Interpreting BJP’s Pasmanda outreach in New India
KHALID ANIS ANSARI
PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi’s instruction to the BJP to reach out to the Pasmanda Muslims in its two-day National Executive Meeting held in Hyderabad on 2-3 July 2022 seems to have surprised many. However, Modi’s interest in Pasmanda Muslims, a conglomerate of the OBC, Dalit, and Adivasi Muslims that constitute about 85% of Indian Muslims, is not new. As Gujarat chief minister, he had listened patiently to a contingent of Pasmanda activists from Uttar Pradesh for about forty-five minutes during Ramadan (July-August) in 2013.1
By the end of 2013, the UP BJP had formed the ‘weavers’ cell’ to reach out to Pasmanda Muslims. An explicit reference to Pasmanda Muslims by PM Modi was made in the BJP Conclave in Orissa in 2017, where he said ‘that there are OBCs even among the Muslims and other religions. The benefits meant for OBCs are also for them and should go to the Muslim OBCs too… these welfare measures are usurped by the Syeds and Pathans.’2
In the recent Hyderabad conclave, he stressed the ‘need for exploring new social equations within minority communities, the need to look at communities not as monoliths but with different interests and different positions within the social and economic hierarchies of these communities. That issues on which the elites or different ethnicities of particular communities respond to are different from what the other ethnicities and poor and marginalized within these communities respond to.’3
The reference to elite domination within variegated minority communities was combined with the BJP’s universalist development language of welfarism and the need to carry out ‘sneh yatras’ for bridging the trust deficit with Pasmanda Muslims.
There have been two broad responses to the BJP’s overtures from the Pasmanda community. The first response is from the section that may be labelled as the political worker. The political worker may be characterized as a unique product of electoral politics that mediates between the political parties and the concerns of the masses and gets work done through networks across parties and institutions of governance. Extremely catholic in terms of loyalties to ideologies and parties, the political worker, quite akin to the Turk, Abyssinian, or Purabiya Rajput mercenaries of the medieval era, is driven by personal ambition and offers her services, mainly the ability to fetch votes, to the highest bidder. This class of workers among the Pasmanda community, captured in the vernacular as ‘lobharthis’, has welcomed the BJP’s Pasmanda outreach.
Building on the legitimacy accorded to the Pasmanda category by PM Modi, on which most opposition parties have maintained a deafening silence, the allocation of a ministry and other critical positions to Pasmanda Muslims by the Yogi 2.0 government and the welfare benefits to the most deprived, including Pasmanda, sections (‘labharthis’), this class is out in the field transacting Pasmanda votes for the BJP. While the figures of 8% of Pasmanda votes shifting to the BJP in the UP Legislative Assembly elections in 2022 need to be scrutinized for their validity, one cannot deny that there was some traction for the BJP among the direct Pasmanda beneficiaries of welfare programmes.
The BJP, being one of the most resource-rich political parties in the country today, holds a definite appeal to the class of Pasmanda political workers, who sources tell me, have been given the responsibility to fetch ten thousand votes for the party from each constituency in UP. In closely contested elections, where often the margin of victory is less than ten thousand votes in many constituencies, this may cause worry for the opposition parties.
The second response has been from what may be characterized as the ideological worker. The ideological worker imagines herself as an ethical and self-sacrificing ‘missionary’ (‘karyakarta’) that indulges in conscientization and awareness raising action on behalf of emancipatory ideological/identity formations. The Pasmanda ideological spaces, particularly the Ali Anwar-led All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz (henceforth Mahaz), avowedly locate themselves in the anti-caste (Ambedkarite) and social justice (Lohiaite-Mandalite) tradition of politics and characterize the RSS-BJP combine as a Brahmanical-Manuvadi and communal formation.
The Mahaz has taken a cynical, if not rejectionist, view of the BJP’s Pasmanda outreach framing it as a paternalistic move inspired primarily by electoral calculus. In an open letter to Modi, Ali Anwar opined, ‘It was a pleasant surprise to hear you talk about “Pasmanda”,’ but the Pasmanda Muslims want “sam-maan” (equality and dignity), not “sneh” (affection). The term “sneh” has a specific connotation: That the Pasmanda Muslims need “sneh” denotes that they are an inferior lot requiring patronage from the ones who are superior... Has the sudden move to take out “Sneh Yatra” for Pasmanda society something to do with vote-bank politics?’4
However, the distinction between the political and ideological worker must be construed as analytical with much more porous boundaries in empirical reality. While the motivations of the political worker are too instrumentalist and immediate, that of the ideological worker may be more utopian and prone to ideological closures that may impede a more persuasive interpretation of the dynamic changes in the political sphere. The limitations of the ideological become more glaring as one begins to unravel a core question: why has the BJP explicitly launched the Pasmanda outreach campaign in a context where it can forge electoral majorities sans Muslims and has made the Muslim vote almost irrelevant to its electoral fortunes?
