The sphere of politics shares an intimate connection with culture. And it is precisely the cultural hegemony of the RSS, achieved through consistent mass work and integration of subjugated castes through creative revisionism of the Hindutva discourse, which anchors the flourishing of the BJP. Furthermore, the charisma and strategic depth of the Modi-Shah duo in combination with an impressive corporate-backed propaganda-electoral machinery, has produced a ‘Hindu ecosystem’ that has shifted the grounds of political engagement. The Hindu Right has triggered a legitimacy crisis for non-BJP political parties by critiquing their apparent translation of secularism as pandering to the Muslims, social justice as merely electoral calculus and domination of numerically significant castes, political opportunism and corruption, and so on. The putative secular and social justice forces simply seem to be at a loss in offering a convincing counter-narrative to the dominant Hindutva critique.
The recent result of the Bihar assembly election once again demonstrates the ability of the BJP to accomplish a political majority sans Muslims. The widespread negative valuation attributed to ‘Muslimness’—a code for fundamentalism, terrorism, backwardness, love-jihad, conversions, cow slaughtering, patriarchy, hyper-fertility, etc. in the Hindutva imagination—has put the secular forces in a quandary. If they invoke Muslim symbolisms they are accused of Muslim appeasement and confront the possibility of offending Hindu sensibilities, and if they don’t the Muslims get disenchanted with their invisibilization and taken-for-granted status. The silence or endorsement of secular parties on critical issues like cow vigilantism, CAA-NRC, Article 370, UAPA amendments, allegedly politically motivated detentions and so on, has frustrated significant sections of Muslims.
Among other local factors, the gains of the Asaduddin Owaisi led All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) in Bihar is also a testimony to this alienation. Owaisi clearly senses a political opportunity in this moment and is going all out to incarnate himself as the pan-Indian voice of Muslims. However, as the Pasmanda critique underscores, the intended expansion of AIMIM footprints in other regions also entails democratic perils which social justice forces need to be wary of.
Though seldom discussed in popular spaces, the Indian Muslim society is hierarchical and internally divided into about 700 ranked caste (biradari) groups. The Syeds among Muslims are the most revered caste and hold a status akin to that of Brahmins in the Hindu community. The activists of the Pasmanda Movement, a movement of the backward/dalit/adivasi Muslims that challenge high caste Ashraf hegemony over Muslim politics and institutions, have consistently criticized Owaisi for practicing typical ashrafia brand of politics. In other words, AIMIM is critiqued for combining a combative stance towards the external Hindu other with the simultaneous repression of the concerns of internal Muslim caste other. While AIMIM has often raised the issue of declining political representation of Muslims, it has failed to stress its caste composition. In the absence of specific data on caste-wise breakup of Muslim population, it is only possible to reveal the caste content of Muslim political representation in an indicative sense. Various figures like P. S. Krishnan, Syed Shahabuddin and Pasmanda ideologues like Ali Anwar broadly agree on the population ratio of 15 (Ashraf): 85 (Pasmanda).
The Muslim representation from the first (1952) to fourteenth (2004) Lok Sabha was 5.3 per cent which is clearly very low vis-à-vis their population proportion of 10-14 per cent during this period. However, 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 data suggests that the Ashrafs sections were doubly represented. The broad trend of Pasmanda political exclusion continued in the 17th Lok Sabha—out of 25 Muslim MPs, 18 were Ashrafs while 7 were Pasmanda. Again the Ashraf Muslims were adequately represented with just over 3 per cent representation while the representation of the Pasmanda Muslims was around 1 per cent. The recent Bihar assembly elections has returned 19 Muslim MLAs: 16 Ashraf and 3 Pasmanda.
That translates to 7.8 per cent Muslim representation in the Bihar assembly which is very low vis-à-vis their population share of 17 per cent. However, on breaking it further in caste terms it turns out that Ashrafs with a 2.5 per cent population share have 6.6 per cent representation and Pasmanda with a population share of 14.5 per cent have 1.2 per cent representation. One could infer that the Ashraf Muslims, an erstwhile ruling class, are politically overrepresented at the expense of Pasmanda Muslims. Pasmanda ideologues have long argued that if the Muslim category is complicated by introducing caste in other spheres like education, employment, health, victims of communal violence and lynchings etc., then one is likely to arrive at a more contextualized understanding of their marginalization. There is a sense that while the subjugated Muslim castes are often the most marginalized and key victims of communal violence, it is the Ashraf politicians and theologians that are the main profiteers of the social entrepreneurship around Muslim victimhood.
Asaduddin Owaisi once used to mock caste-based reservations for Muslims as against “Islam and Shariat”. However, despite his recent and reluctant acknowledgement of Muslim caste, his comfort zone is still to speak on behalf of an undifferentiated and subaltern Muslim community. He often reiterates the rhetoric that the condition of Muslims is worse than Dalits which is clearly based on a factually incorrect reading of the Sachar Committee and Ranganath Mishra Commission reports. Owaisi’s portrayal of Muslim caste as a North Indian issue is again problematic in the face of some excellent Telugu poetry by Pasmanda Muslim poets like Yakub Kavi, Shaikh Peeran Boraywala, Shahjahana and so on, that sharply raise the issue of caste-based discrimination within the Telangana/Andhra Muslim community. Owaisi is also a member of the regressive All India Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) which is nothing but a pan-maslaq (sect) upper caste men’s club. In this context his endorsement of communitarian positions on issues like the practice of instant triple divorce had raised a few eyebrows earlier. Critics have also cast aspersions to AIMIM’s claims to work for the development of the Muslim community at the national level, when the old city of Hyderabad, represented by Owaisi family for decades, itself faces utter neglect.
