For Dalit-Muslim unity, Mayawati must focus on caste, not religion

The most backward among Muslims come closest to the Dalits when it comes to shared experience in facing Hindutva's wrath.

For Dalit-Muslim unity, Mayawati must focus on caste, not religion
Image credit:  Reuters | Representative Photo

Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati’s clarion call to Muslims to unite with Dalits in Uttar Pradesh has an irresistibly seductive charm about it. Both social groups are underprivileged as well as numerous – Muslims comprise 19.26% of UP’s population and Dalits 20.69%. A potential vote-base of 40% for the BSP evokes the romantic vision of subaltern assertion.

UP’s election history, however, underscores the odds that Mayawati must overcome before hosannas to subaltern triumph can be sung. For one, the BSP bagged just 20% of Muslim votes in 2012. For the other, even this 20% proved ineffectual because the BSP’s Dalit votes were depleted in 2012. For instance only 62% of Jatavs, who are the BSP’s mainstay, voted for the party, down from the whopping 86% who did in 2007, which was when it won a majority for the first time.

These figures are from the election data of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which conducted a pre-election survey in Uttar Pradesh under the supervision of political scientist AK Verma. Conducted between the last week of July and the first week of August this year, the pre-election survey showed 62% of Muslims supporting the Samajwadi Party, a substantial gain from votes the party polled from the community in 2012 (39%) and 2007 (45%).

Who can stop the BJP?

How is the SP’s gain, as reflected in the pre-election survey, to be explained, given the communal tension and riots UP has witnessed under SP rule of nearly five years?

An aspect of Muslim voting behaviour is that they tend to vote for the party perceived to be best placed to vanquish the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is possible Muslims did not see any signs of Mayawati’s resurgence between July-end and August first week. One reason for the invisibility of her touted comeback could be because the BSP did not fight Assembly by-elections over the last four years and lost the opportunity to demonstrate that it had indeed reversed the erosion in its Dalit vote-base witnessed not only in 2012 but also in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This is perhaps why Muslims thought that only the SP could foil the BJP’s bid for power in UP.

Usually, a social group switches its political allegiance from one election to another only in exceptional circumstances. For instance, many castes broke away from their traditional pattern of voting when Mandal-Mandir politics, beginning 1990, made social plates to move unpredictably. Then again, the SP polled 62.5% of Muslim votes in 2002, a gain of 22.5% over the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, perhaps riding high on the fear of Muslims engendered by anti-minority policies of the then NDA government at the Centre.

For a Dalit-Muslim consolidation to happen in the BSP’s favour in UP, and give her an edge in the election sweepstakes, CSDS’ Verma says, it will have to poll Dalit votes close to what it bagged in 2007 and also double its Muslim votes from the 20% it notched in 2012.

So then, is Mayawati being overly optimistic in hoping Muslims and Dalits will come together to vote for her party?

Dalit consolidation

At the time the CSDS conducted its pre-election survey in UP, the flogging of Dalits for skinning a dead cow in Una, Gujarat, hadn’t spawned vociferous Dalit protests as it eventually did, both inside and outside Parliament. Una was a culmination of several incidents in which Dalits had been victims of Hindutva-dominant caste violence from the time Narendra Modi became Prime Minister.

The other social group which faces Hindutva’s blowback is the Muslim community, evident in the campaign against cow-slaughter, love jihad, and ghar wapsi [home coming, euphemism for reconversion]. Cow-vigilantism has blighted the meat trade which the Muslim caste of Quresh dominates, (as it has the tannery industry employing Dalits.) All this has kept UP’s communal cauldron simmering. At times, it has bubbled over to scald Muslims.
From this perspective, Dalits and Muslims share a commonality of experiences potent enough to unite them against their tormentors – namely, hardline Hindutva adherents – who are bound to feel emboldened should the BJP grab power in UP in the 2017 Assembly elections.

Yet the obstacle to Dalit-Muslim unity arises from UP’s electoral pattern – Dalits primarily vote the BSP and Muslims are majorly inclined to the SP. Since the SP represents the interests of powerful Other Backward Classes – Yadavs in particular – who tend to be as oppressive as upper castes, Dalits can’t possibly align with it. A Dalit-Muslim unity, therefore, can be envisaged only if Muslims ditch the SP for the BSP, at least in numbers sufficient to give the latter electoral heft.
Will Muslims desert the SP?

