By Asif Uzzaman
What Cannot Be Overlooked:
The nuances of Indian polity have undergone nearly irreversible changes in the last decade, not only in terms of ideological shift towards Majoritarianism but also in the factors affecting the elections and the modus operandi of political parties. Elections are no longer a fight merely on the ground – not to talk about the dozens of rallying helicopters decorating the sky above an election-bound state – but on various forms of media, backed by astronomical amount of corporate money. This huge investment ensures that its regular audience remains in a constant state of apprehension about an upcoming election, to a point that a concern for digits on one’s Oxymeter can momentarily become less significant than the digits on the rival sides of TMC and BJP flashing on the television screen. Correspondingly, the socio-cultural factors working in favour of the stronger side are rigidified a little every day through the use of mass media. In the words of Homi K. Bhabha, professor of Humanities at Harvard, “Populist leaders keep their populations in anxiety which helps them establish power.”
This anxiety is an undeniable fact of the contemporary Indian politics. What else cannot be overlooked is the massive scale resistance to it—not particularly against the havoc, but against the ideological superstructure of Hindutva which strives to put all non-conforming identities, and socio-political and economic questions aside. It is July of 2021, when Corona virus has (hopefully) already shown its worst manifestation across the country. Politically speaking – and we would have to assume an absolute mum about the pandemic, for apparently the political field remains untouched from it – Assembly elections have concluded in Bihar, followed by five other states and Union Territories. The BJP – as its signature move – based its election campaign on Hindu nationalism, especially in the state of West Bengal. Discursively, the Hindutva Right pitches itself against the Muslims. The process, legality, and pros & cons of the abolition of Triple Talaq can be endlessly debated – as can be that of the stirring propositions of Citizenship Amendment Act and NRC – but the fact remains that these have been serving as the central electoral issues for the ruling BJP. This, consequently, has given rise to discourses voiced through the premises of assertive Muslim identity—which is unapologetic in its tone, unconcerned with the supposed guilt of Partition which haunted it for long, and unwilling to compromise. Be it the 2019 Anti-CAA protest at Shaheen Bagh and across the nation, or the electoral gains of Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM in the 2020 Bihar Assembly elections, the Muslim identity can be seen asserting itself in the discursive spaces where they were hitherto largely absent in its current form. At the heart of this phenomenon lies the ideological shift of the Backward, Dalit, and Adivasi Muslims.
A Historical Overview:
For far too long, the evangelists of Abrahamic faiths continued to pretend an absence of hierarchy within their communities, only adding to the problem with their propaganda. The socio-economic difference among the Muslims – and indeed across religious communities – has persisted, if not raised. It is now a well-known fact that a majority of Muslims share the socio-cultural and ethnic heritage with their Bahujan “Hindu” counterparts. The works of sociologists and anthropologists such as Ghaus Ansari and Zeyauddin Ahmad are testimony to this fact. Beginning with leadership of Maulana Asim Bihari and Abdul Qaiyum Ansari in the mid-twentieth century, Ambedkerite struggles against socio-economic inequalities have manifested time and again from within the Muslim community.
During the 1940s, efforts of the All India Momin Conference ensured a sabotage of Muslim League’s influence in major parts of North and East India. Ali Anwar Ansari, a Pasmanda leader and former Member of Parliament, recalls a significant event in his book, ‘Masawat ki Jung ’: “In 1941, a CID report states that thousands of Muslim weavers under the banner of Momin Conference and coming from Bihar and Eastern U.P. descended in Delhi demonstrating against the proposed two-nation theory. A gathering of more than fifty thousand people from an unorganized sector was not usual at that time, so its importance should be duly recognized. The non-ashraf Muslims constituting a majority of Indian Muslims were opposed to partition but sadly they were not heard.”
It is also a well-known fact that the Ashraf leaders across parties held the same voice of opposition to the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report as the Hindu Right wing. However, there is a sense of discontinuity with time when it comes to the rigid Ashraf-Pasmanda binary in the political discourse. In the absence of such a binary in today’s context, religious identity assumes primacy. The Pasmanda Muslims are increasingly contributing to the new political discourse centred on Muslim identity. However, what they could possibly gain from the same continues to remain a critical question. Khalid Anis Ansari has pointed out the figures of Muslim representation in the Lok Sabha in his article on Outlook, “if we apply the 15:85 population ratio to an analysis by the late parliamentarian Ashfaq Hussain Ansari, then it is revealed that Ashrafs with a 2.1 per cent share in the national population had a representation of 4.5 per cent from the first to the fourteenth Lok Sabha. On the other hand, the Pasmanda Muslims with a population share of 11.4 per cent merely had a 0.8 per cent representation.” The fact remains that the overall representation of Muslims is far less in proportion to their overall population, which serves as yet another factor in empowering the discourse around Muslim victimhood. Although the victimisation of Muslims as a religious community under the present government cannot be overlooked, it is important to analyse who gains from the struggle against it.
It is the Elephant in the Room:
Caste is a hushed subject in the Muslim locales. While the urban societies have confined itself to rather subtle forms of its practice – such as endogamy within the same caste – villages in rural Bihar continue to be identified with the caste of its homogenous populace, across religious lines. Although consecutive governments in the Centre have dodged the question of conducting a caste-based census – demanded by Socialist parties – the lack of progress among the Muslim backward classes speaks for itself. The political discourse which has emerged with Muslim identity sees the caste-based inequality with open eyes, but tries its best to appropriate it only for a critique of the system and not of the Ashraf-Muslim community itself.
