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Can Dalits, Muslim unite? Questions from Ambedkar's time

By Mohammad Sajjad
April 09, 2019 11:31 IST
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In the light of the efforts being made to forge electoral unity between the scheduled castes and Muslims, Mohammad Sajjad examines what the architect of our Constitution, B R Ambedkar, had to say about the Muslim community.

IMAGE: Prakash Ambedkar and Asaduddin Owaisi have joined hands to form the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi and fight the Lok Sabha election together. Photograph: Kind courtesy, Asaduddin Owaisi/Twitter

Mayawati, at the moment seems to have become more strident against the Congress than against the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Meanwhile, Rajratan, a great grandson of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, has appealed for Muslim support, recalling that the latter could reach the Constituent Assembly only because of the support of Bengal's Muslims, and urged Muslims to once again extend their support to him (Rajratan) to save the Constitution which might be replaced by the incumbent regime if re-elected to power.

The Pasmanda movement has also been invoking Ambedkar.

This raises few questions in our minds.


I have been wondering if Abdul Qaiyum Ansari (1905-1974), the tallest of the leaders of the subjugated communities of Muslims, ever engaged with Dr Ambedkar and with Dr Ram Manohar Lohia (1910-1967) while talking about the oppressed biradaris of Muslims.

I am reminded of Ansari's six-point demands of the Momin Conference, which he articulated in his letter dated December 8, 1939, to Jawaharlal Nehru. These were:

  • One minister, at least, of the central (or federal) governments be taken from the Momin community.
  • 50 percent of the seats in the central (or federal) legislatures, and in each of the provincial legislatures, be reserved for the Muslims, and some be allotted to the members of the Momin community.
  • Seats in local self-governing and civic bodies be reserved for the members of the Momin community, proportionate to their population in the area served by such a body.
  • Appointments in government and semi-government services be reserved for the Momins in proportion to their population.
  • Special facilities be provided by the government for imparting general as well as technical education to Momin boys and girls.
  • State protection and State aid be provided for the handloom textile industry owned and carried on by the Momins.

In these, let it be noted, demands being made exclusively for the Momins (Ansaris), and not for other biradaris, now being clubbed together as Pasmanda. Also, he did not have any such negotiations or correspondence with Lohia and Ambedkar.

Abdul Qaiyum Ansari was a Congress nominee from Bihar to the Constituent Assembly and served on its advisory committee on fundamental rights and minorities and tribals (Ali Ashraf, The Muslim Elite, 1982).

I have not been able to verify if Ansari was really into the Constituent Assembly. However, regardless of this fact, I am curious to know if Ansari really made any intervention for the inclusion of Arzal communities of Muslims into the category of scheduled castes.

The Pasmanda movement accuses Maulana Azad of having been silent on the issue in the Constituent Assembly.

It would be interesting to know that when in 1950, with a Presidential ordinance, such communities from Buddhists were being included into the SC category, did Ansari really speak out for the Arzal communities?

Ansari was also a member of the Backward Class Commission appointed by the Government of India in 1953-1955.

It would therefore be quite instructive to look into two texts of Ambedkar, Annihilation of Castes (1936) and Pakistan or Partition of India (1945).

Chapter X, Social Stagnation of his book Pakistan or Partition of India, raises the question of social evils among Hindus found also among Muslims. Child marriage, legal rights to women, he asserts that regardless of the scriptural provisions, 'the Muslim woman is the most helpless person in the world' (page 216).

He then goes on to the caste system among India's Muslims. Referring to the census report 1901, Bengal, he identifies the three categories of communities among Muslims, namely, Ashraf, Ajlaf, and Arzal.

Interestingly, Ambedkar puts cultivating sheikhs in the category of Ajlaf, page 219. It is said that Dr Ejaz Ali of the Backward Muslim Morcha had wished that the cultivating sheikhs should be included as Ajalf; Ali Anwar Ansari is said to have fallen out with Ejaz on the issue and formed the Pasmanda Mahaz.

Yet, Dr Ambedkar overall refused to engage even with the Arzal category of Muslims (Bhanar, Halalkhor, Hijra, Kasbi, Lalbegi Maugta, Mehtar, etc).

To the best of my limited knowledge, Ambedkar did not talk of including these categories into the category of scheduled castes.