Media discourse tends to portray the Muslim community as a monolith, sharing common interests and voting uniformly for one party. CSDS data belies such portrayals – Muslim votes witness a greater degree of fragmentation in comparison to upper castes, Yadavs and Dalits. Indeed, the Muslim community, as most other social groups, is beset with caste-class contradictions.

On top of the social heap are the ashraf, or descendants of Muslims who supposedly came from outside India. Below them are the ajlaf, or Hindu converts from all castes but mostly from traditional artisan groups. On the lowest rung are the arzal, or Dalits who converted to Islam. But these are sociological categories and do not capture the social reality, as was argued by political scientist Prof Imtiaz Ahmad in a seminal essay in 1967. “The real units of social stratification are the caste analogues,” he pointed out.

Pasmanda Muslims

In recent times, academicians and activists have brought into greater currency the term Pasmanda, a Persian word which means “those who have fallen behind”. Khalid Anis Ansari, assistant professor of sociology, Glocal University, Saharanpur, says Pasmanda “refers to Muslims belonging to the shudra (backward) and ati-shudra (Dalit) castes. It was adopted as an oppositional identity to that of the dominant ashraf Muslims (forward castes) in 1998.”

On one plane, Ansari argues, all Muslim castes included in the OBC list for reservation constitute the Pasmanda category. However, a sociological sieve is also employed – for instance, Gujjar Muslims in western UP are in the OBC list, but they neither define themselves as OBC nor others consider them as one, largely because they are landed and have exploitative social relations with others. This is as true of Muslim Jats, who are in the state list of OBC.

By this categorisation, Muslim forward castes would include Sayeds, Pathans, Sheikhs, Rajput, Brahmin converts – and also dominant middle castes of Jat and Gujjar Muslims. All other social groups comprise the Pasmanda or backward, including Dalit Muslims, who were removed from the Scheduled Caste list in 1950.

It is Pasmanda Muslims who have mostly experienced Hindutva’s severity. In a detailed survey of Muslims affected by the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, Prof Jagpal Singh observes in his report, Communal Violence in Muzaffarnagar, “Though Muslims of all classes were attacked, it was the Pasmanda Muslims that became the prime victims as they were more vulnerable than the middle castes (Jats, Gujjars) or the Ashraf Muslims (Sayeds, Pathans, Sheikhs).”

Obviously, a person’s caste is not asked before he or she is attacked. However, since people of different caste groups tend to live together in separate localities, the assailants in Muzaffarnagar must have had a fair idea of their target’s social identity. Apart from being vulnerable, it is probable that Pasmanda Muslims were attacked because they didn’t have linkages with dominant Hindu groups and the administration.

Similarly, the trigger for the Bijnor communal violence of last month may have been the harassment of two Muslim girls, but the underlying cause of it was the tussle over a village pond between Jats and Muslim Dhobis. The government contract for the pond this year was awarded to an upwardly mobile Muslim Dhobi, who consequently incurred the wrath of a local Jat leader. The girls who were teased and the three men who died in the ensuing violence were Pasmanda Muslims, points out Mohammad Sajjad, who teaches history in Aligarh Muslim University.

Then again, the crippling impact of cow-vigilantism has been felt most by the Quresh community, which too belongs to the Pasmanda community. The man who was lynched in Dadri over the alleged consumption of beef last year was Mohammad Akhlaq, once again a Pasmanda Muslim, as was the most recent victim of cow-vigilantism in Jharkhand, Minhaj Ansari. Social media has started to create a pan-India Pasmanda consciousness.

Common experience

The common experience of Pasmanda Muslims and Dalits has been given an ideological flavour, suggests Hilal Ahmed of CSDS, in an essay, Muzaffarnagar 2013: Meanings of Violence. He points out that when the Muzaffarnagar riots broke out in August-Sept 2013, the Pasmanda Kranti Abhiyan was about to complete the first phase of its movement to mobilise backward Muslims. Its slogan was: “Dalit-Pichchara ek saman, Hindu ho ya Musalman (Dalits and Backwards are same, whether they are Hindus or Muslims.”)

