Some observers believe the Hindu right is pursuing a political strategy to target the Pasmandas, the most socio-economically oppressed class of Indian Muslims.
A crowd sporting robust saffron turbans began gathering hours before a conference in the northern Indian city of Lucknow on October 16. Many, also sporting saffron scarves, shouted Bharat Mata Ki Jai – victory to Motherland – the trademark war cry of the Hindu far-right in India.
Curiously, the majority of the sloganeers were Muslims, who have been under considerable stress since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014.
The conference was convened for the intellectuals among the Pasmandas – which means ‘left behind’ or backward – estimated to be around 80-85 percent among approximately 200 million Indian Muslims. Overall, Muslims make up 15 percent of India’s 1.4 billion population.
The Hindutva ideology – the central plank of the ruling BJP – has identified the main religious minority, Muslims, as the key social opponents. Yet, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently asked his colleagues to “reach out” to the Pasmandas to ensure economic and social empowerment, it surprised both the critics and crusaders of Hindutva.
“The Pasmandas were hesitant to talk about their plight within the BJP. The day the Prime Minister used the word ‘Pasmanda’ and spoke about their misery everything changed. The positive sentiment among the Pasmandas for Mr Modi is noticeable,” Atif Rasheed, the president of a pro-BJP Pasmanda outfıt, tells TRT World.
The BJP is trying to woo the Pasmandas through high-profile appointments, like a Minority Affairs minister in Uttar Pradesh (UP), a state with the country’s highest Muslim population. Another member of the community was nominated from Kashmir for the upper house of parliament. Many Pasmandas are appointed to the high offices of the government.
“I was made the first National Minority Commission vice chairperson – a first for a Pasmanda,” says Rasheed.
He, however, left it to the BJP’s higher decision-making bodies to comment on why Muslims – let alone Pasmandas – are nearly never handpicked to contest in provincial or national elections.
Who are the Pasmandas?
An antiquated Indian debate is whether one of the world’s oldest social stratifications, the Hindu caste system, influences the subcontinent’s Muslims.
The system has five main castes and thousands of sub-castes, with the Brahmins (priests) on top and Dalits (or “untouchables”) at the bottom of the hierarchy. Untouchability is officially banned in India.
Mohammad Reyaz, an assistant professor at Aliah University, argues that the caste system is so “deeply entrenched in the South Asian psyche” that the Muslims have not managed to escape it, adding “there is a social hierarchy which stops a Muslim from marrying in another social group.”
“It is more of a caste-class divide,” Reyaz tells TRT World.
This divide is broadly furcated into three categories. At the top are the upper-caste Muslims, or the Ashrafs, who claim Arab descent. In the middle are the Ajlafs, who are categorised under an administrative grouping OBC (Other Backward Classes). The Arzals, who are considered Dalits, are placed at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder. Arzals are largely categorised under the administrative grouping of Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST).
Together, Ajlafs and Arzals form the Pasmandas.
Reyaz suggested that “some economic empowerment” alongside Hindu backward caste-classes has “pushed Pasmandas to demand a share in the pie” long enjoyed by the Ashrafs.
“One of the [aims] is to control some of the mosques, especially in Bihar and UP with high Pasmanda concentration,” Reyaz adds.
‘Dalitisation’ of Muslims
Pasmandas have long nurtured an anti-Ashraf sentiment, and their grievances were never acknowledged by secular political parties. Instead, Modi is the first major leader in recent times to identify the social contradiction within the Indian Muslim community.
Professor Khalid Anis Ansari, an associate professor of Sociology at Azim Premji University and a foremost expert on the subject, argues that Modi’s interest in Pasmanda Muslims “is not new”.
“As Gujarat chief minister, he had listened patiently to a contingent of Pasmanda activists from UP for about forty-five minutes during Ramadan (July-August) in 2013,” Ansari tells TRT World.
Ansari says that the Nupur Sharma controversy may have facilitated Modi’s plans to raise the issue of the Pasmandas and isolate the “Muslim elite”, the Ashrafs. BJP leader Sharma is accused of ‘denigrating’ the Prophet, prompting a West Asian diplomatic backlash against India.
“The fiasco indicated that the upper-class Muslim elite with genealogical origins and strong cultural connections in West Asia may have played a spoilsport for the BJP. So, the incubating plan (to woo Pasmandas) was fast-tracked. BJP decided to enter the Muslim question not from the top but from the bottom through Dalits, OBCs and tribals,” he adds.
Secondly, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of right-wing social and political Hindu outfits, including the BJP, is way more “confident” about changing the texture of Indian society. It is no longer threatened by Muslims as interpreted by RSS ideological guru MS Golwalkar, and aims for a new socio-politico-cultural mechanism.
