Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine

Shaban 1424 H
October 2003
Volume 16-10 No : 202
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Colours of Harmony


Dalit-Muslim Unity

Dalit-Muslim Unity: What's in a Meal?

Yoginder Sikand

Although Muslims and Dalits are among the most backward and marginalized of communities in India today, efforts to bring them closer to jointly struggle for their rights have proved, by and large, abortive. In recent years Hindutva outfits have made great strides in winning Dalits to their fold, using them in organized pogroms unleashed against Muslims in various parts of India. In the recent large-scale massacres of Muslims in Gujarat, for instance, Dalits, under the influence and instigation of 'upper' caste-led Hindutva organizations, played a major role. Likewise in the case of many other cases of what have come to be euphemistically called 'communal riots'. Despite the efforts of numerous Dalit and Muslim activists, then, Dalit-Muslim unity remains a distant dream.

Influential Dalit and Muslim leaders have long stressed the need for a broad-based unity between their communities, seeing this as a powerful means to challenge 'upper' caste oppression of which both of them regard themselves as victims. Yet, the Dalit-Muslim unity agenda has hardly advanced beyond mere sloganeering or at best strategic political alliances at the time of elections. By and large, moves to unite Dalits and Muslims have been confined to the political level. Recent years have seen the emergence of several political parties ostensibly committed to Dalit-Muslim unity. Yet, as the experience of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh so painfully suggests, Dalit-Muslim unity at the political level, in the absence of strong binds between the two groups at the social level, can hardly be sustained. In other words, a meaningful unity between Dalits and Muslims is only possible through strong contacts and close alliances at the level of civil society.

An interesting effort in this regard was the Dalit-Muslim community dinner organized early this year in Delhi by the Jami'at ul-'Ulama-i Hind, the All-India SC/ST Federation and the Muslim United Morcha. Predictably, the event was not widely reported in the 'national' press, for whom Dalit-Muslim unity is nothing short of anathema. Some 1500 Muslims and Dalits got together for a shared meal, eating from the same plate. Among those who attended were several imams of mosques and teachers at Muslim madrasas. For many of the participants the experience was a novel one. Shunned as untouchables for millennia, for many Dalits the experience of sharing a meal with others was nothing short of radical. So, too, for many Muslims, who, despite their religious strictures against untouchability, consider Dalits as 'low' and practise varying degrees of untouchability towards them in emulation of caste Hindu attitudes.

On this occasion, the head of the Jami'at ul-'Ulama-i Hind, Maulana Asad Madani noted that the collective meal represented a symbolic protest against untouchability and, at the same time, a quest for human unity. The Qur'an, he said, exhorted Muslims to reach out to people of all faiths, for, as he noted, 'It declares all humankind to be one and to be pure'. He explained that Islam believed in the fundamental equality of all human beings and that it was against the caste system. He expressed the hope that the communal meal and would 'help improve inter-community relations in the country and promote justice, humanity, equality and unity'. He remarked that the meal was intended to convey the message that Islam was against communal rivalry and stood for brotherhood, equality and humanity. He announced that the organizers of the meal had planned to arrange for such events in other places as well in order to spread the message of Dalit-Muslim unity at the grass-roots level.

Mr. Udit Raj, president of the SC/ST Confederation, and one of the co-organisers of the event, stressed that the collective Dalit-Muslim meal was a practical effort in strengthening bonds between the two communities. He expressed the hope that through such efforts Dalits and Muslims would learn to help each other, especially when faced with violent attacks. He remarked that Hindutva groups were feverishly seeking to draw the Dalits into their fold and to use them to attack Muslims. To counter this move, he suggested that Dalit-Muslim collective meals and other such forms of practical Dalit-Muslim collaboration be extended all over the country.

What is in a meal, one might ask? Some might well be tempted to dismiss this as a mere exercise in symbolism. Yet, sharing a meal is one of the most powerful social levelers, a potent instrument of social bonding and dissolving boundaries. If Dalit-Muslim unity is really to take off, efforts like this one must be promoted on a wide-scale.

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News Community Roundup Editorial Readers Comments Muslim Community Series Amanath Bank Episode Opinion Face to Face Muslim Perspectives Colours of Harmony Islam and Science Children's Corner Quran Speaks to You Hadith Our Dialogue Zakir Naik Interview Question Hour Guide Lines Islam And Astronomy Living Islam Success Stories Islamic History Journey To Islam View Point Matrimonial
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