Modi’s BJP wants the votes of India’s ‘Pasmanda’ Muslims. Will they bite?

Ahead of the national election, the party has tried to make inroads among the largest section of India’s 200 million Muslims. Will the strategy work?

Modi Muslims India
A woman holds a placard with photograph of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a public meeting in Ahmadabad [File: Ajit Solanki/AP]

Patna and Naihati, India – Earlier this month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of the country’s Muslims in a televised interview, denying that he had made hate speeches against the minority community in his campaign rallies.

In several rallies Modi addressed as India holds its mammoth general election, he referred to Muslims as “infiltrators” and “those with many children” – familiar dog whistles that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its far-right allies have been using against the country’s largest minority for decades.

But in the interview, Modi said he was “shocked” by the criticism of his speeches – which had even prompted a warning from the Election Commission of India to the BJP president.

“Who told you that whenever one talks of people with more children, the inference is they are Muslims? Why are you so unjust towards the Muslims?” Modi instead asked the television reporter, herself a Muslim.

“This is the situation in poor families too. Where there is poverty, there are more children, irrespective of their social circle. I didn’t mention either Hindu or Muslim. I have said that one should have as many children as you can take care of. Don’t let a situation arise where the government has to take care of your children.”

Modi is not known to backtrack on his comments but his emphasis on “poor families” and the suggestion that others were “unjust” to Muslims underscores an often ignored facet of the BJP’s political campaign. Even as its politics is driven by a Hindu majoritarian ideology, it has tried to make inroads with the largest section of India’s 200 million Muslims – the “Pasmandas”.

‘Secularisation of social justice’

First used in the 1990s by Ali Anwar, a former parliamentarian from the eastern state of Bihar, the term in the Urdu language means “those who are left behind”. Anwar, a two-time MP from the Janata Dal (United) party, was expelled from the party in 2017 after he opposed its alliance with the BJP.

In 1998, Anwar founded his organisation, the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, to push a radical and, among privileged Muslims, fairly unpopular idea: that the community followed a caste system, much like the majority Hindus and other religions in South Asia did, and unlike Muslims in other parts of the world.

“The Quran does not mention caste. But it is a South Asian phenomenon and a lot of injustice has been meted out to backward caste Muslims by upper-caste Muslims,” Anwar told Al Jazeera at his residence in Patna, the capital of Bihar.

Ali Anwar
Pasmanda politician Ali Anwar at his residence in Patna, Bihar state [Ishadrita Lahiri/Al Jazeera]

Anwar said the so-called “backward castes” among the Hindus had converted to a “casteless” Islam through the centuries only to find themselves restricted to their caste identities or professions.

For example, he said, a Hindu washerman (dhobi) who converted to Islam remained a “low caste” washerman even after changing his religion. The “upper caste” Muslims, on the other hand, trace their origins to the Middle East or Central Asia, with some even claiming to be the direct descendants of Prophet Muhammad’s family, he added.

According to Pasmanda theorists, there are three main castes among India’s Muslims. At the top of the hierarchy are the Ashrafs: the Syeds, Sheikhs, Mughals and Pathans. Then there are the Ajlaf (the backwards) and the Arzal (the untouchables). The last two groups make up the Pasmandas. These castes include the ansaris (weavers), qureshis (butchers), kunjda (vegetable sellers), darzi (tailors), and mansoori (cotton farmers) among several others.

Pasmanda India
Cab driver in Patna, Mohammad Kallu, says inter-caste marriage is still a taboo among Muslims [Ishadrita Lahiri/Al Jazeera]

In his 2001 book, Masawat Ki Jung (Battle For Equality), Anwar wrote that practices rooted in the caste system, such as endogamy, untouchability and separate burial grounds, soon became a part of the Muslim lives in South Asia. He said in the book that the Ashrafs enjoy hegemony over Muslim politics and organisations, including state-run institutions for the minorities.

Out of 27 Muslims elected to the Indian parliament in 2019, only three were Pasmanda, he told Al Jazeera.

“We want a secularisation of social justice. Why should there be a difference between one marginalised and another marginalised? Secular parties see Muslims as a homogeneous voting block and Muslim parties want only Muslims to come together. Then there is the BJP that is ideologically an anti-Muslim, upper-caste party. We are against both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists,” said Anwar.

