Ali Anwar’s revolt against Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s recent somersault has raised fresh questions about the direction Pasmanda (backward) Muslim politics will take in Bihar. Anwar, the second-term Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament on the JD(U) ticket, is the most visible face of the backward Muslim movement not only in Bihar but in the entire country.
Anwar struck the first signs of dissent within the JD(U) against Nitish Kumar’s decision to jettison RJD and embrace the BJP to form a government in Bihar. Just hours before Nitish Kumar was sworn-in as chief minister with BJP's support, he said: “Nitish Kumar has joined hands with the BJP after listening to his conscience. However, my conscience does not allow me to endorse his decision.”
The mild-mannered Anwar did not elaborate on his plans. He merely said that he would put his viewpoint in the appropriate party forum.
But the very fact that he went public with his discordant note suggests that he was under immediate pressure from his constituents to distance himself from Nitish Kumar’s opportunistic move.
Anwar was a journalist with Hindi and Urdu newspapers in Patna (many of his writings were translated and published by the English newspapers as well) before he pioneered the Pasmanda Muslim movement in the late 1990s. That was a period — in the aftermath of the Mandal agitation — when backward castes had moved from being a larger social community into the reigning political force in major Hindi heartland states. Backward caste leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav had then captured political power, dethroning the upper caste leaders who ruled for decades after independence.
However, this backward caste upsurge was confined to the Hindus; there were no signs of similar upheaval in the Muslim community. Of course, the traditional Muslim leaders had tried to perpetuate the myth that Islam did not brook any caste division. But the myth of a casteless Muslim community had been busted by Professor Imtiaz Ahmad of the JNU, whose seminal work Caste and Social Stratification among the Muslims had been internationally acclaimed as a scholarly work way back in the 1970s. But the Muslim leadership patronised by the likes of Lalu Yadav belonged to the traditional upper caste among the Muslims and relentlessly opposed any special considerations for the backward Muslims.
The Muslims in Bihar constitute almost 17 percent of the population; and the Pasmanda documents tell us that more than 80 percent of the Muslims are the descendents of middle and lower caste Hindus who had converted to Islam in different phases of history. However, most of the prize positions given to the Muslim community had been appropriated by the upper caste Muslims.
This had been the practice when the upper caste Hindus held the reins of power during the Congress regime; but the practice continued even after the backward caste Hindus came to power in a state like Bihar. Lalu Yadav became the chief minister in 1990 in the aftermath of the implementation of the Mandal legislation by the VP Singh government. In the next five years, he shook up the social and political establishment by reinforcing the dominance of the backward castes in every sphere of the society.
But the Muslims were largely left out of this process of churning. Take the case of 1995 Bihar assembly election: There were 23 elected Muslim MLAs out of which 17 (almost 75 percent) belonged to the upper castes. The Bihar Assembly in the year 2000 did not see much of a difference: The count of the backward Muslims, in fact, came down further, to barely 22 percent.
That was the time when the Backward Muslim Movement began. There were two pioneers of this movement in Bihar: one was Ajaz Ali who founded All India Backward Muslim Morcha (AIBMM). He stridently advocated that “Dalit descendents” of the Hindu community who had converted to Islam must be recognised as Scheduled Castes and given all the benefits of reservation. But because of a variety of reasons, including lack of political patronage, the Morcha could not carry forward the movement beyond a point.
However, Ali Anwar’s Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz (PMM) made rapid progress in mobilising the backward Muslims and providing them a political platform to assert their rights and make use of the existing provisions for their benefit.
It may be noted that the so-called backward Muslims had been incorporated by the Bihar government in the OBC list first in 1951 and later in 1978 and they were eligible for certain statutory benefits, but most of them were unable to do so because of lack of awareness as well as education. As a result, the special benefits largely accrued to the upper caste Muslims.
The new political platform posed a fundamental challenge to the upper caste domination within the Muslim community. This challenge was reflected in that famous slogan of the movement directed at the upper caste Muslims that said: “Vote hamara fatwa, tumhara nahi chalega (your command for our vote will not work anymore)". Another slogan of the PMM was directed at the political leaders and parties: “Jo Pasmanda ki baat karega, wahi Bihar pe raaj karega (whoever recognises the Pasmanda demand would rule over Bihar)."
Lalu Yadav did not — or, could not — heed this call as he was completely under the grip of the upper caste Muslims who, incidentally, managed to deliver the votes of lower caste Muslims to the RJD. Conceding ground to Pasmandas would have alienated the powerful upper caste Muslims from Lalu Yadav.
Nitish Kumar, who had broken away from Lalu Yadav’s RJD to form a separate party in 1994, was seeking to mobilise the extreme backward castes as a counter to Yadav-dominated outfit. He found in Ali Anwar’s PMM a vehicle to break the stranglehold of Lalu Yadav on the Muslim vote bank. That is why he made common cause with Anwar who, in turn, extended political support to Nitish Kumar’s JD(U).
Nitish Kumar’s spectacular success in the October 2005 Assembly election had much to do with snatching away a sizeable section of the Muslim vote, thanks to the support of the PMM. A gratified Nitish Kumar acknowledged as much by sending Ali Anwar to the Rajya Sabha in 2006. Anwar’s support again proved crucial for Nitish Kumar’s party in the 2010 election. That ensured his re-election to the Rajya Sabha in 2012.
There is now a question mark over PMM’s – and Ali Anwar’s – support to Nitish Kumar. It is difficult to believe that Nitish Kumar would be able to persuade Ali Anwar to remain in the JD(U) after this week’s developments. Had there been any scope of continued loyalty to the party and leader, the usually non-controversial Anwar would not have gone public with his differences. It is clear that the strong feelings of his constituents made him take that public stand.
Of course, questions will be raised as to why he had associated himself with Nitish Kumar when he had an alliance with the BJP for several years, if he finds it unacceptable now. Ali Anwar was asked that question in 2005 itself. His answer then was: "There is no BJP government at the Centre. So the BJP or its associates cannot do in Bihar what they did in Gujarat.”
That explains Anwar’s revolt earlier this week.
Updated Date: Jul 30, 2017 08:20:37 IST