Why UP's pasmanda Muslims are wary of ‘Modi-bhaijaan’

The BJP’s short-lived courtship of this down-at-heel community has all but evaporated before this election

Muslim volunteers distributing food to the needy in Delhi's riots-affected Mustafabad area after the government relaxed the Covid lockdown in May 2020 (photo: Yawar Nazir via Getty Images)
Muslim volunteers distributing food to the needy in Delhi's riots-affected Mustafabad area after the government relaxed the Covid lockdown in May 2020 (photo: Yawar Nazir via Getty Images)

Asad Rizvi

The 'pasmanda' Muslims are said to constitute 85 per cent of the Muslim population of Uttar Pradesh. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, in the past, urged party workers to undertake ‘sneh yatras’ as an exercise in showing kindness and fellow feeling for this down-at-heel community.

In the local body elections in the state last year, the BJP fielded a sizeable number of pasmanda (literally, ‘left out’ or backward) Muslims, several of whom won. Many of them helped the BJP mobilise Muslim voters at polling booths during the Assembly election. However, the BJP’s affection for the community has all but disappeared before the general elections.

UP’s deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya has categorically stated that the party will not field a single Muslim candidate in the state. The party’s aim is to win all 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state, he told the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar in an interview, and it cannot “risk fielding a Muslim candidate”. This, he went on to explain, was about the ‘winnability’ of candidates; the BJP was not anti-Muslim, he said, as evidenced by the party’s choice of a Muslim candidate in Kerala, where he is expected to win.

Muslims comprise 19–20 per cent of the approximately 20 crore population of the state. The BJP has traditionally ignored them, but 4 crore votes are harder to ignore.

When the BJP government under Yogi Adityanath took office in 2017—the first time the BJP had a full majority of its own—only Mohsin Raza from the Shia community was included as a minister of state. When the BJP returned to power in 2022, Raza, an upper-caste Muslim, was dropped and Danish Azad Ansari, from one of the pasmanda communities (the Ansaris), was inducted.

The BJP organised a pasmanda Muslim conference in Lucknow and called upon the backward Muslims to join hands with the BJP. What the BJP offered: welfare support such as free rations, the Ujjwala scheme, the PM Awas Yojana for housing and subsidies to construct toilets.

The party promised neither political representation nor OBC/SC reservation, however, on the grounds that Islam does not recognise any caste hierarchy.

Of course, the complex social realities of subcontinental Muslims are nothing so simple, and the pasmanda communities have long been agitating against this discrimination on religious grounds.

The BJP’s overtures to the Muslim community have long been seen as suspect, given a backdrop of vigilante attacks and targeting by Hindutva groups, alongside indifference and apathy from government agencies.

Many believe Narendra Modi’s friendly overtures are mere tokenism to earn the goodwill of Islamic countries globally. It is a foreign affairs decision, not a social welfare outreach. For support, they note that neither Union home minister Amit Shah nor chief minister Yogi Adityanath have been seen making similar overtures to Muslims.

Significantly, this is the first government in independent India that has not had a single Muslim minister ever since Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi’s Rajya Sabha term ended in July 2022. Let’s say that again: there is no Muslim member from the ruling party in Parliament.

While Modi makes the right noises and voices his desire to see Muslims hold up the Qur’an in one hand and use a computer with the other, during the last 10 years of his premiership, education and employment opportunities for Muslims have dried up instead.

The central government scholarship for higher education named after Maulana Abul Kalam Azad has been stopped. Poor students from pasmanda communities have been the worst affected by this. Primary education of Muslim children has also suffered, with madrasas consistently maligned by the party leadership across the nation, and individual institutions harassed under the pretext of some vague ‘investigation’ or another.

Hindu organisations now openly describe unrecognised madrasas as ‘illegal’; such is surely not the lot of RSS-run Saraswati Shishu Mandir schools? The fundamental rights of all religious and linguistic minority groups to establish, maintain and manage educational institutions have been systematically undermined.