BJP’s outreach

Since 2022, the BJP – sensing an opportunity in this apparent rift among India’s Muslims – has tried to woo the Pasmanda section of the community. Its assertion: that privileged Muslims had cornered influential political, administrative, social and religious positions, leaving the Pasmandas with no representation or resources.

The push came right from the top. Addressing a high-level meeting of his party workers that year, Modi ordered them to reach out to the minorities “like the Pasmanda Muslims”.

Pasmanda India Muslims
Muslim men smoke a hookah, a traditional water pipe, during a 2010 protest under the banner of All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, in New Delhi, to demand the government end discrimination against ‘lower castes’ among Muslims and Christians [File: Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Later that year, as the BJP returned to power in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with nearly 39 million Muslims, the party made Danish Azad Ansari, a Pasmanda Muslim, the state’s minister for minority welfare and Waqf, which refers to endowments made by a Muslim individual or group for religious, educational or charitable purposes.

In the same year, the BJP gave tickets to six Muslims – four of them Pasmanda – for the civic body polls in the national capital of Delhi. All four of them were the first runners up in an election that sees dozens of candidates in each seat.

Meanwhile, Modi began to make public statements advocating for the upliftment of the Pasmandas. Addressing a rally in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state in June 2023, he said the less privileged Muslims had been “subjected to oppression” but there was no discussion about it in the country.

“They still do not receive equal rights and are considered untouchables… However, the BJP is working with the spirit of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ [Inclusivity and welfare for all]. When BJP workers visit Muslim brothers and sisters with these facts and arguments, they will explain it to them in a better way and dispel their misconceptions as well,” he said.

In another speech at an election rally in Uttar Pradesh last month, he attacked the opposition parties for “using Muslims as a vote bank and doing nothing to empower them”.

“Whenever I talk about the problems of the Pasmanda Muslims, they [opposition] get agitated,” said Modi. “It’s because the people at the top have taken all the goodies and have forced the Pasmanda Muslims to survive in their present condition.”

BJP insiders say their Pasmanda outreach is guided by two factors. One, to prove that caste, often used to highlight divisions within Hindu society, is also a Muslim phenomenon. And two, to take Pasmanda votes away from the opposition. They, however, admit that the concept of casteism is often difficult to explain to an average Muslim.

“Pasmandas are Indian Muslims who fell into the Indian caste structure,” stressed Jamal Siddiqui, the president of the BJP’s national minority cell.

“They are 85 percent of the Muslim population. Opposition parties like the Congress, the Samajwadi Party and others have only used them as a vote bank. They strengthened upper-caste Muslims who oppressed the backward Muslims. They were given seats in mosque boards, personal law boards and other such institutions,” he told Al Jazeera. There is no data to back the claim that 85 percent of Indian Muslims are Pasmanda.

“Prime Minister Modi says he will work for the welfare of the poor and when we work for the welfare of the poor – no matter which scheme you talk about – the Muslims are its largest beneficiaries because they are economically backward,” he added.

In the run-up to the national election, Siddiqui said his party identified 65 out of a total of 543 parliamentary constituencies in the country where the Muslim population is more than 30 percent. Thirteen of those seats are in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh each, while four are in Bihar. These are the three major states where the staggered election is ongoing.

In 2023, the BJP prepared a four-month outreach programme, which included identifying 5,000 Muslim beneficiaries of the government’s welfare schemes in each of the 65 identified constituencies and making them a part of the “Sneh Yatras” (Affection Marches) launched by the party ahead of the election. Another campaign in those constituencies aimed at making Muslims a “Modi Mitra” (Friends of Modi).

Among the Pasmanda section specifically targeted by the BJP were Muslim women, who were made a part of a BJP programme called “Shukriya Modi bhaijaan” (Thank you brother Modi). The programme was meant to thank the prime minister for schemes such as the distribution of free cooking gas cylinders, housing loans for the poor, and free health insurance. The BJP claims about a million Muslim women participated in the campaign.

But the main objective of the Muslim women-centric campaign, according to the BJP, was to “thank” Modi for passing a law criminalising “triple talaq” or instant divorce, a practice under which a Muslim man could divorce his wife by simply uttering “talaq” three times. The practice, frowned upon by Islamic scholars who insist on a longer divorce process laid out by the Quran, is prevalent among a section of Muslims.

