In Defence of the Pasmanda (Backward & Dalit Muslim) Movement: Three Fragments

Pasmanda is a persian term that means ‘those who have fallen behind’. It is employed to refer to shudra (backward) and atishudra (dalit) muslims.

Recently, a Muslim activist from Hyderabad who works on issues of social justice raised a few questions through a facebook post regarding the Pasmanda Movement (henceforth PM)—the movement of subordinated Muslim castes in North India.12933009_10209131798881761_4146077880523327212_n
Broadly, his post raised four major issues. One, that Muslim caste was a colonial invention and the pasmanda activists were being carried away credulously. Two, the PM was dominated by one particular caste—the Ansaris. Three, the movement plays into the hands of Saffron (Hindutva) forces. Four, the PM has been launched to satisfy the careerist urge of a few individuals. What his post alluded to was nothing new but a compacted version of all the misrepresentations about the PM that has in the past been circulated by the votaries of ashrafia (high caste Muslim) politics. I responded to his provocation by three fragments on facebook and am sharing a slightly revised version here for a wider debate on these issues.


There are two dominant strands in second part of the comment. One, the construction of Muslim caste by British colonial regime, in association with ‘official’ Muslims, through policy/pedagogic interventions and with the express intention of weakening ‘Muslim’ solidarity (the divide-and-rule dictum). Two, the notion that caste elements persist within Indian Muslims due to incomplete Islamization.—either due to the limitations of Sufi (mystical) interventions which were contaminated by local customary practices or due to retention of caste in the neo-Muslims (converts from local Hindu castes). While there is interesting discussion on invention of ‘caste’ (Nicholas Dirks) and ‘communalism’ (Gyanendra Pandey) for the purposes of management of subject populations by the British colonial regime I don’t wish to go there at the moment. It should suffice to suggest here that even the invention of ‘caste’ or ‘community’ by the colonisers necessitates a prehistory of these categories and they could not have been invented out of thin air.

My disagreement with the orientalist-colonial intervention is on another conceptual ground though. At one level the privileging of the hierarchical dichotomy of modernity-tradition resulted in the essentialist conflation of Islam/Hinduism with ‘tradition’ and Europe with ‘modernity’. This phenomenon consequently produced a sense of lack in the former which produced the race to catch up with the West. At another level tradition was further complicated as textual/folk, orthodox/heterodox or great tradition/little tradition and this is more germane to our discussion here. In this context while the great tradition of Hinduism was framed in terms of hierarchy, the great tradition of Islam was framed as egalitarianism. Consequently, any presence of egalitarian practices within Hinduism or hierarchical practices within Islam were seen as deviant and relegated to the domain of heterodoxy. I will focus specifically on Islam here and suggest that most of the limitations that our discussions on Muslim caste face in the contemporary owe to this key formulation which is to my mind a very colonial construction indeed.

In your post you argue that the persisting stamp of caste within Muslims is either due to contaminated mystic practices or as a residue of incomplete conversions among the native converts. There is also a further assumption that ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ Islamization will see the end of Muslim caste. So let us start with textual/orthodox/great Islamic tradition itself. It is true that at one level the central text of Islam—the Quran—differentiates the believers only on the basis of piety (taqva) irrespective of rank but it is equally evident that the same text indicates at a number of hierarchical relationships as well: believer /non-believer (kafir, dhimmi), master/slave, husband/wife, early converts/late converts. Is it not the case that the question of succession to Prophet Muhammad was imbricated with tribal hierarchies with a strong case being made and legitimized later by canonical texts (Hadith) for the early caliphs to belong to Quraysh tribe? Is it not the case that the assassination of three out of the four rightly guided caliphs had something to do with social stratification in Arabia? Is it not the case that the notion of kufu—the principles to consider while seeking partners for marriage—were informed by birth-based status and rank by the great jurists? What about the exalted status of the Prophet’s progeny, the Sadat, throughout the so-called Islamic world?