Dr Ambedkar then goes on to treat Muslims as a monolithic community (p. 222), and says:

'There is thus a stagnation not only in the social life but also in the political life of the Muslim community (please note, he is not saying Muslim communities) of India. The Muslims have no interest in politics as such. Their predominant interest is religion.'

'This can be easily seen by the terms and conditions that a Muslim constituency makes for its support to a candidate fighting for a seat. The Muslim constituency does not care to examine the programme of the candidate. All that the constituency wants from the candidate is that he should agree to replace the old lamps of the masjid by supplying new ones at his cost, to provide a new carpet for the masjid because the old one is torn....'

'In some places a Muslim constituency is quite satisfied if the candidate agrees to give a sumptuous feast...With Muslims, election is a mere matter of money and is very seldom a matter of social programme of general improvement.'

'Muslim politics takes no note of purely secular categories of life, namely, the differences between rich and poor, capital and labour, lord and tenant, priest and layman, reason and superstition...' (pages 222-223).

On this count, one may possibly find some essential truths in Dr Ambedkar's observations about misplaced Muslim political priorities.

Now, coming to Dr Ambedkar's text, Annihilation of Caste:

In its section XI, he treats Muslims again as a monolithic community. His text reads as if Muslims and Sikhs have no caste.

He poses a question, 'Why Hindus are cowards and from where does the Sikh or the Mohammedan derives his strength which makes him brave and fearless?' He then himself offers answers, 'I am sure it is not due to the strength arising out of the feeling that all Sikhs will come to the rescue of a Sikh when he is in danger and that all Mohammedans will rush to save a Muslim if he is attacked -- the Hindu can derive no such strength.'

'He cannot feel assured that his fellows will come to his help. Being one and fated to be alone he remains powerless, develops timidity and cowardice and in a fight surrenders or runs away.'

'The Sikh as well as the Muslim stand fearless and gives battle because he knows that though one he will not be alone....A Hindu will quite meekly tolerate an insult as well as a wrong.'

These kinds of stereotypes against Muslims are often found among the Hindutva propagandists also.

We find similar stereotyping in Chapter XI, 'Communal Aggression' of Pakistan or Partition of India.

Ambedkar writes, 'The Hindu's spirit of aggression is a new phase which he has just begun to cultivate. The Muslim's spirit of aggression is his native endowment and is very much ancient as compared with that of the Hindu'.

Ambedkar says it after providing empirical details of communal violence during 1920-1940. These details largely put Hindus as hapless victims: 'Massacres, forcible conversions, desecration of temples, foul outrages upon women such as ripping open pregnant women, pillage, arson and destruction -- in short, all the accompaniments of brutal and unrestrained barbarism, were perpetrated freely by the Moplahs upon the Hindus until such time as troops could be hurried to the task of restoring order through a difficult and extensive tracts of the country. This was not a Hindu Muslim riot. This was just a Bartholomew'. (pages 153-154)

Please mark Ambedkar's two words: native endowment, and ancient. My query is, if he refers all Muslims to be of foreign origin?

Whereas he also refers to 'Ajlaf or lower class Mohamedans', as the 'cultivating sheikhs, and others who were originally Hindus but who do not belong to any functional group and have not gained admittance to the Ashraf community, eg, Pirali and Thakrai'. (page 219)

Dr Ambedkar then prognosticates, 'It is not that the Hindu, if given time, will not pick up and overtake the Muslim. But as matters stand today, the Muslim in this exhibition of the spirit of aggression leaves the Hindu far behind' (page 239).

His stereotyping continues, 'Without social union political unity is difficult to be achieved. If achieved, it would be as precarious as a summer sapling, liable to be uprooted by the gust of a hostile wind.'

'With mere political unity India may be a State. But to be a State is not to be a nation and a State, which is not a nation has small prospect of survival in the struggle for existence'. (page 185).

This is especially true in the case of nationalism, he says. He makes strong arguments to let India get rid of Muslims by conceding them their Pakistan. He does not spare even those Muslims who were consistently opposed to Partition till the very end.

Referring to the Azad Muslim Conference of the anti-League Muslims (Delhi, April 1940), Ambedkar warns, 'There is, therefore, no ground to trust that they [Muslims] will be more merciful to the Hindus than the [Muslim] League has been or will be.'

