Congress, BSP, SP and others. Mostly, these parties give majority of tickets to Ashraf caste (upper caste) Muslim in elections in the name of Muslim and ignored the majority pasmanda representation. On the other hand, Hindu-Muslim communal riots in India also evidently present a brutal reality, which develops prejudices among Muslims against Hindu Dalit or backward caste community. It has been perceived by the majority of the pasmanda community that the Hindu Dalits and OBCs are the one who frequently participate in the violence directed against them.

In addition to above mentioned prejudices of both communities, the so-called social justice political parties are also gravely failed to give message for the need of unity among communities by not addressing the growing incidents of physical as well as structural violence inflicted on both communities, issues which are being used by right-wing forces for the mobilisation of Dalit and OBC population against Muslim community.              

To conclude, we would like to argue that the sociopolitical alliance should not be limited to only religious identity based rather should include all those issues that resonate across the Bahujan perspective irrespective of their religion and on the principle of social justice.

We would like to thank Arvind Kumar from the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Jamia Millia Islamia for his valuable inputs to the draft article.

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