Seeking alternatives

Published : May 21, 2004 00:00 IST

Muslims and Dalits, who together form a large chunk of India's population, are targets of atrocities, live in subhuman conditions, suffer discrimination at all levels, and have for long been used as vote banks by political parties. What are the choices before these communities in this round of elections to ensure that their concerns are addressed? An assessment, with reports from the States.

Muslims and Dalits, who together form a large chunk of India's population, are targets of atrocities, live in subhuman conditions, suffer discrimination at all levels, and have for long been used as vote banks by political parties. What are the choices before these communities in this round of elections to ensure that their concerns are addressed? An assessment, with reports from the States.

Sayeeda, in her mid-twenties, lives in a jhuggi (hut) on the banks of the river Gomti in Lucknow. Of her four children, one is mentally challenged and one has a physical disability. The other two are severely malnourished. Her husband, an artisan without work, beats her because she does not give him money to drink. When Sayeeda goes out in search of work to feed her family, she ties her mentally challenged child to the cot lest he strays and falls into the river. For Sayeeda, there is nothing to look forward to, except, of course, the chance to go and vote.

Five Dalits were killed in Jhajjar, Haryana, on October 15, 2002, in front of a police station. In this connection Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani said in the Lok Sabha that "major punishment" had been meted out to 13 police officers. The punishment: stoppage of two annual increments for each of them, a departmental inquiry against the Deputy Superintendent of Police, one Nayab Tehsildar and one head constable, besides charge-sheets against all of them.

THESE are not isolated instances but a reflection of the condition of Dalits and Muslims after 56 years of Independence and several rounds of general elections, in which political parties competed with one another to woo them.

Dalits and Muslims, who together constitute a large chunk of the population and decide the electoral fortunes of many political parties, remain the most marginalised and exploited sections of society. The benefit of reservation has made no difference to Dalits, who constitute roughly 26 per cent of the country's population. The majority of them lead dismal lives, as do the majority of the 20-crore Muslims in the country. They are the target of atrocities, live in sub-human conditions marked by rampant poverty, suffer discrimination at all levels and are used as vote banks by political parties and discarded after elections. In this round of elections what are the choices before these communities to ensure that their concerns are addressed?

A paper presented by Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan at an international Dalit conference in Berlin last year brought out some of the reasons for the socio-economic backwardness of Dalits. Main among them is the absence of land reforms. It said that in most States land reforms had still not been introduced and the majority of Dalits were forced to work as labourers under feudal landlords and were subjected to all sorts of atrocities. Also, despite having reservation in education and jobs their representation in trade and industry and government services was negligible because the reservation quota never got filled.

Perhaps one indicator that Dalits continue to be in a state of denial despite the hue and cry about their empowerment is the representation they have in the foreign service. According to figures quoted by Paswan during a debate in the Lok Sabha on atrocities on Dalits, on August 21, 2003, in grade A and B countries, considered the elite ones, Dalits are unrepresented, while in grade C countries their representation is 40 per cent.

Similarly, Dalits have been deprived of their share of seats in the legislatures as the number of reserved constituencies is still based on the 1971 Census and not on the 2001 census report. Going by the figures in the 2001 report, the number of reserved Lok Sabha constituencies would have to increase by 20 and the number of Assembly seats by 60. Keeping the community deprived apparently suits the political class because no political party has made this an election issue. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had said when the Constitution was to be implemented that Dalits were beginning their dual journey of having on one side political equality, with the one man one vote criterion, and on the other socio-economic inequality born out of the manuwadi system. He had said that unless the socio-economic inequality was removed, the political equality would not be of much help. He has been proved right. The political equality has meant that all political parties use Dalits as a vote bank and nothing more.

Dalits realise this and have tried to shed the vote-bank tag. The success of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh ever since it entered the electoral fray in 1989 and the hold of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in Bihar are testimony to the realisation by Dalits that they need their own parties to get their due. In Uttar Pradesh, Dalits have shifted loyalty from the Congress to the BSP. The party secured 9.86 per cent of the vote and two seats in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, 20.6 per cent of the vote and six seats in 1996 and 20.9 per cent of the votes and four seats in 1998. In 1999 it emerged as a force to reckon with, winning 14 seats and 22.08 per cent of the vote.

The BSP too has not taken up Dalit concerns seriously - Mayawati made no serious efforts at land reforms during her three tenures as Chief Minister - but that has not prevented Dalits from voting for it. For them it was enough that Mayawati had demonstrated the resolve to do something for the underprivileged. In all her tenures, she distributed land pattas to landless Dalits, earmarked a certain portion of the budget for their welfare and selected `Ambedkar villages' to provide basic amenities. Her efforts, even though only symbolic in nature, have seen the community rallying round her.

The same holds true for Paswan in Bihar. His performance as a Dalit leader striking out on his own will be put to the test for the first time in this round of elections, and indications are that he too, like Mayawati, is emerging as a major player in Dalit politics.

MUSLIMS are still experimenting with their electoral choices, trying to find out which non-Hindutva option represents their interests best. The socio-economic status of Muslims is seen to be worse than that of Dalits. The school drop-out rate, one indicator of backwardness, in an average Muslim school is around 30 per cent and of 100 students who begin in class I, hardly one manages to pass class X. Records show that in every recruitment, whether civilian or defence, out of 10,000 candidates who appear, only 500 are Muslims and of them only around 25 get selected.

In the immediate 45 years since Independence, 30,000 big or small riots took place across India and there are records to suggest that most of these were in areas where Muslims had started emerging strong economically. Riots seem to have been used as a tool to break the community financially. This explains to a large extent the socio-economic-educational backwardness of Muslims and no political party or government has done anything to tackle this problem.

The Congress(I) used to be the party that Muslims supported, but the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, and the riots that followed left them disenchanted and they started looking for alternatives. These emerged in the form of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh, and the Left parties in West Bengal. The various groups of the Muslim League are mainly confined to Kerala. Where there was no alternative, the Congress(I) continued to be their party of choice.

"But even these parties have failed to improve substantially the socio-economic-educational status of Muslims. All over the country Muslims continue to live in penury," says Col. (retd.) Shamsi, who is associated with the Nadwa-tul-ulema, one of the most prestigious centres of Islamic studies in the world. "The only solution is for Muslims to get together on their own, carry some like-minded non-Muslims along and take the initiative," he says.

The quality of education provided to Muslims also leaves much to be desired, says Begum Naseem Iqtedar, the only woman member on the executive committee of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. According to her, the so-called educated Muslims are even more backward because their education has made them look down upon their traditional occupations, be it carpentry or tailoring, and they are not qualified enough to get white-collar jobs. Begum Naseem, who runs community development programmes among poor Muslims in the slums of Lucknow, says there are hardly any avenues available to train Muslims in traditional occupations.

According to her, lack of education and lack of awareness, even of their own religion, are the two biggest evils plaguing the Muslim community, leading to their "ghettoisation" and rendering them even more vulnerable to being converted into vote banks.

Who is to be blamed if even the basic needs of a vast section of society are not addressed even so many years after Independence? "The political system," is the unanimous reply, whether it is Col Shamsi or Begum Iqtedar or Ram Vilas Paswan. If the political parties do not address this situation, it could lead to a "civil war", as Col. Shamsi puts it, or "a social explosion with disastrous consequences", as Paswan sees it.

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