I would contend that it is because of the legitimization of hierarchy by various canonical Islamic texts that the Muslims who arrived in India (Arabs, Afghans, Mongols, Turks, Persians, etc.) were not in the least bit surprised by caste: they were only too familiar with the hierarchies they found here. Rather, it could be argued, that they skilfully adapted to the caste order and even Islamized it. That is why Ziauddin Barni, a famous historian of 14th century, whose treatise Fatwa-e-Jahandari which is the only document available on political philosophy of the early days of Delhi Sultanate could write with confidence such lines: ‘The teachers of every kind are to be sternly ordered not to thrust precious stones down the throats of dogs or to put collars round the necks of pigs and bears—that is, to the mean, the ignoble and the worthless, to the shopkeepers and to the low-born they are to teach nothing more than the rules about prayers, fasting, religious charity and the haj pilgrimage, along with some chapters of the Qura’n and some doctrine of the faith, without which their religion cannot be correct and valid prayers are not possible. But they are to be taught nothing else, lest it bring honor to their mean soul. They should not be taught to read and write as imparting education to low both breeds indiscipline and when the low-born becomes efficient, due to their work and indiscipline all the important matters of religion and governance are sunk in chaos. Because with their efficiency they become governor, tax collector, auditor, officer and ruler. If the teacher disobeys the order and is established through investigation that he has imparted knowledge to the low-born, then he must be punished for breaking the orders’. That is why the office of niqābat was created in the sixteenth century that monitored the authenticity of Syed claims and carefully guarded their birth-based status on the basis of a careful inspection of genealogies. The categories of ashraf/ajlaf/arzal (referring to savarna, shudra and atishudra communities respectively) were not invented by the British or Hindus but were very much a part and parcel of Islamic textual production in South Asia. Throughout the reign of ‘Muslims’ the special opportunities in government employment, subsidies, and land grants in addition to marriage prerogatives were reserved for the ashraf sections. [For further evidence please refer to Masood Falahi’s work Hindustan mein Zaat-Paat aur Musalman]. From the evidence that is available caste as a form of social stratification within Muslims was quite evident much before the entry of the British!

That sets the context for interrogating the great hope you see in Islamization. What does Islamization mean in theory and practice—the privileging of piety, hijab, seclusion of women as sign of status, Arabisation, Persianization? Is it not mediated by the maslaqi-interpretative orientations—Shia/Sunni/Deobandi/Barelvi/Sufi/Ahl-e-Hadith and various schools of jurisprudence (fiqh)? What is the position of these intellectual-social traditions on hierarchy and socio-economic equality? Do they thematize caste and economics as problems or do they invisibilize them? What has been the track record of Islamization so far across regions? My own forays into these questions do not indicate great hope in terms of thematizing caste as a problem and its eradication through Islamization. But I may be mistaken and shall wait for more counter-evidence. Overall, I would urge that we should see Islam as a discursive tradition that is articulated variously according to the play of power, significant events and affective memories in various space-time orientations. To comprehend Islam as an essentially egalitarian tradition without historicizing it will be an analytically unproductive enterprise.

Lastly, while one may agree, albeit with qualifications, on recent scholarship on the invention of caste/community by the colonial regime one must also give the devil its due. It is due to the colonial dismantling of the office of niqabat, the displacement of Persian as a boundary maintaining mechanism for ashrafs, the opening of schooling and employment for the suppressed castes across religions, etc., that various lower castes could experience relative social mobility and mobilize against the caste order. Obviously those who benefited from the old caste order will see it as a colonial conspiracy. Those at the receiving end will supply the relevant counter-footnotes. This fragment could be seen as an exercise in the latter.


In your post you have remarked that the PM is dominated by the ansaris. There are broadly two kinds of ansaris. The first group alludes to those who claim a foreign extraction and associate themselves with the ansars of Medina that helped Prophet Muhammad when he migrated from Mecca to Medina in early Islamic history. In North India the Ansaris of Firangi Mahal (Lucknow) are one such community and may be clubbed under ashrafs. The VP Hamid Ansari comes from that community. The second and a much larger group refers to weavers (julahas) who were probably indigenous converts from kori caste to Islam in historical time and started adopting the title ansari from 1850s onwards. The adoption of upper caste surnames and inventing myths of origin was quite a common practice among upwardly mobile subordinated castes across religions during that period. The express intention was to transcend their status as stigmatized caste communities.

Since it was difficult to claim Brahmin or Syed status the lower castes among Hindus and Muslims mostly tried to claim kshatriya and sheikh status for themselves respectively. The julahas consequently rechristened themselves as Momin Ansar and started using the surname Momin or Ansari. However, even this was resisted by ashrafs. Deobandis, for example, Ashraf Alī T’hānawī (d. 1943) and Muftī Muhammad Shafī(d. 1976), supported a law forbidding low-status artisans to adopt Arab surnames.