The Pasmanda activists have consistently emphasized the high-caste, symbiotic and co-constitutive nature of Hindu and Muslim communalisms and the need to contest them simultaneously. The communal discourse benefits the pan-religion caste elite at the expense of the social justice concerns of the subjugated castes who are often the foot soldiers and victims in the violence. The AIMIM, with its historical proximity to Jinnah’s Muslim League and association with the violence orchestrated by its Muslim militia called the razakars against the Hindus and communists, definitely has a tinged communal past. Even at present the relative sophistication of Asaduddin Owaisi and the provocative performances of his brother Akbaruddin Owaisi is often seen as a mutually agreed upon political division of labour. In 2007 the roughing up of the Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen by AIMIM activists in Hyderabad exposed the unruly side of the party. The ‘Hindu’ ecosystem clearly needs the ‘Muslim’ as its constitutive other; both the contending communalisms reinforce each other. Ali Anwar, ex-MP and President All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, often makes disguised references to the Owaisis when he exhorts the Pasmanda Muslims to be cautious from Muslim communalists: “Someone plans from the old Hyderabad city [...] someone utters an irresponsible statement from Dilli 6 [...] someone uses the sermons from the religious pulpit (mimbar) irresponsibly. All this is counterproductive. There is a reaction”. Amit Shah’s comment before the Bihar assembly elections of 2015 that “Asaduddin Owaisi is a bigger opponent than RJD’s Lalu Prasad Yadav” is therefore very telling indeed. The BJP MP Tejaswi Surya’s recent comment in the context of the Hyderabad civic polls that “A vote for Owaisi […] is a vote against India and everything that India stands for” clearly indicates Owaisi’s utility for BJP’s politics. It almost seems that if there was no Asaduddin Owaisi the BJP simply had to invent one.
The late Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi, Asaduddin’s father and former AIMIM chief, used to say with pride that “siyasat humarey ghar ki laundi hai” (politics is our domestic slave-girl). Asaduddin Owaisi has played smart and in his political alliances with Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) in Maharashtra earlier and with RLSP and BSP in the recent Bihar elections, AIMIM has been the disproportionate beneficiary. AIMIM’s allies need to think why this is so. The idea of Dalit-Muslim unity, endorsed by the AIMIM, was contested by Ali Anwar in in a speech in Lucknow in 2012: “Unity is possible between likes. How can Dalits and Muslims unite? Those (Ashraf) Muslims who claim that they ruled this country for centuries…why would they accept your (Dalit) leadership? Our Syeds are more treacherous, more cunning than your Brahmins! Those who subjugated a community like Brahmins for centuries will they accept your leadership?” The ‘Muslim’ in the Dalit-Muslim equation is by default the hegemonic Ashraf Muslim, the prime mover and beneficiary of Muslim Right politics. That is why Pasmanda activists have contested the Jai Bhim, Jai Meem slogan and instead emphasized on the pan-religion solidarity of subjugated castes as encapsulated in the slogan “Dalit-Pichda ek saman, Hindu ho ya Musalman” (Dalits-Backwards are all alike, whether they be Hindu or Muslim). The Dalit-Muslim formula was attempted by BSP in UP during 2017 elections when it gave 100 tickets to Muslims, mostly Ashrafs. It failed miserably. Dr. Ambedkar too toyed with Muslim League politics for some time only to realize in 1947 that “The Muslims wanted the support of the Scheduled Castes but they never gave their support to the Scheduled Castes. Mr Jinnah was all the time playing a double game”. The recent repositioning of Asaduddin Owaisi as a constitutionalist and champion of oppressed groups like the OBCs and Dalits must therefore be taken with a pinch of salt.
Asaduddin Owaisi seldom acknowledges his Ashraf social location or demonstrates reflexivity about inherited caste-based privilege. In 2017 the RSS spokesperson Rakesh Sinha embarrassed him when he stated that Owaisi’s “great grandfather was a Brahmin of Hyderabad”. During the EWS quota controversy, Owaisi asked boldly “Have the savaranas and janyadharus (sic) ever suffered due to untouchability, police encounters and atrocities, school drop outs, lower number of graduates […]?” Ironically, Asaduddin Owaisi seems to be curiously blind to the fact that the same questions could have been plausibly posed to the Muslim Ashraf classes as well. In a recent interview, Owaisi blasted at the secular parties, “You don’t have a Muslim voice, you don’t want to nurture a Muslim voice […] you assume that we are only voting machines”. The future of Indian politics depends on how Muslims address the seductions of this sentiment. If their recent frustrations with secular forces lead them to join the AIMIM bandwagon then it will be advantage BJP out and out. Historically, while the Hindu Right has levelled the charges of Muslim appeasement at secular parties, the Pasmanda activists have deconstructed the so-called Muslim appeasement as Ashraf appeasement. In terms of Pasmanda discourse, the un-hyphenated “Muslim” voice that Owaisi talks about is a euphemism for Ashraf interests. Owaisi-led AIMIM’s communitarian politics will continue to be challenged by Pasmanda activists, just like Abdul Qaiyum Ansari led Momin Conference challenged Jinnah’s separatist Muslim League politics earlier. Yet Owaisi’s recent political successes in Muslim concentrated regions is a wake-up call for the non-BJP political parties as the BJP-AIMIM jugalbandi will potentially erode their political base further. In case the secular and social justice forces ever decide to weave a robust cultural-political alternative to dominant Hindutva, they will have to creatively rework their extant imagination of secularism and social justice. In this pursuit, the Pasmanda emphasis on the need to counter Hindu and Muslim Right simultaneously and to address the justice concerns of extremely marginalized Bahujan communities like the EBCs, Mahadalit, Pasmanda and so on will be useful.
[The author is director Dr Ambedkar Centre for Exclusion Studies & Transformative Action (ACESTA), Glocal University and tweets @KhalidAAnsari4. The views are personal.]