Muslim-Dalit Relations

Gail Omvedt

Islam is a religion of egalitarianism and brotherhood. After the defeat of Buddhism, it maintained these values in India for centuries. Not only did those who became Muslims benefit by escaping from caste restrictions, but Muslim rule also provided a social and political context for the growth of Bhakti movements.

Within these, to a greater or less degree, Dalits and low castes sought a religious equality and expressed a devotionalism which heralded a supreme deity not very different from Allah. Syncretic cults also emerged, large and small, and the masses sought to memorialize holy men of whatever faith. The larger of the new cults, such as Sikhism and the Kabir Panth, probably never saw themselves as separate religions or as part of Hinduism or Muslims until recently.

During the pre-colonial period, there was no all-India "Muslim community" or "Hindu community" as such. Indian culture was complex, syncretic, pluralistic. It was this that changed radically during British rule. Making self-interested use of modern scholarship, the "Aryan theory" and the British tendency to identify all who were not Muslims or Christians as "Hindus," the Brahmanic elite formulated what we now call "Hinduism": a religion that was said to be the "national" one of the people of India, but taking the Vedas as its source and privileging the Sanskrit tradition. Previously the word "Hindu" had referred to India as a region; it was "al-Hind" to the Islamic world. Now religion and nation were identified. During this period a process began in which gradually the Bahujan majority began to identify themselves as "Hindus" – and in opposition to these, others began to see themselves as "Muslims" within which an orthodox Islamic identity was emphasized. In this process, the syncretistic and bridging, often local, spiritual traditions that had been created were drawn into the vortex of identifying with one of the two "large" religious communities.

Dalits were caught in this process. They were defined, by the elite, as "Hindus" – though they had few rights within orthodox Hinduism, and were not allowed even into the temples of the Bhakti cults. Almost all elite nationalists, including Gandhi, argued that Dalits should not identify with an "alien" religion but instead seek to reform "their own" religion. Yet it was only by a strange, imposed definition that Dalits could be said to be part of the Vedic- identified Hinduism which had never given them religious or social rights.

During much of the colonial period also, Muslims and Dalits were allies. They had in common a fear – often a hatred – of the dominant Brahmanism. As Ambedkar pointed out in his book Thoughts on Pakistan, between 1920 and 1937 it was Muslims, Dalits and Non-Brahmans who had worked the reforms, holding office in provincial assemblies and working in alliance on issues involving constructing the nation – on programmes which included opening up water tanks, roads, schools to Untouchables. In areas such as Bengal, a strong political alliance was formed between the Namasudra (Dalit) movement and the Muslims, which gained strength because both were predominantly tenants fighting anti-landlord struggles.

However, these alliances did not gain a strong philosophical basis. Most Dalits, even today, do not want to identify either as "Hindus" or "Muslims." But Muslims did not appreciate this and failed to articulate an understanding of the oppressiveness of the caste system. As Muslims divided into more orthodox and more "liberal", it was the Gandhian policies that provided the framework for the more "liberal" approach, that is for those associated with the Congress Party. (The left was on the whole irrelevant during this process since it did not deal with issues of culture). Gandhi sought unity between Hindus and Muslims as a major plank of the Congress – but it was a unity based on accepting Brahmanism within Hindu society. In the phrase, "Ram-Rahim," whatever "Rahim" may have symbolized, Ram represented a feudal, casteist patriarchal king who had killed the Shudra Shambuk for attempting tapascharya. "Ram Raj" had nothing to offer to Dalits. Gandhi was insistent in taking them as part of the "Hindu community" and thus opposed separate electorates for Dalits with a fervor that he never felt with Hindus. In other words, the conditions implicitly put forward by Gandhi for Hindu-Muslim unity included an acceptance of the framework of the caste system as it was imposed on Dalits and other low castes. Muslims were not to interfere in "Hindu" religion.

Ambedkar and other anti-caste reformers offered a different basis for unity, a common opposition to Brahmanism and caste. But this was ignored by liberal Muslims. The orthodox Muslims, in contrast, simply emphasized conversion. This left a situation again, where Dalits seemed to be forced into the "Hindu" framework." Finally, to discourage a Dalit-Muslim alliance those Dalits in Bengal and Hyderabad who had been particular supporters of independent Muslim states had very bad experiences. In Hyderabad, rural Dalits found themselves caught between two pincers of violence, atrocities committed against them both by the Razakars and then by the returning Hindus. In East Pakistan, though Dalits had supported the Muslims, many were attacked as "Hindus" and leaders like Jogendranath Mandal eventually fled back to India.

A solid Dalit-Muslim alliance for the future should be directed to building a prosperous, equalitarian, caste- and patriarchy-free India.

Muslims can make their contributions in three major ways: First, by rebuilding a Muslim culture that regains the artistic and scientific accomplishments of the past, that stands for modernism and an understanding of Islam that brings forth its egalitarianism as well as cultural-artistic achievements. Islam directed to maintaining its identity within a genuinely pluralistic society can be a powerful force for reconstructing the bases of an Indian national community.

Second, by recognizing that within Indian society, there is a special task of fighting the Brahmanism that has become dominant, that maintains casteism and "feudal" attitudes. Freeing Indian culture from the stranglehold of Brahmanism will provide the basis for a genuine national development. This cannot be done with an acceptance of Gandhism as the framework for "Hindu-Muslim unity." It can only be done by listening to the Dalit voice, to Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar, Iyothee Thass – and Mayawati, Kanshi Ram and others today.

Third, as Dalits search for a new faith, Islam will participate in this process. Dalits must be respected as an autonomous community; as they themselves break more and more decisively with Brahmanism, they will go diverse ways, and in the process some will turn to Islam.


[Courtesy: The University of Texas at Austin, 2005

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