Momin Conference, 1939 Gorakhpur
Momin Conference, 1939 Gorakhpur

A few points need to be made here. One, the 1931 Census returned the julahas as numerically the largest occupational group amongst North Indian Muslims. Two, they were the first to organize themselves politically and therefore challenged the ashraf hegemony in no uncertain terms (they were instrumental in forming the All India Momin Conference in the late 1920s). In fact in 1939 they asked for a separate electorate for Momin community as against the Muslim electorate. Consequently, ashraf stalwarts from Sir Syed Ahmed Khan to Syed Shahabuddin have shared a common anxiety about this community.

For instance, Sir Syed:

‘The position of the julahas had got thoroughly undermined and this inferior-lowly people (badzaat) were most active in the uproar (1857 rebellion)’.

And Syed Shahabuddin:

‘But the Ansaris of Bihar and UP have been for historical reasons, a privileged group since 1937. They were pampered for their nationalist record while the so-called ‘Ashraf’ who largely associated themselves with the Muslim League politics and later with the Pakistan Movement, were left high and dry. Of course no one looked at the other ‘Ajlaf’.’

Obviously, Syed Shahabuddin does not require data or figures to make a point rather he expects one to take his words as divinely revealed truth! Thirdly, while it is true that the julahas have been the most vocal against the ashraf hegemony for historical reasons they have always worked with other subordinated Muslim caste groups. The All India Momin Conference reached out to qureishis (butchers), idrisis (tailors), mansooris (cotton-carders) and rayeens (vegetable sellers), etc., before 1947. In the early 1990s the first pasmanda organization in Bihar the All India Backward Muslim Morcha was established by Dr. Ejaz Ali, a raeen. Also, in UP while the Pasmanda Front is led by Zahid Taj who comes from the idrisi community, the Pasmanda Samaj is led by Anees Mansoori from the mansoori community. So while the Momin Conference or All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz are better known and have been established by ansaris the pasmanda political space includes the voices of other Muslim castes as well. In fact this is just the beginning. There are more than 100 Muslim subordinated caste groups in North India and they are getting increasingly politicized. It is in the nature of caste system—or what Ambedkar called a system of ‘graded inequality’—that no caste group can take its position for granted. Every relatively dominant group will be challenged sooner than later by new caste groups as democratization proceeds. It is the category of religion which is holistic and blocks internal democracy, caste by its very nature is fragmentary and gives space to new entrants.

Pasmanda Rally Delhi 2010
Pasmanda Rally Delhi 2010

So if Ansaris are visible in the pasmanda domain it is owing to their numerical strength and early politicization. I mentioned above that from the 1990s onwards other biradaris like raeens, qureishis, mansooris, saifis, etc., have also made their presence felt. It is quite similar to the visibility of yadav, koeris or kurmis in the backward class movement or jatavas in the dalit movement in North India. Obviously, while the savarna-ashraf sections have always attempted to hegemonically co-opt and use the internal differentiations of power within subordinated caste blocs to their advantage, the lower caste leaders on the other hand have tried to mobilize excluded castes against savarna hegemony. It’s a war of positions and as in the case of Hindu community the caste movements within Muslims are weak compared to the savarna-led mobilizations on the axis of religion.


Once it is admitted that the dominant articulations of Islam and so-called ‘Muslim’ regimes in the Indian subcontinent legitimized caste-based stratification then the displacement of guilt to the colonial regimes can be parochialized. The British could benefit from the social divides like caste or religion only because they were already there. The earlier regimes were already employing them for purposes of consolidation and reproduction of their power. That the colonial regime, armed with advanced military and governmental-bureaucratic technologies, took the cleavages to a qualitatively different level is another issue altogether.

Pasmanda Posters
Pasmanda Posters

Now the ashraf anxieties that the pasmanda movement is supporting the Saffron forces or that their ideologues are making a career for themselves are neither new nor surprising. All dominant forces decry any internal dissent and aspire to set-up delays and timetables whenever the under-thematized subaltern subjectivities attempt to rupture the consensus in the public sphere. During the so-called anti-colonial upsurge the champions of caste, gender and labour movements were hurled with similar charges of rupturing the much required ‘national’ solidarity for resisting the common enemy, the British. Dr. Ambedkar was dubbed as a British agent and charged for betraying the ‘nation’ while Abdul Qaiyum Ansari was called a Congress agent and charged for betraying the ‘qaum’ (community). Now it does not require a great imagination to comprehend who was singing the ‘nation’ or ‘qaum’ in the pre-1947 historical crucible.