Well-known journalist Hussain Afsar does not mince words in saying that the BJP’s affection for Muslims is a bluff, which is why the pasmanda overtures will have no impact on the Lok Sabha elections.

On the ground, after all, the Muslims lynched and killed for alleged cow slaughter are mostly from the poor backward communities.

The Prime Minister has never extended any sympathy to their families nor uttered a word against the lynchings, Afsar points out, let alone extend a helping hand to victims like Pehlu Khan, Junaid, Mazloom Ansari, Mohammed Akhlaq or Aleemuddin alias Asghar Ansari.

Afsar bitterly points to the hijab ban and the incessant talk about the ‘necessity’ of the Uniform Civil Code as ways in which the BJP advertises to supporters its intention to tamper with Muslim personal law (Sharia) and culture. Izhar Ahmed Ansari, a pasmanda Muslim, also believes that the BJP’s design is only to sow divisions.

Any show of sympathy to backward Muslims is only meant to drive a wedge between them and the 'ashraaf' (well-heeled) Muslims, he believes. However, he considers Modi’s two terms in office a blessing in disguise, for the atrocities visited upon the community have united it like never before. This unity was further cemented by the repression of the anti-CAA movement.

Last year in October, he recalls, the BJP launched a ‘Modi Mitra’ campaign by way of an olive branch to pasmanda and Sufi Muslims. The party failed to reap any political benefit from it, however, because the Muslims felt so marginalised and stifled that they befriended each other instead.

The consecration of the Ayodhya Ram Temple, after the worship of idols placed in the basement of Varanasi’s Gyanvapi Mosque and Hindu discontent around the Shahi Idgah in Mathura being vigorously fanned naturally alarmed the Muslims.

While the BJP’s official line is that it is not involved in these disputes, it carries little credibility when Sangh Parivar affiliates and the chief minister himself are at the forefront of those making a flex of these matters.

The rhetoric of anti-Muslim hate has spread from the streets to the seat of Parliament. BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri attacked Amroha MP Danish Ali with unprintable slurs on the floor of the Lok Sabha. When the BJP appoints him in-charge of Tonk district in Rajasthan, it surely signals the party’s approval of his conduct.

Anees Mansoori of the Pasmanda Muslim Samaj, a social organisation, believes the BJP will see negligible Muslim support in these elections.

The entire community is facing an unprecedented political, economic and social crisis, he explains, an insecurity exacerbated by this regime. Reminded that Modi maintains that previous governments had done nothing for Muslims and that the BJP only wants to ensure the welfare of the community, Mansoori wonders why the party has fielded only one Muslim candidate across India—Abdul Salam, from Malappuram, Kerala.

Hilal Ahmed of Lokniti says that the BJP is certainly aware that only 8–9 per cent of Muslims across India vote for it and there is no evidence of significant pasmanda support for the BJP. He ventures that with the appeal of Hindutva wearing off, the BJP is looking for a new social narrative for its campaign—thus the symbolic pasmanda outreach to showcase its ‘inclusivity’.

Ziya Us Salam, author of Being Muslim in Hindu India, also thinks the pasmanda outreach and the ‘Modi Bhaijaan’ campaign are unlikely to yield any electoral benefit to the BJP.

Not just lynching, the frivolous release of the Bilkis Bano rapists also signals where the BJP’s true sympathies lie, he notes.

Pointing out that a large number of Muslims are involved in businesses like zardozi and carpet making, he also asks what the government has done in these 10 years to protect and promote these industries in its concern for their welfare as poor people.

Ziya Us Salam believes that Modi played the pasmanda card only because Nitish Kumar joined hands with Lalu Prasad Yadav to stop the spread of Muslim hate in Bihar.

Now that Nitish Kumar is back in the NDA, the pasmanda are irrelevant—or worse, anathema—again.

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