Excerpt from Interview: : Rajesh Solanki on Dalit-Muslim Relations and Hindutva Fascism in Gujarat Today
Rajesh Solanki, Convenor of the Jati Nirmulan Committee is a noted Dalit leader from Ahmedabad, Gujarat. In this interview he talks with Qalandar about the Dalit movement in Gujarat, Dalit-Muslim relations and the challenge of Hindutva fascism.
Q: In the anti-Muslim genocide in Gujarat, it is said that Dalits were deliberately used by Hindutva forces to attack Muslims. Is this a new development?
A: I do not agree with the thesis that Dalits played a major role in killing Muslims in 2002. Large-scale massacres of Muslims happened mainly in ‘upper’ caste areas at the hands of goons hired by Hindutva groups.
But yes, it is true that Savarna chauvinist forces thrive on pitting Dalits against Muslims so that the oppressed communities keep fighting among themselves and never get together to struggle jointly for their rights and challenge Savarna hegemony. The first time this strategy was used in Gujarat was in 1985 during the anti-reservation movement launched by the Savarnas, who, fearing that the Backward Castes would challenge their hegemony, deliberately turned the movement into an anti-Muslim one, pitting the Dalits and Backward Castes against the Muslims. Prior to this, in Ahmedabad there was a good political equation between Dalits and Muslims, because of which they were able to control key seats in the city’s municipality. To break this unity, which was a direct challenge to the Savarnas, Hindutva forces set off riots, instigating Dalits to attack Muslims, presenting themselves as saviours of the Dalits.
This, in turn, led to growing ghettoisation of Muslims in Ahmedabad’s Walled City, which till then had a fairly mixed population largely of Dalits and Muslims, and the out-migration of many Dalit families. It also led to the rapid escalation of anti-Muslim sentiments among many Dalits, some of whom were also roped in by the Hindutva-walas to join fascist and lumpen outfits such as the Bajrang Dal.
Q: How do you see Dalit-Muslim relations now and historically in Gujarat?
A: In Gujarat, and probably in most other parts of India, many Muslims are descendants of Dalit converts, and so our relations with them were good. Probably this is also because Islam is a more egalitarian religion. But the ‘upper’ caste/class Muslim minority, which continues to dominate Muslim public life and politics, has rarely, if ever, taken an interest in our plight. At the most, some of them may have talked about political alliances between Dalits and Muslims, but unless this translates into alliances at the social level, at the level of day-to-day existence, these political alliances cannot last.
Further, as elsewhere in India, ‘upper’ caste/class Muslim elites prefer to work with Savarna-dominated political groups like the Congress. Even now, after the deadly anti-Muslim genocide in Gujarat, Muslim groups who are calling for inter-faith or inter-community dialogue are engaging, for the most part, not with Dalits but, instead, with so-called liberal Savarna religious leaders, who support, in their own ways, Savarna hegemony. I admit that some Dalits as well as Tribals were indeed involved in killing Muslims in the genocide, but it is important to note that they were used by Hindutva forces, which means that Dalits as such, as an entire community, are not a major obstacle to Dalit-Muslim unity.
I think one major problem in this regard is the tendency on the part of Muslim elites who see us as ‘Hindus’ and their seeing all non-Muslims just as non-Muslims, not recognising the fact that we are separate from the Savarnas.
This isn’t due to sheer ignorance. Rather, it also reflects the interests of the Muslim elites themselves, who see their interests as associated with those of the Savarna elites. If they were to start dialoguing with Dalits, then the ‘low’ castes among the Muslims would also need to be recognised as distinct identities, which would, of course, undermine the hegemony that the ‘upper’ caste/class Muslims wish to exercise and perpetuate within the broader Muslim community.
Another troubling issue is that Islamic groups and the maulvis see the whole issue in simple religious terms. Their approach to the Dalits is often motivated by a concern that they should convert to Islam. They are not particularly interested in our social and economic welfare actually. And this is reflected in the ways in which they approach the Dalits, as potential converts. Let me say that while I don’t deny the importance of religion, Dalits, as a whole, are not quite interested in religious fundamentalism, Muslim, Christian, Hindu or whatever.
