India started out with a secular constitution and secularist politics. Muslim voters were central to the Congress coalitions after independence. From 1977 to 1998 India witnessed alternation between Congress and other secularist parties. Muslim voters would virtually dictate which secularists ruled. In 1998, the first government formed since independence that was not supported by most Muslim voters. That election signaled the end of secularist hegemony in Indian politics. The BJP was able to capture one-third of the seats in the Lok Sabha.
This transition was the result of two trends. First, the BJP was able to build a coalition across caste lines. But the second point is that the secularist social coalition was not able to consolidate itself. The fundamental reason is that Muslim identity politics was incompatible with the needs of building a coalition. Politicians such as Syed Shahbuddin emerged as the most articulate and forceful, if not the most popular, of Muslim political spokesmen. Pursuing an agenda that explicitly rejected the social unity of Hindus and Muslims, these leaders weakened the attraction of the secularist coalition for sections of Hindus who had supported it for half a century.
Now the wheel of history is taking a fresh turn. Muslim identity in India has been the hegemonic ideology of the Ashraf, the upper castes of Muslims. The caste revolution that took place in politics among Hindus is extending itself to Muslims. The success of the BSP in the UP elections is a product of low caste Muslims rejecting the identity politics of the elite and striking out on their own. A margin of Muslim support for the BJP is also based on such thinking.
The most articulate spokesman for “Dalit Muslims” is Dr. Ejaz Ali. He is the leader of the apex organization of low-caste Muslim associations. He observes that centuries after their conversion to Islam, Muslims descended from Hindu Dalits have not been able to intermarry with high caste Muslims. He concludes in an interview in the magazine Outlook that due to government assistance “the Hindu Dalits have been able to make a considerable headway, leaving the Dalit Muslims lagging far behind them.”
In addition to demanding the same facilities for Dalits Muslims as there are for Dalit Hindus, Ali advocates that the economic interests of poor Muslims should be the first priority. “I do not say that the Babri Masjid issue or that of Muslim Personal Law are to be ignored, but to my mind these are secondary. What is of the most primary concern to the Dalit Muslims is their very survival and this must be tackled first before we can turn our attention elsewhere.” His strategy to achieve his aims is more innovative still. “If all Dalits, irrespective of religion, join hands, we can become a powerful force.”
It has long been remarked that the Indian Muslim leadership has focused on symbolic religious issues at the cost of the economic interests of most Muslims. What is new is the presentation of this neglect as caste discrimination among Indian Muslims. That enables the low caste majority among Indian Muslims to align with their Hindu counterparts. The original purpose of low caste Hindu politics of converting to Islam was to escape caste discrimination and elevate their social status. While untouchability remained the dominant experience of Hindu Dalits, Islam remained a liberating force for the converts. With the advance of Hindu Dalits, Indian Islam has become less competitive as a vehicle of social equality. For this reason, it may recede as the primary marker of identity for many Indian Muslims.
The historic transformation of social relations among Hindus has begun to attract the interest of Syed Shahbuddin. He perceives both dangers and opportunities. In the newspaper Pioneer he writes “If they (Brahmins) join hands with Chamars in U.P., Mundas and the Oraons in Jharkhand, why can’t they convince the higher Shudras now anxious for social elevation that their destiny lies in joining the Hindutva brigade, not in ploughing the secular furrow? The high castes and the higher Shudras will form a magnetic core big enough to attract the privileged groups among the Achhuts (Dalits) and the Tribals.” He advises, “Religious minorities have to move beyond an anti-BJP syndrome and try to understand the social churning within Hindu society.” This is startling advice from the founder of the All-India Babri Masjid Action Committee.
Ejaz Ali and Syed Shahbuddin are at opposite ends of the political spectrum among Indian Muslims. Both have noticed the social churning in Hindu society. The import of this churning has largely eluded writers in the Indian English media. This churning and Muslim responses to it hold out the best hope for a new secularism and a more egalitarian society.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University.