We want respect, not affection: Pasmanda-Bahujan leaders’ reply to PM Modi

Pic credit - aqil Hussain

In response to prime minister Modi’s appeal to his party to embark on ‘Pasmanda Sneh Yatras’, leaders from the Pasmanda community stated that the community required dignity and material equality, not affection.

Riya Talitha | TwoCircles.net 

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NEW DELHI — Intellectuals and leaders from backward communities came together in the national capital on Sunday to send a categorical response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that their communities need samman (respect) and not sneh (affection). Their reply comes months after prime minister Modi had asked BJP leaders to take out “sneh yatras” to woo pasmanda (backward) Muslims towards the saffron party.

Ali Anwar Ansari, former Member of Parliament, and one of the founders of the backward Muslim politics in Bihar was the keynote speaker at the conference. “Pasmanda isn’t a sect. Pasmanda isn’t a caste or a religion. Pasmanda is a community,” Anwar said at the “Pasmanda-Bahujan Daavedari Conference.”

Building on his open letter in response to the PM’s exhortation towards his party to embark on ‘Pasmanda Sneh Yatras’, Anwar passionately reiterated that the community required dignity and material equality, that is, “saamaan, and not sneh.”

While speaking to a packed audience from academia, journalism, law and politics, at the Constitution Club, Anwar made a crucial point about vocabulary, reminding them of the intellectual heritage of terms like ‘Dalit’ and ‘Pasmanda’, which were created to articulate political identities and self-respect. 

As head of the AIPMM and an OBC Muslim himself, Ali Anwar is intimately aware of his cause’s critics, some of whom are from the Muslim community and who think that groups like his own are ‘un-Islamic’ and divisive. He took the opportunity to refute those claims, saying that “the fight for Pasmanda Muslims is the very heart of Islam.”

“We aren’t asking for special privileges; we are asking for the rights promised to us in the Constitution,” says Anwar to wide applause.

Anwar founded the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz ( the front for backward Muslims) in Patna, Bihar, in 1998, as a socio-political reform organisation seeking to liberate and empower backward caste Muslims and seek an alliance with other backward communities for larger goals of realizing equality. Alongside the AIPMM, the nineties saw the advent of anti-caste movements in Muslim society, such as Ejaz Ali’s All India Backward Muslim Morcha, Shabbir Ansari’s All India Muslim OBC Organisation in Maharashtra, as well a few other smaller groups.

Activist and journalist Sheeba Aslam Fehmi who was the only woman on the entire panel of over ten speakers spoke about the deep casteist nature of right-wing violence. Drawing from her long career in journalism and academia, as well as her personal experience of cyber-harassment, Fehmi is uniquely positioned to make the claims and arguments she makes about the nature of the right-wing Hindu ecosystem, particularly its misogyny. 

She also reiterated the point that the majority of those who face the brunt of Islamaphobic violence, such as lynching, riots, pogroms, and hate crimes, are from Pasmanda communities.

BJP wooing Pasmanda Muslims
Earlier this year, at the BJP national executive conclave in Hyderabad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took particular care to address the Pasmanda communities and emphasise the need for their inclusion and upliftment. 

Uttar Pradesh’s Yogi Adityanath government responded to this directive by appointing a pasmanda Muslim party official, Danish Ansari, as Minister of State for Minority Affairs in his government. 

The BJP has initiated its efforts to woo backward Muslims as they constitute the majority of the minority community in the state. As part of this strategy, the party has included several pasmanda leaders in significant positions in the party like that of the State Minority Commission Chairperson Ashfaq Saifi, Madarsa Board chairperson Iftikhar Ahmed Javed and Urdu Academy Chairperson Chaudhary Kaiful Wara. The fact that the party did not field even a single Muslim candidate in the recent assembly elections stands as a contrast to this commitment. 

Caste census is essential
The speakers included Prof. Ajay Kumar Dubey, Dr Hilal Ahmed, Prof. Suraj Mandal, Dr Tanveer Ejaz, Dr Mukesh Kumar, Prof. Ratan Lal, journalist Dilip Mondal, senior advocate Dipak Singh and Birendra Kumar. 

The speakers sat side by side, at a long table, under a large light blue banner displaying the conference name, organising group and the slogans ‘Pasmanda is not merely a vote-bank, it is a part of the fight for Equality and Justice and ‘Invading Communalism, Corporate loot, Bulldozer Raj in the Battle for, Unity, Secularism and Democracy.’ 

They dove headfirst into addressing the structural issues facing the communities that make up the Pasmanda classifications. A common strain multiple speakers emphasised was the need for solidarity between Pasmanda Muslims and other marginalised groups like Dalits, Adivasis and other religious minorities. They also spoke on the particular animosity and contempt faced by Christians and Muslims as both faiths are considered foreign according to Hindutva matrices and propaganda.  

As Professor Ratan Lal put it, “it’s important to know who your enemies are and who stands with you.” Professor Hilal Ahmed illuminated the political calculations taken by political parties to ensure electoral victories, drawing from his research at CSDS. Quoting Ambedkar’s seminal Annihilation of Caste, he explained the importance of “transforming society” over merely aiming to change what party is currently in power. 

Dr Tanveer Ejaz spoke on the labour economy of Pasmandas, pointing out that despite them being the communities that participate in production and labour, 40% are below the poverty line – a statistic that has only been further exacerbated after the pandemic. 

In an essay published in IndiaSpend, scholar Khalid Asis Ansari explains the sheer diversity of Muslim occupational or jati groups like “Dhuniya (cotton carders), Lohar (ironsmiths), Julaha (weaver), Raeen (vegetable sellers), Manihar (bangle makers), Dhobi (launderers), Halalkhors (sweepers), Ossans (barbers), Van Gujjars”, etc,. There are around seven hundred such groups, despite which, according to Ansari, “Ashraf (upper-caste culture) devalues the Pasmanda lifeworlds because of their folk, syncretic cultural and labour practices.”

Both Suraj Mandal and Dilip Kumar devoted large portions of their speeches to laying out how essential a caste census is, for accurate research, preventing misinformation on demographic statistics used to inflate communal tensions, aiding proper planning and implementation of welfare policies, and combating divisive election strategies. 

Just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to provide its current stand on extending the benefits of reservation available to the Scheduled Castes to Christians and Muslims in response to a petition originally filed eighteen years ago. Multiple speakers referenced this contentious issue, and it was made clear that a current caste census will help in providing indisputable proof of the policy’s necessity, without which its detractors (both Hindu and Muslim) do not seem likely to sway. 

The conference ended with loud cheers, acknowledging the work ahead in criticizing the ruling party, raising awareness among the Pasmanda communities more effectively and building solidarity among other marginalized groups. 

The AIPMM plans to keep travelling around North India, organizing conferences, rallies and other public events. 

Riya Talitha is a fellow at the SEEDS-TCN Mentorship Program.