Having dented the Dalit and backward caste voter bases of rival political parties, the BJP is now eyeing the backward sections among Muslims to expand its vote base. Popularly called Pasmanda Muslims, these are the weaker sections among Muslims who converted, from the most backward and Dalit caste groups, long after Islam arrived in the country. Though they constitute over 85 per cent of India’s Muslim population, political parties have largely ignored them because they are not vocal, lack a strong leadership and have no patron among the upper echleons of the Muslim leadership. Sensing an opportunity to make a dent in this numerically strong section, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking at the party’s two-day national executive meet in Hyderabad on July 2 and 3, asked BJP leaders to extend a hand of “affection” towards this community.
Uttar Pradesh BJP president Swatantra Dev Singh was making a presentation on how to expand the party’s reach beyond its traditional voters. Modi interjected to say that UP has a huge number of Pasmanda Muslims whom the party should embrace with “sneh” (affection). He also suggested that the party should organise “sneh yatras” across the State.
People are taking note of the move as all other parties have always taken Pasmanda Muslims for granted. The socially dominant Ashrafias have dominated the political space of the so-called secular parties, including the Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, who claim to champion the cause of Muslims.
Who are Pasmanda Muslims?
In order to understand the significance of Pasmanda Muslims, it is necessary to understand who they are. Muslims have been categorised in three sections: the elite Ashraf, who claim to have descended from immigrant Muslims; the Ajlaf, the backward castes who converted to Islam; and the Arjal, Dalits who converted to Islam much later. Though Islam is not supposed to have any caste hierarchy, yet in India, backward and “Dalit” Muslims were always held in contempt by the elite Muslims.
The Muslim leadership space was always dominated by this elite class. Backward and Dalit Muslims have lagged behind socially, economically and politically. That perhaps explains why they are called Pasmanda, which literally means “the one who is left behind”.
Also read:Gulf of anger
With the BJP now planning to woo them, questions are being asked about whether this is another gimmick to woo a so-far untouched voter class.
Ali Anwar Ansari, founder president of the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, brought the term into political circulation in 2005 when his organisation, which was set up in Patna in 1998, extended support to Nitish Kumar. He was a Rajya Sabha member for two terms from 2006 to 2017. When Nitish Kumar ditched the Mahagathbandhan to join the NDA, the two parted ways. Ansari was then expelled from the JD(U) and lost his Rajya Sabha seat before his term ended.
Ansari has a number of questions for the BJP. He wrote to Modi on July 15 asking whether he would ask his supporters to stop the hate campaign against Muslims, help artisans who have lost their business during the pandemic and provide them cheap electricity, tax waivers and marketing support, announce reservation for Dalits and OBCs in the private sector, and get a caste census done to ascertain the extent of the socio-economic backwardness of Pasmanda Muslims. “If not, of what use is your sneh yatra? In any case, we don’t want sneh, which smacks of patronage, we seek samman [respect]” he wrote.
Speaking to this writer, he said: “This is just a gimmick by the BJP to divide Muslim voters and capture the votes of those who are vulnerable. Otherwise, is it not a fact that lynching of Muslims in the name of gauraksha, love jehad, Tablighi jehad have been going on with impunity and the Prime Minister has not uttered a word? Is it not a fact that instances of Muslims being kept in jail for the most flimsy crimes, being publicly humiliated publicly for their dress or for their food habits are rising now? Is it not a fact that our Prophet has been insulted, yet the Prime Minister has not uttered a word? Unless all this stops, what meaning does a sneh yatra have?”
- The BJP is now eying the backward sections among Muslims to expand its vote base.
- Pasmanda Muslims make up 85 per cent of India’s Muslim population.
- Pasmanda Muslims are socially, economically backward.
- Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during the party’s two-day national executive meet in Hyderabad on July 2 and 3, asked BJP leaders to extend a hand of “affection” towards this community.
According to him, the BJP’s overtures may attract some opportunistic Pasmanda Muslims but “not the general masses who seek to go about their lives with dignity and a respectable means of earning their livelihood”. He feels that had the BJP been really sincere about improving the lot of Pasmanda Muslims, it would have got in touch with him because he has been raising their issues for years now.
A war of perception
The BJP’s strategy does, however, have the potential of weaning away some sections of the Muslim voter base of other political parties, such as those who have benefited from government schemes like Ayushman Bharat and Pradhanmantri Awas Yojana. At the village and mohalla levels, BJP cadres are reportedly spreading the message that these benefits will be stopped if this government is not voted back to power. As one political observer said: “This is a war of perception. And being masters in managing perception, the BJP can actually wean away some sections among poor Muslims who otherwise would not have voted for it.”
