Is a Dalit-Muslim alliance possible?

If a relationship is to be anything more than a temporary marriage of convenience, the ‘Muslim community’ must be broken by caste just as its Hindu version has been

August 31, 2016 12:24 am | Updated October 18, 2016 01:42 pm IST

Illustration: Surendra

Illustration: Surendra

Spurred by the violence of cow vigilantes, the unexpected emergence of organised Dalit protest in Gujarat raises important questions about minority politics in India more generally. The participation of Muslims in the Gujarat mobilisation, for instance, is only the latest of many attempts at an alliance with Dalits, whose lack of success until now requires explanation. In contrast to Dalits, on the other hand, the virtual absence of an autonomous Muslim politics in the many decades since Independence poses a problem of another kind. Indeed, the long-standing Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Jan Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accusation, that the Congress “pampers” and uses Muslims as a “vote bank”, in its own way betrays the only genuine recognition of this political void, in which Muslims have no politics of their own but can only be deployed by and against others.

Forging Muslim politics Unlike Dalit politics, the kind practised by Muslims in their own name has been unable to move beyond local and State arenas. As illustrated by the Indian Union Muslim League in Kerala, this is also a politics of clientage, one that obtains and distributes patronage by lending Muslim support to decide the balance of power between other parties. As the last federal elections showed, however, this strategy only works in a fragmented political arena, so that it was possible for the BJP, with its large majority, to dispense with Muslim support altogether. But since the Telangana-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader, Asaduddin Owaisi, has recently invoked a Dalit-Muslim alliance, especially in his new Maharashtrian base of Aurangabad, this pattern of clientage might be changing, and in any case illustrates the increasing importance and potential of such a relationship in India’s political life.

Following the events in Una, there has been some debate in the press about the failure of Muslim — as opposed to Dalit — mobilisation and politics, which has largely, and for the most part correctly, attributed it to the fact that Muslim politicians have tended to be high-caste figures interested in coming to some pecuniary arrangement with their Hindu counterparts, while at the same time excluding their low-caste co-religionists from power. But this account doesn’t go far enough to note that the “Muslim community”, whatever else it might be, does not and cannot exist as a political entity except in a negative sense, as the alleged victim of prejudice or hostility. This is due not simply to its divisions of caste, class, sect and language, which after all characterise all communities, but rather the very effort to unify it religiously even if in the broadest and most tolerant way. If anything, the quest for Muslim unity on religious grounds takes Hindu nationalists rather than Dalits as a model, but this only makes a Muslim politics impossible, given the unequal status of the two communities.

Here again the AIMIM provides a recent and instructive counter-example, with Mr. Owaisi’s clear and even excessive identification as a Muslim in his appearance and comportment belied by a politics for which religious issues and leaders are of little or no account. However thuggishly his party may behave in the old city of Hyderabad, Mr. Owaisi freely criticises the ulema and has little tolerance for fatwas and controversies about mosques, blasphemy, Shariat and jihad, with all of which he deals in the most scrupulously secular and constitutional way. As others in the press have also noted, Mr. Owaisi is practically the first politician since Muhammad Ali Jinnah for whom Muslims have to be made into a political rather than religious group, and in my view he can only think of doing so by calling for a joint programme with Dalits, who thus come to provide Muslims with a political model as much as a cause.

The Dalit example There is no small irony in the fact that Muslims can only act politically alongside or by following the example of Dalits, since before Independence it was B.R. Ambedkar who was constrained to follow the lead of the more powerful Muslim League. This he resented, knowing that Jinnah’s friendship was transient, his true aim being to come to an agreement with caste Hindus in the Congress. Yet the system of reservations that made Dalits into a single political interest by constituting a kind of common property to be defended was founded upon the ruins, yet also on the model, of the separate electorates and weightages that Muslims — like Hindus where they were not in a majority — had enjoyed in colonial India. Having begun as a constitutional camp follower of the Muslim League, then, even trying to include Dalits in a “minorities pact” with it, Ambedkar ended up replacing Muslim privileges with Dalit ones after Partition.

Interesting about this politics of replacement, however, is the fact that despite his earlier efforts to claim minority status, Ambedkar seems eventually to have left this disempowering category to Muslims and other religious groups like Christians and Sikhs. So his new Buddhist identity was defined by the politics of caste rather than faith. Saddled with the role of a religious minority, Muslims have been deprived of politics and encouraged to focus on issues of identity relating to personal law, madrasas and the like, which, however important they might otherwise be, can be included within but never take the place of politics. If it is true to its name, after all, politics must possess its own autonomy, integrity and logic. Thus the Buddhist faith of Dalit converts, fervent as it is, does not play a defining role in caste politics, and it is precisely this example that draws Muslim emulation beyond the more prosaic reasons for an alliance.

A Muslim caste politics But to make a Muslim politics possible, the “Muslim community” has to be destroyed, since defined as a religious minority, it has not only failed either to protect or advance its members politically, but, as the 2014 elections showed, made even its vast numbers irrelevant to India’s electoral arithmetic. If a Dalit-Muslim relationship is to be anything more than a temporary marriage of convenience, therefore, the “Muslim community” must be broken by caste just as its Hindu version has been. Only by including Muslim low castes into the system of reservations, for instance, might new political interests and alliances be created, with other Muslim groups also being freed to work out a political future of their own. This seems to be the direction of low-caste Muslim politics emerging during the post-Mandal period, especially in Bihar with the All-India Backward Muslim Morcha and the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz.

Let me be clear that what I am advocating is not the standard separation of religion and politics, or the secular and the communal, which tend to be shifting and in any case polemical categories rather than sociological ones. My argument rather is that the “Muslim community” is an anti-political entity by definition, and not simply due to its poor leadership, hierarchical organisation and lack of unity, as many within it imagine. For a demographic majority religious unity may become politically salient but is not crucial to its dominance, however for a minority emphasising such a unity can be damaging. Indeed, it is the absence of a diverse Muslim politics that has, at least in part, allowed for the occasional emergence of Islamist militancy in India, so the issue is not one of depoliticising Islam but re-politicising Muslims. And it is because the conventional if indirect way of doing so, through clientage, enjoys diminishing returns, that the Dalit example has proven so attractive.

Faisal Devji is University Reader in Indian History and Fellow of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.

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