Thursday, August 11, 2005

Muslims & Dalit-Bahujans

These days stereotypes appear to dictate how Muslims are depicted/represented in contemporary Indian life—in the media, in films, etc.—and even how Muslims are "thought" by the rest of the country. The bigotry of the Sangh Parivar is too well known to elaborate on here. But the role played by the Sangh Parivar's counterparts among Muslims also bears highlighting. The "monolithisation" of Muslims has been allowed to proceed unchecked in large part because the Muslim (self-appointed) intelligentsia has itself succumbed to some false (and in my view dangerous) delusions, which have had important consequences: (i) "A Hindu is a Hindu is a Hindu"-- in other words, the obtuseness of the Muslim intelligentsia to the issue of caste is remarkable to behold. It seems until very recently that India's Muslim intellectuals were the last Indians to be wholly indifferent to the question of caste. Mercifully there are some signs of change, but far more needs to be done. In my view the Muslim intelligentsia is itself also complicit in imposing a monolithic view of Muslims, because it serves the interests of those who wish to peddle the myth of an Islamic "ummah" that exists beyond place and time, beyond history, beyond culture (and on this view, "culture" is identified as decadence, as a "falling away" from faith). If one views "oneself" as monolithic, it seems likely that one would also begin to view "the other" as monolithic too, despite the caste realities staring the whole world in the face. Thus it was that pre-1947 many golden opportunities were missed, and instead partition was chosen by the Muslim League as its solution (the result has been that rural Muslims in Pakistan, mostly from the so-called "lower" castes, remain without the benefit of any semblance of land reform; and because jati/biradari is not officially recognized, it has proven very difficult for them to even organize politically or demand affirmative action on the basis of jati/biradari). (ii) The construction of the stereotypical Muslim also serves the interests of the Muslim cultural and religious elites, because it enables them to assume and maintain a position of power: because "Muslims" are defined religiously, power is conferred on the clerical class that has assumed the authority to interpret the faith; culturally power accrues to the representatives of (to take one prominent example/stereotype) an idealized "Urdu" culture, typified by the "ashrafi" or "noble" Muslims who are most at home in such a cultural paradigm). The reality of caste among Muslims is thereby obscured. No-one doubts that caste boundaries are less "hard" among Muslims than among Hindus, primarily due to a religious ideology that emphasizes intra-religious egalitarianism. But equally, no-one can honestly deny that caste realities do exist among Muslims. In fact "ajali" or "mean" Muslims suffer from a peculiar disadvantage in that even today it is somehow considered illegitimate to even talk about "lower caste" Muslims and their problems. The problem is compounded by the fact that under the law, Dalits who convert to Islam and Christianity lose SC/ST benefits. To put it another way, what is lacking is a political vocabulary to approach this problem, and efforts to articulate such a vocabulary are of the utmost importance. As I understand the idea of the "Bahujan" movement, its aims are not met simply by the winning of elections (though the latter are of course extremely important), but, as Kancha Ilaiah argued in "Why I Am Not A Hindu", also by articulating a new (or perhaps re-invigorating and securing acknowledgment for a traditional Dalit-Bahujan) cultural ethic, in all its forms and manifestations, "across" religious boundaries (I agree with Sunil Khilnani in "The Idea of India" that Ilaiah's is a voice that needs to be heard first-hand, whatever one makes of his rhetoric; an interview may be found here; for other voices and somewhat different perspectives, books/articles by Gail Omvedt, Chandra Bhan Prasad, Anand Teltumbde and others may be found here). Despite its thoroughly opportunistic past alliances with the BJP (and present tie-up with the Congress), this potential is what makes the BSP unique among major contemporary Indian political parties. [The BSP could really enhance its stature if it put its ideas into greater practice by, for instance, mobilizing against Article 341, which draws distnctions within Dalits (and more broadly, Dalit-Bahujans) on the basis of religion-- non-Sikh and non-Hindu Dalits lose the constitutional protections if they convert, and in the case of those born in their faiths, are never eligible for the laws that aim to benefit Dalits in the first place. My understanding is that it is only in Bihar that the state (as of 2000) does not draw such distinctions within SCs.]
Ultimately the Dalit-Bahujan "way"-- more accurately the many "ways" of Dalit-Bahujans-- can serve to undermine existing cultural/political hegemonies, not only where "Hinduism" is concerned, but also where "Islam" (or indeed any religion that is marketed as a label to be sold to people purely for political consumption) is concerned. For religion marketed thus has the effect of making people politically passive, willing to be led wherever the Togadias of the world would wish to take them. The need of the hour is a secular Dalit-Bahujan movement (not anti-religious, but one which recognizes that religion should be a personal matter, not used to turn people against those who worship differently). Over the past decade, certain hopeful movements have arisen all over India, but the task is only begun, and much much more remains to be done. [Analysis is further complicated by the fact that many political movements and parties over time seem to degenerate into the politics of personality; as India knows only too well, the distance from popular politics to the cult of personality and authoritarianism is but a short one—the BSP today shows many signs of going down this route].Nevertheless, far too many people in the mainstream Indian media have missed the significance of the developments on the Dalit-Bahujan front over the last decade, and end up slighting (wittingly or unwittingly)the needs and aspirations of those who comprise these movements. It is easy for the media to dismiss various ideologies and movements as simply "casteist," as if that one word could confer coherence on the reflex to dismiss out of hand. In doing so they are missing out on the excitement of some of the most sweeping changes in Indian politics in the post-1947 era.


Satyam said...

Again an outstanding post. Your blog is an education as far as I'm concerned! Some of this also ties in with aspects of Arundhati Roy's most recent interview where she points out how Indian political and cultural elites are very invested in the 'system' and as such have every intention of maintaining it. Your post also gets into properly Marxist terrain in some ways. To bring up the cliched question once again: can true 'change' come about without the 'modes of production' being altered? To a Zizek this question suffices in itself and he can therefore say that Nazism wasn't a true revolution. To a Derridean this is hopelessly simplistic, not because the traditionally Marxist dimension of this question is not relevant but doesn't begin to tell the whole story. Whichever way one settles this debate you do well to emphasize the degree to which 'definitional' issues of 'Muslimness' are (as one would expect) dependent on the existing power structures. To change the language here would mean quite obviously opening up a political Pandora's box that would hardly serve the interests of these elites. Once again one is reminded of how the power can often lie in the 'semantics'. I think that the Pakistan offers (as you rightly mention) a bleak scenario in terms of the possibilities of uplifting depressed classes simply because so much of the Islamic definitions in Pakistan rest on an absolute opposition with 'Hinduness', 'monolithic' (again your word here) in each case and to allow a caste based discourse to seep in would be quite disastrous for the interests of the state here. A 'class based' approach might do better here, alas this also has been muzzled ever so often in Pakistani history (with the complicity of the US one might add!). As a matter of preference I think that stressing on 'caste' is better than 'class' inasmuch as the former is less susceptible (so far) to the kind of traditional abstraction or empty formalism that the latter has often fallen prey to. India offers a superbazaar in this sense! There have been tangible gains as you know better than me though as Arundhati Roy also reminds us the jury is still out.

Qalandar said...

The Arundhati Roy interview Satyam is referring to is at:

Thanks for your post, Satyam, very insightful as always...