The caste system constitutes the reality of Indian Muslims, as it does of Hindus. The Muslims are broadly divided into the elite upper castes, or the Ashrafs, and the subaltern lower castes, or the Pasmandas. The differences between these two broad categories of castes come to the fore before every election. It is the grouse of the Pasmandas that even though they overwhelmingly dominate India’s Muslim population, the mainstream political parties largely field the Ashrafs in the electoral fray. Even in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, political parties, including those espousing social justice, have mostly fielded Ashraf candidates.

Yet, caste hasn’t politically split Muslims, because of Hindutva’s propensity to target them on the basis of their religious identity.

The threat to their existence prompts them to close ranks despite the caste divide. This works to the advantage of Ashrafs, who — apart from exploiting the community’s fear of Hindutva — harness the instrument of culture to maintain their political hegemony. Unless lower caste Muslims are politically represented, they will continue to be oppressed and discriminated against, contend Pasmanda leaders.

There is perhaps no better person than Khalid Anis Ansari to explain the stirrings among the Pasmandas. Ansari is director, Dr Ambedkar Centre for Exclusion Studies and Transformative Action, Glocal University, which is located in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh. His PhD degree (which he received from the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht, the Netherlands) is on caste movements among Indian Muslims. Apart from writing extensively on the Pasmandas, he is actively engaged in politically organising them. In this interview, he provides a glimpse into the Muslim world that remains largely unknown.  Excerpts:

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(Above: Khalid Anis Ansari, director — Dr Ambedkar Centre for Exclusion Studies and Transformative Action, Glocal University)

The electoral battle in Uttar Pradesh is turning out to be one between the Mahagathbandhan or the Grand Alliance, comprising the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Has this resolved the confusion among Muslims as to who they should vote for?

A lot depends on the candidates fielded by different political parties. But broadly, Muslims will be voting against the BJP and for the Mahagathbandhan unless the Congress fields an exceptionally strong candidate who is perceived to be capable of winning.

Mahagathbandhan is also seen to be representing caste/social justice and the BJP as representing Hindutva/cultural nationalism. How does this binary impact the internal differentiation among Muslims?

Muslim politics in North India is largely dominated by the upper caste Muslims, [who are in sociological parlance referred to as] Ashrafs. They comprise [in the main] the Syeds, Sheikhs, Pathans, Mughals and also castes like Rajputs who converted to Islam.  There is a growing sense among the Pasmanda Muslims….

Isn’t 'Pasmanda' a Persian word that means “those who have fallen behind”?

Yes. The Pasmanda Muslim category includes backward, Adivasi and Dalit groups, and constitutes about 85 percent of India’s Muslim population. They increasingly feel that the Muslim political space is exclusionary, that it excludes a majority of Muslims, and that those who benefit from the present political arrangement are the Ashraf Muslims.

Do you have data to back the Pasmanda Muslim’s perception?

Out of the 40 candidates selected by the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led Mahagathbandhan in Bihar, seven are Muslim. Of these seven candidates, six are upper caste. The seventh is the son of late Mohammed Taslimuddin, a political heavyweight in the Seemanchal region and belonging to the locally dominant Kulhaiya caste, the social position of which is ambiguous. The Kulhaiyas, an agricultural caste that has been otherwise included in the Other Backward Classes category, often define themselves as Sheikhs.

The Ashrafs comprise around 3-4 percent of Bihar’s population, but their share in the Mahagathbandhan’s tickets is 15 percent. The National Democratic Alliance has fielded two Muslim candidates, both are Ashrafs.

What about Uttar Pradesh?

Until 19 April, the Congress had announced nine Muslim candidates. Only one of them is Pasmanda. Out of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s six Muslim candidates, only two are Pasmanda. Only one out of four Samajwadi Party’s Muslim candidates is Pasmanda — a woman who belongs to the regionally dominant Gujjar caste.

Hindu subaltern social groups have asserted themselves because of the politics of social justice. How come the politics of social justice has bypassed the Muslims?

This is because of the grip the sharif [noble] high caste culture has on Muslims. The sharif culture has four broad themes:

One, it has a disdain for manual labour. For instance, the Sufis of South Asia rarely had surnames indicating their occupations. This was not so of the Sufis of West Asia – for instance, the name of Fariduddin Attar makes it clear that he was a perfumer.

Two, the sharif culture uses language as a boundary maintenance mechanism. There has always been an emphasis on Persian and increasingly, Urdu. As a child I noticed that ladies in the family would place Urdu grammar books next to the Quran. So Urdu was considered sacred.

Third, the sharif culture reveres the [caste of] Syeds, who are said to be the direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. In the 16th century, the Mughals established the office of Niqabat, which was tasked with authenticating the pedigree of Syeds. The authenticity determined land grants and positions in the royal court.

The fourth theme is the emphasis on sharafat, which loosely implies piety, character building and taste, that is to say how you dress, how you use language, and how you behave.

Through what mechanism has the sharif culture acquired dominance?

