The recent atrocities against Muslims and Dalits in India converge on the question of beef. This has made analysts of Indian politics believe that we are about to witness a broad-based coalition between these two groups. In my reading of contemporary Indian politics, this is a facile understanding of the historical unfolding of political permutations and combinations in India.
I fear the present atrocities against Dalits to be a prelude to more violence against Muslims in India. Let me explain.
The historical arc
We are witnessing a new phase of atrocity against lower castes in India. However, such atrocity has also engendered a new assertion in the Dalit community. Rohith Vemula’s death has gestated a new phase of Dalit assertiveness in India. It’s not surprising that the violence against the community has also become more visible. Unlike numerous instances of everyday violence against the Dalits in India, which go unnoticed or barely noticed, Rohith’s death has lent visibility and generated much required media attention to such violence.
Dalit or lower caste assertion has been, however, historically neutralized and co-opted by the caste Hindus and turned into violence against Muslims.
In his compelling essay, “The Blindness of Insight: Why Communalism in India is about Caste”, historian Dilip M. Menon makes an interesting argument: between 1850 and 1947, communalism or violence against Muslims had always followed periods of lower caste mobility and assertion. Citing a more contemporary example, Menon writes, “the sequentiality of Mandal (the anti-reservation riots) and Masjid (the anti-Muslim riots) in the early 1990s was part of a longer historical pattern.” To put it in other words, once the Mandal agitation peaked, the Hindu upper caste expressed its anger and frustration at the erosion of their supremacy by pulling down the Babri Masjid. When the Hindu society experiences implosion (from within), it explodes in violence against its external other, Muslims.
The lower caste assertion and their co-option into Hindu supremacist violence against Muslims in the 1990s had its precursors in history. Menon provides at least three such instances from the past. Let me sum them up in brief.
First, the Arya Samaj had started a militant proselytizing movement in the Punjab in the late nineteenth century. Over the nineteenth century, the landholding upper castes had lost some of their status because of new market forces and the registration of lands. The lower castes such as Ahirs, Kurmis, and Koeris became more assertive because they were able to acquire land. On the other hand, the elite landholding castes lost out because of commercialization of agriculture (which benefited the lower castes) and loss of land through debt, etc. Sensing the assertion of the lower castes, the Arya Samaj started a Cow Protection Movement around 1882 in the Punjab with the intent of mobilizing Hindus across castes around a common symbol. The movement then spread to the United Provinces and Bihar, engendering a huge riot against Muslims in 1893. (We must mention here that the movement vilified Chamars, who dealt with cow hides, and in some cases attacked them. It does ring a bell!)
Second, the late nineteenth century Bengal saw an assertive lower caste community – especially Kaibartas and Chandalas – because of their involvement in a growing jute economy. From 1870s onwards, these castes didn’t care much about upper caste nationalist politics, so much so that they remained aloof during the Swadeshi movement (1905-11). However, in the late 1920s, during the pitched battles against Muslims, which manifested in playing music before mosques and rioting, the upper caste politicians wooed them as their foot soldiers against Muslims.
Third, prior to the Partition of India, Krishak Praja Party came to power after the Bengal provincial elections in 1937 and Fazlul Haque became the Chief Minister. Since undivided Bengal was a Muslim majority province, the upper caste Congress leaders felt the need to woo the lower castes to swell their numbers. Substantive amount of work was put into the lower caste Namasudra community, who then took active part in the massacre of Muslims in Noakhali in 1946. As Menon aptly puts it, “Lower caste entry into Hinduism was through a baptism in blood at the dawn of Independence.”
Should we then worry about this historical trajectory of lower caste assertion and their co-option within the upper caste hegemonic Hindu family for the purpose of perpetrating violence against Muslims?
A social fabric without Muslims
Since the attacks on Dalits in Gujarat and the BJP leader, Daya Shankar Singh’s unsavoury comments against Mayawati, we have had umpteenth number of television debates. In one of the television debates, Tarun Vijay, once an RSS ideologue and now a BJP member, castigated the attacks against the Dalits and termed such acts as terrorism. Vijay has been an advocate of temple entry for lower castes. By his own admission, such attacks against Dalits should be stopped because it will tear the social fabric of Hindus.
But where do Muslims figure in the Indian social fabric, if they figure at all?
Tarun Vijay, along with so many of his other colleagues from the BJP, has no answer for it. When it comes to Muslims in India, the upper caste Hindutva logic is very simple, even if they refrain from uttering it openly. Since cow slaughter and beef eating are legally banned in most states in India and since the state has failed to bring under surveillance such practices, it becomes the responsibility of cow vigilante groups to enforce them against erring Muslims.
The convoluted upper caste logic seems to suggest that the violence against Dalits must stop in order to maintain the social fabric of Hindu society. But violence against Muslims is an unspoken necessity because they are the external other, who could never be assimilated into the larger Hindu fold. It’s a repetition of the late nineteenth century Arya Samaj logic of “cow-protecting Hinduism against a cow-killing Islam.”
With elections scheduled in the cauldron of communalism, Uttar Pradesh, there would be an effort to turn lower caste discontent and assertion into a weapon for upper caste violence against Muslims. Instead of reading the lower caste assertion as an automatic currency for a broad-based Muslim-Lower Caste coalition, we must learn from history. The lower caste assertion could well turn out to be another dangerous portent for upper caste Hindu violence against Muslims.