THE JUST released English translation of the autobiography of the famous Dalit writer, Omprakash Valmiki, of Uttar Pradesh, is entitled `Joothan'. The work deals with the miserable life of Bhangis who believe that they are descendents of Valmiki, the author of Ramayana. The surname Valmiki comes from this peculiar claim of the Bhangi community, which lives by lifting the night soil. Omprakash recollects how, during his childhood, the most celebrated days for his family were those on which it got scrap food (joothan) from the plates of upper caste landlords of the village on festive occasions. He never knew of sharing food with members of other community with dignity, though his father's dream was to declare himself a Hindu with some dignity.
When Omprakash's father realised that his son could read, he bought him a copy of the Bhagavad Gita with the money that he earned by selling a cowhide. And while he was elated on hearing the Gita being read to him, it made no difference to Omprakash because it did not suggest any remedy for untouchability. Till Omprakash got his first salary as an employee in an ordnance factory, he never knew what was good food, dignity or equality. And with his landing a Government job, his family's fate of eating `joothan' began to change. A majority of Dalits in India live in similar appalling conditions of eating scrap food on a day-to-day basis even today.
Recently, the Jamiat-Ulema-I-Hind, an organisation that shouldered the national struggle, and produced Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, declared that in order to establish friendly relations with Dalits, it would organise a `jootha khana' (sharing food in the same plate) campaign with them. Muslim leaders — including Maulanas and Moulvis — ate from the same plate as Dalits in Hyderabad as part of the campaign. Maulana Mohammad Madani, general secretary of the Jamiat, shared the plate with many Dalits. On December 6, 2002, Bishop Thomas of the All-India Christian Council washed the feet of Dalits in Chennai and declared that it was a day of washing away the sins that even the casteist Christian society in India had committed.
The Jamiat organised a massive rally on March 9, 2003, in Delhi, in which it said that it would form a Dalit-Muslim Front. The front would take up social reform activity all over the country. Some people are of the view that this process may lead to the formation of a Dalit-Muslim political front. If such a formation emerges, the course of Indian democracy might change. However, the Ulema itself is a social organisation which does not participate directly in electoral politics. It has been working on education for Muslims and for the socio-economic amelioration of the Muslim community. But so far, it has not worked among tribals, Dalits and the OBCs.
The Gujarat carnage has taught many new lessons. Post-Gujarat, Muslims who have hitherto confined their socio-educational activity to their own society, realised that unless social bonds are built with the Dalit-Bahujans, who are said be part of Hindu society, Muslims and other minorities may not find social blocs that stand by them. For the first time, the Muslim civil society decided that it should participate in the social reform process of the caste-ridden Indian society. Since the days of colonial rule, Christian missionaries have been involved in the reform of non-Christian civil society but Muslim social forces never talked about social reform. The Gujarat violence and the Dalit-Bahujan movements for equality have made the Muslim community think in terms of social reforms in the interest of the larger Indian civil society.
The Jamiat has a long history of nationalist secular activity. During the struggle against the British rule, it supported, much against the politics of Muslim League, the Indian National Congress in general, and Gandhi in particular. For doing so, it was characterised as "Hindu-Muslim" by other Muslim organisations. But unfortunately, until the Gujarat carnage took place last year, even the Jamiat did not realise that it needed to work among Dalits, tribals and OBCs who were being oppressed by the very same social forces that controlled Hindu religion.
So far, the forces of Hindutva, which have used Hinduism for political purposes, have not worked out any reform agenda. They believe in the Savarkar mode of Brahminism, which has its roots in Kautilyanism. Only if competing modes of social reforms operate, casteism and Kautilyanism can be weakened.
The Jamiat seems to have realised its reformist role at a time when the very existence of the Muslim community is under threat. In their own interest, and in the interest of the nation, Muslim organisations must begin interacting with the larger civil society, overcoming their sectarian way of living. If they expand their work among non-Muslim masses, the Hindutva forces might project it as an agenda of conversion. In fact, the Hindu religion is at a crossroads. If it does not become spiritually democratic by abolishing caste discrimination in all spheres of life, it will no longer remain secure. Its communal agenda is the result of its insecurity. If minority religions also address the issue of caste, the suppressed will certainly change their attitude towards them.
Muslim organisations should also work for reforming their own community. Their schools, like those run by the RSS, have a curriculum that ingrains religious ideology. They must change their syllabi. Schools run by Christian missionaries are a good example of imparting positive education. Children of all religions can study in these schools and take an independent, individual decision on their religious beliefs. Hindutva forces keep asking Muslims to remove what they call the negative sections from the Quran, but no Muslim intellectual asks why Hindu spiritual texts speak a language that humiliates Dalits and Sudras. These forces assume that they have the exclusive authority to ask any religion to change its form and content. But at the same time, they think that nobody, not even the victims of Hinduism, should ask for a change in the form and content of their religion. Though the Hindu texts use very derogatory language such as Sudra and Chandala against people who they claim belong to that very religion, nobody, it is felt, should question them. If the Quran uses the word kafir for non-believers, a serious objection is raised. But other religious forces never question the language used in the Hindu scriptures. If someone talks about caste on other religious forums, the counter-argument is that it is an internal issue of Hinduism. When someone asks others to reform their spiritual texts, why not reform one's own religion? Why not an honest debate on the positive and negative aspects of all religions and their books, so that competing spaces can be created in a multi-religious nation such as ours?
Hardly any Muslim scholar has asked for space for the Quran and the Bible in the Indian nationalist discourse, along the lines of what is available for the Rigveda and the Gita. Is it not a fact that many turned anti-British after being inspired by the Quran and the Bible? In any honest discourse of nationalism, the influence of all the texts that inspired equality among people has to be seen. It is not just heroism and masculinity that can build nationalist ethos. It is built in a culture of sacrifice in order to improve day-to-day living.
Indian nationalism is not only the property of Hindus. It is the property of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Sikhs as well. This nation did not imbibe only the textual tradition of the Vedas, the Gita and the Puranas. It also imbibed the tradition of the Bible, the Quran, the Vinaya Pitaka, the Gurugranth Sahib and others. The moment Muslim organisations expand their activities to the larger masses, a whole range of new issues will come into the discourse of nation-building.