New-Delhi:At the New Delhi World Book Fair recently hosted at Pragati Maidan, one of the most-attended talks was by journalist and former Rajya Sabha MP Ali Anwar on his new book on the Pasmanda revolution. In a matter of minutes, 50 crisp copies were sold out. People pushed past each other to get Anwar to sign it.
“Compared to other book events this year, this one was most popular so far,” said Ashok Maheshwari, managing director of Rajkamal Prakashan, speaking of Anwar’s book Sampoorna Dalit Andolan — Pasmanda Tasavvur.
“But it isn’t surprising because the Pasmanda community is a hot topic right now, since the BJP began focussing on them,” Maheshwari added.
The 2022 Delhi municipal corporation election was a critical moment for India’s Pasmanda Muslims and arguably the most significant political development since Mandal mobilisation. Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi signalled the new shift in Hyderabad in July 2022, the word ‘Pasmanda’ has entered everyday political vocabulary. And with that, Indian politics is stirring up new anxieties and articulations.
‘Pasmanda’ means ‘left behind’ or ‘oppressed people’, and is a catchall label used for Dalit and marginalised Muslim groups. They make up nearly 85 per cent of India’s Muslims. But it’s the top elite layer, called ‘Ashraafs’ or noble, who dominate all public political narrative.
The BJP lost the MCD election to AAP but is now already preparing an elaborate roadmap to mobilise the Pasmandas ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election — identify 60 constituencies with over 30 percent Muslim population, launch outreach programmes through scooter yatras, sneh sammelans and personal meetings with PM Modi.
All this to court a community historically disparaged and discarded from the mainstream narrative.
“The governments that ruled us have made us Pasmanda. Earlier, the Ashraaf people used to profit from our society. There was no participation,” said Jamal Siddiqui, the president of BJP Minority Morcha and one of the party’s Pasmanda faces.
“Now, we are at least being discussed and the credit goes to Modiji and his policy of sabka saath, sabka vikas,” Siddiqui added with pride.
The BJP has been careful to walk the talk by giving key posts to some prominent members of the Pasmanda community — Danish Azad Ansari as the minister of state, minority welfare and waqf department; Ashfaq Saifi as chairman of the UP Minority Commission; and Iftikhar Javed as chairman of the UP Board of Madarsa Education. Ansari is currently the only Muslim in Adityanath’s cabinet, and a Pasmanda to boot.
The BJP has taken a leaf out of its UP playbook in Delhi. It fielded four Pasmanda faces in the MCD election—Saba Gazi from Chauhan Bangar, Shamina Raza (Quresh Nagar), Shabnam Malik (Mustafabad), and Irfan Malik (Chandni Mahal).
All four candidates lost, but the strategy may have given BJP a toehold in key Muslim-dominated areas in the national capital.
Also read: Waqf boards are India’s big urban landlords. But whose interest are they serving?
A trust deficit
But today, Gazi and other Pasmanda Muslim candidates find themselves in an awkward position — straddling BJP’s politics and the distrust for the party within the community. All of them lost to Muslim candidates fielded by other parties. Congress candidate Sabila Begum, who won from Mustafabad, also belongs to the Pasmanda community.
“In areas where the BJP could not step in, we got them votes. We are like an experiment, which seems to be successful for the party,” said 60-year-old Irfan Malik whose association with the BJP goes back eight to ten years.
During the pandemic and many lockdowns, he was on the ground providing rations to families.
“Ashraafs don’t want us to move forward, but the BJP has given us an opportunity,” 33-year-old Gazi said, her eyes flashing behind her veil. She may have lost the election badly, not even able to recover her deposit, but she’s not ready to give up on her political dreams.
Although, the trust deficit among voters, most of whom say they have never met Gazi, makes things a little more difficult for her.
“What kind of Pasmanda spends crores of rupees on elections? Pasmanda is poor and backward. These people never come to meet us and have no connection with us,” said Mateen Ahmed, a resident of Chauhan Bangar from where Gazi contested the 2022 MCD election.