This culture is reproduced through mosques, madrassas and other community institutions. These are dominated by the Ashrafs. Most of the Pasmanda Muslims are influenced by these institutions. They have internalised this culture, which has de-politicised them and restricts them to the politics of sawab, or reward in afterlife, and dua, or prayers. This culture does not emphasise on social justice [to establish equality] but on spiritualism. It says that all problems a Muslim faces will be resolved if he or she were to become a good Muslim.


(Above: 'Sharif' culture is reproduced through mosques, madrassas and other community institutions dominated by the Ashrafs. Image for representation only. REUTERS)

There seems to be a political parallel between Hindutva and the sharif culture.

We say that while Hindutva is led by the Brahmin-wadis, the Ashraf politics is led by the Syed-wadis. The Syeds are the Brahmins of Muslims, and they are contemptuous of those lower in the social order.

Can you name some of the Muslim subaltern groups?

There are the Mansooris or cotton carders, the Qureshis or butchers, the Julahas or weavers, the Saifis or carpenters, the Raeen or vegetable growers, the Halalkhors or sweepers.

Why hasn’t there been a rise in the political consciousness of Muslim subaltern social groups over the last three decades?

There has been a rise of consciousness among them, but they have not been able to influence major political parties so far. For instance, Ali Anwar, who is one of the icons of Pasmanda politics in Bihar, wanted to contest from Madhubani. Pasmanda groups initiated an online petition campaign to request RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav to field Ali Anwar from Madhubani. But the ticket was denied to him. It is very clear that none of social justice parties will give space to the Pasmandas. They need to have their own party.

Is it a possibility that the Pasmandas may not vote for the RJD?

No, that seems unlikely in this election.

Is it because the Ashraf leadership uses the fear of Hindutva to maintain their hegemony?

Absolutely. Just as there is a majoritarian discourse, there is also a minoritarian discourse. Every third or fourth day, you read newspaper articles on the victimisation of Muslims. But these do not throw light on the internal power differential in the community.

Who among the Muslim community have faced the brunt of Hindutva politics and violence?

The Pasmandas, of course. What has changed over the last five years? The social and political marginalisation of the Pasmandas was always there. It has been very well documented. Even with regard to communal violence, people like Asghar Ali Engineer have documented that it is lower-caste Muslims who suffer the most. We have a new type of violence – lynching. Almost all victims of lynching have been Pasmanda Muslims, particularly those castes which handle cattle.

In other words, what you are saying is that when people talk of the victimisation of Muslims, they forget or ignore the fact that only certain castes among Muslims are victimised.

Yes, absolutely. The Ashrafs are over-represented in the power structure. Here are figures for people to ponder: between the First and the Thirteenth Lok Sabha, around 7,500 MPs were elected. Of them, 400 were Muslim. Of all Muslim MPs, only 60 were Pasmanda. The Ashrafs are just 2.01 percent of India’s population, but their representation between the First and the Thirteenth Lok Sabha was 4.5 percent, or double of their population.

So Muslim representation in the Lok Sabha is low only for the Pasmanda Muslims, right?

Yes, yes. The Ashraf groups have always been over-represented.

Critics will say that assailants don’t inquire about the caste of Muslims before attacking them. On the other hand, their religious identity markers make it very clear that they are Muslim.

I don’t entirely agree with that. The victimisation of Muslims has to be complicated by the class and spatial distribution of vulnerability. Take the Muzaffarnagar violence of 2013. When the rioting mobs attacked Muslim colonies, they spared those of Muslim Jats and Muslim Gujjars.  When you talk of violence, you have to see what spaces of Muslims are attacked. Most of these are not elite, but subaltern spaces. These are essentially slums where mostly lower caste Muslims reside. You also have to look at the victims in terms of class. The Muslims who are attacked are mostly the poor who migrated from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai, Gandhinagar, Bhiwandi, etc — places which witnessed horrific riots in the past.  While those who are attacked are mostly the Pasmandas, the beneficiaries of the Muslim victimhood have been the Ashrafs.


(Above: Hindutva seeks to homogenise the Hindu community, but it has also, ironically, led to the homogenisation of the Muslim community. Image for representation only. REUTERS)

What do you mean when you say the “beneficiaries of the Muslim victimhood”?

The politicians, the civil society groups, the academia, the journalists, in fact, all those who make their bread and butter through the Muslim victimhood are mostly upper-caste Muslims or the Ashrafs.

Upper-caste Muslims face discrimination on account of their religion, don’t they?

Let me complicate your question by saying that there are different ‘forms of life’. Let us ask what kind of discrimination upper caste Muslims encounter. There have been media stories regarding the discrimination Muslims encounter in renting a place. I would like to insist that people should go into the details of these cases. For instance, I also know of Muslim housing societies in Delhi where their residents would not like people of other communities to get a flat. They wouldn’t want someone from communities which eat pork or consume liquor, just as communities which don’t eat garlic would not want to rent a place to someone who does.

It is about feeling comfortable with the people who you wish to live with. Yet the media spins it as discriminatory. Yes, it is a form of discrimination. But the details of it complicate the picture. As an analogy, many Brahmins, the most powerful caste cluster in this country, often complain of being victimised and discriminated against.