“The Muslims have been told the BJP is their enemy. But we went to show them that we are helping the poor and the needy. We wanted them to experience the Modi government,” explained the BJP’s Siddiqui.

‘Horse making friends with grass’

So, has the BJP’s Pasmanda strategy worked?

“Appealing to the poor among the Muslims has helped the BJP in regional elections. It helped them in the state elections in Gujarat and Karnataka where their vote share among Muslims went up,” Sandeep Shastri, the national coordinator of the Lokniti Network, a research programme at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, told Al Jazeera.

“The last phases of the elections are in larger states. The focus will be on cornering some part of the Muslim vote from the opposition by advertising Modi’s pro-poor welfare schemes,” he added.

But several Muslims Al Jazeera talked to in the states of Bihar and West Bengal held a different opinion.

Mohammad Maqbool, a 53-year-old daily wage labourer in Patna’s Dargah Karbala area, told Al Jazeera he first heard of Pasmanda as a term only after the BJP began its recent outreach to them. But he insisted he disagreed with the right-wing party’s claims.

“These things used to happen earlier, but not any more. Today an Ashraf’s daughter is marrying an Ansari. Everybody sits and eats together. There is no jaat-paat [casteism] in Islam,” he said.

Pasmanda India
Maqbool says he first heard of the term Pasmanda after BJP began its outreach [Ishadrita Lahiri/Al Jazeera]

A little away from Maqbool, carpenter Mohammad Naushad, 35, sat next to the gate of a Muslim burial ground.

“I have never heard the word Pasmanda. Syeds, Ashrafs, Ansaris, Qureshis, everyone lives in this neighbourhood. We don’t have a system of segregation like in Hinduism. Everybody buries their dead in this burial ground,” he told Al Jazeera.

In neighbouring West Bengal, Ibrar Sagar Mansoori, a municipal worker and part-time journalist, said he was not convinced with Modi’s Pasmanda outreach either.

“He said a few things in favour of Pasmanda Muslims but if we look at his tenure, we don’t see anything he has done,” he said at his residence in Naihati town, about 50km (31 miles) from state capital, Kolkata. “It is a strategy to consolidate votes, but Muslims are not convinced.”

Pasmanda India
Ibrar Sagar Mansoori, left, and Mohammad Makhboor Izhar in Naihati town [Ishadrita Lahiri/Al Jazeera]

Seated next to Ibrar was Mohammad Makhboor Izhar, a 29-year-old shopkeeper, who denied caste rigidity being as prevalent among Muslims as it is among the Hindus.

“I don’t know much about the term Pasmanda, but I don’t think that Islam is as much of a caste-based society as Hinduism is,” he said.

“We see violence and atrocities against Muslims on the news every day and the BJP supports it. I don’t think they can convince me that other Muslims have done more harm to me than the BJP has.”

Some, however, differ with such sentiments and feel more strongly about casteism in the community.

Mohammad Kallu, 34, drives tourist cars in Patna. As he chatted while driving around the bustling city, he said inter-caste marriage was still a big taboo among Muslims.

“I have seen Ashrafs refusing to eat with the Ansaris, them refusing to marry their daughters off to us. They think we are lower in the social order than them. But it’s not like the Hindus. We don’t see much violence around caste. We see more Muslims face attacks for their religion. If the BJP is thinking about Muslims, that’s what they must address,” Kallu told Al Jazeera.

The BJP’s Siddiqui rejected the charges, instead claiming theirs is the only party with a plan to uplift the less privileged Muslims.

“What Muslims have figured after 10 years of BJP governance is that this is the only party that thinks of Pasmandas and Muslim women. In fact, they are saying they were in search of a party like this that does not indulge in divisive politics,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Hindus and Muslims have a very deep connection. The way the PM [Modi] has given them [Muslims] welfare benefits and thus given them equality is something that has had an impact on Muslim minds. We will most definitely see that impact in this election.”

Pasmanda leader Anwar disagreed, calling the BJP’s outreach an “eyewash” and accusing the party of promoting religious hatred.

“It is said that if the horse makes friends with the grass, he will die. If the BJP does not engage in communalism, then their party will be finished. This is their inherent nature. This was a bait for the Muslim community and I think they know that the community will not fall for it,” he told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera