The Complex Game of BJP’s Pasmanda Play

The future of this endeavour remains uncertain, leaving open the question of whether it represents a genuine commitment to inclusive governance or a calculated political manoeuvre.

The recent caste census in Bihar provides insights into the diverse social dynamics within the Muslim community, bringing attention to Pasmanda concerns.

Sheikhs, representing 3.82% of the population, share similarities with Ashraafs. Ansaris, an integral part of the Pasmanda community, make up 3.54%. Surjapuri Muslims, mainly concentrated around Kishanganj, comprise 1.87%. The Dhuniyas or Mansooris, categorised as OBC, trail them closely at 1.42%.

This information sheds light on the socio-economic and educational circumstances within the Muslim community, aspects often overlooked in political discussions.

BJP’s playbook: Inclusive governance, Pasmanda outreach and navigating Bihar’s political kaleidoscope

A crucial ally within the NDA coalition, Nitish Kumar found himself at odds with the BJP regarding the caste census. This discord prompted the BJP-led Union government to intervene in the judicial dispute concerning the legitimacy of Bihar’s caste survey. This development has placed the BJP at a critical juncture, compelling them to make strategic decisions.

PM Narendra Modi has taken a cautious stance, characterising the survey as an attempt to “sow divisions within Hindu society”. Simultaneously, his firm position against the Congress, accusing them of “usurping the rights of minorities”, showcases a nuanced political perspective. Notably, the suggestion of Bihar’s chief minister for an all-party meeting signals a concerted effort to address the potential ramifications of the survey’s findings.

The data itself provides crucial insights into the demographic makeup of Bihar. The Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) collectively constitute a significant 63%, with Scheduled Castes (SCs) making up 19.65% of the population. The upper castes, including the general category, along with around 5% of upper caste Muslims, comprise 15.52%. This underscores the intricate socio-political landscape of Bihar, a complexity that the BJP navigates in its pursuit of inclusive representation.

Given this context, the BJP’ meticulous consideration of the survey’s findings underscores its commitment to inclusive governance. It is imperative for political parties to transcend divisive rhetoric and grapple with the realities that shape the lives of the people they represent. This endeavour holds particular relevance in the context of the BJP’s Pasmanda outreach efforts. The census thus serves as a platform for fostering inclusivity and promoting a more comprehensive understanding of Bihar’s diverse populace.

A trail of hate crimes: BJP’s own members undermine Pasmanda engagement 

The BJP’s purported outreach to the Pasmanda Muslims is marred by a grim reality – a trail of hate crimes committed or endorsed by its own members. Bilkis Bano, a Pasmanda Muslim, endured a nightmarish ordeal during the 2002 Gujarat riots, where she and her three-year-old daughter fell victim to a violent mob, resulting in 14 tragic deaths. Shockingly, the Modi government later sanctioned the release of 11 individuals convicted for their roles in this gruesome incident. In another harrowing incident in 2019, Tabrez Ansari, a Pasmanda Muslim, was ruthlessly lynched and coerced to recite Hindu religious slogans in Jharkhand, a state where the BJP has support. Moreover, the garlands bestowed by former Union Minister Jayant Sinha upon eight individuals convicted of lynching in Ramgarh cast a sinister shadow. Among the victims in this case was Alimuddin Ansari, a Pasmanda man. These distressing episodes lay bare the formidable challenge that the BJP’s Pasmanda outreach faces from within the community itself.

People convicted for rape and murder in the Bilkis Bano case of the 2002 Gujarat riots, being welcomed as they come out of the Godhra sub-jail after the Gujarat government allowed their release under its remission policy, in Godhra, August 15, 2022. Photo: PTI

Ali Anwar Ansari’s Vision of Pasmanda: A Call for Collective Empowerment

Before delving into the dynamics of Pasmanda politics, it is imperative to comprehend the essence of Pasmanda. In an insightful interview, Ali Anwar Ansari, the founder of Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz and former Rajya Sabha MP, sheds light on the significance of ‘Pasmanda’ as a unifying concept. He starkly contrasts it with the divisive policies championed by the BJP. Ansari astutely emphasises that ‘Pasmanda’ transcends religious boundaries, encompassing Hindus and Muslims alike, thereby challenging the BJP’s narrow sectarian approach. His unwavering commitment arises from the belief that marginalised communities, akin to Dalits and backward classes, can only truly thrive through collective empowerment. Ansari fervently advocates for a united front, bringing together Hindu Dalits, Sikhs and Christians to counter the entrenched power structures perpetuated by the BJP over generations. In this singular, resonant term, ‘Pasmanda’, lies the potential to rally a diverse multitude, challenging the BJP’s divisive tactics and championing a more inclusive, equitable future for all.

