A Divided Muslim Society Faces The BJP’s Challenge

The term Pasmanda, which means backward in Persian, has suddenly gained currency after Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently directed his party members to focus on weaker sections of Muslims.

Representative Image

Few took note when the senior Pasmanda leader Ali Anwar thundered in 2007: “Hum shuddar hain shuddar; Bharat ke mool niwasi hain. Baad mein musalman hain (We are Shudras first; the indigenous people of India. We are Muslims later).” 

Fifteen years later, and nearly a century after the launch of the first Pasmanda movement in India, the concept has finally dominated the public discourse with a potential to upset the Muslim politics. 

Having breakfast at a Lucknow hotel on a July morning, the bulky man in a green kurta asks for the ginger tea twice. The chief of the BJP’s Minority Morcha in UP, Kunwar Basit Ali faces a tough task—how to explain the party’s Pasmanda outreach to Muslims, when he himself barely grasps the term. “Har koi puch raha hai—are ye kya pasmanda le aaye? Sidhe sidhe kaho na kasai aur teli ki baat ho rahi hai (Everyone is asking—from where did you bring this Pasmanda? Why don’t you say that you are talking about communities like Kasai and Teli.).”

The term Pasmanda, which means backward in Persian, has suddenly gained currency after Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently directed his party members to focus on weaker sections of Muslims. With the Pasmandas constituting some 80 percent of total Muslims in India, it is the next big electoral move the BJP has made. However, few Muslims know about the term. Be it Basit Ali, or the residents of Shaheed Nagar, an urban slum a few km from the chief minister’s house in Lucknow, staff at Lucknow famous monuments Bada Imambara and Chota Imambara, or a tailor in Delhi.

“Pasmanda? I have never heard of it,” says Amir Khan, who after spending over two decades in Seelampur recently shifted to Gaffar Manzil near Jamia Nagar in Delhi. Amir, in late 40s, has been stitching clothes at various factories for three decades. Munawwar Ali, gatekeeper at Bada Imambara, nods his head in disbelief. “Muslims are only Shia or Sunni.” Raza Abbas, a well-informed staff at Chhota Imambara, narrates the monument’s history, a Persian clock and Belgian chandeliers hanging in the main hall that were gifted by merchants in previous centuries. But it’s an alien word even for him.

Is the term fictional, or irrelevant then? No. Indian Muslims are classified under several hundred hierarchical communities or biradaris. Such are the hierarchies that some castes like Topchi and Bandukchi are unique to Muslims, without any Hindu equivalent. There are sharp divisions between upper caste Syeds and Sheikhs, and Dalit Muslims like Lalbegis and Doms. The hierarchy, sustained by practices like endogamy, defines the community’s social, economic and political life.  

The historical divide was redefined when Bihar-based journalist-turned-politician Ali Anwar formed All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz in 1998. Anwar, who wrote books including Masawat Ki Jung and Dalit Musalman, launched his organisation following the Pasmanda movement that had taken birth in Bihar in the 1930s. “I have not coined this word, I merely used it to denote all the various backward biradaris of Muslims,” Anwar told Outlook. Like the term Dalit, which is not a legally defined category, Pasmanda signifies a political assertion and identity. 
A divided society


How did the labyrinthine biradaris pervade Indian Muslims who follow a religion that rests on egalitarianism? Pasmanda leader and retired IAS officer Anis Ansari goes deep into history. “Maulana Ziauddin Barni’s 14th century Arabic text Fatwa-i- Jahandari (Code of Governance) is similar to the Manu Smriti. It legitimises castes,” Anis Ansari tells Outlook, as he sips tea at his fabulous home in Lucknow, resplendent with antique chandeliers and furniture and tall plants, with a striking frame of the Kabba on the wall.  

“Barni wrote that there were three categories of Muslims since azal (beginning) --- Ashraf, Ajlaf, Arzal. The term Pasmanda came into circulation only recently, but this classification has existed among Indian Muslims for 700 years.”

