Backwards march forward

Over the years, several efforts have been made to bring Muslims and Dalits on a common political platform, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Dec 25, 2006 02:21 IST

The relationship between a vast majority of Muslims and Dalits has been a matter of great concern for some years. Most of the communal riots that have broken out in independent India have seen Muslims pitted against Dalits. Journalists who have covered some of these horrendous clashes recall how the poor from both segments had resorted to the most barbaric means to settle scores of which they themselves were not very clear.

Over the years, several efforts have been made to bring the two together on a common political platform. The first sign of this happening outside the Congress fold came when B.P. Maurya won the Aligarh Lok Sabha poll in the Sixties. More recently, in Bihar, Ramvilas Paswan tried to forge a strong political alliance by proposing that a Muslim be made the state’s chief minister. His objective was primarily to keep Lalu Prasad Yadav out, but bringing the two together would have also made a strong political statement.

Despite reverses, Paswan does not seem to have given up on the idea. He is planning on holding an international conference in New Delhi this week, to be addressed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former PM V.P. Singh, which could set a trend for a new alignment in our highly casteist and community-divided society. This facet is more pronounced in states like Bihar and UP, where elections are due early next year.

While Paswan’s objective may be clearly political and may not show immediate results in Bihar, the real test will be BSP leader Mayawati’s effort to attract the minority vote in her challenge to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s supremacy in UP. Mayawati is at present the undisputed leader of the Dalits, belonging as she does to the community herself. But the key to establishing her electoral supremacy will largely depend on her ability to carry the Muslims and the upper-castes with her.

Mulayam Singh is one of the most astute and hard-working politicians in the country. He is held in high esteem by the Muslims of UP, who perceive him as their best bet against the BJP, given that Mayawati has on past occasions flirted with the BJP and even formed a government with its support. Muslims in UP prefer anyone who can take on the BJP. What Mayawati, because of her current status of being opposed to the BJP, can do is to get the Muslims to vote for her in seats where the contest will be largely between her candidate and that of the BJP. What may happen when she takes on Mulayam Singh’s candidates head-on is anybody’s guess, since the Muslims will then be faced with a difficult choice. Much may also depend on her ability to convince them that Mulayam and the BJP are not adversaries like in the past, but could forge an understanding to keep her and the Congress out. Obviously, Mulayam, on his part, will counter such propaganda with equal emphasis.

All these developments are taking place in the background of the findings and recommendations of the Rajinder Sachar panel on the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community, which was tabled in Parliament on November 30. Many have already seen this as the UPA’s attempt to appease the minorities, which it is not.

Everyone knows that Muslims are among the most backward, economically, educationally and socially. Their condition gets worsened when politicians play the communal card to keep themselves in power. In many ways, their condition is like that of Dalits and, therefore, there is enough meeting ground for them. But lack of education and exposure is a big limitation and it is not easy to bring them on par with other communities.

The Sachar panel has done a thorough analysis of the status of the Muslims in India. But its work is redundant unless its recommendations are implemented realistically. What needs to be clearly understood is that the development of the country and its global status depends, to a large degree, on the progress made by all sections of the society, including Muslims. The country can’t continue with a policy with benefits for just one section of society. Affirmative action cannot always be uniform, but it should be the government’s endeavour to ensure that all children get basic amenities like education and healthcare. And if in any segment, an extra effort has to be put, there should be no hesitation, notwithstanding what some politicians may have to say.

There are some basic things that need to be understood. Muslims in this country are not immigrants, as they are in some Western countries. Most of them are homegrown, who got converted over the years because of various invasions and a long period of Muslim rule. In Kashmir, Brahmins converted to Islam and in some parts of UP, Dalits or the backward castes embraced the religion. The conversions were at times an attempt to escape stigmas of the caste-based religious structure in the hope that by identifying themselves with the rulers, their condition may change for the better. These are realities and cannot be wished away.

It is another matter that the conversions did not always improve their lot and they continue to live in sub-human conditions in large parts of the country. There are developmental issues that need to be addressed even from a non-political perspective. Even Right-wing parties must understand that an attempt must be made to draw ghettoised Muslims into the mainstream. This will open windows for them to a brand new world.

Similarly, Dalits have not progressed in the way they should have because of lop-sided approach of the government, which has helped only a small section of Dalits through its various reservation drives. While the same set of Dalits continue to draw benefits over and over again, the majority still live in fear of the dominant communities and in a state of acute poverty and illiteracy. The OBCs too need help but again, the most needy need to be identified and given immediate assistance.

The country’s progress depends as much on the emancipation of the poor, who include Dalits and Muslims, as on our economic strength, as reflected by the Sensex figures. Planned assistance and the coming together of Dalits, Muslims and other such communities will, in the end, only make India shine and become stronger. Between us.

First Published: Dec 25, 2006 02:21 IST