Poverty, stigma, exclusion, violence are terms that come up during discussions on the status of Dalits. Recently, however, these have come to better describe another community: Muslims. Exclusion from higher education, government jobs, violence and normalised social disgust affecting Indian Muslims has generated enough scholarship. The state has also recognised their exclusion.
Both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claim to be concerned about the welfare of Muslims as long as Muslims do not claim their rights as Muslims. Both parties prefer them to be docile recipients of their concern — even the Narendra Modi government may not stop the subsidy for Haj. However, they expect Muslims to not take pride in their Muslimness, or link their citizenship claims to Muslimness, even as Hindus have done so. Despite there theoretically existing a ‘secular’ state since 1950, Sanskritic Hinduism has imprinted itself on the public sphere well before the Dinanath Batras and Smriti Iranis came to hold the reins — in police stations and government offices Hindu symbols have dominated; a statue of Manu adorns the forefront of the Jaipur High Court; new trains are flagged off with the breaking of coconuts; Brahmin priests perform bhumi pujas at almost every public-funded construction. Why, for the success of the recent Mars mission, even the ISRO chief K. Radhakrishnan sought the blessings of the Lord of Tirupati.
Muslim assertion It is in this context that we need to see the rise of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) under Asaduddin Owaisi, Member of Parliament, outside of the party’s home turf in Telangana. The party fielded 24 candidates, including three Dalits, in the recent Maharashtra Assembly elections. Though many of them were debutants, two of them won, three finished as runners-up, and eight candidates took the third place. In some places, even the losing candidates fared better than the Nationalist Congress Party/Congress contestants, with MIM polling over half a million votes. The stated purpose of MIM, to serve Muslim interests with an assertive Muslim identity, is being seen as reactionary, or more precisely anti-Hindu. It seems so to most commentators, reporters and ‘secularists’ of even the Left. Was MIM’s success in Maharashtra, which it hopes to soon replicate in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and West Bengal, based only on anti-Hindu rhetoric?
Given the resurgence of Hindutva, Mr. Owaisi and MIM may not be anti-Hindu but they surely perform pro-Muslimness best, by underscoring the need for Muslims to vote and elect their true representative through MIM. Mr. Owaisi speaks of education, poverty, and the arrests facing Muslims, and of the need for them to claim their citizenship dues under the rubric of the Constitution. For the secularists who suggest we think of all the poor as one class, MIM appears to mirror the BJP on a smaller scale with Muslims in control. Not quite though. MIM could well steal the Bahujan Samaj Party’s thunder, what with Mr. Owaisi almost talking the ‘Bahujan’ language of Kanshi Ram of 1990s during the post-Babri, post-Mandal phase. After tasting success in Maharashtra, Mr. Owaisi was reported saying, “We have succeeded in creating a platform for the unity of Muslims and Dalits and Other Backward Classes across the nation to raise their voices against the injustice they have been facing from the so-called secular parties.”
“ MIM could well steal the Bahujan Samaj Party’s thunder, with Asaduddin Owaisi almost talking the ‘Bahujan’ language of Kanshi Ram of 1990s ”
In Maharashtra, MIM managed to coin a new and interesting slogan: ‘Jai Meem and Jai Bheem’— Meem here standing for Muslim, with a pun of course on MIM. While undermining the expediency of Mayawati’s Dalit-Brahmin plank in 2007, this comes as a refreshing contrast to the Shiv Sena push in the 1980s for the coming together of Shiv Shakti and Bhim Shakti, that is of Hindus and Dalits, when the latter, in the post-Buddhist, post-Republican Party of India phase, had come to be wooed by the ascendant Shiv Sena in the State. The growth of MIM today is happening at a time when we have reports of how the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-BJP combine and its various arms are ‘Hinduising’ the Dalits to engineer full-fledged communal violence between Hindus and Muslims.
Embedded in MIM’s rhetoric are Muslim claims for social justice and citizenship. Whenever elite Indians see social justice and citizenship claims interspersed with assertions of identity, they are quick to label such political sentiments as anti-national. However, issues of inequality and justice remain intertwined with the question of social and religious identity.
Dalits may still be facing considerable indignities, violence, exclusion and humiliation had it not been for Ambedkar’s politics of identity that created possibilities of justice and equality. If Ambedkar had not carved the space for an independent Dalit politics, outside of the Congress-Gandhi-Hindu fold in pre-independence India, Dalits would have gained none of the rights and entitlements they enjoy today.
Purposive identity politics This is not to undermine Ambedkar’s other significant contributions towards nation-building. At the same time, we need to see his espousal of identity politics as a significant contribution to the nation-building process. After all, he saw India as “congeries of communities”; the very existence of the hierarchical caste system made this a society of teeming minorities. It is the assertion of such multiple and diverse identities, and their claims to justice, that laid the grounds for substantial political and social equality.
Ambedkar, thus, has now come to represent ideas of liberation, justice, and most importantly, hope in constitutional democracy. This calls for a purposive politics that discards assimilation and celebrates plurality of identities from the standpoint of those in the margins. However, such resistance to assimilation is generally portrayed as anti-national by the mainstream elites. When Arun Shourie wrote a full volume on Ambedkar’s ‘betrayal’ of (the Hindu) nation in his Worshipping False Gods (1997), his argument was no different from what the Congress and the ‘pro-nationalist’ press said of Ambedkar in the 1930s.
Ambedkar, however, swam against the assimilating currents that threatened to sweep away the margins. That is why he converted to Buddhism, along with over half a million followers. He administered specific vows to his followers to distinguish them from the Hindu mainstream. The making of Dalits as a political community distinct from Hindus — “a part apart” — was thus an important part of the Dalit claim to equality and citizenship.
If excessive poverty persists amongst Muslims, coupled with everyday discrimination, what is so wrong about framing Muslim identity as one of exclusion and staking claim to social justice? The MIM may well be on the path of instilling belief in the Constitution and democracy among Muslims despite their excessive deprivations. After the historical blunder of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Muslims may have finally found their idea of Ambedkar in Barrister Owaisi — for, after all, he often spoke of the violence faced by Dalits more than candidates of other parties dared to do.
If the idea of MIM’s Muslim-led Bahujan plank swells, it has the potential of both transforming elitist intolerance towards Muslims and more importantly igniting newer possibilities in Bahujan politics.
(Suryakant Waghmore is the author of Civility Against Caste and S. Anand is publisher, Navayana)