The three terms prevail among the Muslims, and also find a place in the Sachar Commitee and Rangnath Mishra Committee reports. The Ashrafs mean noble, and denote upper caste Muslims. The Ajlafs, who correspond with the Hindu OBCs, indicate lowly but ritually clean occupational communities and converts from low-caste Hindus. Arzals are converted from untouchable Hindus. However, the Arzals don’t get the reservation Hindu Dalits get because Muslims are not entitled to the SC reservation. The various categories of backward and Dalit Muslims are clubbed under the OBC category.

While the Sachar committee estimates the Pasmandas or the total number of OBC, ST and SC Muslims to be 40 percent of the community’s population, a large number of Pasmanda and Ashraf leaders find the estimate inaccurate. “The Sachar committee’s estimate is absolutely false. The committee didn’t have any Pasmanda members. They ignored this aspect,” says Ali Anwar.  In fact, in states like Tamil Nadu, over 90 per cent of total Muslims have been classified as backwards and get the OBC reservation. The consensus among the Muslims is that except Syeds, Sheikhs, Mughals and Pathans, almost all Muslim biradaris are Pasmandas.


Khalid Anis Ansari, an Associate Professor at Azim Premji University, explains these hierarchies by underlining that “caste should be seen as a secular principle of the political economy of the subcontinent.” “All religions have legitimised the caste structure in the subcontinent. There are Dalit Christians and Brahmin Christians. Similar is the case in Sikhs, Jat Sikhs are dominant and the Ravidasis are marginalised,” he says. 

Like other religions in the subcontinent, Islam adopted the Hindu system of stratification. And like the Hindus, several influential Muslims refute the hierarchies. “There’s no community like the Pasmanda. A lot of people deliberately misrepresent Pasmanda with caste. There’s undeniably biradarivaad within Muslim society in India, but any attempt to bring caste is completely mischievous,” says Congress leader Yusuf Ahmad Ansari.  

Such assertions disregard the sentiment Pasmanda Muslims have against the Ashrafs. WhatsApp groups of the Pasmandas are brimming with resentment against the Ashrafs. “Those who say that caste system doesn’t exist in Muslims, either they are unaware or lying. There are no marriages between Ajlaf and Ashraf,” says Anis ansari.
Resentment Among the Pasmandas 

While the retired bureaucrat is discursive and guarded, All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz’s Chief General Secretary

Waqar Hawari and his wife. Outlook Photo/Ashutosh Bhardwaj

is blunt. He lives in a modest rented apartment in Lucknow. He and his wife Kahkasha have been fighting for the rights of the Pasmandas for several years. Such is the bitterness that Hawari claims that the “Shaheen Bagh movement was Ashraf’s own fight for their survival, for their prestige. Their fight is not for Islam. It’s for the authority of Sheikhs and Syeds.”


While the Pasmanda Mahaz formed by Ali Anwar continues to be the main organisation, Waqar Hawari belongs to a different Mahaz. It’s a humid afternoon in July. A little drizzle in the morning has left the city perspiring. Sitting next to him in black hijab, his wife Kahkasha turns furious narrating stories of discrimination they have faced. “The Ashraf women are considered sharif (dignified), our women are disregarded. They are well educated but when our women began studies, they were confined to religious education,” she says. She blames Maulanas for imparting “different instructions to the Ashraf and the Pasmanda women”. “The Ashrafs are taught to give zakat, whereas the Pasmandas are conditioned to remain poor and endure suffering to reach closer to Allah,” she adds. 

Zakat is an Islamic tax that is levied on people having a minimum property and is distributed to the needy and poor. The young political activist turns aggressive with every sentence. Commenting on the “indoctrination of Pasmanda woman” by the Maulanas, she says: “While Ashraf women wore quality jewels, Maulanas told us that if you don’t give zakat (which we couldn’t give), these bracelets will become snakes and bite you in jahannum (hell).”

