Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call, at the recent Hyderabad National Executive meeting of his party, to focus on the upliftment of Pasmanda Muslims could turn into a double-edged sword in due course. While no one should argue against the upliftment of any community, and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP's) outreach may (or may not) bring in some short-term electoral dividends, in the long term this needs more strategic thought. If seen only as an electoral vote-gathering exercise, it will have negative consequences for Hindu society.
The Pasmanda community constitutes 85 per cent of all Muslims in India, and the word Pasmanda, derived from Persian, means “those left behind”. The term includes both Arzals (Dalit converts to Islam) and Ajlafs (the other backwards), as opposed to the upper caste Ashrafs, who constitute the remaining 15 per cent and hold the reins of power in the larger Muslim population.
Two propositions need to be stated upfront before we discuss why the wooing of Pasmandas as only an electoral grouping will be problematic.
First, it must be acknowledged by one and all that conversion away from Hinduism has not uplifted any person. Decades and centuries after conversion, both backward class and Dalit Muslims and Christians continue to face discrimination from their higher caste brethren.
Babasaheb Ambedkar makes the same point in his tract on Pakistan. He wrote that though “slavery has gone, caste among Musalmans has remained. As an illustration one may take the conditions prevalent among the Bengal Muslims. The Superintendent of the Census for 1901 for the Province of Bengal records the following interesting facts regarding the Muslims of Bengal: ‘The conventional division of the Mahomedans into four tribes - Sheikh, Saiad, Moghul and Pathan - has very little application to this Province (Bengal). The Mahomedans themselves recognise two main social divisions, (1) Ashraf or Sharaf and (2) Ajlaf. Ashraf means 'noble' and includes all undoubted descendants of foreigners and converts from high-caste Hindus. All other Mahomedans, including the occupational groups and all converts of lower ranks, are known by the contemptuous terms 'Ajlaf ,' 'wretches' or 'mean people': they are also called Kamina or Itar, 'base' or Rasil, a corruption of Rizal, 'worthless.' In some places a third class, called Arzal, or 'lowest of all,' is added. With them no other Mahomedan would associate, and they are forbidden to enter the mosque to use the public burial ground. Within these groups there are castes with social precedence of exactly the same nature as one finds among the Hindus’.”
Second, and this follows from the previous statement, caste, or the varna-jati construct, is something that developed autonomously in India and Indian society. Despite mentions in some Hindu texts and smritis, no non-Hindu community in India has sought to or managed to change this reality. So, Hindu scriptural sanction is not central to how we need to understand the varna-jati construct.
Wooing Pasmandas as Pasmandas will turn into a double-edged sword for Hindus for many reasons.
The BJP ought to know that uplifting anyone within the context of his religion makes the same person more devoted to his core identity. In the BJP’s case, it has been the principal beneficiary of the upliftment of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalits, with the former turning to the party in large numbers, and the latter, in smaller, but growing numbers. When Pasmandas get uplifted, will they become more conscious of their Muslim identity or their Indian identity?
The Muslim concept of the Umma — a global Muslim community owing allegiance only to Allah and his Prophet, and going beyond national boundaries — will force Pasmandas to choose between their Muslim and Indian identities. The same does not happen when Hindu Dalits and OBCs are uplifted because their core identity does not have extra-territorial angles at all.
Next, and this should concern Hindu Dalits and Hindus in general. Currently, while some Muslim Ajlafs get reservation benefits when lumped together as OBCs, in the case of Dalit Muslims and Christians, converts do not get the benefit of reservations because the Constitution talks of caste and not class in their case. If Pasmandas are wooed as Pasmandas, the demand for extending reservations to all Dalits, even if they are not Hindu, will rise to a crescendo.
Thus, Hindu society will lose doubly: it will continue to be blamed and ostracised for “casteism”, and still be forced to treat castes in other religions as additional beneficiaries. There is no better way to destroy Hindu cohesiveness than to move in this direction, and this is where the logic is trending.
With the BJP foolishly jumping in with a “sneh yatra” for Pasmanda Muslims in response to Narendra Modi’s call, the head of the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz (AIPMM), former Rajya Sabha MP Ali Anwar Ansari, has already started pointing in this direction. He said the Pasmandas needed “samman” (respect) more than “sneh” (love).
In an open letter to Modi, the Indian Express quotes Ansari as saying: “It’s not that we, as Pasmanda Muslims, are asking for something special separately; rather we, as Muslims, are demanding that the discrimination against us by the government be stopped forthwith. The same demand is also for our Christian Dalits. They are also being punished for being Christians. We have been of the firm belief since the very beginning that the Pasmanda Muslims alone cannot win this battle. We can succeed only with the help of Pasmanda Dalits of all religions and other progressive and justice-loving people.”
Little wonder, Muslim intellectuals are already pointing this fly in the BJP’s ointment. Hilal Ahmed, Associate Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, noted in an article in The Times of India:
“Ansari’s critical assessment of Modi’s statement validates the fact that the marginalisation of Pasmanda Muslims cannot be addressed merely by taking out a few Sneh yatras. If BJP is really serious about expanding its social base among deprived Muslims, it has to concentrate on those structural issues that produce and reproduce social inequalities and communal stereotypes.”
In other words, change the reservations policy in favour of converted communities, and also other economic policies like privatisation. Ahmed is essentially calling for the evisceration of the Indian economy further by creating an unwieldy state, and a disparate society where more and more people live on freebies and non-merit subsidies.
It is crystal clear that Ansari and Left-liberal intellectuals are seeking reservation benefits for Pasmandas (and Dalit Christians) as Muslims and Christians, and not as just the jatis they belong to. If this is done, two consequences will follow: the conversion merchants will be further emboldened to use their resources to convert more Hindus, now using the reservations argument in their favour.
Secondly, as more people demand more reservations, the demand for expanding the quota system to accommodate the newly-recognised Pasmanda Muslims and Dalit Christians will become a hot political issue, just as the OBC caste census now is. Hindu society will then come truly under siege even while literally carrying all the guilt for caste-based discriminations.
Hindu organisations need to sit down and figure out how Pasmandas can be uplifted without making them another vote-bank seeking favours. The best way forward is to organise Dalit Hindus to prevent further additions to the list of communities that are entitled to quotas, and, most importantly, make renewed efforts to bring back Pasmandas to the Hindu fold. Ghar Wapsi is the solution. Reservations cannot be extended to further the interests of two Abrahamic religions that will benefit the most from it.
Consolidation of Hindu society and Hindu electoral power must precede any large-scale wooing of Pasmandas. If the BJP becomes a regular secular party, why vote for it and not other parties claiming the same label?
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