By Gail Omvedt
22 May, 2005
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"
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-freeIndia.
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
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.