“They would continue to remain rich, but dissuade others from becoming rich. They tell poor people that the faces of gunahgaar (sinners) turn dark, whereas the glowing face of Maulana sahab’s reflects her character. They didn’t tell us that it was all about their rich diet and lifestyle,” she says.

One can sense her face muscles twitching underneath the hijab.  Hawari underlines yet another similarity with the Hindu system. “Pasmandas often fake their surnames because they are scared of the Asharfs. They don’t let us sit on the same cot.” 


Anis Ansari traces this practice in history when “Barni didn’t stop at the classification, but also stated that the Sultan must not allow Ajlaf and Arzal to enter the courts”. The lower caste Muslims had to invent ways to overcome the discrimination. But they soon found that it existed at every instance. “If we don’t have proper sheen, qaf (pronunciation), the Ashrafs laugh at us: Tumne ilm to le liya, lekin tahzeeb aane men naslen lagengi (You may have got some education, but it will take generations to become cultured),” Kahkasha says.  

These scathing words directly challenge leaders like Yusuf Ansari who refute any “rift between the Pasmandas and the Ashrafs”. “There are petty fights over farmland, property, water – you can conveniently give it the stamp of Pasmandas versus Ashraf. They all assemble together at the Eid namaz,” he says.

One can here sense an ailment afflicting India’s biggest minority. Such is the social ignorance that even a politician like Basit Ali struggles to lend biradaris to all the 34 Muslim MLAs in Uttar Pradesh. Such is the cultural hierarchy that the Ashrafs take pride in asserting their Arab and Persian, even upper caste Hindu lineage. Basit Ali’s forefathers were Hindu Thakurs, but they continue to flaunt their ‘Kunwar’ title in order to assert their Rajput ancestry. 

And such is the economic discord that while the Pasmandas celebrate the UP Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms Act of 1951, a senior Ashraf politician says: “The Zamindari Abolition Act broke the back of Muslims. Lakhs of Muslims lost their titles. The tillers of the ground became the owners.”

However, not all Ashraf communities are influential, and can be seen sharing space with the Pasmandas. Mohammad Ahmad died of kidney failure in February. His wife Johra Begum, 35, runs a small shop in her dingy room at the urban slum of Lucknow’s Shaheed Nagar. They are Sheikhs, but their average daily earning from the tiny shop is less than Rs 50. The tap water they get smells of sewage. Her equally poor old neighbours Mohammad Anwar and Saira are also Sheikhs, and are waiting for the amount to construct a home under the PM Awas Yojana.

On the other side of the city, an impoverished Rafique, a Pathan, is selling peaches at Chhota Imambara on a sultry night. At Rs 20 per kg, most of the peaches look rotten. Another Pathan Amir Khan stitches jeans in a small and dark factory in Delhi slum.

Is it, then, not about the Ashraf and the Pasmandas but the rich and the poor?
Anis Ansari wouldn’t agree. “It’s not correct to say that Sheikhs and Pathans live in slums. They must be very few. A big majority in slums is of backward Muslims.”
The rift is not political

But it’s not political. The hate campaign doesn’t differentiate between the Ashrafs or the Pasmandas, Syeds or Gadheris. A Muslim is targeted by Bajrang Dal members not because of their biradari, but for their religion. Also, Muslims vote not according to their biradari but for the most winnable candidate—be it a Muslim or a Hindu. 

In the recent UP assembly elections, the SP had fielded Mukhiya Gurjar from Hasanpur seat of Amroha district. The Congress candidate Aasim Sabri, a Muslim, had a good number of community votes in the constituency. But Aasim got a paltry 1734 or less than one percent of total votes, as Muslim voted en masse for the Hindu Gurjar who got 97753 or 36.53 percent votes. At the South Meerut seat, Samajwadi Party’s candidate Adil Chaudhary, a Pasmanda, faced BSP’s Kunwar Dilshad, an Ashraf. This seat had a good number of Ashraf votes. But while Dilshad got 39857 votes, Chaudhary polled 121725 votes, more than thrice. 

Taking note of the social divide, the BJP is now trying to make it political.

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