Cunningly cobbling caste/religious alliances is the shrewdest move on the chessboard of contemporary electoral politics in India. Uttar Pradesh has probably been the laboratory for formulating and testing new caste/religious equations of political chemistry. Ever since Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen won five Assembly seats in the Bihar elections, talk about an electoral alliance between parties that represent Dalits and Muslims has got a fresh life. The AIMIM and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had joined forces in the Bihar polls and many now say this partnership will extend to Uttar Pradesh, where the Assembly election is due in 2022.
In Maharashtra, Owaisi allied with Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi in the 2019 election. The Bhim Army and its chief Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’ kindled another hope of Dalit-Muslim unity during the anti-CAA protests. According to the Pew Research Center, there were around 213 million Muslims in India in 2020, 15.5% of the population. Dalits form around 16.6%. In Uttar Pradesh Muslims are 19% and Dalits 20.7%. Together they make up about 40%. A combination of these two sections would be a formidable electoral alliance. Nonetheless, a Dalit-Muslim electoral alliance is only a pipe dream thanks to many socio-political reasons.
A bitter lesson from Jogendranath Mandal: Jogendranath Mandal was one of the founding fathers of Pakistan, the country’s first minister of law and labour, and the second minister of Commonwealth and Kashmir affairs. As a leader of the Dalits, he had made common cause with the Muslim League in their demand for Pakistan, hoping that the Scheduled Castes would benefit from it. When rioting broke out in 1946, he travelled around East Bengal to urge Dalit people not to participate in violence against Muslims, as they were perceived to have been as oppressed by the upper caste Hindus. He argued that the Dalits would be better off with the Muslims than with the high caste Hindus; thus, he supported the Muslim League. When the Muslim League joined the Interim Government of India in October 1946, Jinnah nominated Mandal as one of the League’s five representatives. The Dalits of Sylhet decided to join Pakistan only after Mandal campaigned there on the instructions of Jinnah in 1947 and convinced the community leaders to embrace the Muslim League.
The story turned sour once Jinnah passed away. In his resignation letter dated 8 October 1950 to Pakistan’s prime minister, Mandal protested against the persecution of Dalits and Hindus in the nation. He mentioned incidents related to social injustice and biased attitude towards non-Muslim minorities in the letter. Mandal had to flee to India due to an arrest warrant against him in Pakistan.
He lamented that after Partition, particularly after the death of Jinnah, the Scheduled Castes have not received a fair deal in any matter. “I brought to your notice incidents of barbarous atrocities perpetrated by the police on frivolous grounds. I did not hesitate to bring to your notice the anti-Hindu policy pursued by the East Bengal government, especially the police administration and a section of Muslim League leaders,” he stated.
The Muslim community will find it tough to fabricate an organic alliance with any non-Muslim community in India or elsewhere. Dr Ambedkar had pointed out this vital fact: “Hinduism is said to divide people and in contrast Islam is said to bind people together. This is only a half truth. For Islam divides as inexorably as it binds. Islam is a close corporation and the distinction that is made between Muslims and Non-Muslims is very real, very positive and very alienating.” (Pakistan or the Partition of India, 1945)
The divide within: Mandal pointed out in his resignation letter that the principal objective that prompted him to work in cooperation with the Muslim League was that the economic interests of the Muslims in Bengal were generally identical with those of the Scheduled Castes. Muslims were mostly cultivators and labourers, and so were members of the Scheduled Castes. Further, he believed that the Scheduled Castes and the Muslims were both educationally backward.
This logic is lamentably incongruous as the Indian Muslim community is only a conglomeration of warring caste groups. Indian Muslims are not a monolithic entity. Each caste among Muslims has distinct socio-cultural and political interests. The presence of caste among Muslims in India has been recognised for a long time. An Arzal Muslim, placed in the bottom of the caste hierarchy, shares more common interests with a Dalit Hindu than an elite Ashrafi Muslim. About 85% of Muslim population in India are Pasmanda Muslims (Ajlaf and Arzal) and only 15% are Ashrafi Muslims. Organisations like Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamyyiyatul Ulama-e-Hind, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, and institutions like the AMU and JMI are dominated by the Ashrafi Muslims.
Caste and Social Stratification among Muslims in India (2018), edited by Professor Imitiaz Ahmad, is the first of a four-volume series of books on the social and cultural life of Muslims in India. For the first time, it brings together empirical studies of caste among Muslims in different parts of the country. The focus of the papers is on internal as well external aspects of castes. The authors discuss the features generally associated with the caste system among the groups studied as well as analyse their traditional association with a particular occupation, ritualistic and economic obligation, mechanism of dispute settlement, and the nature of relationship between the group and the individual.
The papers dealing with inter-caste relations focus on hierarchical grading to analyse the interactional behaviour of the various groups and studying the principles of social ranking among them as hierarchy is regarded as one of the salient features of castes living in a particular locality. Both the aspects of caste are discussed against the background of the contradictions between Quranic injunctions against any kind of status differentiations and the realities of living in a stratified society.
There is no natural homophily between Dalits and Muslims in Indian politics. Furthermore, the Muslim community is not a compact entity on the electoral chessboard. It has many deep fault lines within. Hence, at the end of the day, a Dalit-Muslim tie-up would remain a castle in the sand.
(Views are personal)
Faisal C K, Under Secretary (Law) to the Government of Kerala (firstname.lastname@example.org)