'He asserts, 'There is a difference between safeguard to allay apprehension of the weak and contrivances to satisfy the ambition for power of the strong: that there is a difference between providing safeguards and handing over the country'.

He concludes the chapter with these words: 'These are important considerations and, if the Hindus overlooked them, they will do so at their peril. For the Muslim alternative [to Partition] is really a frightful and dangerous alternative'. (page 195).

Thus, Dr Ambedkar expressed his deep mistrust even against those Muslims who were opposed to the Muslim League politics of communal-territorial separatism. He looks at the Muslim resistance to India's Partition and to the proposals of the Azad Muslim Conference as a deceptive power-play; a strategy to gain power by manufacturing grievances either as Gravamin Politic or as power politics (Macht Politic).

Let us also recall that in the narratives of the current phase of Pasmanda politics, it is said that quite a large number of the people attending the Azad Muslim Conference were from the communities of the leaders such as Abdul Qaiyum Ansari and Asim Bihari (1890-1953).

Concluding Section XXVI of Annihilation of Caste, Dr Ambedkar prescribes, 'In my opinion, only when Hindu society becomes a casteless society that it can hope to have strength enough to defend itself. Without such internal strength, Swaraj for Hindus may turn out to be only a step towards slavery. Goodbye and good wishes for your success'.

Interestingly, we find no such good wishes of Ambedkar for a casteless society in the case of India's Muslims. Or, do we?

Since the current phase of the Pasmanda movement derives so much from Dr Ambedkar, may we know if they are aware of these positions of Babasaheb?

Another concern for the current proponents of the Pasmanda movement is about something Lohia had cautioned way back in his June 1963 speech at Gorakhpur:

'Some among the low castes such as Ahirs, Julahas and Chamars are numerically large. Other low castes, such as Mali, Teli, Kahaar etc, are small when taken separately but taken together their number is much greater.'

'As a result when low castes rise and caste system is attacked, the major beneficiaries are the numerically big castes. To some extent this is inevitable, but one has to be alert so that the other low castes also may be invigorated and leaders drawn from their ranks.'

Further, we also need to know if the current Dalit intellectual activists and legislators are really sincere about pressing for the inclusion of the Arzal communities of Muslims into the list of Scheduled Castes.

I think these questions are worth considering because, as Anand Kochukudy put it in The Wire, November 7, 2017: '... hierarchies exist among Dalit communities also. The way forward is to bring them together into accepting a common identity.'

'Thus, identity politics should have a broader approach rather than narrowing down to specific castes. Annihilation of caste within the Dalit communities and backward classes should be the way forward to achieve the long-term goal of equality'.

I am not sure if B R Ambedkar really advocated it in his 1947 book, State and Minorities: What Are their Rights and How to Secure them in the Constitution of Free India.

Even Anand Teltumbde's book, Ambedkar on Muslims (2003), does not help us in this regard. It only says, 'Although Islam is the one religion which can transcend race and colour and unite diverse people into a compact brotherhood, yet, Islam in India has not succeeded in uprooting caste from among the Indian Musalmans.'

Although Teltumbde finds caste feeling among the Musalmans not as virulent as it is among the Hindus, he is rightly pained to find it all the same.

It is intriguing why Ambedkar, while endorsing separate electorate as an arrangement to checkmate social (not religious) discrimination, did not argue for splitting up of and earmarking the seats for the Ajlaf and Arzal communities, rather than slipping into treating the Muslims as a monolith? I am also unaware if Lohia really spoke out on the Presidential Ordinance of 1950 which refused to include Arzal in the category of scheduled castes.

Joginder Nath Mandal (1904-1968) was able to forge an alliance between 'Depressed Classes' of Bengali speaking Hindus and Muslims in the run-up to India's Independence.

Historians have to ask why the alliance was possible in Bengal, but not elsewhere. Was it because of J N Mandal or were there substantive Bengal specific factors?

The Pasmanda movement must strengthen and broad-base its resistance and solidarity against the Ashraf. Simultaneously, it should perhaps also look into these issues of history, while forging a much needed Dalit-Muslim Unity.

Mohammad Sajjad is a professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University.

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