“Hindus now have a strong revivalist theology in place – like other organised religions – which has been tested in the elections, and thus top RSS leaders have indicated that they are keen to work against a hierarchical caste system to unite the entire community on a revivalist Hindu line, indicating new age Hinduism has arrived,” says Ansari.
With strong anti-religious conversion laws backed by extra-legal social organisations and the RSS’ massive social network, Hindutva is confident of integrating Pasmanda Muslims over the next decade. It enacts Hindutva’s central philosophy to integrate all through ‘an indigenous economic model’ called ‘Integral Humanism’, expounded by another ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya.
Economic integration of poorer Muslims, however, has another definition.
“With Hindu oppressed castes gaining economic momentum, society also needs ‘new Dalits and untouchables’ to clean toilets and drains. The ‘Dalitisation’ of the poorest Muslims is necessary to integrate them under the new Hindu dispensation,” Reyaz claims.
Ali Anwar, a former member of parliament and a key political voice among the Pasmandas, has been heading the largest Pasmanda outfit, All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, since 1998.
He said the BJP’s “timing to widen the Ashraf-Pasmanda gap” is entirely electoral as Muslims have 20 percent votes in about one-fifth of 543 parliamentary constituencies.
“Hindu-Muslim polarisation brought BJP to power. Facing strong anti-incumbency, they are now dividing the Muslims so no one party – opposing the BJP – can take advantage of consolidated minority voting,” Anwar tells TRT World.
It will not work, he said.
“Pasmanda houses, shops and madrassas are bulldozed alleging illegality of construction and they are lynched for reasons not known to them.”
“But BJP has the audacity to argue that it is to benefit disadvantaged Muslims,” Anwar adds.
BJP’s outreach plans
However, Anwar says he is still keen to listen to BJP on two counts. First, is that Pasmandas should not be “politically, legally, socially harassed”, and the other is a “separate” reservation in academic and professional institutions for Dalit Muslims.
Providing reservations is “one of their objectives”, said K Laxman, the president of the OBC cell of the BJP. A key element of Indian society and polity is to ensure admission to academic institutions and facilitate jobs for disadvantaged communities to eradicate poverty.
K Laxman, who is partly steering BJP’s Pasmanda strategy, opines that their mandate is “to ensure” delivery of government-backed services.
“In many states, Pasmanda Muslims are categorised under the OBC (and) yet it is the elites (Ashrafs) who extract the benefits. We advocate reservations for poor Muslims in all categories (OBC, SC, ST) as indicated by the Prime Minister,” Laxman tells TRT World.
More than 5,000 educational institutions in India have 50 percent reservations for minorities, predominantly Muslims. BJP now wants “reservation” of Pasmandas in the institutions which include top minority universities like Aligarh, Jamia Millia Islamia and Jamia Hamdard.
Denying that the Pasmanda welfare plan is designed to extract Muslim votes, Laxman asks a pointed question: “If Pasmandas are exploited for 75 years by others (non-BJP parties) and tell us about their anxieties and we listen to them, then how is it connected to elections or considered divisive politics?”
Poll experts, however, are connecting the Pasmanda plan with BJP’s electoral interests in the 2024 national parliamentary poll.
BJP and its allies completely dominated two Indian states Bihar and UP – with one-fifth of parliamentary seats – in the 2019 election, bagging 85 percent of seats. However, recent political developments indicate a slide in support. If the BJP can disrupt the collective Muslim vote, as highlighted by Anwar, the party is expected to gain in 2024.
“As of now, 99 percent of Muslims do not vote for BJP. I believe the party's Pasmanda plan will yield positive results,” says Rasheed.
BJP’s move to align with the Pasmanda Muslims, however, has another opposition – Hindu nationalist cadres who have rejected the BJP’s plan on social media.
Professor Hari Om, a popular Hindu nationalist activist from Jammu and Kashmir, publicly challenged the BJP’s Pasmanda engagement and the formation of a central commission to look into the reservation of Dalit Muslims and Christians.
Laxman says that the commission will “hear all sides”.
The two strategies to engage and target Pasmandas may work simultaneously, Professor Ansari observes. “At one level, BJP requires Hindu-Muslim binaries to strengthen the Hindu majority and thus targeting of Muslims will continue,” he says.
“At another level, the outreach to connect with the Muslims will continue to make up for the lost votes owing to ten years of anti-incumbency and also to integrate them culturally with the idea of Hindu nationalism in the long term.”
How Indian Muslims respond to the evolving situation remains to be seen.