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How to understand the BJP’s focus on Pasmanda Muslims

The Pasmandas form the overwhelming majority among Indian Muslims, but are hugely underrepresented in jobs, legislatures, and community organisations. Pasmandas feel deliberately ignored by the Ashraf elite, who are seen as being excessively focussed on “Muslimness”

Uttar Pradesh BJP organised a first-of-its-kind meeting of Pasmanda Muslims in Lucknow on Sunday. (Express)

The Uttar Pradesh BJP organised a first-of-its-kind meeting of Pasmanda Muslims in Lucknow on Sunday (October 16), part of the party’s effort to reach out to the non-privileged majority among the community in India.

UP Deputy Chief Minister Brajesh Pathak compared the treatment of Pasmandas by political parties to ‘tejpatta’ (bay leaves), which are thrown away after the ‘biryani’ has been flavoured, and assured the gathering that the Narendra Modi government would be different.

Who are the Pasmanda Muslims?

Pasmanda is a Persian word that means the ‘ones left behind’. The word is used to describe the depressed classes among Muslims who have been deliberately or consciously excluded from the fruits of power and privilege. Backward, Dalit, and tribal Muslims use the word Pasmanda as an umbrella identity to flag caste-based discrimination within the community.

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“The term Pasmanda Muslim was first used in 1998 by Ali Anwar Ansari when he founded the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz,” Khalid Anis Ansari, associate professor of sociology at the School of Arts and Sciences, Azim Premji University, had told The Indian Express earlier this summer.

According to Ali Anwar Ansari, a former member of Rajya Sabha and national president and founder of the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz: “Pasmandas include Dalits as of now, but all Pasmandas are not Dalits. Constitutionally speaking, we are all in one category — OBC. But going forward, we want Dalit Muslims to be recognised separately.”

But isn’t Islam supposed to be an egalitarian religion, with no caste?

Theoretically, yes. But this is not the way it is in the subcontinent, where caste has been an essential building block of society, and the fundamental basis of social organisation.

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All religions that otherwise have an egalitarian ethos are in practice divided by caste in India. So, while Islam does not mandate the creation of social hierarchies and imagines an undivided global ‘ummah’, the existence of caste categories is a lived reality for Muslims across India.

Indian Muslim society can be broadly classified into Ashrafs (the “noble” elite or “honourable ones”), Ajlafs (backward Muslims), and Arzals (Dalit Muslims).

Ashrafs claim to be the descendants of Muslims from the Islamic homelands of Arabia, Persia, Turkey, Afghanistan (Syeds, Sheikhs, Mughals and Pathans), or of upper-caste converts from Hinduism (Rajputs, Gaurs, Tyagi Muslims etc).

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Ajlafs are the middle-caste converts who were involved in occupations that are considered ritually “clean” — momins or julahas (weavers), darzis or idiris (tailors), and rayeens or kunjaras (vegetable sellers).

The Arzals have traditionally been beyond the pale, and were first recorded only in the 1901 census. They belong to the lowest, “untouchable” castes — like the halalkhors, helas, lalbegis or bhangis (scavengers), dhobis (washermen), nais or hajjams (barbers), chiks (butchers), and faqirs (beggars).

The report of the Rajinder Sachar Committee, formed in 2005 to study the social, economic and educational condition of Indian Muslims, said: “One can discern three groups among Muslims: (1) those without any social disabilities, the Ashrafs; (2) those equivalent to Hindu OBCs, the Ajlafs, and (3) those equivalent to Hindu SCs, the Arzals. Those who are referred to as Muslim OBCs combine (2) (Ajlafs) and (3) (Arzals).”

The Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission, which submitted its report in May 2007, noted that the caste system impacted all religious communities in India, including Muslims.

How many Indian Muslims are Pasmanda?

We don’t know for sure. In the absence of a caste census, no specific numbers are available.

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The Sachar Committee said OBC and SC/ST Muslims were 40% of India’s overall Muslim population in 2004-05. But Pasmanda activists and scholars say they make up 80-85% of India’s Muslim population. This would be broadly in line with the 1871 Census that said only 19% of Muslims in India were upper caste.

Prof Anis Ansari said: “Ashfaq and Pasmanda ideologues agree that a 80:20 (lower caste-upper caste) ratio is an accepted estimate. But during Partition many Muslim elites migrated, so those numbers could be 85/15 now.” Ali Anwar Ansari said that the 80:20 ballpark is largely agreed within the community.