Malik’s support of the Yogi Adityanath government’s use of bulldozers to raze people’s homes and businesses has angered residents, but he is unfazed.
“Today, crime has ended in Uttar Pradesh. Women can go out at night wearing gold ornaments because people have learned a lesson. If you do something wrong, your house will be bulldozed and you will be punished,” said Malik.
Even though the BJP’s Pasmanda politics is increasingly a part of conversations among Muslims today, the talk doesn’t go deep. When it does, it becomes uncomfortable to balance identity and ideology. They welcome the new attention and hope their potholed, open-drain neighbourhoods get a facelift, but they cannot ignore the attacks on poor Muslim vendors and shopkeepers in the name of Hindutva.
“As long as a candidate is in BJP, it is difficult for them to get votes. We are not against these candidates but the ideology they support,” said a woman from Matia Mahal, the assembly constituency under which Irfan Malik’s Chandni Mahal ward falls.
BJP’s Quresh Nagar candidate Shamina Raza, whose father and husband are also associated with the party, described the MCD election as “emotional.”
Pasmanda Muslims, she claims, are purposely being kept ignorant of government schemes like Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Virasat Ka Samvardhan Scheme that would benefit them.
“We remain stuck in Hindu-Muslim disputes. That’s why BJP has given us the responsibility to make Pasmanda Muslims aware of its government policies and connect them with the party,” she said.
The ‘Mandal’ seed
The new focus on Pasmanda Muslims has also jolted the unchanging template of political thinking in India—that Muslim identity is a monolith and the people are caste-less.
Although the consciousness generated by the Mandal Commission Report in 1980 dismantled the notion of Indian Muslims being homogeneous, the narrative stayed. The churning did lead to the rise of a Pasmanda movement among backward Muslims demanding higher representation, but it didn’t get the kind of political wings that the Mandal movement of the Hindu community did.
For many decades, the Congress continued to appeal to the community through elite leaders and religious clerics, without narrow-focusing on ground-up voices. Scholars and activists worked among the Pasmanda members, but without generating any political traction. The discrimination that Pasmandas face in their everyday lives – from mosques to graveyards to universities — is hardly a topic of public discussion.
In such a scenario, the BJP’s outreach is a socially and politically significant moment and a potential disruptor in Indian politics.
The move to split the 170 million-strong minority community is particularly thorny at a time when the opposition to Hindutva politics relies on en bloc tactical voting by the Muslims. It also strives to break the monopoly of Ashraaf narrative-makers in public debate.
“Those who call it politics of vote should know that Muslims are not BJP voters. The party has Hindus; it does not need Muslim votes. If the ruling party wants to work, it will have to connect with every section of society. Ashraafs want every Muslim to be against BJP,” said columnist and TV panelist Amana Begam Ansari.
In a striking contradiction, many political observers say that the Hindu vigilante attacks on Muslim men over allegations of beef-eating and inter-faith romances have mostly affected poorer Pasmanda members of the community.
The Kaka Kalelkar Commission, the Mandal Commission, the Ranganath Misra Commission and even the Sachar Committee have accepted caste and caste-based discrimination in Muslim society.
According to Ansari, “other people” take advantage of government schemes that can benefit Pasmanda Muslims. “However, it cannot be denied that OBC reservation in education has benefited Pasmandas because of the Mandal Commission report,” she added.
This communication gap is what Raza wants to bridge. She sees herself as a messenger and wants to open a centre where Muslims can be informed about BJP’s policies.
Also read: Don’t feel hurt over Amrit Udyan. Pasmanda Muslims have no nostalgia for Mughals
Like tejpatta to biryani
The BJP doesn’t miss the opportunity to drive this point home. Last October, the Adityanath government held a meeting with Pasmanda muslims in Lucknow where UP’s Deputy Chief Minister Brajesh Pathak compared the group to tejpatta (bay leaf), a key ingredient that gives flavour to biryani but is ultimately picked out of the dish and discarded.