Yusuf Ansari, a senior journalist who has been following the Pasmanda campaign for years, explained: “The BJP got 42 per cent votes in the 2022 UP Assembly election, and the SP got 32 per cent. For the BJP to rule in UP for a long time, it needs to cross the 50 per cent mark, and this can only be done by scraping at so far untouched sections of voters.” The SP and the BSP will be automatically weakened if the BJP is able to attract the Pasmanda Muslims, he pointed out.
The BJP’s focus on Pasmanda Muslims also has something to do with the Nitish model in Bihar. Nitish Kumar has never won an election on his own but has been ruling in Bihar since 2005, albeit with different allies. He has managed to command the support of Pasmanda Muslims despite joining hands with the BJP. The thinking in BJP circles seems to be that if Nitish Kumar can do it, so can the BJP.
The BJP has already started working on this idea. It has started giving important positions to Muslim leaders hailing from Pasmanda communities. Danish Azad Ansari has replaced the upper-class Mohsin Raza as the lone Muslim Minister in UP. Javed Ansari has been made chairman of the UP Board of Madarsa Education. Kafil Ul Wara has been made the chief of the UP Urdu Academy. All three men are Pasmanda Muslims.
The agenda actually started unfolding immediately after Modi became Prime Minister in 2014 with the appointment of Abdul Rashid Ansari as chief of the Rashtriya Alpsankhyak Morcha. Rashid Ansari, however, could not do much during his five-year term because the regime’s focus was primarily on promoting hardcore Hindutva. Then in 2021, another Pasmanda leader, Sabir Ali, who joined the BJP in 2015, was appointed the general secretary of this Morcha. Now he has been given the mandate to reach out to the Pasmanda communities.
In the recently concluded Assembly election in UP, in over 50,000 Muslim-majority booths, Pasmanda Muslims were deployed with the task of getting a minimum of 30 Muslim votes each for the party. According to internal BJP reports, which cannot be verified, the party succeeded in getting 2,500 to 3,000 Muslim votes in 25 to 30 seats, all of which it won. The BJP won the Rampur and Azamgarh Lok Sabha seats in recent byelections. Both are Muslim-majority seats which were earlier held by the SP.
But political observers say all this does not indicate overwhelming Muslim support for the BJP. In Rampur, for example, SP leader Azam Khan, who is embroiled in court cases, did not campaign. Other SP leaders who nursed a grudge against him also did not campaign, leaving the field open for the BJP. In Azamgarh, the presence of a BSP candidate facilitated the BJP’s victory over its SP rival.
The gap that BJP fills
The BJP, however, is presenting the Rampur and Azamgarh victories as if they reflect strong Muslim support for the party. If the BJP government announces a slew of schemes for Pasmanda Muslims and promises to help the artisan class under its MSME schemes, which it has started through its Hunar haat programme, the party may get their support to some extent. Activists like Ali Anwar say if this happens it will be because secular parties have failed to raise their voice for Pasmanda Muslims. “It is a fact that all other secular parties have neglected this section for years. Let alone talk of the Pasmanda, these secular parties are scared of even talking about Muslims for fear of antagonising Hindus. They don’t even utter the word secular which is embedded in our Constitution. So, if the BJP starts talking about their issues, even if with ulterior motives, obviously some people will be attracted towards the party.”
The opposition parties have been silent on the BJP’s plans of wooing Pasmanda Muslims. Anis Ansari of the Congress, who has been talking about Pasmanda Muslims at inner party forums, said: “In our party there is no discussion on this issue at all. The problem with us is that we don’t have a full-time president.” He told this writer that if Modi has raised the issues of Pasmanda Muslims it is a welcome move because the issues need to be talked about. “I don’t believe this is only a divide and rule gimmick because Muslims in India have anyway been divided along caste lines for centuries,” he said.
Also read:Story of a subterfuge
According to him, the BJP has come a long way from being a “Brahmin-bania” party because it has realised that the upper castes are a numerical minority and any party seeking to rule for a long time must have the support of the numerically strong backward castes and Dalits. “Now the BJP has also realised that being anti-Muslim does not pay electorally, so if a huge majority, which is about 85 per cent of the Muslim population in India, can be wooed, then why not?”
In his opinion, if the BJP can promise that backward and Dalit Muslims will be made eligible for reservation through a suitable constitutional amendment, Pasmanda Muslims will support the party. Also, if the extremely backward castes (both Hindus and Muslims) get a separate categorisation for reservation within the OBC quota, Pasmanda Muslims will benefit.