Quite significantly, the Abhiyan’s pamphlet – written, incidentally, by Khalid Anis Ansari – noted, “Muslim politics often talks of electoral alliance between Muslims and Dalits, and/or Muslims and backwards. On the contrary, the Pasmanda politics attempts to create socio-political unity between Dalits and Dalits; between backwards and backwards, irrespective of their religion as Hindus or Muslims.”

Yet, it is on the religious identity of Muslims the media and the political class harps upon, not least because it tends to shun complexities. Surprisingly, Muslim leaders too haven’t tried to nuance the debate over the Hindu-Muslim binary. Why?
Ansari answers, “What do you expect when the Muslim face of principal political parties in UP is upper caste? For the Congress, it is Salman Khurshid, a Pathan. For the SP, it is Azam Khan, a Pathan. For the BSP, it is Naseemuddin Siddiqui, a Sheikh. Even for the BJP, it is Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a Sayed.”

The import of Ansari’s statement is that it suits upper caste community leaders to subordinate the caste identity of Muslims to that of their religious identity. This is because upper caste Muslims constitute at best 20-25% of Muslims in UP. Emergence of strong caste consciousness will inevitably have most Muslims looking for Pasmanda leadership. This, in turn, would weaken the grip upper caste leaders have over the community. In helping them retain their grip are influential upper caste ulema whose following indeed cuts across the caste-class divide.

This is where the dominant media discourse and Muslim politics get linked, particularly in UP.

Caste over religion

Though all three anti-BJP formations – the SP, the Congress and the BSP – split Muslim votes among themselves, election data testifies that upper castes and the economically privileged among OBCs show a greater preference for the SP. The emphasis on caste could therefore diminish the importance of religion in determining the political behaviour of Muslims. This would be more to the advantage of the BSP than the SP.

Riots do reinforce religious identity. It is this awareness which has the Muslims of UP murmuring, rather uncharitably, that the SP regime has deliberately allowed Hindutva footsoldiers to keep the communal cauldron simmering.

Thus, for instance, they ask: Why did the administration allow both Muslims and Hindus to hold mahapanchayats in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 despite Sect 144 having been imposed? Or why did the police in Bijnor not answer to 10 distress calls that were made to them before the violence broke out there in September? Why hasn’t the SP government taken action against those in the police who assist cow-vigilantes? Why are meat packaging units raided on the mere suspicion of exporting cow-meat?

These questions have also spawned nostalgia about the Mayawati government’s tenure between 2007 and 2012. Embers of communal violence during those days were often stamped out before they could be fanned, and communal tension certainly ebbed.

Do these speculations and comparisons tell us that Muslims might be relatively more inclined to the BSP than before? It is hard to tell, given that the election are still months away. Also, into the political ambience of UP has also been injected the rhetoric of surgical strikes of September 29 and the debate over triple talaq. The talaq debate will reinforce the religious identity of Muslims, just as activism over the cow is aimed at unifying Hindus.

Yet just about everyone says that the BSP will increase its votes among Pasmanda Muslims. Khalid Anis Ansari agrees but adds a caveat: Mayawati is making a mistaking in talking about Muslim-Dalit unity. It projects Muslims as a monolith. This will trigger a counter-mobilisation among Hindus.

Ansari, therefore, suggests, “She should, therefore, speak of backward Muslims. Mayawati should promise to create a new subdivision of Most Backward Castes within the OBC category in UP. This will drive OBCs to the SP and Most Backward Castes to the BSP’s camp. The BJP can’t win without a large section of OBCs voting it.” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has already said his party, if voted to power, would carve out a separate subcategory of Most Backward Classes.

This Most Backward Castes plank will have an appeal to many Pasmanda Muslims, as they would hope – not without reason – of being included in this category. In the undifferentiated OBC category, it is believed the benefits are cornered by better-educated, more prosperous backward castes.

In other words, Mayawati’s best bet for pulling Muslim votes lies in focusing on Pasmanda Muslims and emphasising caste over religion.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

This article was first published on



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