August 24, 2011, 8:22 AM IST
Room in Hazare's Tent for Muslims, Dalits?
By Tripti Lahiri
Newspapers in recent days have carried heart-warming pictures of
Muslim men praying in front of the stage where anti-corruption
activist Anna Hazare has been fasting since last week.
One paper carried a report about Muslims "shedding Anna apathy," which
included an account of a young Muslim girl offering to share her food
with Mr. Hazare — he smiled but declined to eat, the news report said.
But although news reports say the Hazare-led corruption movement is
making overtures to different groups after it was criticized for not
being inclusive, some Muslims and Dalits, members of "untouchable"
communities that were traditionally at the bottom of India's caste
hierarchy, say they still feel excluded.
In a piece in the Hindustan Times newspaper on Monday, Harsh Mander, a
member of a policy advisory council chaired by Congress Party chief
Sonia Gandhi, quoted a Dalits rights activist's criticism of the
Lokpal Bill movement.
"It is an upper caste, middle class movement and it addresses their
issues – such as bribes paid to the police or at passport offices,"
Arun Khote told Mr. Mander. "How many SC/STs dare to file cases in
police stations? Barely 5% cases are filed and 92% are acquitted. In
such a situation, how can a lokpal be of any use to the Dalits?" The
abbreviations "SC" and "ST" refer, respectively, to scheduled castes
and scheduled tribes — groups named in the Constitution as
particularly in need of government help in order to overcome historic
Some commentators questioned how inclusive Mr. Hazare's movement was
as early as April, when the activist, who models himself on Mahatma
Gandhi first fasted to put pressure on the government to move forward
on legislation to create a corruption ombudsman. At that time, Mr.
Hazare complimented Gujarat's Chief Minister Narendra Modi for his
rural development efforts.
Mr. Modi is a controversial figure because of his hawkish Hindu
nationalism, and because some of the deadliest sectarian riots in
recent years took place in his state in 2002, when he was already in
power. Human rights groups have accused him of telling police to stand
down as Hindu mobs rampaged through Muslim neighborhoods to avenge the
killing of Hindus in an arson attack on a train. Mr. Modi has denied
It didn't help Mr. Hazare's secular credentials that during his fast
in April he was seated in front of a banner that showed a pink-cheeked
Hindu goddess imposed over a map of India, an image that dwarfed the
pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and other freedom leaders also displayed.
Congress party members were quick to seize upon that to suggest that
the protest movement was a front for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya
Janata Party, India's main opposition party, or for right-wing Hindu
groups. Activists have denied this.
Mr. Hazare has been responsive to the criticism. In May he criticized
the level of corruption in Gujarat after visiting the state and this
time around he's seated in front of a large image of Mahatma Gandhi,
Speaking on Tuesday, Mr. Hazare tried to counter some of the doubts
being raised about his stance on religion and caste.
"I feel very sad people are writing in the papers, I'm told, that in
my village, Dalit people don't have respect or rights," said Mr.
Hazare. He recounted, in his homespun way, how in his village, which
he helped develop economically by taking a hard stance on drinking and
introducing rainwater harvesting, families had voluntarily worked on
the land of Dalit families to help them repay debts.
"We wed in one wedding hall, we eat in one place," said Mr. Hazare.
"This work is very important; we have to end untouchability. Hindu,
Muslim, Sikh and Christian, we have all come together to build the
nation, starting from the village."
The website of India Against Corruption, the group behind Mr. Hazare,
says it has the backing of Christian and Muslim figures, as well as
Hindu ones. But still, people wonder.
The imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, told India Today
magazine that Mr. Hazare "could at least have met some leaders of the
minority community and made references against communalism to make his
campaign look more inclusive."
Several commentators have also noted that there continues to be a
religious component to the protest – with activists on the dais
chanting devotional Hindu songs, including Mahatma Gandhi's favorite
Among the popular slogans in recent days has been "Vande mataram," or
Hail the Motherland, a slogan used during Indian's Independence
struggle that comes from a poem by Bengali writer Bankim Chandra
Chatterjee. In the poem, Durga, the goddess of female power,
symbolizes the nation, who is also sometimes personified as "Mother
The poem was in the running to be India's national anthem but the work
of another Bengali writer– Rabindranath Tagore's "Jana Gana Mana" –
was deemed to better reflect India's religious, cultural and
Civil rights activist Anand Teltumbde, who has written about
atrocities against Dalits in Maharashtra, said that the slogans being
shouted were reminiscent of those used by a right-wing Hindu group
known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Group) –
which is why Dalits and Muslims are wary.
"This nationalist jingoism is very famously associated with the Sangh
family," said Mr. Teltumbde, who is a member of the Mumbai-based
Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, and the grandson of
B.R. Ambedkar, the most respected Dalit icon bar none. "That tone,
tenor and the slogans reinforce the belief that 'this is not ours.'"
The movement is also problematic for Dalits on another level, Mr.
Teltumbde noted: Mr. Ambedkar, India's first law minister and the main
author of its Constitution, was famously against Gandhi-style hunger
strikes and emotionally coercive methods to bring about change.
– Krishna Pokharel contributed to this post.
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