While the intuitive temptation to answer this question through electoral calculus may have some justification, I would contend that one needs to take a detour to a different political landscape to better grapple with it. The logic that I want to work with is that more than the immediacy of the electoral, the BJP’s Pasmanda outreach is intimately connected to attempts of the RSS-BJP to transact its foundational schizophrenia vis-ŕ-vis the ‘Muslim’ question itself.
A few assumptions will be in order here. My approach to understanding social phenomena is broadly constructivist and interpretative, dispensing with any objectivist or essentialist meanings. Knowledge is contingent on discourses, which are systems of meanings that work with inclusions and exclusions in a field of power. No discourse can exhaust the field of meaning. Therefore, the ideological character of any discourse is revealed when it tends to forget its origin and contingency and present its partial view as a totality.
In this sense, the Hindutva project is a discursive formation that attempts to institute the social order in a particular manner among rival possibilities. It works with specific exclusions and inclusions of meanings and renderings of ‘us’ and ‘them’, just like any other political project. If it gains traction, it is owing to specific meanings and truths that resonate with the masses rationally or affectively. Hence, the evaluation of Hindutva from an ‘ethical’ (good versus evil) lens must be reconsidered in favour of the ‘political’ lens that plots its discourse and attendant consequences in a field of power.
Two, the Hindutva discursive space is not monolithic and subject to internal contestations and new articulations in the face of emerging challenges. The RSS-BJP confronts a perpetual tension between the high caste, conservative motivations of its top leadership, and the dynamic challenges from intensifying capitalism and democratic deepening. The Sangh Parivar has consistently adapted to new situations and reworked its cultural, political, and economic vision. BJP’s New India is its most recent articulation in a neoliberal-plutocratic context. Andersen and Damle assess that ‘RSS is a very cautious group that slowly evolves, a generalization that one could make about India itself. The RSS has never been revolutionary and is not likely to be so any time soon. Its goal is social harmony and cultural assimilation. However, it does change….’5
In its formative stage, several factors colluded to produce the cultural vision of the RSS: (a) The orientalist-colonial mapping of India and reading of history from a religious lens that privileges the simplistic story of perennial Hindu-Muslim conflict. The pan-religion high caste elite increasingly began using religion as a proxy to secure its interests and compensate for their numerical deficit after the installation of semi-parliamentary practice from the 1920s onward; (b) The supremacist polemical tradition of Christian and Islamic missionaries that held a disparaging view of the Hindu faith and labelled the Hindus as ‘pagans’ and ‘infidels’; (c) The emergence of anti-caste and labour militancy, particularly in Maharashtra; (d) The increasing instances of communal violence, particularly between 1920-1940s, where Muslims were usually framed as the prime instigators, and so on.
In a world where the privileged classes were increasingly insecure, a few Brahmins in Maharashtra formed the RSS in 1925 as a cultural organization for the Hindus. The RSS discourse over time borrowed heavily from ultra-nationalist Nazi and fascist visions of mythocracy, corporatism, soil and blood narratives, militarization, and nationalization of culture, and the ends justify the means logic on behalf of the nation.
The RSS’s founding vision was inspired by the Savarkar-Golwalkar framework that articulated ‘territorial nationalism’ with ‘cultural nationalism’ and imagined a homogeneous Hindu race inhabiting the territory of Bharat and unified by a common Hindutva (Hindu-ness) culture. Savarkar defines a Hindu as ‘a person who regards the land of Bharatvarsha from Indus to the Seas as his Fatherland, as well as his Holy land – that is the cradle land of his religion.’6 This foundational imagination combines internal Hindu catholicity with the exclusion of those religious communities that have a foreign origin.
The Muslims and Christians, mainly because of their proselytizing faith traditions, become the Other and objects of demonization that must be accorded limited citizenship rights. Hindu identity is stabilized by deflecting the internal assertion from the lowered castes and Adivasis to the Muslim/Christian Other. While most Muslims and Christians are indigenous converts and therefore definitionally share the imagined Hindu race and Fatherland (pitrbhumi), the innovation of the Holy Land (punyabhumi) also renders them alien. To regain equal citizenship, they must revert to the Hindu faith, ghar-wapsi (homecoming), as it is termed in the RSS literature.
