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Pasmanda Activism: The Quest for a Post-Minority Politics

By Khalid Anis Ansari

‘Pasmanda’, a Persian term meaning ‘those who have fallen behind’, refers to the subaltern Muslims belonging to the shudra (backward) and ati-shudra (dalit) castes. It was enacted as an oppositional identity to that of the dominant ashraf Muslims (forward castes) by the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, which mainly worked in the North Indian state of Bihar, in 1998. However, in the subsequent years pasmanda discourse has found resonance elsewhere too.

If we go by the dominant imagination, then Islam is circulated as an egalitarian religion and Indian Muslims on the whole, especially in the post-Sachar scenario, are conceived as a marginalized community. The pasmanda counter-discourse has taken issues with both these formulations.

In terms of religious hermeneutics, Masood Falahi’s work Hindustan mein Zaat Paat aur Musalman (2006) has convincingly demonstrated how the notion of kufu (rules about possible marriage relations between groups) was read through caste lens by the ‘manuwadi’ ulema and how a parallel system of ‘graded inequality’ was put into place in Indian Islam.

As far as the social sphere is concerned, Ali Anwar’s Masawat ki Jung (2000) has revealed caste based disenfranchisement of pasmanda (dalit and backward caste) muslims at the hands of self-styled ashraf leaders in community organizations (madrasas, personal law board, etc.), representative institutions (parliament and state assemblies), and the state departments/ministries that claim to work for Muslims (minority affairs, Waqf boards, Urdu academies, AMU, Jamia Millia Islamia, etc). The book also underlines stories of humiliation, disrespect, and violence on caste grounds that various pasmanda communities have to undergo on a daily basis, at least in northern parts of India.

So, the two key elements of mainstream ashrafia (‘Muslim’ or minority) discourse—Islam as an egalitarian religion and Indian Muslims on the whole as an oppressed community—are burdened with a number of interrogative footnotes by the pasmanda commentators. Islam may be normatively egalitarian in a spiritual sense but the actual-existing Islam in Indian conditions is revealed to be a hierarchical formation. Similarly, all Muslims are not oppressed: Muslims are revealed to be a differentiated community in terms of power, with dominant (ashraf) and subordinated (pasmanda) sections. Consequently, the so-called ‘minority politics’, which has been quite comfortable in raising symbolic and affective issues so far (Babri Mosque demolition, Personal Law, etc.), is deconstructed as the politics of dominant caste Muslims that secures their interests at the expense of pasmanda muslims. A recurrent theme in pasmanda narratives is that minority politics has singularly failed in addressing the bread-and-butter concerns of the pasmanda muslims, who constitute about 85 percent of Indian Muslims and come primarily from occupational and service biradaris.

However, the notion of ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ communities (read primarily in terms of religious identity in India) is an eminently modern construct, which is coeval with the history of the emergence and consolidation of a hegemonic post-colonial, secular nation-state project. In this sense, while Secular nationalism becomes the locus of legitimate power and violence, it’s others—Hindu and Islamic nationalisms—become the sites of illegitimate power. The seemingly epic battles that are constantly fought within this conceptual assemblage—around communal riots or ‘Hindu’/‘Islamic’ terror more recently in the post-9/11 phase of Western imperialism—have been singularly instrumental in denying voice to subordinated caste communities across religions and in securing the interests of Secular, Hindu or Muslim elite respectively. In this sense, the pasmanda articulation has highlighted the symbiotic nature of majoritarian and minoritarian fundamentalism and has sought to contest the latter from within in order to wage a decisive battle against the former. As Waqar Hawari, a pasmanda activist says: ‘While Muslim politicians like Imam Bukhari and Syed Shahabuddin add the jodan (starter yoghurt), it is left to the Hindu fundamentalists to prepare the yoghurt of communalism. Both of them are responsible. We oppose the politics of both Hindu and Muslim fanaticism’.

The structures of social solidarity that pasmanda activists work with are deeply influenced by the entangled relation between faith and ethnicity. The domains of Hinduism and Islam are quite complex with multiple resources and potentialities possible: in various ways they exceed the ‘Brahmanism’ and ‘Ashrafism’ that has come to over-determine them in historical time. On the one hand, the pasmanda muslims share a widespread feeling of ‘Muslimness’ with the upper-caste Muslims, a solidarity which is often parochialized by internal caste and maslak-based (sectarian) contradictions. On the other hand, pasmanda muslims share an experience of caste-based humiliation and disrespect with subordinated caste Hindus, a solidarity which is equally interrupted by the discourse around religious difference incessantly reproduced by upper caste institutions. Since the express object of the pasmanda movement has been to fight the invisibilization of caste-based marginalities, it has stressed on caste-based solidarity across religions.

As Ali Anwar, the founder of Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz says: ‘There is a bond of pain between pasmanda muslims and the pasmanda sections of other religions. This bond of pain is the supreme bond…That is why we have to shake hands with the pasmanda sections of other religions’. This counter-hegemonic solidarity on caste lines is effectively encapsulated in the pasmanda slogan ‘Dalit-Pichda ek saman, Hindu ho ya Musalman’ (All dalit-backward castes are alike, whether they be Hindu or Muslim’. However, at the same time birth-based caste distinctions are sought to be transcended from the vantage point of an egalitarian faith: ‘We are not setting the Dalit/Backward Caste Muslims against the so-called ashraf Muslims. Our movement is not directed against them. Rather, we seek to strengthen and empower our own people, to enable them to speak for themselves and to secure their rights and justice…We welcome well-meaning people of so-called ashraf background…who are concerned about the plight of our people to join us in our struggle.’ It is in the midst of such complex negotiations, the punctuated nature of faith and caste based solidarities, that the pasmanda is constituted as a political subject.

Overall, pasmanda politics has relied on transformative constitutionalism and democratic symbolism to attain its social justice goals—deepening of extant affirmative action (quota policy), adequate representation of pasmanda muslims in political parties, state support for cottage and small-scale industries, democratization of religious institutions and interpretative traditions, etc. Obviously, it confronts all the challenges that any counter-hegemonic identity movement faces in its formative phases, in the temporal lag between the enactment and sedimentation of a new identity: lack of resources and appropriate institutions, cooption of its leaders by state and other hegemonic ideological apparatuses, lack of relevant movement literature, internal power conflicts, the colonization of life-world by the cognitive categories and practices of the adversary, and so on.

Also, as Dr. Rammanohar Lohia said, ‘The policy of uplift of downgraded castes and groups is capable of yielding much poison. A first poison may come out of its immediate effects on men’s minds; it may speedily antagonise the Dvija without as speedily influencing the Sudras. With his undoubted alertness to developments and his capacity to mislead, the Dvija may succeed in heaping direct and indirect discredit on the practitioners of this policy long before the Sudra wakes up to it.’ These are the challenges that the pasmanda activists face while confronting the ashrafiya dominated minority politics.

However, their struggle for a post-minority politics is on and it could be hoped that it will democratize Indian Islam in the long run by triggering a process of internal reform. The pasmanda interrogation of the majority-minority or the secular-communal dyad will also contribute to democratic deepening that will be beneficial for all the subaltern communities in the long run.


[Khalid Anis Ansari is a PhD candidate at University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht, the Netherlands. He also works with The Patna Collective, New Delhi and engages with the pasmanda movement as an interlocutor and knowledge-activist. E-Mail:]

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