This is my second posting on the Dalit of India....the blacks in
India have requested that they be integrated into the larger African
Diaspora and they are soliciting our support to put them on
discussion list, school syllabi and books.
By Gail Omvedt
Islam 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"
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
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" religion.
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 national community.
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.