On a July evening, Sadaf Jafar tries to call her cats in the hall of her tastefully decorated Lucknow home. Four Persian cats—Rani, Timur, Gabbu Singh and Bibbo, named after the character Jafar played in A Suitable Boy. Nonchalant, they wouldn’t come out of their cosy hiding. The hall has a tall cat tree with scratching posts. But the cats don’t scratch it, they scratch Sadaf and her two teenage children. "Cat moms," the small family calls itself.
A teacher and single mother, Congress leader Jafar contested the recent assembly elections from Lucknow and was among the people who were jailed during the anti-CAA protests. Her daughter Kaunain Fatima has just completed Class 12th from La Martiniere, the city’s most prestigious school, and is now aiming for Delhi University. Kaunain loves Harry Potter, but not the “transphobic” JK Rowling. The girl, who has published poems in English, is associated with an organisation that has been fighting for the LGBTQ rights.
If there’s a family that effortlessly demolishes the stereotypes about the Muslims, it’s this. And if there’s a home that underlines the economic and cultural gap between the Ashrafs and the Pasmandas, it’s also this. For, at a little distance live a Pasmanda couple, Waqar Hawari and his wife Kahkasha, who speak for hours about their bitter experiences with the Ashrafs and even seem to find a poetic justice in Jafar’s electoral loss.
Such rifts exist in other communities as well, but the BJP has sensed a space here to make inroads into the Muslim community. It has already shed the image of an upper caste party. According to a Lokniti-CSDS survey, of the total BJP's Votes in 1996 LS elections, 49 percent came from upper castes, 33 percent from OBCs, 11 percent from SC and 7 percent from STs. In 2019, 30 percent of the party’s votes came from upper castes, 44 percent from OBCs, 16 percent from SCs and 10 percent from ST.
Having won over the OBC Hindus and thus weakened the Mandal parties, the BJP is now trying to reach out to the Muslims—perhaps the only community beyond the party’s electoral machine. Since the upper caste educated Muslims are the most vocal and articulate opponents of the BJP, it has trained its focus on the Pasmandas, a collective term for the OBC and the Dalit Muslims. The Pasmandas are astutely aware of it. “The BJP has seen that aligning with the Ashrafs doesn’t help as their community didn’t come to them. We Pasmandas want to talk only about our representation. We don’t want to raise any emotional or religious issues,” says Waqar Hawari, the Chief General Secretary of All Indian Pasmanda Mahaz.
The BJP’s project has begun from Uttar Pradesh where they inducted several Pasmanda leaders at key positions including Minority Commission Chairperson Ashfaq Saifi, Madarsa Board chairperson Iftikhar Ahmed Javed and Urdu Academy Chairperson Chaudhary Kaiful Wara. While the party didn’t give a single ticket to a Muslim candidate during the recent assembly elections, CM Yogi Adityanath has made Danish Ansari, a Pasmanda, Minority Welfare Minister. The representation of the Ashrafs is nearly zilch at key posts in the UP government.
BJP’s Minority Morcha chief Kunwar Basit Ali, though an Ashraf, has given 70 percent posts in his organisation to Pasmandas, who have also been the major beneficiaries of the government schemes.
“UP has 19.33 percent of Muslim population. As many as 39 percent beneficiaries of Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, 22 percent beneficiaries of toilet yojna, 37 percent beneficiaries of Ujjawala Yojna and 30 percent beneficiaries of Mudra Yojana are Muslims,” the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister’s office told Outlook in a statement.
“Around 43 lakh homes were constructed under the Awas Yojna in the state in the last 5 years. Of these 20 lakh are for the Pasmandas only,” says Basit Ali. Even BJP’s opponents admit it. “Muslim could be 33 percent of the total beneficiaries of the housing scheme,” Waqar Hawari says. There are also government schemes like One District One Product (ODOP) that have benefitted more Muslims than Hindus, because of the sheer number of Muslim artisans.
Several upper caste leaders term it eyewash. “What’s the big deal if you make a Muslim chairperson of the Urdu academy? If you want to give us representation, make a Muslim home minister. If the Pasmandas take this bait, nothing can help us,” says Sadaf Jafar, pointing out that the many shops of Muslims the government forcibly shut down were of the Pasmandas.
The BJP’s plan is obvious. “The whole Pasmanda initiative is a deliberate attempt to further fragment the already fragmented Muslim vote bank,” says Congress leader Yusuf Ahmad Ansari.
The divisions emerge from the long list of allegations the Pasmandas make—the Ashrafs caused the partition, Aligarh Muslim University was designed to exclude them and favour the Ashrafs, major community organizations like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board are dominated by the Ashrafs. And then they point out two infamous incidents on December 6—one was in 1992, the other in 2007 when some Syeds and Pathans assaulted low caste Ansaris and Mansuris over the right to pray and drove them out of their mosque in East Champaran district in Bihar. When the Pasmandas built a thatched mosque nearby, the upper caste Muslims damaged it.