“Congress, Samajwadi and other parties misled you (Muslims) and used you as a vote bank. PM Modi has given you your rights. You have been given the benefits of free houses, cooking gas cylinders, PM Kisan Samman Nidhi and Jan Dhan Yojana,” Pathak had said.
The BJP is quick to claim that Pasmandas who are made aware of the schemes have become beneficiaries. Last year, BJP Minority Morcha’s UP president Kunwar Basit Ali, an Ashraaf, claimed that in the last five years, about 43 lakh houses have been built in the state under the PM Awas Yojana, out of which 20 lakh houses went to Pasmandas.
This outreach to the Muslim community, with an eye on elections, has worked to an extent, at least in Uttar Pradesh. Data from the CSDS-Lokniti survey indicated that in the 2022 assembly election, BJP’s vote share among Muslims rose by 8 per cent compared to the 2017 election.
But there is a need for further scrutiny on how Pasmanda Muslims voted.
“It will be known in the coming elections how successful BJP has been. The party is trying to reach out to the non-political class in Pasmanda. If it increases the 8 per cent vote share to 20 per cent, then the opposition will become extremely weak,” said Khalid Anis Ansari, visiting scholar with the South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) policy collective.
According to Hilal Ahmed, associate professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the BJP divides voters into three categories.
First, are voters committed to the political party. The second category is of ‘sympathisers’ who accept its larger agenda, but are unhappy with certain policies. And the third is the ‘floating voter’ who tends to choose the party that has higher odds of winning.
“BJP is fully aware that Muslims are not going to work for them. Now, some of BJP’s voters are not very happy with the aggressive Hindutva politics. In order to appease the sympathisers and floating voters, it is very important to indicate some kind of inclusive character of the party,” said Ahmed.
To Ahmed, the Pasmanda identity is not a point of conflict within the BJP. “It does not pose a challenge to the BJP because the party has always been arguing that the Muslim community in India was forcibly converted to Islam at one point of time.”
“Therefore, it is natural for them to say: ‘You are also Hindu, but we are not going to start a new ghar wapsi programme’,” he said.
Also read: BJP’s olive branch to Pasmandas a momentous first in India. The 3 factors behind it: AMU VC
Divisive politics or social welfare?
Issues like bulldozers, riots, ghar wapsi, lynching and the so-called ‘love jihad’ directly affect Pasmanda community, who are poor, mostly self-employed and vulnerable to Hindu vigilante groups. But BJP leaders claim that Sneh Yatra will bring them into its fold.
However, Ali Anwar, founder of the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, insisted that Pasmanda does not need ‘Sneh‘ (affection) but ‘Samman‘ (respect).
“You will do Sneh Yatra and also run bulldozers? There is a lack of trust among Muslims. We are Pasmandas but we are also Muslims,” said Anwar, a two-time Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar representing JD(U) who was expelled by the party in 2017 for opposing its decision to join hands with the BJP. He described the BJP’s approach as destructive. “Their social justice is mechanical. Break from here and add there.”
Opposition parties accuse the BJP of using the Pasmanda narrative as a trap, a part of its divisive politics.
“Who were Pehlu Khan and Junaid (victims of Hindutva mob lynching)? Who was Najeeb, the still-missing student from JNU? Who was Bilkis Bano, whose rapists were released and garlanded? They were all Pasmanda,” Congress leader Sadaf Zafar told ThePrint.
BJP leaders dismiss such criticism as a dominant Ashraaf mentality that disproportionately benefits from welfare schemes and is fearful of losing power. But it is this seduction of political and economic benefits that can mute ideology for some.
“If someone is giving us political participation and raising our issues, then what is wrong in going with them? We have to rise above ideology,” said Faiyaz Ahmad Fyzie, who runs Pasmanda Democracy journal.
“If there is no division among us, then why don’t you give us participation in institutions like Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind and Muslim Personal Law Board.”
Fyzie added that it’s not BJP but Ashraafs who support practices that favour them over other sections of Muslim society.