Interestingly, most founding icons of the Indian nation shared the foreign-Indic distinction in religion, including the cosmopolitan Babasaheb Ambedkar, when he argued that conversion to Islam and Christianity would ‘denationalize’ the Dalits. Article 25 (b) of the Indian Constitution and the Hindu Code Bills (1955-56) definitionally incorporates all sections of the Indian population that do not practice Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, or Judaism (foreign faiths) as ‘Hindu’. In fact, in the absence of centralized ecclesiastical authority in Hinduism, the Indian state has played a crucial role in defining, unifying, and reforming the Hindu faith.
Intimately connected with this is the process of ‘Semiticization’ of Hinduism, where Hinduism is reworked in the image of the Abrahamic traditions in its theocratic, soteriological, and organization dimensions. These are manifested in the desire for the state to be governed by Hindu principles, the attempts to save the non-believers by sending Hindu missionaries across the globe and forging a centralized ecclesiastical authority in the form of the RSS, VHP, and the four Shankaracharya’s.7 Traditionally, Hinduism was theologically pagan, tolerant of propositional truths, and socially hierarchical. The semiticized Hinduism works with core revealed truths and a definitionally monolithic, egalitarian community as reflected in the RSS’s slogan of ‘Ek Mandir, Ek Kuan aur Ek Shamshaan’ (a common temple, well, and crematorium).
Culture is the crucial category in Sangh Parivar’s lexicon. The RSS has never clearly defined Hindutva. Hindutva plays the role of a ‘myth’: it performs a metaphorical function by offering a surface of inscription for varying emerging demands and unifying the discourse. Myths can mobilize affective energies and sub-conscious fantasies and are an invitation to action. The enacting of myths may be termed as ‘ritual’, which in the case of the RSS ideology may embrace the character-forming sessions in the daily shakhas, campaigns like the Ram Mandir movement that produces the unified Hindu, or even violence against Muslims and Christians as a sacrificial ritual to propitiate the ‘Nation God’ a term that Golwalkar used.
The present RSS, steered by its chief Mohan Bhagwat, has distanced itself from the far more radical interpretations of Hindutva in the Savarkar-Golwalkar imagination in favour of a more reflexive and assimilationist position on Muslims/Christians in the Mukherji-Upadhyaya framework of ‘Integral Humanism’ and ‘Indianization’ (Bharatiyata). Bhagwat’s recent utterances betray a more marked slide from the religious to regional connotations of the term Hindu. While Shyama Prasad Mukherjee dissociated from the Hindu Mahasabha and formed the Bhartiya Jan Sangh in 1951 on the core question of membership of Muslims and Christians, the RSS opened its membership to the latter in 1979 under the stewardship of Balasaheb Deoras. Since 2002, the RSS-backed Rashtriya Muslim Manch (RMM) has been outreaching Muslims to bring them to the ‘mainstream’.
To paraphrase the relevant points in this revised formulation. One is the distinction between ‘Dharma’ as righteous conduct and code of duties and ‘Panth’ as alluding to various sects and their modes of worship. In Balraj Madhok’s view, ‘While following this Dharma people are free to follow different forms of worship and adopt different approaches to realise God and attain salvation. They have come to be described as the different paths of worship or “Panthas”… Christianity and Islam have also been added to this plethora of panths or ways of worship that co-exist in this country.’8
Issues are taken with translating Dharma as religion and secularism as Dharma-nirpekshita. The RSS understands secularism as Panth-nirpekshita and has historically levelled the charge of Muslim appeasement against secular parties like the Congress.
Two, a distinction between religion and culture is made, ‘Culture is associated with a country and not with a religion. The whole of Europe follows Christianity, but there is a distinct German culture, French culture and Italian culture. The whole of West Asia is mainly Muslim but there is a distinct Turkish culture, Iranian culture and Arab culture. There is no such thing as Muslim culture or Christian culture in India. There is only one Indian culture which is common to all Indians.’9 In this respect, Indian Muslims are expected to pride themselves on the Indian nation, culture, and revered icons like Rama and Krishna. Indonesia is cited as an exemplary case that is predominantly Muslim but glorifies its connection with its Hindu past.