Abdul Qaiyum Ansari
Abdul Qaiyum Ansari

Let me contextualize the discussion. The pasmanda ideologues have been consistent in contesting both ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ nationalisms because they feel they are led by higher castes and share a symbiotic relationship which is inimical to bahujan interests, including pasmanda muslims. After all, in most ‘communal’ or ‘Islamophobic’ atrocities it is the pasmanda sections that bear the maximum brunt. Abdul Qaiyum Ansari, the leader of the Momin movement, had categorically stated earlier:

If we have to put an end to communalism, the idea of the two-nation theory should be buried. RSS and Jana Sangh are the largest banner bearers of Jinnah’s two-nation theory in this country. So I have been emphasizing on the matter that all parties, functioning on communal ground, should be legally banned, whether these are the RSS, Jana Sangh, Jamaat-e-Islami or Muslim League. But I do not think that mere legal ban on communal parties will solve the problem…a country-wide movement is needed along with ban on communal parties.

Slogan on top reads – Dalit & Backwards are same – whether Hindu or Muslim
License plate reads PASMANDA Revolutionary Campaign

While one may have a normative objection to the politics of banning political voices, the pasmanda position on Saffron forces is unambiguously clear. Similar sentiments have been consistently expressed by the contemporary pasmanda leadership. Where does the charge of playing at the hands of the Saffron forces then emerge from? In 2006 when the entire ashraf brigade was supporting Laloo Yadav’s M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) formula in Bihar assembly elections, Ali Anwar, the founder of All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, revealed and contested it as FM-Y (Forward Muslim-Yadav) alliance and gave a call to the pasmanda muslims to support the JDU instead. With a slight shift in EBC and Pasmanda votes towards JDU, RJD bit the dust and was routed in the elections. I recall that at that time Syed Shahabuddin and others made a similar charge against Ali Anwar. He was labelled as a Saffron agent since the JDU was in alliance with BJP. However, when Syed Shahabuddin’s own daughter fought on a JDU ticket in the subsequent elections, won and became a minister, not only were most ashraf leaders tight-lipped rather the organizations like Imarat-e-Sharia were writing cosy letters to Nitish Kumar. Nitish was still in alliance with the BJP then. What had changed? Let me remind you that it is the rhetorical statements of the likes of Imran Masood (‘Modi ke tukde tukde kar denge’) and Owaisi brothers (‘24 ghante ke liye PAC hata lo to…’) that are eventually instrumental in consolidating the Hindutva forces. What are the caste locations of BJP lackey’s like Shahnawaz Hussain, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, MJ Akbar, Najma Heptullah and the Ilmi siblings? Please reserve your charges for them and not for pasmanda leadership. Yes, if there is one thing the ashraf leadership must be legitimately anxious about it is this: it will become increasingly difficult for them to take pasmanda muslims and their votes for granted. The pasmanda have learnt the follies of chastity and now they are going to increasingly turn politically promiscuous. You will have to start appreciating that there is a world outside the ‘secular-communal’, ‘Hindu-Muslim’, and ‘majority-minority’ binary. If the pasmanda don’t support ‘Muslim’ politics because it is dominated by ashrafs, then it does not automatically mean that they are supporting ‘Hindu’ politics. They are simply flirting, they are experimenting. It should be clear that from now onwards any settlement will have to be a ‘negotiated settlement’!

Now what do pasmanda activists do? They think, write, campaign, collect funds, agitate, approach the political parties, contest elections, and make a living by working in the NGOs, newspapers, universities, etc, : typical stuff which the left, right, dalit-bahujan and other activists also do. A few may be corrupt but there may be others who are immensely committed. You also run a centre which acts as a pressure group for Muslim issues. Are you making a career for yourself? My suggestion to you would be to think hard before making such allegations. I think now it’s high time when the ashraf champions should come out of their state of denial and start listening to what the pasmanda voices have to say rather than making shallow allegations. They must realize that the pasmanda sense of humiliation, discrimination and injury is deep and it needs to be acknowledged and addressed. And, it has to be addressed now!


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Khalid Anis Ansari Written by:

Khalid Anis Ansari is Senior Assistant Professor in Glocal Law School in UP. His doctoral work at the University of Humanistic Studies (UvH), Utrecht (the Netherlands) is on caste movements within Muslims of Bihar.

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