The anxieties around Dalit-Muslim unity: Part Two

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. The first part can be read here.

In the first part, we argued that the Pasmanda political discourse is constructed within a certain impossibility of the Muslim question in India. We also further argued that this impossibility is reproduced when the present Pasmanda discourse fails to recognise the difference between the category of Hindu and Muslims.

In the light of this discussion, we can now rethink the way Hinduism has been viewed from within the Dalit Bahujan discourse. Hinduism here is often thought of as just another name for Brahminism, which is then imposed on different lower caste communities, who are forced, coerced, persuaded or seduced to adopt Brahminical culture so as to situate themselves as Hindu. Expanding on Ambedkar’s argument and in the light of numerous historical incidents, we can make a different argument: Hinduism is not ONLY a category imposed on any single caste group (as is argued in Kancha Iliaha’s Why I am not a Hindu) through Brahminism, it is also a relational category that comes to different caste groups when they are organized to forget their caste nature temporarily in the face of the Muslim ‘other’.

Without this expanded understanding of Hinduism, which not only talks of caste but also looks at its close connection to the reality of religion and the positioning of the Muslim as the ‘other’ we cannot fully chart the realities of India in any of our analysis. For instance, if we do not do this, we cannot understand why the demolition of Babri Masjid was a fall out of the Mandal debate. (See: “Babri Mosque Demolition: 
Why On December 6 ?” By Ashok Yadav, 21 February, 2009)

We cannot also explain why in Gujarat the riots for and against caste-based reservations in 1981 was transformed “very quickly into a gratuitous attack on the Muslim community, which had nothing to do with the reservation policy of the government.” We will also not be able to make much of the fact that it was Narendra Modi, who was then in his capacity as a senior functionary of the RSS who engineered this attack on Muslims, when the issue was about caste-based reservations. “The Social Engineering of Gujarat,” Hemant Babu in Himal Mag, Vol 15, No: 5, May 2002.

So to repeat, it is not enough to say that there are different castes and that we are all forced/persuaded to identify as Hindus within the hegemonic category of Hindu, we also need to state that this category of the Hindu is created when lower castes are mobilised against the external threat of the Muslim. The constitutional definition of the Dalit as Hindu, exacerbates this process and gives constitutional weight to the inclusion of a major and resisting part of the lower castes – the Dalits – within the Hindu fold, thereby strengthening this otherwise lifeless category. It is this process of organising different castes as Hindu within various national secular liberal discourses against the Muslim ‘other’ that we must term as Indian Ideology and we must point to this as that which sustains caste in India today, giving importance to both caste and religion in its making. Manusmriti or pre-independence anti-caste literature, which talks only about the different categories of caste, will not help us face this complex, modern, Hindu reality of caste in India.

However, it is not the same process that binds Muslim society in India. It is through the use of non-Hindu symbols, tropes, rituals, eating habits and knowledge production that Muslims have constituted themselves as a society in India. Taking forward Ambedkar’s argument we can say that the religion of Islam provides “organic filaments” which guides the process of unification in Muslims, whether this be marred by caste or not. Thus in many ways, in spite of the presence of caste in this non-Hindu society, it still offers a possibility of resistance to the unification process that is happening under the ambit of Hinduism. In other words, Muslim unification is not only different from Hindu unification but it is also a unification that resists the cultural power of Hindu hegemony in India.

In the light of the above arguments, a few things are clear. If the evidence of caste is being used to get to a situation where the ‘Muslim community must be broken by caste” and a “supreme bond” will be created between lower caste Hindus and Muslims, we will still not find a way out of the impasse we are all in. In this kind of a scenario, the newly added Muslim will only aid the caste category, which i) any day can become affiliated to one another and turn against the Muslim as the ‘other’ and ii) which without unpacking its own location in the Hindu religion cannot really be fully annihilated.

In fact, this location of caste in Hindu religion is one of the most important messages in Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, which many of us are not even ready to discuss today. Here Ambedkar writes:

“Caste may be bad. Caste may lead to conduct so gross as to be called man’s inhumanity to man. All the same, it must be recognized that the Hindus observe Caste not because they are inhuman or wrong-headed. They observe Caste because they are deeply religious. People are not wrong in observing Caste. In my view, what is wrong is their religion, which has inculcated this notion of Caste. If this is correct, then obviously the enemy you must grapple with is not the people who observe Caste, but the Shastras which teach them this religion of Caste. Criticising and ridiculing people for not inter- dining or inter-marrying, or occasionally holding inter-caste dinners and celebrating inter-caste marriages, is a futile method of achieving the desired end. The real remedy is to destroy the belief in the sanctity of the Shastras. (the emphasis is ours)

So the present trend of trying to delegitimize all Muslim politics in the name of caste should be more thoroughly interrogated. We should clearly identify that any debate that calls for an abandonment of Muslim politics is not only a way of managing Muslim politics in India, but also a way to maintain the status quo regarding caste Hindu Indian ideology. Moreover, in this time of extreme Islamophobia and the ascendancy of the Hindu right wing in India, one cannot but see the connection between this theoretical annihilation employing caste and the literal annihilation of Muslims that is being sought on the ground.

