A Muslim-Dalit axis going back to Haji Mastan’s shot at redemption
Efforts by Congress and NCP to bring together disparate outfits in Maharashtra under the banner of a united opposition have been undermined primarily by one man: Prakash Ambedkar. Reaching out to Asaduddin Owaisi’s Majlise-Ittahadul Muslimeen early on and renewing the Dalit-Muslim axis, he has set the stage for a three-cornered contest in the state.
The Dalit-Muslim bonhomie in Maharashtra goes back over three decades. In the aftermath of the 1984 Bhiwandi riots, smuggling kingpin Haji Mastan Mirza and Dalit leader Jogendra Kawade made ripples by forming the Dalit Muslim Minority Suraksha Mahasangh. An ageing Mastan was looking to step out of the shadow of the Bombay underworld, which was overrun by the Pathans and mill-land Maharashtrian gangs.
“It was a novel experience in the country’s political history. I was known for launching a march to rename Marathwada university in Aurangabad after Babasaheb Ambedkar while Mirza had given up smuggling, performed Haj and wanted an image makeover,” recalled Kawade, 75, who is now president of People’s Republican Party of India. “I became founder president while he was co-founder of the Mahasangh.”
Disenchanted with Congress and wary of Shiv Sena’s increasingly communal rhetoric, some Muslims saw Mastan as a reformed don who could offer insurance against Bal Thackeray’s majoritarian threats. “Some of us wanted to project him as a Muslim Thackeray. We thought he could respond to Shiv Sena in their language,” said senior journalist Sarfraz Arzoo, who was among those who persuaded him to float the Mahasangh. “It was galvanising Muslims and Dalits and seemed an alternative to Congress.”
The Mahasangh aimed for a vote bank of Muslims and Dalits concentrated in pockets of Mumbai and its suburbs, to start with.
Both communities had substantial numbers in Dongri, Nagpada, Byculla, Dharavi and Sion with no legislative representation.
Dalits make up 7% of the state’s population and Muslims account for 11%, much of it in urban areas. Neither had a strong voice in the Marathadominated Congress or in the Left, which anyway shunned all talk of caste or community.
But the Mahasangh faltered when the Congress-versus-Sena debate took a divisive turn and the minorities chose to consolidate behind the ruling party. Kawade said the Dalit-Muslim experiment collapsed after Mastan’s death in 1994. Arzoo said Mastan himself capitulated to pressure from a Congress politician when his properties went into litigation. “The Mahasangh died as we couldn’t find a Muslim leader like Haji Mastan,” said Kawade.
The project saw a brief resurrection when former cop Shamsher Khan Pathan along with Dalit leader Baban Kamble launched the Awami Vikash Party on May 1, 2012. “I launched it because I wanted to empower Muslims. But now I feel the community has no political awareness and is destined to remain slaves of parties which use them as vote banks,” said a bitter Pathan. He is now being approached to be a spokesperson for the Indian Democratic Alliance and Rashtriya Bahujan Aghadi, another alliance of Muslims and Dalits. Electorally though, the best shot may lie with Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi. With Owaisi backing him, he could upset equations for the two mainstream alliances in some seats.
“The Marathas got 10% reservation while the BJP government denied reservation to Muslims. Dalits and Muslims don’t find much space in Congress-NCP,” Owaisi told TOI. After the Koregaon Bhima incident, Ambedkar has emerged a credible Dalit voice while I have never shirked from championing the Muslim cause. We had to come together,” said Owaisi. “The arrogance of Congress and NCP will backfire and Sena-BJP will certainly benefit from any split in secular votes.”