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For equality

The relevance of the Pasmanda Muslim discourse

Hilal Ahmed Published 23.03.23, 04:22 AM
A meeting of Pasmanda Muslims organised by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s minority wing in Lucknow, October 2022

A meeting of Pasmanda Muslims organised by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s minority wing in Lucknow, October 2022

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s enthusiasm to reach out to Pasmanda Muslims has made the non-BJP parties highly uncomfortable. Although the BJP has not yet introduced any concrete policy framework to address the needs of the Pasmanda communities, it has been successful in exposing the unclear and overtly ambiguous attitude of the Opposition on this issue. The BJP’s appropriation of the Pasmanda question has also increased the unease of a section of the upper caste/upper class Muslim elite. These segments have offered a few normative arguments to explain Pasmanda assertion.

First of all, there is an old Muslim unity thesis that is evoked to explain the BJP’s Pasmanda politics. It is argued that the sangh parivar is interested in dividing Muslims into Shia and Sunni, Sufi and Deobandi/Wahabi, and Ashraf and Pasmanda to destabilise Muslim unity. This line of reasoning relies heavily on the traditional Muslim politics of minority rights that does not have any space for discussing the internal fault lines among Muslims.


The second argument is a bit sympathetic. Acknowledging the marginalisation of Pasmanda Muslims in a purely legal-administrative sense, a section of the Muslim political elite argues that the inclusion of these downtrodden communities in the established framework of affirmative action is justifiable. The BJP’s Pasmanda rhetoric is seen as a kind of deviation from the real plight of poor and marginalised Muslim communities. This legalistic argument is often exaggerated to overshadow caste-based inequalities and derogative practices such as untouchability.

Finally, there is a radical assertion that the entire Muslim community is facing an unprecedent crisis of identity in contemporary India. Therefore, raising the Pasmanda issue at this point of time is not at all appropriate. It is claimed that the Pasmanda Muslim discourse has been systematically nurtured by the sangh parivar to highlight the internal weaknesses of Indian Muslims. Hence, there is no difference between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-supported Muslim Rashtriya Manch and the organisations working for the Pasmanda cause.

No one can deny the fact that the BJP’s position on Pasmanda Muslims is unclear. The BJP leadership always claims that the party envisages castebased reservation simply as a legal-constitutional tool to reform Hindu society. For this reason, the party opposes the inclusion of Dalit and Pasmanda Muslims into the scheduled caste category. The BJP’s Pasmanda outreach, in this sense, might be seen as a strategy to pacify those Hindutva-synthesisers who do not fully subscribe to the party’s radical anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Two questions become crucial here. What is the relevance of the Pasmanda discourse in today’s India, especially when the public discourse is completely communalised and Hindus and Muslims have emerged as political identities? Should we treat the Pasmanda question merely as an internal matter of the Muslim community and stop talking about it in the name of Muslim unity?

In order to answer these questions, we must highlight three crucial aspects of the Pasmanda discourse: its capacity to explain the nature of Muslim sociological heterogeneity; its demand for complete secularisation of the affirmative action framework in India; and, finally, its adherence to the politics of social justice.

The term, ‘Pasmanda’, was coined by Ali Anwar Ansari, the former parliamentarian and leader of the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, in his book, Masawat ki Jung. Here, Pasmanda refers to a group of people who lag behind or could not maintain the pace of progress. In this sense, Pasmanda is a caste and religion-neutral concept, which tries to accommodate various forms of social stratification in its folds.

It is worth noting here that there is a hierarchical structure of Muslim caste-groups in India, especially in the northern and the western states. The foreign-origin Muslim groups, which preferred to called themselves Ashrafs (noble_born), became the upper caste, while the converted communities, the Ajlafs (lowly) and the Arzals (excluded), turned out to be the lower castes in this schema.

The Pasmanda discourse makes a serious attempt to redefine this categorisation. It questions Ashraf hegemony by highlighting the fact that Islam is an egalitarian religion that does not permit caste division (or, for that matter, any form of social stratification). At the same time, the non-Ashraf communities are described as Pasmanda Muslims and Dalit Muslims, respectively, to assert their dignified social existence as Islamic communities. This conceptual reworking expands the scope of the Pasmanda discourse and empowers it to accommodate those forms of social stratification that do not fit in the conventional Ashraf-Ajlaf-Arzal framework.

This brings us to the question of the secularisation of affirmative action policies. The Pasmanda groups problematise the communal nature of the SC category. It is well-known that Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians are not entitled to receive the benefits of SC reservation. The Pasmanda intellectuals, especially Ansari, make a threefold argument in this regard. It is demanded that the SC category needs to be completely secularised to include all Dalit communities, including Muslims and Christians. At the same time, the need to increase the quota for SC reservation is also recognised to avoid probable internal contestation amongst the disadvantaged groups. Finally, the demand for reservation in the private sector is reiterated by underlining the adverse impacts of the privatisation of the economy on Pasmanda artisan communities.

The adherence of the Pasmanda political discourse to social justice and economic equality without deviating from constitutional secularism is rather exceptional. Pasmanda politics, in this sense, is still guided by the constitutional ideals of justice and equality. The popular slogan used by Pasmanda groups in their pamphlets and rallies, “Dalit pichda ek saman, Hindu ho ya Musalman (Dalit and backwards are the same, whether they Hindu or Muslim)”, highlights the fact that secularism of equality and justice is politically achievable.

In his famous book, Pakistan or the Partition of India, B.R. Ambedkar makes an interesting observation about the lack of social reforms among Muslims. He notes, “… the reason for the absence of the spirit of change in the Indian Musalman is to be sought in the peculiar position he occupies in India. He is placed in a social environment which is predominantly Hindu. That Hindu environment is always… encroaching upon him. He feels that it is de-musalmanizing him. As a protection against this… he is led to insist on preserving everything that is Islamic without caring to examine whether it is helpful or harmful to his society.” (http://www.columbia. edu/itc/ mealac/pritchett/00ambedkar/ ambedkar_partition/).

The Pasmanda discourse, it seems, follows the advice given to Muslims by Ambedkar. It questions the unethical social practices and, at the same time, demands justice and dignity.

Hilal Ahmed is Associate Professor, CSDS, New Delhi

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