Reaching out to the “Left Behind”: Analysing the Discourse around Pasmanda Muslims
At the recently held BJP national executive meeting in Hyderabad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out the need to reach out to Pasmanda Muslims and to focus on their upliftment. He made this important intervention when Uttar Pradesh BJP State President Swatantra Dev Singh was speaking about the party’s impressive win in the recently concluded bypolls in Azamgarh and Rampur, two Loksabha constituencies having sizeable Muslim population. PM Modi also urged the party leaders to undertake “Sneh Yatras” to bridge the gap between the party and people from the deprived and downtrodden sections of minority communities like the Pasmandas. Moreover, it is reported that BJP is all set to launch a massive outreach programme targeting them after the Monsoon session of Parliament, bringing out an unprecedented attention towards the causes, concerns and significance around the Pasmanda Muslims.
Who are Pasmanda Muslims?
“Pasmanda'' is an umbrella term which means “left behind” in Persian. It is used to refer to all those sections within India’s Muslim community who are historically and socially disadvantaged and marginalized by means of caste. Indian Muslims are a very diverse community divided in terms of sects, region, language, social habits, cultural traits, occupational patterns and also caste, although it differs from the Hindu caste system in details. Muslims in India are often categorised into three broad social groups in which ‘Ashrafs’ are the upper caste Muslims who trace their origin either to western or central asian elites or the upper caste Hindus, the ‘Ajlafs’ comprise of the backward traditional occupational groups and ‘Arzals’ who are converts from the former “untouchable” castes. The latter two which jointly constitute roughly 80-85 % of whole Muslim population are now increasingly identified and organized under the label of “Pasmanda” to voice against their oppression, discrimination and marginalization.
From the 1990s onwards, there is a visible rise in the Pasmanda Movement with several organisations leading from the front like the All India Backward Muslim Morcha of Dr Ejaz Ali, and the All India Pasmanda Muslims Mahaz of Ali Anwar from Bihar, and the All India Muslim OBC Organisation of Shabbir Ansari from Maharashtra.
Victims of Double-Discrimination
Indian Muslims in general fare worse in most socio-economic development indicators and have limited political representation. There are several studies by eminent scholars which reveal that Muslims currently have the lowest intergenerational mobility and have even fallen behind the Scheduled Castes in educational attainment. Intolerance and hate crimes against Muslims are growing exponentially in the highly polarised social environment. But, Pasmanda Muslims in particular are the worst affected because of the dual burden of religious identity and caste.
The secular spaces (having mininimal Muslim presence), religious institutions like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, the All India Milli Council, religious organisations, various waqf and madrasa boards and government-run minority educational insitutions like Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia etc. are disproportionately dominated by upper-caste Muslims. As per one analysis, of the 7,500 elected representatives from the first to the fourteenth Lok Sabha, only 400 were Muslims- of which majority are from the Ashraf category which make up 10-15% of the Muslim population while another study by Gilles Verniers of the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly from 1993 to 2012 showed that upper-caste Muslims occupied more than 70% of the total assembly seats won by Muslims. Apart from the disenfranchisement and marginalisation, Pasmanda Muslims most often become the victims of cow vigilantism, lynching and ‘bulldozer justice’ and also caste based ill treatment from fellow religionists.
BJP’s Outreach to the Pasmandas
The Bharatiya Janata Party claims that it has received nearly eight percent of Pasmanda votes in the last Uttar Pradesh state assembly election. The BJP attributes the increasing participation of Pasmanda Muslims in the party’s minority morcha to the various welfare schemes of the Centre and UP government. The party is trying hard to expand its vote base in the community by conducting special training camps for its cadre and ‘labharthi’ (beneficiaries) meets, aiming at the upcoming Bihar state assembly election and 2024 general election. The appoinmtent of Danish Azad Ansari (the sole Muslim in the Cabinet) as the new minorities welfare minister of Uttar Pradesh and the appointments of other Pasmandas on various boards and academies related to minorities in the state can be seen as part of the outreach strategy.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Ashara Mubaraka event organised by Dawoodi Bohras community | Source: BJP4India (Twitter)
Observations and Conclusion
Pasmanda Muslims were “left behind” by major political parties who tend to see Muslims as a homogenised group and therefore gave their tickets mainly to the upper caste elites who are richer, educated, wield more land and power. They were always left out from the developmental programmes of the state and suffered the most in communal and caste violences. They have time and again demanded conducting of a caste census, implementation of Ranganath Mishra Commission’s recommendation to include Dalit Muslims in the SC category (both to bring them under reservations, and offer protection under the atrocity act primarily against lynchings) and state support for artisans, craftspersons, and agricultural labourers, who are among the most impoverished groups in the community.
The sudden “love” of the Bharatiya Janata Party towards Pasmanda Muslims is dubious and paradoxical since they have always opposed caste census saying it will divide Hindu community on the lines of caste and stood against the inclusion of Dalit Muslims in the SC category alleging appeasement. Moreover, the Yogi Adityanath led UP government’s order ending the flat electricity rates that weavers had been entitled to (and enforcing unit-based consumption instead), closure of slaughter houses and non-renewal of licences made the lives of Pasmandas more miserable. The political appointments of few Pasmanda Muslims by the BJP can only be regarded as mere tokenism considering the facts that currently, there is no single Muslim BJP member in the Uttar Pradesh state assembly (Danish Ansari was nominated to the legislative council) and the Parliament and also no Muslim in the Union cabinet for the first time in history.
If the BJP is sincere to the cause of Pasmanda Muslims, the party should address their genuine demands for representation, protection and upliftment. It seems that by projecting a pro-pasmanda narrative, the party is attempting to improve its face in relations with muslim minority and to gain electoral benefits. Nevertheless, the BJP’s outreach plans should open the eyes of opposition parties that always have a support base among muslims, to look into the issues of Pasmanda Muslims. Above all, the muslim community in India should stop denying the presence of caste and engender a transformative politics, which goes beyond the binary of the ‘secular’ and the ‘communal’ and fight for both the social justice of the marginalised majority in the community and against the growing hatred in the country.
By Muhammed Luqman O P