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On where Pasmandas live, Ali Anwar Ansari said: “They are present in all states. Their names may differ, but wherever there are Muslims, there are Pasmandas.”

What are the demands of Pasmanda Muslims?

Pasmanda activists underline that despite being an overwhelming majority of Muslims, Pasmandas are under-represented in jobs, legislatures and government-run minority institutions, as well as in organisations run by the community.

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The major Pasmanda demands include conducting a caste census, restructuring of existing reservation categories, and state support for artisans, craftspersons, and agricultural labourers, who are among the most impoverished of Indian Muslims.

Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Pasmanda outfits demanded that Dalit Muslims should be included in the SC list, and the OBC quota should be redesigned to create an Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) category at the central and state levels for both most backward Hindus and Muslims.

The Pasmandas point to the Bihar model, where a separate MBC category was created within the OBC list, and most backward Muslim castes — 27 as per Sachar — were included in it.

Pasmanda leaders say that including Dalit Muslims in the SC/ST category will extend the protection offered by The SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against religious targeting.

What is the history of Pasmanda activism?

The main grievance of the community stems from the feeling of being deliberately ignored by the Ashraf elite, who are seen as being excessively focussed on “Muslimness” to the exclusion of pressing and obvious socio-economic disabilities in the community.

The Pasmandas oppose the demand for religion-based reservation for all Muslims, and argue that this ignores the unequal access to state resources within the community. As opposed to the Ashraf-led focus on religious identity and cultural exclusivity of Muslims, the Pasmanda narrative focuses on caste and socio-economic backwardness.

The use of the term Pasmanda and the movement to ensure social justice for them gathered pace in the post-Mandal years. However, these demands had been made even in the pre-Independence era. Two julaha (weaver) leaders, Abdul Qayyum Ansari and Maulana Ali Hussain Asim Bihari, in particular, opposed the communal politics of the Muslim League, and challenged the League’s claim to represent all Muslims.

“These leaders were the pillars of the movement… Their other contemporaries fighting a similar fight were Maulana Atiqur Rehman Arvi (of the mansoori community), and Mian Abdul Malik Tanapuri (of the rayeen community),” Ali Anwar Ansari said.

Prof Anis Ansari said: “The early leaders of the Pasmanda movement were leading an anti-colonial, anti-Ashraf, anti-Mulim League fight.”

In the 1980s, the All India Muslim OBC Organisation (AIMOBCO) in Maharashtra spearheaded the fight for Pasmanda rights, and went on to enlist the support of Bollywood thespian Dilip Kumar, who was a Pathan.

The 1990s saw the rise of the All-India Backward Muslim Morcha (AIBMM) set up by Dr Ejaz Ali, and Ali Anwar’s Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, besides other, smaller outfits in several states.

“Ali Anwar’s book ‘Masawat Ki Jung’ (Fight for Equality, published in 2000) played a pivotal role in expanding the ambit of the movement beyond reservations by focusing on culture, social reform, and the need to form a new identity,” Prof Anis Ansari said.

Why is the BJP reaching out to Pasmanda Muslims?

Prof Anis Ansari had told The Indian Express earlier: “The BJP is trying to expand its voter base as UP and Bihar are crucial for its 2024 election fortunes. However, the party has been working actively with Pasmanda Muslims since 2014… This time it goes beyond the immediacy of the political or the electoral; it is a larger cultural shift. Now, the Sangh, instead of engaging Muslims through the Ashraf elite, is engaging with sections at the margins of Muslim society.”

Girish Juyal, national convener of the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, an affiliate of the RSS, said: “We want Muslim women and Pasmandas to understand their rights, grow in strength to solve their own and the nation’s problems… BJP may or may not benefit from this decision to focus on the welfare of the Pasmandas, but the country certainly will.”

At the BJP national executive in Hyderabad earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked the party to reach out to “deprived and downtrodden sections” in communities other than Hindus. This was understood to be a signal to BJP workers to focus on groups such as Pasmanda Muslims of UP and Bihar.

The PM’s direction had come weeks after the BJP’s victories in the Lok Sabha by-elections in Azamgarh and Rampur, where the Muslim vote is important. The BJP is believed to have got some Pasmanda votes in the UP Assembly elections as well. Danish Azad Ansari, a Pasmanda leader, was subsequently inducted into the second Yogi Adityanath government.

First published on: 17-10-2022 at 12:44 IST
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