The anxieties around Dalit-Muslim unity: Part One

By Ambedkar Reading Group-Delhi for

Much of the present-day discussions use the category of caste to abandon the Muslim question and see it anew from within the ambit of a larger anti-caste location. We feel that there are serious problems with this political and theoretical move and this is what we want to problematize in the two-part series.

Recently, we saw the coming together of Dalits and Muslims at the ground level against a common enemy – the Hindu, Brahminical State and Culture – in many instances. It was a unification of lower caste groups and Muslims that we witnessed in the struggles of ASA in Hyderabad Central University too. Such a combination was what irked the authorities in HCU, which led to the persecution and eventual suicide/institutional murder of Rohit Vemula. However, in spite of this, the intellectual discussions that are happening today seem to be writing off any Dalit-Muslim unity as an impossible and even undesirable political formation by pointing to the existence of caste among Muslims.

In fact, at the end of 2016 we saw two different articles, one in ‘The Hindu’ and second in Roundtable India, which addressed this issue. Both these articles, Faizal Devji’s “Is a Dalit Muslim Alliance Possible” and ‘Khalid Anis Ansari’s A Bahujan ‘Third Space’ Beyond Left and Right: Really? vehemently opposed the very possibility of forming a Dalit-Muslim unity. Both of these articles point to the evidence of caste among Muslims so as to demolish the very category of the Muslim and to subsume this religious identity within an identity of caste, in the name of anti-caste politics.

(File photo, for representation only)

Caste is integral to the formation of almost all identity groups in India as it is foundational to the social and cultural fabric of India. Moreover, if we look at all marginalized and oppressed groups, it was the dominant caste/community among them that was involved in organizing the community. So, social stratification (on the basis of various factors including caste) is a reality for all minority groups including Muslims. Even Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote about this in his seminal work, Annihilation of Caste. However, all of the above articles, and much of the present-day discussions use the category of caste to abandon the Muslim question and see it anew from within the ambit of a larger anti-caste location. We feel that there are serious problems with this political and theoretical move and this is what we want to problematize in this piece.

Even though caste exists among women, among Dalits, among many social groups in India, it does not lead to the dismantling of the politics of any of these groups. The woman question continues to remain as a powerful field employed in almost all spheres of life and culture, in spite of the assertive attack on it by many Bahujan women who feel excluded from the homogenizing category of ‘woman.’ In fact, these attacks are also often made from a renewed understanding of women and gender. Similarly, even if there are divisions among Dalits, and ‘Maha Dalit’ has already become an established category like the ‘Pasmanda Muslim’ and Maha Dalits have started asserting themselves, one does not sees the presence of this issue in any intellectual discourse. The national acceptance of the caste question is itself today mediated by the large-scale employment of the category of the Dalit, which is often posited as a very homogenous and easily recognizable category.

However, when it comes to the Muslim question, the existence of caste among Muslims is employed not towards a reassertion of a new and renewed Muslim politics that would be informed by an understanding of the reality of caste, but the well-established concept of caste is used to bombard the very category of the Muslim and to replace it with the notion of a collective wherein the Muslim is added in with the category of Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs as a caste category, and the issue of religion is discarded as needless and useless for any kind of contemporary analysis. This can be very clearly seen in these words of Khalid Anis Ansari in the article, “Muslims that Minority Politics Left Behind:

“Since the express object of the Pasmanda movement has been to raise the issue of caste-based exclusion of subordinate caste Muslims, it has stressed on caste-based solidarity across religions. As Ali Anwar, the founder of Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, says: “There is a bond of pain between Pasmanda Muslims and the Pasmanda sections of other religions. This bond of pain is the supreme bond … That is why we have to shake hands with the pasmanda sections of other religions.”

In this article, after agreeing that “Pasmanda Muslims share a widespread feeling of ‘Muslimness’ with the upper-caste Muslims,” the reality of caste within this shared Muslimness makes Ansari move towards a position where he would rather focus on the Pasmanda Muslims’ shared “experience of caste-based humiliation and disrespect with subordinated caste Hindus,” even though he is well aware that this solidarity “is equally interrupted by the discourse around religious difference.” So when face to face with an identity, which is complex in nature, whose religion based solidarity is broken by caste and caste-based solidarity is broken by religion, Ansari chooses to focus on caste-based solidarity and discard the solidarity that is based on religion.

The best illustration of the political consequence of such a perspective is the Pasmanda Muslim position on the reservation for Muslims. Sub-group reservation is a demand by most identity groups today. OBC women, Maha Dalits and the Most Backward Classes are all demanding sub-quotas within the larger category as a way of better belonging to the very category that excludes them. However, in the case of Muslims, Pasmanda Muslims, in their own words “have consistently objected to the demand of reservation for the entire Muslim community dubbing it as a ploy by the hegemonic high caste Muslims to corner all the benefits.” (Khalid Anis Ansari: Why BAPSA’s support to Muslim Right is problematic) Instead, they seek reservations only within the established category of SC and OBC. In other words, Pasmanda politics aims at preventing all new attempts by Muslim organisations to get reservations as a group.