The BJP’s recent overtures to Pasmanda Muslims, a marginalised subset within the Muslim community, have sparked heated debate in Indian politics. The party’s attempts to bridge this divide raise questions about their true intentions. This outreach unfolds against a backdrop of escalating communal tensions and contentious policies, further complicating the assessment of its sincerity. As the 2024 Lok Sabha elections loom, the BJP’s Minority Morcha gears up for a targeted outreach program focused on the Pasmanda community. Senior party officials have also been tasked with this. While this manoeuvre may appear strategic, it raises legitimate concerns about the party’s approach to minority engagement, given the enduring political significance of the Muslim vote.

Intra-religious divisions: BJP’s tactical approach to Muslim communities 

Irfan Engineer’s analysis dissects the multifaceted divisions within the Muslim community, spanning Wahabis, Deobandis, Ahle-Hadis, Bohras, Khojas, Memons, and others. Each group claims fervent devotion and piety, resulting in a mosaic of religious identities. Additionally, Muslims segregate along geographical, social, and caste lines, including Sheikhs, Ansaris, Qureshis, Pathans, Syeds, and Bagwans. Beyond their shared Islamic faith, these communities bear little sociological commonality. They seldom interact and fiercely guard their respective identities, with each sect maintaining its own mosque.

Due to schisms with other sects, notably Sunnis, Bohras, Khojas, Shias, and Sufis have gravitated towards BJP support. This prompts the BJP to concentrate efforts on minority Muslim communities, capitalising on existing intra-religious divisions. The BJP strategically avoids aligning with the orthodox Deobandis, as it risks alienating its core Hindutva base. Sufis, practising a more liberal interpretation of Islam, incorporate local Hindu customs, yielding a unique blend of traditions. This dual approach enables the BJP to penetrate the Muslim demographic while retaining conservative Hindu votes. Minority Muslim groups, in turn, gain social influence and benefit from their political affiliations with the ruling party.

Electoral complexities: the balancing act of political interests

From the BJP’s standpoint, their outreach to the Pasmanda community is a calculated political manoeuvre. It aims to broaden its political base by engaging a substantial portion of India’s historically underrepresented Muslim population. This move also serves to counter accusations of majoritarianism, presenting the BJP as a more inclusive political force. By addressing the socio-economic concerns of many Pasmanda Muslims, often hailing from economically disadvantaged sections of society, the BJP aims to showcase a commitment to inclusive development and social justice. However, in reality, the party’s focus lies in bolstering its political base ahead of the 2024 general elections, a time when its Hindu nationalist identity may fall short.

Two key political episodes at the periphery of Pasmanda outreach warrant scrutiny ― the party’s rejection of the Pasmanda community’s plea for inclusion in the Scheduled Caste quota, an unfavourable policy stance for the community, and the delayed caste census, despite mounting pressure from the Opposition. Second, politically, the BJP opposes a caste census, fearing it might challenge its Hindutva campaign in the run-up to the 2024 election. The Opposition’s call for a caste census and a separate quota for OBC women within the 33% reservation of the Women’s Reservation Bill recently passed in the Lok Sabha makes sense.

The BJP’s strategic overtures to Pasmanda Muslims, constituting a substantial 80% of India‘s Muslim population, are marked by intricate political dynamics. While the party has gained support from minority Muslim factions like Sufis, Shias, and Bohras, it is important to note that it does not command the majority of Pasmanda votes independently, underscoring the diverse political allegiances within this community. This electoral complexity highlights the nuanced terrain the BJP must navigate in its pursuit of Pasmanda support. Additionally, non-BJP parties have effectively mobilised Pasmanda leadership, exemplified by figures like Ali Anwer Ansari, who vehemently critiques Hindutva politics. His expulsion from the JDU in 2017 underscores the ideological divide.

As the BJP endeavours to consolidate its influence within the OBC Muslim community through this outreach, its success hinges on adeptly manoeuvring the intricate interplay of religious, social, and political dynamics inherent to the Pasmanda identity. The future of this endeavour remains uncertain, leaving open the question of whether it represents a genuine commitment to inclusive governance or a calculated political manoeuvre, while the Pasmanda community, empowered by their agency, holds the potential to significantly shape the course of Indian politics.

Ashraf Nehal is an analyst and columnist who tracks Indian politics.

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been updated and republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.