Has Hindutva papered over the class-caste contradictions in the Muslim community?

Yes, it has. Hindutva seeks to homogenise the Hindu community, but it has also, ironically, led to the homogenisation of the Muslim community. Hindutva has been beneficial for both upper caste Hindus and upper caste Muslims.

Why haven’t the Pasmandas culturally pushed back against the Ashrafs?

There have been some articulations on this score. For example, Masood Alam Falahi published Hindustan Mein Zaat-Paat aur Musalman in 2006. He analysed the fatwas given by various Muslim sects to show that many of these were casteist in nature.

Can you give me an example?

The book Bahishti Zewar, which was written by Islamic scholar Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi (1863-1943), has a chapter which lays out who a person can enter into a marital relationship with. This chapter says that the Syed should not marry the Pathan; the Pathan should not marry the Julaha, so on and so forth. In north India, this book is often gifted to girls at the time of their marriage.

Does Pasmanda politics essentially revolve around political representation? I am asking this question because upper caste Muslims don’t really control the levers of power in India. For instance, they can’t extend patronage to others as, say, their Hindu counterparts can.

In Muslim dominated institutions like the Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, Maulana Azad Educational Foundation, even departments like Persian, Urdu, Arabic in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Ashrafs do construct a patron-client relationship with the Pasmandas. Given that they are just 2.01 percent of India’s population, they have hugely influenced the Left and social justice discourses.

Why is it that Hindu OBC and Dalit leaders haven’t been able to reach out to Pasmanda Muslims?

They are trying to reach out. There are issues. There is always a gap between the discrimination and oppression of particular social groups and their actual political articulation and sedimentation. This is true of all social movements. Look at women, who have been oppressed from time immemorial. Yet the first feminist articulation began to emerge from around 1789 or so. Discrimination may go on silently, but its political articulation and, ultimately, assertion takes time.


(Above: The victimisation of Muslims has to be complicated by the class and spatial distribution of vulnerability. Image for representation only. REUTERS)

The oppression of Pasmandas goes way back in history, even before they were converted to Islam about 800-900 years ago. The genealogy of their exploitation is as old and ancient as any caste in India, but their articulation began somewhere in the 1930s with the formation of community pressure groups like the All India Momin Conference. However, it was with Ali Anwar’s book, Massavaat Ki Jang (Struggle for Equality), which was published in 2006, that the first robust articulation against the discrimination and oppression of Pasmanda Muslims happened. A robust articulation of oppression has an appeal for the concerned constituency and leads to its political consolidation.

The Pasmanda slogan of ‘Dalit-Pichhda ek samaan, Hindu ho ya Musalman (All Dalit-Backwards are equal, whether they be Hindu or Muslim)’ visualises the notion of horizontal solidarity of subordinated castes across religions. The Pasmanda discourse is now being discussed vigorously in Dalit-Bahujan social spaces and it is only a matter of time when its impact will be felt in political circles.

So what is the next step for the Pasmanda Muslims?

They have to launch a robust cultural critique on the question of egalitarianism within Muslim traditions. To say classical Islam was for equality may not be entirely true. If you look at early Islam, both egalitarian and stratification or inegalitarian tendencies were present.

For instance, you have the Prophet Muhammad saying in a famous sermon that all Muslims are equal and that Arabs are equal to Persians, so on and so forth. At the same time, we know that nasab (genealogy) and hasab (inherited merit) played a significant role in the institution of power in classical Islam. In one of the Hadith, or the traditions of the Prophet, it is clearly said that the khalifa [ruler] should be from the Quraysh tribe [from which the Prophet Muhammad came]. The conflict between the Sunnis and the Shias has also a lot to do with genealogy.

Then again, the reverence accorded to the Syeds across all Islamic societies is linked to the distribution of power and resources. The romantic notions of Muslim traditions being egalitarian need to be revisited. It is true that there is a lot of emphasis on equality in the Quran, yet we need to look at how social practices and interpretations have undermined these ideas.

The sharif culture needs to be interrogated, with evidence and narratives of discrimination. During my PhD field-work, I came across mosques where there were separate tumblers or lotas for Halalkhor or the Dalit Mehtar caste among Muslims to do their ablutions. In several mosques of Bihar, upper caste Muslims pray in the front rows, while lower caste Muslims are confined to the back. These kind of social practices need to be challenged. This process has already started.

What political steps are being contemplated by the Pasmandas?

The step that the Pasmandas need to take is very clear from what is happening. The Nishads have formed their own party in Uttar Pradesh. They have also formed the Vikassheel Insan Party in Bihar. The Kushwahas in Bihar have formed the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party. The Jatavs, obviously, have the Bahujan Samaj Party. The first initiative of all the marginalised sections is to form their own party and then seek a share [in power] for themselves from the larger political parties. The Pasmandas, therefore, need to have a party of their own. It is only when you ensure the defeat or victory of one party or the other that you are taken seriously.

Is there a plan to start a party of the Pasmandas?

The members of the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, a social organisation led by Ali Anwar, and other community activists, intellectuals and entrepreneurs recently met in Delhi. They came to consensus for a starting a party in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, to begin with.