Now we need to understand here that the draft Constitution of India did provide reservations for Muslims. According to the decision of the Minorities Sub-Committee, the draft Constitution of February 1948 reserved seats for Muslims in Parliament and State legislatures. However, this reservation was taken away by the Constituent Assembly in May 1949.

In fact, it is through a very secular, savarna, liberal, nationalist politics that Muslims were cleverly pushed out of the ambit of reservations in India. It is the same nationalist process that put Dalits in the category of Hindus in the constitution. So now, if a politics is created in the name of caste, which will oppose any kind of assertion of Muslim politics/reservation, it is not difficult to see that this politics is framed within the same secular, savarna liberal process that pushed Muslims out of the ambit of reservation and made Dalits constitutionally Hindu.

However, as it must be obvious, one can see that it is very difficult for a group, which is already feeling oppressed within a totality to first demand reservations for the totality of Muslims and then ask for sub-reservation within it. In fact, this is an impossibility in the present scenario. In other words, the demands of Pasmanda Muslims are created from a certain impossibility regarding the Muslim question in Caste Hindu India. However, and this is what we want to argue here if we are to push towards a radical transformative politics, we need to understand how the ‘caste among Muslim’ discourse is actually reasserting this impossibility of the Muslim identity in a Caste Hindu India and thereby reasserting the ideology of the caste Hindu Nation.

Such an impossibility is automatically reproduced when most present day “caste among Muslims” discourses fail to distinguish between Hindu and Muslim social groups. In his Annihilation of Caste, Babasaheb Ambedkar reveals a greater insight about the same, which is very useful for thinking through these issues today. In this seminal work Ambedkar makes two major definitions about Hindu and Muslim social groups. About the Hindu society he says:

Hindu Society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes. Each caste is conscious of its existence. Its survival is the be-all and end-all of its existence. Castes do not even form a federation. A caste has no feeling that it is affiliated to other castes, except when there is a Hindu-Muslim riot. On all other occasions each caste endeavours to segregate itself and to distinguish itself from other castes. (Annihilation of Caste, Dr B R Ambedkar).

Here the argument is that Hindu society as such doesn’t exist as it is just a group of castes and that this collection of castes can probably come together only in the face of the Muslim ‘other.’ That is, the presence of the Muslim can create an affiliation of castes, which is otherwise not there. Thinking along these lines, we can then argue that it is this affiliation in the face of the Muslim that creates Hindu unity or Hindu identity or Hinduism itself.  This is the same reason why riots are needed whenever there is a need to manufacture such a Hindu Unity.

Now look at what Ambedkar has to say about Muslim and other minority groups in the same essay:

If we apply these considerations to castes among Mohammedans, Sikhs, and Christians on the one hand, and to castes among Hindus on the other, you will find that caste among Non-Hindus is fundamentally different from caste among Hindus. First, the ties which consciously make the Hindus hold together are non-existent, while among Non- Hindus there are many that hold them together. The strength of a society depends upon the presence of points of contact, possibilities of interaction, between different groups which exist in it. These are what Carlyle calls “organic filaments”— i.e., the elastic threads which help to bring the disintegrating elements together and to reunite them. There is no integrating force among the Hindus to counteract the disintegration caused by caste. While among the Non-Hindus there are plenty of these organic filaments which bind them together.

The major argument put forward here is that in contrast to Hindu society, which does not have a binding factor due to the presence of caste, and which can come together only in the face of the ‘other’ of the threatening Muslim, in spite of the presence of caste, Muslim society is bound by “organic filaments” which “reunites” them even in the face of the disintegrating elements of caste.

Two important points can be deduced from Ambedkar’s initial arguments about caste in Hindus and Non-Hindus. One is that there is something in non-Hindu community formations, which offers the possibility of transcending caste. Secondly, Hinduism in India is made possible when castes come together (even if momentarily) in the face of the Muslim ‘other.’ In fact, from the cow protection riots of the 1920s to the present day tensions between Hindus and Muslims there are deliberate attempts to make this coming together happen not only through the imposition of a hegemonic Brahminical culture on lower castes, but also through an attempt to bring all warring caste factions together as Hindu in the face of the threatening ‘other’ of the Muslim.

In the light of this discussion, we can now rethink the way Hinduism has been viewed from within the Dalit Bahujan discourse. This will help us better locate Hinduism and see the way in which the ‘caste among Muslim’ discourse is framed to neglect it.