The recent demise of Dilip Kumar aka Yusuf khan opened a torrent of tributes for the veteran actor from media and political quarters. Apart from praises for his productive career in cinema, Deccan Herald published an article, celebrating the late actor as a “gardener of the Pasmanda Movement” owing to his contributions in the All India Muslim OBC Organization (AIMOBCO). Another instance of a mainstream celebrity’s encounter with the question of caste hierarchy in Muslim society made headlines earlier this year. In the fervent of discussion revolving around caste equations following the barbaric rape and murder case in Hathras, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui shared his personal experience. Although coming from an Upper Caste lineage, he claimed to have faced discrimination by his own community due to an inter-caste marital bond in his family two generations ago. The actor’s concern with the issue of discrimination caught headlines of prominent national dailies.
Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh are due in 2022, for which pot has already started boiling. Apprehensive of a close shave like that in Bihar, numerous political op-eds have covered AIMIM’s decision to contest on a hundred seats in Uttar Pradesh, in alliance with Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party, as a major political development. Asaduddin Owaisi is a figure who has risen to national fame in recent years, with his unapologetic vocalisation on issues like Triple Talaq, Babri Masjid, UAPA and so on. Although coming from an elite background, the politician does not shy away from calling Dr. Ambedkar the greatest leader India has ever had. Reservation of seats for Muslims, quoting Sachar Committee Report, is a recurrently appearing demand in his speeches and dialogues.
A major centre of Muslim political discourse is the space of Central universities. The CAA protests saw emergence of many student leaders in universities like Jamia Millia Islamia, AMU, and JNU, many of whom are still behind the bars as political prisoners. Clippings from the famous hour-long speech of JNU student-leader Sharjeel Imam at Aligarh Muslim University on 16th of January 2020 were publicised in the media before his arrest. In his speech, Imam briefly mentions the issue of non-inclusion of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians in the Schedule Caste list. While Mr Owaisi’s party asserts for Reservation for Muslims on the basis of religious identity – the vocabulary he uses for sensitisation is “Muslims are more backward than even the Dalits” – more academic voices like Imam’s sophisticates it with the complexity of caste.
What Is Being Overlooked Here:
The RSS has constantly been striving to woo the backward classes and the Dalits, with significant success over past couple of decades. Almost a parallel phenomenon of blurring of caste identification can be seen within the Muslim community, owing to the solidification of mythical monolithic religious identity. The masses of the Backward classes decreasingly identifying with their caste identity is an illusionary escape from the hierarchies. If someone benefits from this hesitation, it is precisely the beneficiaries of this discrimination.
Time and again, AIMIM has been compared to the Muslim League of colonial India, for their supposedly similar outlook and support base primarily amongst the Muslims. What such a simplistic viewpoint fails to recognise is that Jinnah’s Muslim League was vehemently opposed in its demand for partition by Abdul Qaiyum Ansari’s Momin Conference—a conglomeration of the Pasmanda Muslim voices of the time. In today’s time, there is no socio-political organisation of the Pasmanda section, strong enough to tackle the dominant Hindutva politics even on the discursive level. In the absence of such a voice, the Pasmanda Muslims, hounded by Hindutva, desperately side with the assertive Muslim voices of the likes of Asaduddin Owaisi. AIMIM, unlike Muslim League of the past, has increasingly been gaining support of the Muslims belonging to the Backward classes across the country. Recently concluded Bihar Assembly election is a manifestation of the same, where the party secured five seats in the areas of overwhelming Pasmanda Muslim population.
CAA-NRC protests witnessed Muslim activists coming forth from across social and economic backgrounds. While student leaders like Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam come from Ashraf background, they do not seem to challenge the victimhood of the Pasmanda—far from it. Leaders like Khalid Saifi and Akhtarista Ansari, although coming from the Pasmanda community, remained no less active in the protests. Their standpoints of perception might vary, but they all raised their voices as spokespersons of the community which is to be targeted by the policies of the government—as Muslims.
Critics who try to look at a community through the binary of liberal and conservative elements within them are bound to make judgements which are short-lived. Caste identities essentially define the differing socio-political standpoints within a religious community. To rebuff it simply as Identity Politics is to overlook the social and economic statuses which these identities come to define in a given context. The social and economic considerations are increasingly been put on the sidelines by the Backward classes in the process of rigidifying religious binaries. While the leaders coming from Ashraf background are increasingly empathising with the Pasmanda Muslims, the religious consolidation is only making it difficult for the latter in creating a space where their particular issues could be addressed. The AIMIM is gaining ground among Muslims across socio-economic backgrounds, but the question remains as to whether those who are most victimised by religious and caste discrimination are really benefitting from it. Mr. Owaisi’s party – much like all mainstream parties – pays homage to Dr. Ambedkar in its slogans. However, the representation of Pasmanda Muslims among the elected legislators can be looked at as a point of concern.
Be it the Secular parties or the Socialist ones, their choice in leaders from the Muslim community are biased towards the already well-off. The Pasmanda Muslims have remained marginalised in the political spectrum, and there seems little scope of their upliftment from the emergent Muslim political discourse as well. In order to create a truly democratic political atmosphere, the Secular-Socialist parties need to honestly uphold the values they claim to abide by. The Pasmanda Muslims are looking beyond the socio-economic boundaries to participate in the discourse based on religious identity, which in turn is a fact overlooked by the mainstream political analysts as mere reactionary endeavours of a handful.
Ali Anwar Ansari. Masawat Ki Jung =: Struggle for Equality. New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 2005. Print.
Ghaus Ansari. Muslim Caste in Uttar Pradesh: A Study of Culture Contact. Lucknow: Ethnographic and Folk Culture Society, 1960. Print.
Khalid Anis Ansari. ‘Owaisi Represents Only the Elitist Muslims and Not the Entire Community’. Outlook India. November 24, 2020. <https://www.outlookindia.com/website/