Prime Minister Narendra Modi was reported to have asked the BJP national executive in Hyderabad last weekend to reach out to “deprived and downtrodden sections” in communities other than Hindus, which was understood to be a message to the party to focus on groups such as Pasmanda Muslims in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
The direction came after the BJP’s victories in the Lok Sabha by-elections in Azamgarh and Rampur, where Muslims are an important part of the electorate. The party is also thought to have gained some Pasmanda votes in the 2022 Assembly elections, and Danish Azad Ansari, a Pasmanda leader, was subsequently inducted into the second Yogi Adityanath government.
‘Pasmanda’, a Persian word, means the ‘ones left behind’, and is used to describe depressed classes among the Muslims, while underlining their deliberate or conscious exclusion. Pasmanda has become an umbrella identity used by backward, Dalit, and tribal Muslims to push back against caste-based discrimination against them within the community.
“The term ‘Pasmanda Muslims’ 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, said.
Ali Anwar Ansari, a former Rajya Sabha MP and national president and founder of the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, said: “Pasmandas include Dalits as of now, but all Pasmandas are not Dalits. Constitutionally speaking, we are all in one category — the OBCs. But going forward, we want Dalit Muslims to be recognised separately.”
Muslim society in India consists of several status groups or biradaris that are broadly sorted in three categories: the Ashrafs (the ‘noble’ elite or the ‘honourable ones’), the Ajlafs (backward Muslims), and the Arzals (Dalit Muslims).
Ashrafs in India are Muslims who either claim to have a foreign pedigree — descendants of Muslims from Arabia, Persia, Turkey, Afghanistan (Syeds, Sheikhs, Mughals and Pathans,) — or who are upper-caste converts from Hinduism (Rajput, Gaur, Tyagi Muslims among others).
Ajlafs are middle-caste converts, who were into ritually “clean” occupations, while the Arzals — who were first recorded in the 1901 census — are from the lowest, “untouchable” castes like halalkhors, helas, lalbegis or bhangis (scavengers), dhobis (washermen), nais or hajjams (barbers), chiks (butchers), and faqirs (beggars).
The momins or julahas (weavers), darzi or idiris (tailors), rayeens or kunjaras (vegetable sellers) fall in the Ajlaf bracket.
While Islam does not mandate the creation of such groups, these caste categories are a lived reality for Muslims across the country.
“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 Rajinder Sachar Committee, formed in 2005 to study social, economic and educational condition of Indian Muslims, said in its report.
However, The Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order, 1950, had restricted SC status to Hindus, keeping Dalits from other religions out of its ambit. The order was later amended (in 1956 and 1990) to include Sikhs and Buddhists.
The implementation of the report of the Mandal Commission brought the non-Ashrafs — Ajlafs and Arzals — under the OBC category.
The National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, known as the Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission, which submitted its report in May 2007, acknowledged that the caste system impacted all religious communities in India, including Muslims.
In the absence of a caste census, a clear estimate of the present-day numbers and demographic distribution of Pasmanda Muslims is not available. The Sachar Committee in its report put the number of OBC and SC/ST Muslims at 40% (all India 2004-05).
Pasmanda activists and scholars do not agree with this figure. Those shepherding the fight for the rights of Pasmandas say that they make up 80-85% of the total Muslim population in India. This broadly tallies with the 1871 census that said only 19% of Muslims in India were upper caste, while 81% were made up of the lower castes.
“Even the Ashraf and Pasmanda ideologues, despite their sharp differences, agree on the proportional distribution of the upper castes and lower caste Muslims. An 80:20 (lower caste-upper caste) ratio is an accepted estimate. But during Partition a lot of migration of the Muslim elite happened, so those numbers could be 85/15 now,” Prof Khalid Anis Ansari said.
Ali Anwar Ansari also said that the 80/20 ratio is a ballpark estimate that is largely agreed within the community. On their demographic distribution, he said: “They are present across all states. They may exist under different names, but wherever there are Muslims, there are Pasmandas.”
Pasmanda Muslims say that despite their overwhelming numerical strength within the community, they are under-represented in jobs, legislatures and government-run minority institutions, as well as community-run Muslim organisations.