In the past, when Dalits were totally suppressed, many of them converted to Islam and Christianity for liberation, but today, with more spaces open to us, Dalits are definitely not attracted by Muslim orthodoxy, which is increasingly visible in Gujarat today, with even small girls being forced to veil in some places. Further, Dalits and Muslims both somehow feel that the other is interested only in their own problems, not in the problems and issues of the other, which is why Dalit-Muslim unity is such a difficult proposition today.
There are some groups that talk about such unity, but this takes the form of occasional meetings, not the form of a social movement or struggle. But I still believe in the need for such unity, which should be centred on common demands, common issues and the common oppression that they face from common oppressive forces.
In the early 1980s Dalits and Muslims in Gujarat had a fairly good relationship, which, as I said, was later destroyed by the machinations of the Savarna ruling class. At that time, in the wake of the first anti-reservation movement in 1981, launched by the Savarnas to oppose reservations for the Dalits and Tribals, the radical Dalit Panthers were quite strong in some parts of the state. They organised several joint meetings of Dalits, Muslims and Christians. At the call of the Dalit Panthers Dalits in many parts of Gujarat decided to boycott Holi and some Panther leaders even spoke about the need for Dalits to abandon Hinduism, as Dr. Ambedkar himself had. They talked of Dalit-Muslim unity, which was seen as a major a threat to Savarna hegemony.
All this came as a warning to the RSS. They realised that if the Dalit Panthers were allowed to continue the varna system and the caste-class system of oppression on which they thrive would collapse.
It was because of this that Hindutva groups got a new lease of life and began actively working among the Dalits to Hinduise them, set them against Muslims and destroy the independent Dalit movement. This, and various other factors,
led to the decline of the Dalit Panthers, with the movement being divided into several rival factions, each centred on a particular leader with affiliations to one or the other Savarna-dominated political party.
I am of the firm view that at the root of the so-called Hindu-Muslim conflict is the caste question. When V.P.Singh announced the partial implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, providing for reservations for Backward Castes in government services, the Hindutva-walas suddenly developed a great love for Rama and set out to destroy Mandal with Kamandal, mobilising the Hindus to destroy the Babri Masjid.
The fear that the Backward Castes, along with the Dalits, would unite to challenge Savarna hegemony lay behind the movement to destroy the mosque. The same thing happened in Gujarat in 2002 and in this Hindutva groups were assisted by some unscrupulous elements who claim to be Dalit leaders. So, just after the genocide, Mayavati, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, who claims to be a radical Dalit, came to Gujarat and addressed a joint rally with fascist Hindutva leaders like Modi and Advani. Obviously, this had a terrible impact, and many Muslims were disillusioned with the talk of Dalit-Muslim unity.
Q: What role has your own organisation, the Jati Nirmulan Committee, played in promoting Dalit-Muslim relations?
A: We have consistently opposed Hindutva and the efforts of the various Savarna political outfits, Congress as well as BJP, to set Dalits and Muslims against each other. We have staged demonstrations against the riots and have produced considerable literature, including numerous articles in our monthly magazine Dalit Adhikar, that stress the need for a broad unity between Dalits and Muslims, who are both largely oppressed communities, victims of Savarna hegemony. We were also involved in establishing the ADAM Itihas Parishad (‘The ADAM Historical Council’), whose name derives from A for Adivasis, D for Dalits and M for Muslims, to bring out literature and hold meetings on the role of these three communities in Indian history.
I still am hopeful that Dalit-Muslim relations in Gujarat can be strengthened. Together, they form a strong force which, if united, can carry on the struggle against Hindutva fascism, which is so deeply entrenched in Gujarat today. It isn’t, as some people claim, that all the Dalits have been swept into the Hindutva fold. Had the Dalits been totally Hinduised, the scale of the massacre of Muslims might have, I fear, been much larger. But this should not lull us into complacency because Hindutva outfits are working overtime to Hinduise the Dalits.
