Azeem Ahmed

A day after he targeted Muslims by accusing Congress of saying that Muslims have the ‘first claim to Nation’s resources’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the plight of Pasmanda Muslims in his election speech in Aligarh. He lashed out at Congress and the Samajwadi Party, accusing both of ‘appeasement’ politics and keeping Pasmanda Muslims marginalised.

By targeting Muslims on the one hand and sympathising with Pasmanda on the other, the BJP is playing on the tension between the religious and social identity among the Muslims highlighted by the Pasmanda movement.

Pasmanda activists argue that the religious identity of Muslims and the politics of Muslims/minorities have only prioritised the interests of the upper-caste Ashraf Muslims. They stress their social identity as Pasmanda Muslims and demand their recognition as such. Although the social and political discourse of the Pasmanda movement is absent from the discourse, this is the first election in which the Pasmanda Muslims see being used as a political community.

The BJP has been trying to reach out to Pasmanda Muslims for their support. Though it doesn’t have a separate slogan for Pasmanda Muslims the party claims they too fall under the slogan of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas. Although the BJP has not announced any policy for Pasmanda Muslims, they have exposed the opposition parties’ neglect of a large section of one of their core voters, Muslims.

For the uninitiated, Indian Muslims are stratified into three categories: ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal. While the Ashraf category includes caste groups that claim foreign descent, such as Syed, Sheikh, Mughal, and Pathan, the Ajlaf category includes occupational castes, like the Ansaris (weavers), Mansuris (cotton traders) or the Quraishi (butchers). Arzal consists of the former untouchables castes, also referred to as Dalit Muslims, who, along with Dalit Christians, are demanding to be included in the reservation for SCs.

Pasmanda is the collective of the Ajlaf and Arzals. It broadly corresponds to the category of Bahujan, including Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes. Pasmanda is a Persian word that refers to the ‘ones left behind’ and is used to describe depressed classes among Muslims, estimated to make up 80–85% of India’s Muslims.

Pasmanda Muslims have been historically marginalised. They have been treated as Razil and kamin (of low origin) and expected to only engage in traditional jobs, which were considered of low status by the elite (ashraf) Muslims. Islamic scholars, from Ziauddin Barani to Ashraf Ali Thanwi and Ahmed Raza Khan Barelwi, have legitimised these nomenclatures. Due to limited opportunities outside their traditional occupations, Pasmanda Muslims have been historically marginalised economically and were dependent on upper-caste zamindars for their survival.

The Pasmanda movement, which started in the 1990s in Bihar, sparked new discussions on the politicisation of caste. The Pasmanda movement denounced the domination of Ashraf Muslims over Muslim representation and organisations. It suggested that Muslim politics does not promote the interests of most Muslims but only of a small proportion of dominant elites (Ashrafs). It focused on the internal division within Muslim society and challenged the notion of a monolithic Muslim identity and politics.

Numerous articles refer to PM Modi’s Hyderabad speech as the start of the BJP’s outreach to Pasmanda Muslims. However, in 2021, even before the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP had planned to reach out to Pasmanda Muslims. The BJP leadership in Uttar Pradesh has asked its Muslim leaders to reach out to Pasmanda Muslims. The same year, they appointed three Pasmanda Muslims as Chairman of minority institutions, the Minority Commission, Madrasa Board, and Urdu Academy in Uttar Pradesh.

In 2022, the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh also appointed Danish Azad Ansari, a Pasmnada Muslim, as the Minister of State by replacing Mohsin Raza, a Syed. They also appointed Tariq Mansoor, former Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, as a Legislative Council member in Uttar Pradesh and National Vice President of the BJP in 2023. Tariq Mansoor was present in the Aligarh meeting when PM Modi made remarks about Pasmanda Muslims.

During the 2023 Municipal elections in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP fielded 395 Muslim candidates for various posts. BJP leaders stressed that more than 90 percent of these candidates were Pamanda Muslims, highlighting the party’s concern for Pasmanda Muslims.