Of the total 1288 faculties at the AMU in 2016, upper caste Muslims occupied 1138 or 88.35 percent posts, with OBC Muslims reduced to just 62 or 4.81 percent posts—even lesser than the 87 non-Muslim faculties.
The BJP is trying to exploit this sentiment, and upper caste Muslims are not unaware of it. “By raking up the partition and the AMU case, the Pasmandas are gifting a lethal argument to the BJP,” cautions a Syed leader in Lucknow.
While the Pasmandas are not aligned with the BJP, unlike the Ashrafs they don’t reject the BJP’s outreach. “2024 is very important for the BJP. As a professional party, it’d like to increase its voter base,” says Khalid Anis Ansari, who teaches at Azim Premji university.
“The political sphere has some autonomy from the cultural and economic sphere. There’s a cultural project of the RSS. There’s a political project of the BJP, and there’s an economic project of the plutocrats like Adanis. They work together, but they also have some autonomy and there are course corrections as well,” he says.
If the academic Ansari is guarded, some Pasmanda leaders are upbeat. Hawari, who is as opposed to the hate campaign against Muslims as any of his community leader is, terms Narendra Modi’s call to reach out to weaker Muslims a “good move”. “The Ashrafs are worried for the first time. They are facing defeat. Most new posts in UP have gone to the Pasmandas. The BJP’s move can drastically improve our situation. It will scare the Ashrafs, and they will begin working for us,” he says.
But Hawari is also aware that the BJP’s scheme “can create a further divide in the Muslim community”. This, perhaps, is the BJP’s precise hope.
The party seems to have left the Pasmandas in a quandary. They can’t abandon their opposition to the BJP, but they can’t avoid welcoming the move either.
Challenges the BJP face
Among the Muslims appointed by the Yogi government is Tooraj Zaidi, the chairperson of the Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad Committee that looks after the promotion of Urdu, Arabic and Persian. The frail man quietly sips coffee at a Lucknow hotel and remembers the date he joined the BJP—November 11, 1993, “less than a year after the demolition of the Babri mosque”. “I was then among the few Muslim members in UP BJP. I brought 151 Shia families with me. When I joined, my effigies were burnt. My relatives became angry, boycotted me,” he says. A satisfaction now reflects in his voice, as his choice has finally paid off.
But he is aware that his party may not easily win the trust of a community it has considered its essential other for decades. Gau rakshaks and trolls don’t differentiate between the Ashrafs and the Pasmandas. “During elections you talk about 80 versus 20, of abbazan and mamazan. You insult them for wearing Hijab in Karnataka. First treat us with some dignity,” says Sadaf Jafar.
“A party that takes pride in not having a single Muslim representative is suddenly making an outreach. I don’t see anyone in Muslim community getting fooled by it,” says Congress’s Yusuf Ansari.
Basit Ali understands the crisis. He admits that while despite a large number of Muslim beneficiaries of various schemes, almost all of them poor, “only one lakh Pasmandas voted for the BJP in the recent elections”.
He wants his party “to also work on the dominant and powerful Ashrafs”. “The party should take them along. They will bring several other biradaris with them,” he says.
Some Muslim leaders in BJP also list a few communities that can be easily “won over”, including “converted Muslims” like Muslim Rajput, Muslim Jat and Muslim Gurjars, who are still closer to the Hindus in their practices and culture. They are politically powerful and hold influence over several weaker Muslims biradaris.
A sustained anti-Muslim campaign has enabled the BJP to consolidate its voters. It has to considerably tamper its stance to have a serious stab at the Pasmanda vote. Referring to the BJP’s Sneh Yatra, All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz president Ali Anwar underlines that Muslims want “samman (respect)” and not “sneh (affection)”, and asks Prime Minister Narendra Modi to rein in his party leaders who make objectionable remarks against Muslims.
Also, it’s not about some beneficiaries in housing schemes or posts at minority institutions, but about participation in governance and politics. While there is no reservation for the Dalit Muslims, a miniscule percentage of Muslims have been able to take the benefit of OBC reservation. A few years ago, Dalit Muslim Ejaz Ali had famously said: “Babri masjid le lo, Article 341 de do,” referring to Article 341 under which a community or caste can be classified as SC.
It will be a tall order for the BJP to secure the SC reservations for the Muslims, but if the political need to bring the Pasmandas to its fold forces the BJP to revise its stand, it may weaken the influential Ashrafs and may mark a new moment for Muslim politics.