Three, the focus on the historic vivisection of Bharat by Muslims in 1947, Islamic militancy, particularly the Sunni-Deoband orthodoxy, and the modernization of Islam. Fourth, a distinction between ‘rashtra’ (nation) and ‘rajya’ (state) is drawn to dissociate the meanings of theocracy associated with the Hindu Rashtra. The Constitution is reaffirmed while simultaneously adapting it to RSS-BJP’s cultural-political vision through a method that Hilal Ahmed has dubbed ‘Hindutva Constitutionalism.’10
There are certainly points of affinity and conflict between the revisionist RSS-BJP discourse and the Pasmanda narratives. In the first wave of Pasmanda politics (1926-1947), the Abdul Qaiyum Ansari-led Momin Conference contested the bi-nationality thesis and the demand of Pakistan that the Jinnah-led Muslim League raised. The leaders of the Momin Conference were characterized as ‘nationalist Muslims’ as opposed to the Muslim League’s ‘communalist Muslims’. However, the Muslim League members who could not relocate to Pakistan turned into Congress supporters overnight. Their rehabilitation at the expense of nationalist Pasmanda Muslims was facilitated by upper caste Ashraf leaders like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.
In Ali Anwar’s view, ‘The very sections of the Muslim society that sacrificed the most for the Independence of the country, that fought against Mr. Jinnah’s two-nation theory, were thoroughly marginalized in Independent India.’11 In Pasmanda discourse, ‘Muslim appeasement’ is deconstructed as Ashraf appeasement. The Mahaz has foregrounded nationalist icons like Veer Abdul Hamid, a Pasmanda Muslim from the Darzi (tailor) caste, who was heroically martyred in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965.
Another Pasmanda spiritual icon is Sant Kabir, belonging to the Julaha (weaver) community. Ali Anwar mentions the poet Taju, belonging to the Rangrez (dyer) caste, and quotes Ram Manohar Lohia, ‘I have recently heard of the poetess Taju, dyer by trade and Muslim by birth around the time of 1857, whose Krishna poetry matches Mira’s devotion.’12 There is a reference to Saint Daryadas belonging to the Muslim Darzi (tailor) caste, who had spoken against religious and caste-based discrimination in the late 17th century and had followers from all communities.13
Babasaheb Ambedkar had interpreted the Hindu-Muslim struggle ‘as a struggle for mastery for dominance… The masses whether of the Hindus or of the Musalmans are merely used for establishing the ascendency of the classes. This struggle that is going on is really a struggle of the classes. It is not a struggle of the masses.’14 In contrast to the high caste Ashraf political motivations embedded in the nostalgia of being the historical ruling class, Ali Anwar suggests that the struggle of the Pasmanda Muslims is not ‘to achieve “dominance” of any kind over any other group or groups inside or outside the Muslim society. Our fight is for equality.’15
The Mahaz has emphasized contesting Muslim communalism and the imperial theologies of conquest articulated, for instance, by the Deobandi tradition as a precondition to contain Hindu communalism that often masquerades as nationalism. The Pasmanda discourse has privileged regional-vernacular languages and parochialized the claim of Urdu as the language of Muslims. The arbitrary tradition of Triple Talaq was consistently opposed, and the modernization and democratization of madrasas is a persistent theme. The Mahaz has taken issues with the concept of minority and has articulated pan-religion horizontal solidarity of indigenous lowered castes and Adivasi groups.
The RSS-BJP has favoured the language of ‘Samrasta’ (harmony) over the anti-caste imagination of ‘Samta’ (equality). It has attempted to symbolically integrate and coopt various lower caste and Adivasi communities not taken seriously by the social justice parties by reworking their spiritual-community narratives, giving them samman (respect) and some representation. The inclusion of Danish Ansari in the Yogi Adityanath cabinet in UP, allocation of some critical positions to members from the Pasmanda community, and the organization of Pasmanda Samman Samaroh (minus the pictures of any Pasmanda icon) in Uttar Pradesh is an extension of its tested strategy. This is what Gramsci called ‘hegemony through neutralization’ or ‘passive revolution’, referring to ‘a situation where demands which challenge the hegemonic order are appropriated by the existing system so as to satisfy them in a way that neutralizes their subversive potential.’16
The Mahaz has
raised the issue of the caste census as a precondition to any significant
categorical revision within SC, ST, or OBC quota. On this issue, the BJP has
backtracked. However, a more contentious issue has been the religious
neutrality of the SC category on the lines of OBC, ST, and EWS quota. While
pan-religious caste groups are included in all categories, the SC category
excludes the Muslims and Christians belonging to Dalit origins (while the Dalits belonging to other minority faiths like Sikhism and
Buddhism are included). The background logic governing
this exclusion is the Indic/foreign dichotomy regarding religion, which renders Islam and Christianity as ‘foreign’ faiths and the related anxieties over religious conversions. The BJP has taken a strong position against it. In the face of Hinduism taking a soteriological shift and strong anti-conversion laws, the Mahaz has pressed for a new conversation on this exclusion.