In fact, in the light of the above arguments, we have to seriously think about the denial of religion in our present day anti-caste discourses. Given the complex way in which caste and religion come together to create modern caste Hindu realities, we need to see that a denial of religion is a sure way of leaving Hinduism and thereby caste itself unquestioned. In fact, we need to think more about why it is easy for us to discard religion and create a politics based solely on the caste question. We feel this is because of the secular legitimacy that caste has gained today. This legitimacy is mainly gained by discarding the category of religion and focusing only on the hierarchies of caste, which does not actually interrogate the Caste Hindu Indian ideology discussed above. This is very similar to the legitimacy that gender has gained. Gender, even feminists agree, has taken over all fields. This is because though not similar to contemporary anti-caste politics and much more hegemonic and even more acceptable to the mainstream, the gender debate has also left the modern, Caste Hindu Indian edifice unquestioned.

However, Muslim politics as Faisal Devji himself says, has never been able to gain any legitimacy in India. The Left always claimed to be supportive to Muslim politics, but they also talk from within the binary of communalism/secularism and in the long run they include most Muslim groups within the ‘communal’ category.

More importantly, we must also note that many of the organizations today accused of having upper caste leadership have been banned numerous times, many others have been broken up and their members send to years of prison. Many important Muslim leaders have also spent decades in prison for daring to talk about Indian social issues from within the ambit of Islam. This clearly shows how persecuted and marginalized Muslim political organizations have been in India. Yet, a religiously oriented, non-secular, illiberal Muslim politics has existed and thrived (even as it has been oppressed and persecuted) in India and it has remained marginalized and this can be seen as having a potential to question every hegemonic category in India, including that of Hinduism, secularism and nationalism.

In other words, if Indian modernity, which became unofficially Hindu by including lower castes too within its fold, sees the Muslim as the ‘other,’ we should at least allow this “other” to be recognized and granted the right to political mobilization and assertion. Even if we are not ready to say that it is this ‘other’ which has the potential to break apart the hegemony of Caste Indian modernity, at least we should grant this much to this ‘other.’ If we are denying even this to the “other” we are doing nothing but asserting the “Self” of the Caste Hindu Nation against this “other.”

In many ways, we also need to see that Islam has taken an oppositional position to modernity all over the world, and that is why it is seen as such a threat both inside and outside. We cannot refuse to see all this and talk as if the so-called Savarna Muslims are sharing monopoly of land and other material and cultural resources like the Savarna Hindus. In fact, as Shan Muhammed argued in an article on Round Table India, there is a theo-political potentiality of Islam and Muslim organizations, which cannot be dismissed by saying that all of them are being headed by upper caste Muslims.

Most Islamic organizations and politics, embrace religion and often politics for them is subsumed within the ethical practices that religion demands from them. For them there is no sociality where they have no religion. In great contrast, contemporary anti-caste politics, in spite of its great impact and subversive potential, is very much part of a modern life-world. It has today become an extremely secular category, where moving far away from Ambedkarite thought, religion itself is dismissed as not important for annihilating caste. That too at a time when many subaltern groups are increasingly using conversion as a tool to move out of the caste system, just as Ambedkar had propagated. Given this, when there is a talk of Dalit-Muslim unity, the demand made on Muslim groups is to discard the issue of religion and subsume themselves within the secular, liberal caste category.

A note by Waseem RS, (published in Roundtable India) which looks into the question of Muslim student politics within an anti-caste milieu, is a good illustration of this. Written from the vantage point of a Muslim student working alongside anti-caste politics, it clearly allows the question of religion to be subsumed within the larger cause. We can see this happening when we see that as part of trying to stand within a “politics of social justice”(in the face of assault from the Left) Waseem produces a profuse apology for the many shortcomings of SIO, the Muslim Student organization he belongs to, and is ready to debunk both its “founding narratives” and the founder Abul A’la Maududi himself ! In fact, the ideas in the note is shared by a good number of Muslim students working with new political formations in today’s campuses and reflects the crisis of Muslim students’ articulation of their politics and religion from the modern, secular vocabulary of anti-caste politics.

We want to conclude by saying that we are highly critical of this apologetic and dismissive tone of the Muslim question, which is increasingly framing the debate about Dalit-Muslim unity. As we have already said, the location of Muslim movements and politics in India as the ‘other’ of Indian modernity has the potential to enrich and envision an anti-caste politics that could escape or offer an alternative to the powers of modernity, which in India is nothing other than caste. The coming together of Dalits, with a new understanding of the attempt to appropriate them into the Hindu religion, and Muslims, with a renewed understanding of caste/social stratification among them, in common platforms of struggles will alone lead to such an endeavor.