I think now, after being used in the riots and seeing that they still remain as oppressed as before despite claiming to be Hindus, many Dalits are realising that Hindutva and the politics of Hindu fascism spell doom for them as well. They are beginning to realise that Hindutva is a fascist project that aims, essentially, to preserve and promote Savarna hegemony, which is based on the continued oppression of the oppressed castes. We recently published a Gujarati booklet called ‘Samajik Nyay, Bhagvo Nyay’ (‘Social Justice and Saffron Justice’), showing how in Hinduvta-ruled Gujarat Dalit rights are being cruelly trampled upon by the defenders of Hindutva.
Judging by the sale of the booklet in Dalit circles, I think many Dalits have realised the folly of Hindutva. The Hindutva-walas have coined the slogan ‘Bhagva Tale Sau Saman’ (‘Under the Saffron Flag All Are Equal’), but, as the book shows, this is complete nonsense, and under the ‘saffron flag’ Dalits continue to be treated as sub-humans, in line with the dictates of Manu, the father of Brahminism, whom the Hindutva-walas extol.
Q: Could you provide more concrete evidence to back this claim?
A: Untouchability remains rampant in Gujarat. In most villages Dalits are forced to drink from separate wells. Most Dalits in the state are poverty-stricken. In the cities, they live in slums in the most pathetic conditions. The situation of the Valmiki sweepers is particularly terrible. They carry human excreta on their heads, clean clogged drains full of filth and suffer from diseases such as cancer, tuberculosis and serious heart problems. There have been 54 cases of Valmikis dying in drains being asphyxiated by poisonous gases in Gujarat between 1996 and 2003, but all the government has done is to give them some paltry sums of money.
Does the BJP consider these Valmikis as Hindus only when it decides to author a state-sponsored genocide of Muslims?.
The oppression of the Dalits is even sanctioned by law. Thus, a government document, titled ‘Gujarat Village Panchayats Social Justice Committee Rules of 1995’ lays down that one of the functions of certain Dalit communities is, and I quote, ‘to ensure systematic disposal of carcasses and to provide means for the disposal of unclaimed corpses and carcasses and to define places for the purpose of disposal of unclaimed corpses and carcasses’! Why are these communities singled out for this? Isn’t this blatant discrimination?
According to the document, the so-called ‘Social Justice Committee’ set up for this purpose in the villages comprises one member from the Valmiki caste, and four from various Dalit and Tribal castes, including one Dalit woman. In the name of ‘social justice’ the government is imposing Manu’s law on us. This is despite the fact that the Civil Rights Protection Act of 1995 declares this as an illegal enforcement of the illegal practice of untouchability. According to Section 7(a) of the Act, ‘The compelling of any person out of “untouchability” to do scavenging, sweeping, removing of carcasses, flaying of animals or removing [the] umbilical chord has been made punishable’. The Panchayat Rules of 1995 replaced an earlier 1975 legislation enacted by the Congress, and it shows that the meaning of social justice, as far as Dalits are concerned, has not changed from the ‘pseudo-secular’ rule of the Congress to the Hindu fascist rule of the BJP today.
Q: What future do you see for the Dalit movement in Gujarat?
A: Today, when caste oppression continues unabated, when Dalits are being thrown out of their jobs due to the wave of privitisation and so-called liberalisation and the invasion by Western multinational corporations, which both the BJP and Congress strongly defend in order to further strengthen Savarna hegemony, Dalit militancy is a natural reaction. Class/caste contradictions are bound to get sharper. Hindutva forces will probably become even more aggressive in order to prevent the oppressed castes from resisting the growing oppression, and might seek to destroy their movement by seeking to pit them against Muslims and Christians. Given this, I think it is critical that Dalits in Gujarat should introspect now, strengthen the independent Dalit movement to prevent the Hindutva agenda from succeedi
ng, and work to build alliances with Tribals, Backward Castes and with similarly oppressed sections among the Muslims, and also with those sections of the Left that recognise the specific issue of caste and the need for struggling against Brahminism. If we don’t do this, Dalits will get crushed under the steamroller of Globalisation.”