The Pasmanda versus Ashraf divide stems from a feeling of being deliberately ignored amid the ruling elites’ focus on “Muslimness”. Pasmandas are also opposed to the demand for giving religion-based reservation to the entire Muslim population, arguing that it ignores unequal access to state resources within the community.
The major Pasmanda demands include conducting a caste census, restructuring of the existing reservation categories, and state support for artisans, craftspersons, and agricultural labourers, who are among the most impoverished groups in the community.
In a resolution passed by several Pasmanda outfits in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it was demanded that Dalit Muslims be included in the SC list and the OBC quota be redesigned to create an Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) category at the Centre and the state level to include the most backward Muslims along with Hindu EBCs.
As an example, the Pasmandas hold up the Bihar model, where a separate MBC category was carved out within the OBC list and most backward Muslim castes — 27 according to the Sachar committee — placed in that category.
“We want a nationwide caste census. Bihar MBC model should be implemented across the country. Also, Dalit Muslims should be taken into the SC category but after increasing the quota limit, so that it does not create any confrontation with Hindu Dalits,” Ali Anwar Ansari said.
“Haryana, Delhi, MP, Rajasthan and UP — these five states have Meo Muslims who should be included in the ST category,” Ali Anwar added.
Pasmanda leaders say that including Dalit Muslims in the SC/ST category will also give them a shield against religious targeting under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
In all their demands, the Pasmanda narrative focuses on caste and socio-economic backwardness rather than religious identity.
While the movement to ensure social justice for Pasmandas, and the recurrent use of the term, gathered pace in the post-Mandal era, its best known flag-bearers in the period before Independence were Abdul Qayyum Ansari and Maulana Ali Hussain Asim Bihari, both of whom belonged to the julaha (weaver) community.
Both these leaders opposed the communal politics being propagated at the time by 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.
“The first-wave leaders of the Pasmanda movement were leading an anti-colonial, anti-Ashraf, and anti-Mulim League fight,” Prof Khalid Anis Ansari said.
About when the movement actually began, Prof Ansari said: “India has a history of caste associations across communities… Among Pasmanda Muslims, such caste associations started emerging from 1910 onwards. There were caste collectives of weavers (julahas), butchers (qureshis), cotton carders (mansooris), saifis, rayeens, etc. These were reformist in nature, but also acted like pressure groups led by upwardly mobile lower caste communities… These outfits manifested the new kinds of demands from within the Muslim community.”
In the 1980s, the All India Muslim OBC Organisation (AIMOBCO) from Maharashtra started spearheading the fight for the rights of Pasmandas, and went on to enlist the unwavering support of Bollywood thespian Dilip Kumar, a Pathan.
The 1990s saw the rise of two outfits: the All-India Backward Muslim Morcha (AIBMM) set up by Dr Ejaz Ali, and the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz founded by Ali Anwar. This marked the phase of getting small caste-based outfits among Muslims to close ranks. Several other outfits started to work for the uplift of Pasmanda Muslims across states.
“Ali Anwar’s book ‘Masawat Ki Jung’ (Fight for Equality, published in 2000) was an event in itself. It played a pivotal role in expanding the ambit of the movement beyond reservations by focusing on culture, social reform and also the need to form a new identity,” Prof Ansari said.
The bid to woo Pasmandas comes as the party prepares to face the crucial 2024 general elections.
“The BJP is trying to expand its voter base as UP and Bihar are crucial for the party’s 2024 fortunes. However, the party has been working actively with the Pasmanda Muslims since 2014. It was during the BJP’s 2017 Odisha national executive that Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned the term Pasmanda Muslims clearly for the first time. During the Hyderabad conclave, he mentioned it on both the days, and largely in the context of UP and Bihar,” Prof Khalid Anis Ansari said.
About what’s different this time, he said: “This time it goes beyond the immediacy of the political or the electoral, and 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.”
The Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM), an affiliate of the RSS, says Pasmanda Muslims are progressing within the BJP and its sister outfits in a “natural” way.
“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,” Girish Juyal, national convener of the MRM, said.
“It works for the BJP, and it works for the middle-rung political workers… There are political workers in all communities. And these workers are interested in their political ambition, and whichever party is in a position to fulfill that, they will go there irrespective of their ideological beliefs,” Prof Ansari said.
“Pasmandas have been against communalism, but if Modiji wants to help them, the government must look into their demands sincerely,” Ali Anwar Ansari said.