The BJP’s embrace of the neoliberal and plutocratic economic order has been disastrous for non-corporate forms of capital. Several peasants, artisans, labourers, and small shopkeepers – and most Pasmanda Muslims belong to these categories – have been pauperized. While this pauperization is being compensated by welfarism, it can only ensure survival, not the dignity of work. However, the most striking point of discontent is the shrill anti-Muslim discourse and violence launched by the organizations close to the Sangha Parivar in the form of cow protection, love jihad, and so on, in which most victims belong to the Pasmanda communities. The recent felicitation of the remitted perpetrators guilty of violating Bilqis Bano, a Pasmanda Muslim, and murdering her family during the Gujarat riots in 2002 can only be interpreted as a symbolic injury by Pasmanda Muslims.
The BJP’s Pasmanda
outreach has less to do with expanding its electoral base than a response to
its constitutive schizophrenia in its approach to the Muslim question: Hinduization of Muslims through conversion or Indianization of Muslims through assimilation? PM Modi’s unequivocal acknowledgment of the Pasmanda category marks a definite shift towards the latter
of the Muslim question through the Pasmanda route. While the conversation on the Pasmanda question has been ongoing within the RSS-BJP for some time, one may speculatively attribute its precipitation to the recent diplomatic humiliation the Indian government has faced from West Asian countries over the Nupur Sharma fiasco. The high caste Ashraf Muslim elite, owing to their West Asian genealogies and theological and cultural connections, have probably been identified as active interlocutors against Delhi.
With the mooting of Sneh-Yatras and Pasmanda outreach, the BJP has hit many birds with one stone. It has advanced a healing language and hypothetically expanded its electoral base. At the same time, it has signalled a containment strategy for the dominant Ashraf intelligentsia, political parties, and community organizations. However, there is a clear cleavage in the moderate language employed by the top RSS-BJP functionaries and the more fundamentalist language and actions of affiliates and fringe organizations like the VHP, Bajrang Dal, and so on. Is this cleavage a case of strategic doublespeak or a genuine difference of opinion? The success of the BJP’s Pasmanda outreach will depend on how convincing an answer it gives to this question.
1. As told to me by the senior journalist Yusuf Ansari who was a part of the contingent.
2. R.M. Chaturvedi, ‘PM Narendra Modi Speaks for Pasmanda Muslims at BJP Conclave’, The Economic Times, 17 April 2017. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/pm-narendra-modi-speaks-for-pasmanda-muslims-at-bjp-conclave/articleshow/58212241.cms
3. N. Hebbar, ‘PM Modi’s “Minority Move” Aimed At Delinking Them from “Elite” Concerns’, The Hindu, 5 July 2022. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/pm-modis-minority-move-aimed-at-delinking-them-from-elite-concerns/article65602672.ece
4. The Satyashodhak Staff, ‘Ali Anwar Ansari Writes Stern Letter to Narendra Modi on BJP’s Pasmanda Outreach’, The Satyashodhak, 21 July 2022. https://thesatyashodhak.com/ali-anwar-ansari-writes-stern-letter-to-narendra-modi-on-bjps-pasmanda-outreach/
5. W.K. Andersen & S.D. Damle, The RSS: A View to the Inside. Penguin/Viking, 2018, p. xxiv.
6. Cited in T. Basu, P. Datta, S. Sarkar, T. Sarkar & S. Sen, Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags: A Critique of the Hindu Right. Orient Longman, 1993, p. 8.
7. Sebastian Kappen, Hindutva and Indian Religious Traditions. Notion Press, 2019.
8. Balraj Madhok, Indianisation. Orient Paperback, 1970, pp. 22-23.
9. Ibid., pp. 27-28.
10. Hilal Ahmed, ‘New India, Hindutva Constitutionalism, and Muslim Political Attitudes’, Studies in Indian Politics, 2022, pp. 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1177/23210230221082833
11. Ali Anwar, Masawat Ki Jung (The Battle for Equality). Vani Prakashan. 2001, p. 171, Tr.
12. Ibid., p. 57; Rammanohar Lohia, Guilty Men of India’s Partition. B.R. Publishing Corporation, 2000, p. 9.
13. Ibid., pp. 58-59.
14. B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Civilization or Felony’, in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Volume 5 (Third, pp. 127-144). Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 1979, p. 128.
15. ‘Open Letter to the PM Shri Narendra Modi’ released by Ali Anwar Ansari, Founder President of the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz and former MP (Rajya Sabha) on 15 July 2022.
16. Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically. Verso, 2013, p. 77.