He cites the example of kufu, which can be translated as ‘equal’ or ‘matching’. In Islamic law, when it comes to marriage, kufu is often interpreted as a union between a bride and bridegroom who are of the same lineage, religion, wealth, and profession. This, Fyzie argues, shows there is complete recognition to racial, caste-based discrimination in a section of the Islamic society in India.
“So, for us, it is an issue of justice. PM Modi has considered us as the first citizens,” he added.
The Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind has denied allegations of ‘caste-based’ appointments, and welcomed the Union government’s outreach to Pasmanda Muslims during its 34th general session held in Delhi in February.
“Pasmandas should get a post. No one has any problem with this. If BJP is opening its doors, then it is a good thing. In our organisation, positions are not given on the basis of caste. We consider everyone as a Muslim,” the organisation’s spokesperson Niaz Ahmed Farooqui said.
At a wedding celebration on a chilly December afternoon, Ali Anwar catches some warmth under the sun while standing on the fountain platform at Fatehpuri Masjid in Chandni Chowk. His wife and daughter-in-law wait with him for the bride and groom. They had come from Bihar to attend an inter-caste marriage. The groom was a Sayyed and the girl was a Pasmanda.
“We, Pasmanda Muslims, are the original inhabitants of our country, India. Hardly one or two per cent of Muslims have come to India from Arabia, Iran and Iraq. We are not the people of ‘Aqliyat’ (minority); we are ‘Aksariyat’ (bahujans),” he wrote to Modi in an open letter in 2022.
Beyond political rhetoric and spin-doctoring, the discrimination of Pasmandas is a ground reality.
Maroof Ansari, an activist from Malihabad, 20 km from Lucknow, is no stranger to discrimination. In his town, oppressor caste Muslims and Pasmandas live in separate neighbourhoods.
“We have separate cemeteries for Sayyids, Sheikhs, Mirzas, Pathans and Pasmanda Muslims. A deceased Pasmanda cannot be buried in any upper-caste cemetery,” he said, adding that even in Pasmanda burial grounds, tailors and Qureshis are buried separately. From time to time, news of caste-based violence or discrimination keeps emerging but it changes little on the ground.
Maroof has become used to slurs and overt discrimination that are part of his every-day life. In some weddings, separate food tents are set up for Pasmandas.
“We saw ourselves only as Muslims. Then gradually we started realising that we are also Pasmandas. Upper-caste people often call us julaha (weavers),” said Maroof who alleges that he has been attacked by Ashraafs armed with knives and pistols in an attempt to keep him out of local politics.
Also read: Opposition parties must clear stand on demands of Pasmanda Muslims: Ansari
Question of reservation
Where it all comes undone is the perennially polarising issue of job reservation. Having India’s ruling party raise their issue on a national stage has given birth to new hopes in the community. Many now say that the next step can be reservation. With all the talk of uplifting Pasmandas, the BJP government is opposing petitions seeking reservation for Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians in the Supreme Court.
In November 2022, citing the non-prevalence of untouchability in Christianity and Islam, the Centre opposed the petitions that sought Scheduled Caste status for Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims.
“The Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order, 1950, was based on historical data, which clearly established that no such backwardness or oppression was ever faced by members of Christian or Islamic society,” stated the Centre in its affidavit to the court.
However, in an October 2022 affidavit, the government said it had noted the demands of Dalit Christians and Muslims and formed a three-member commission headed by former Chief Justice of India KG Balakrishnan to look into it. The government said that the “issue is a seminal and historically complex sociological and constitutional question.” In the same affidavit, it stated that its position has not changed–and that the petitions seeking reservation were “devoid of merits.”
This shifting and layered position on reservation is akin to walking on thin ice for the BJP.
From the very beginning, the Centre has said it would not accept the findings of the Ranganath Misra Commission (National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities), which had recommended inclusion of Dalit Christians and Muslims in the Scheduled Caste list.
But Pasmanda activists are accusing the government of delaying the issue of reservation.
“We are deeply disappointed with the central government’s stand in the Supreme Court. It has pushed our fight backwards,” Fyzie said. “We do not want the reservation issue to become another Babri.”