BJP has initiated programs through its minority wing to bring Pasmanda Muslims closer to the party. The BJP minority Morcha in Uttar Pradesh organised Pasmanda Sammelan in parts of the state to connect with Pasmanda Muslims. The Morcha has also used initiatives like ‘Modi Mitra’ to appoint Pasmanda Muslims to these positions and bring them closer to the party. They have also organised ‘Labharthi Sammelan’ in Muslim-majority areas to target Pasmanda Muslims, who are major ‘beneficiaries’ of these schemes.

The BJP’s outreach has prompted the formation of new Pasmanda organisations aligned with the BJP. These organisations are reaching out to Pasmanda voters and encouraging them to consider the BJP a political alternative to Congress and SP. They try to include Pasmanda Muslims in the category of the Labharthi, those who are the beneficiaries of schemes launched by the BJP. They criticise Opposition parties for using Pasmanda Muslims as a vote bank without ever doing anything for them.

When the BJP is using the narrative of Pasmanda to target opposition parties for their neglect of the Pasmanda population, they seem to be clueless. Their response has ranged from denial to rejection. These political parties, like the Congress and SP, have denied the presence of caste groups among Muslims and insist on seeing them as homogeneous voting blocks. They view the BJP’s outreach as a ploy to create a divide among Muslims.

They accuse the BJP of trying to divide the Muslim population to gain votes rather than working towards the upliftment of the Pasmanda Muslim community. BJP’s efforts to reach out to Pasmanda Muslims have been criticised for being tokenistic and superficial. The party has been accused of making symbolic gestures, such as appointing a few Pasmanda Muslim leaders to positions within the party, without actually addressing the structural issues that affect the community.

Samajwadi Party’s spokesperson Ameeque Jamei dismissed BJP’s outreach as a ‘vote-getting exercise of the BJP’. Congress responded with a few Bunkar Sammelans, a community that historically supported the Congress, organised by their minority wing but did not use the term Pasmanda. Udit Congress, National Spokesman for the Congress, wrote an article on the Congress website highlighting that the politics of the BJP victimises Pasmanda Muslims. However, Pasmanda Muslims have been absent in their electoral campaign.

Pasmanda activists have welcomed the politicisation of Pasmanda Muslims. Most activists thank the Prime Minister for raising the issue of Pasmanda Muslims nationally. A section of Pasmanda activists has been working closely with the BJP to bring Pasmanda Muslims closer to the BJP and highlight their concerns. All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, headed by Parvez Haneef, has organised many ‘Pasmanda Panchayat’ across the state with Danish Azad Ansari.

However, a few Pasmanda leaders, like Ali Anwar, pioneer and founder of the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz in 1998, have been critical of the BJP’s outreach. Soon after Modi’s speech at Hyderabad, Anwar wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister. In it, Anwar says that Pasmanda Muslims need ‘Samman’, not ‘Sneh’. He says that Pasmanda Muslims need equality and dignity rather than the affection offered by the BJP.

The discussion on Pasmanda has evoked interest and curiosity among Muslims. People are interested in learning more about Pasmanda. As many Pasmanda Muslims are unaware of the term, its propagation has made them curious. While some reject the term, it has also led to a new Pasmanda consciousness amongst those who can relate their experience of marginalisation within the Pasmanda category.

The BJP’s outreach and the Prime Minister’s repeated reference to Pasmanda Muslims have politicised caste identity among Muslims. This has given new life to the Pasmanda movement, which has been active since the 1990s. While the BJP constantly attempts to make inroads into the Pasmanda community, parties like Congress and SP have ignored their demands. However, the Pasmanda identity has been politicised and can be instrumental in this election, even if only a small section of Pasmanda Muslims align with the BJP.

While the politicisation of Pasmanda Muslims is a welcome step for the marginalised lower caste and Dalit Muslims, it is still to be seen if this will bring any instrumental changes in their lives. It is also essential to see if BJP’s Pasmanda outreach is just political posturing or a political strategy to create a political category of Pasmanda Muslims.

However, for the ongoing elections, the larger question remains: Will Muslims vote based on their religious or social identity? The election will determine whether the social identity of the Pasmanda Muslims is critical enough for them to vote as Pasmanda Muslims, irrespective of the political party they choose to vote for.