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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | The uncomfortable question of who our worst-off are

In a mostly dark-skinned nation, who are our “blacks"? Who are India’s worst off? Who are the country’s equivalent of African-Americans? By this I mean the group of Indians who are discriminated against the most; who are easily identified through some markers and often made to feel small; and whom the cops single out. For decades, Dalits held an indisputable claim to be that group. But it is time to acknowledge that Muslims have taken their place.

A few months ago, American leaders like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made dubious assumptions that there was a “genocide" of Muslims going on in India. The term has not been heard in public since. It was a lazy exaggeration of what was, nevertheless, a series of murders of Muslims. Any talk of death gets attention, but usually the bigger problem is not death, but living. The many small unsung things that have to go right. How you are perceived by your appearance or name—that is a form of dignity. In that respect, Dalits never had it as bad as Muslims.

Cities liberated Dalits to a large extent. Here they are anonymous and free of ancient culture. Except in some situations, like marriage, nobody seems to care much for their caste. No one of sane mind practises untouchability anymore, not even in villages; let us ignore for a moment what the pandemic has unleashed—making everyone an untouchable to everyone else. A Dalit Zomato delivery agent or an air-conditioner mechanic on Urban Clap will not fear that moment when his name is shared with a customer. If you dig deeper into many contemporary “caste atrocity" stories, what may emerge are layers of personal feuds that are couched as instances of casteism.

Muslims live in different circumstances. They are not safer in cities than in villages. Here they are more likely to be found in a communal ghetto than Dalits. Even over 15 years ago, when I went around Mumbai pretending to be “Mohammed Khan" looking for prime accommodation, a Dalit would probably have found a home more easily. The situation appears far worse today.

Let us imagine some hypothetical situations. What would disturb a typical Hindu family more today—a daughter of the house marrying a Dalit, or a Muslim? Can you, intuitively, see a Muslim quarrelling on the metro? A measure of a person’s status in his nation is his freedom to misbehave mildly, and we can sense that Muslims may have lost some confidence.

You may argue that Indian Muslims have done well. Among them are a tech billionaire, a pharma billionaire, the most popular actors, beloved cricketers, a former cricket captain, and countless millionaires. How then could they be India’s African-Americans? But “blacks" would tell us that some of the most popular Americans are African-American, one of them was even a president, but that does not transform the way they are perceived by the rest.

Rather, the success of some Muslims and their domination of some industries tends to convert professional resentment into communal bias. If there was a way to study the origins of Bollywood camps, the factions within, we may perhaps see that a part of the tension emerges from professional jealousies that are intensified by the fact that some dominant players of the industry happen to be followers of Islam.

We can see this elsewhere, too, in other fields and professions, like appliance servicing, the manufacture of decor items, or household help services. Much of what we see as communal has origins in economic competition for limited resources. Dalits, on the other hand, have had a near monopoly over economic activity that other caste groups would not do—like skinning cattle, where their competition was only from Muslims.

This suggests that while the status of poor Muslims in India is similar to that of African-Americans, better-off Muslims share some similarities with Jews of early 20th century Europe. (I am reluctant to say this, though, because of the false cries of “genocide" that resemble the hysteria over “farmer suicides" and reinforce the notion that if people are not dying, things must be getting better.)

Dalits have faced extraordinary problems. They were not allowed a fair start and they spent whole generations just trying to catch up. Other castes resented reservations for them. Some even maligned their “intelligence", which in India is a measure of exam-taking abilities. Despite all this, most Dalits have not had the heart to abandon Hinduism. Posh folk who can’t seem to leave their own bad marriages often wonder why Dalits don’t walk out of their religion.

India, remorseful and practical, did everything to make the lives of Dalits better. Muslims, too, have been wooed by various political parties, but in materially useless cultural ways that did little to enrich them.

But does it matter who India’s “blacks" are? Does a nation need to acknowledge its primary victims? In the US, the voices of African-Americans, inuits and impoverished Caucasians find ears. But then, are some voices louder? Is compassion a finite resource of a nation? Yes, it appears.

Broadly speaking, the media and entertainment industry has only three products: fact, fiction and hysteria. A small fraction of its influence is devoted to the risky effort of persuading audiences with finite attention spans to become better people.

So, if Dalits have won some battles, and if Muslims have taken their place as India’s most disadvantaged, it needs to be noted.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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