Mandalisation of Muslim Politics in India

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MANDALISATION OF MUSLIM POLITICS in INDIA– A shift from Religious Identity to Caste Identity?

The outcome of the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh elections is indicative of a marked shift in Muslim politics in India from religious identity to caste identity and a movement for freedom from Ashraf hegemony- This needs a detailed examination of the Indian scene.

Interestingly, Mandalisation of Indian politics had also brought a marked shift from identity politics in Muslim society to caste politics. Contrary to the claim that Islam is egalitarian and its followers are a homogenized community, the lower caste groups in the community have started to raise their voice against the feudal character of Muslim politics. It was the beginning of the awakening of the Muslim proletariat against the hegemony of upper caste bourgeoisie in the community.

The Mandal Commission Report had also included a number of backward caste Muslims along with the Hindu backwards for reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. The report not only exposed the reality of the caste heterogeneity in the Muslim society but also worked as a catalyst for a movement against the socio-political hegemony of the Ashrafs (High-born Muslims) over the Ajlafs (low caste-born Muslims) and Arzals (Dalit-born or degraded Muslims) collectively known as Pasmandas.

Ever since the advent of Islam in Indian sub-continent, social division in Indian Muslim society was based in reality on the pre-Islamic castes of the converted Hindus. The individual divisions may have lost its sharpness, but the Muslims of foreign ancestry comprising of the descendents of the Islamic invaders like Syed, Turk, Mangole, Moghal and Pathans who claim to be Ashrafs maintained social aloofness with respect of the Pasmandas who are Indian converts from backward caste and untouchables of Hindu origin. The upper caste Hindu converts were also accommodated in the lower category of Ashraf.

Carrying forward their centuries-old socio-political divide even in post-Independence democratic India, the Ashrafs remained the representative body of the entire Muslim community though the Pasmandas constitute over 80% of Muslim population. Bracketing the Pasmandas in a vote-bank group of effective strength in the multi-party secular democratic polity, the Ashrafs used them as a market commodity and enjoyed substantial share in the political, academic, economic and administrative space in the country by bargaining initially with the Congress and latter with almost all the political parties with their vote banks.

Before the Mandalisation of Indian politics, caste division in Muslim society hardly had any political significance. But when the post-Mandal political bond between the Hindu backward castes and the Muslims that led to the emergence of backward caste leaders like Laloo Yadav and Nitish Kumar of Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav of Uttar Pradesh on the national political scene, there was a new awakening of the Pasmandas.

Meanwhile with a view to counter the Mandal effect, the Ashraf leaders held a Convention on Reservation in 1994 and launched a Muslim Reservation Movement for declaring the entire Muslim community as backward caste for reservation. Some media reports suggested that this convention had a tacit support of some mainstream parties.

As a reaction to the Convention on Reservation, Dr. Ejaz Ali belonging to a Dalit Muslim group of Bihar launched the All India Backward Muslim Morcha in 1994 with an objective to fight for the right of the marginalized castes in Muslim community. This new awakening among the backward caste Muslims got further momentum when Laloo Yadav denied Gulam Sarwar the father in law of Dr. Ejaz Ali, a second tenure as Speaker in Bihar Assembly in 1995.

On the other hand, the Ashrafs who projected themselves as the natural leaders and authoritative spokespersons of the entire Muslim community took the political awakening among the Pasmandas as a challenge to their political dominance on the community and argued that since there is no caste system in Muslim society, its caste-based division is un-Islamic. They demanded that the entire Muslim society should be categorized as backwards. They accused those in the community campaigning against clubbing of entire Muslim community as creating divisions in the homogenous Islamic society.

Most of the top politicians, religious leaders, landlords, bureaucrats, Academicians, journalists and religious leaders in Muslim society unfortunately belong to the Ashraf category and they are the obnes who decry the caste based division in Muslim society as a ‘conspiracy to destroy the Muslim unity’

In view of the look other way policy of the political leaders towards the cause of the marginalized Muslim castes and attitude of the Ashrafs, a number of backward caste organizations like All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaj, All India United Muslim Morcha and All India Muslim OBC Organisation in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra have sprung up to counter- the so called solidarity platforms of the Ashrafs.

Strongly opposing the Ashrafs led Muslim Reservation Movement, the leaders of Pasmanda movement pleaded that if the entire Muslim community is accepted as backward, the Muslim elite group would usurp even token representation of the marginalized section in the community in government jobs. The slogan like ‘Dalit-pichda ek saman, Hindu ho ya Musalman!’ (All Dalits and backward castes are alike, whether they are Hindu or Muslim) made the Pasmanda movement more interesting.

In Bihar the backward caste group had already split into lower and upper OBCs (Other Backward Castes). After Mandal Commission Report, the 27% reservation for the OBCs was also divided into 17% and 10% to the lower and upper OBCs respectively. Laloo Yadav while implementing the Mandal recommendation in Bihar incorporated the backward caste Muslims in the upper OBCs group.

Laloo Yadav in supporting the demands of the Ashrafs for inclusion of the entire Muslim community in the list of backwards disappointed the Pasmandas. They felt that since Yadavas and Kurmis of upper OBCs group were more educated and affluent it would be difficult for the marginalized group of Muslim backwards to compete with them. Since then the Pasmandas have started distancing themselves from the Muslim-Yadav political alliance in Bihar which ultimately led to the fall of Laloo regime.

Taking the Muslim factor as key to the electoral success of Laloo Yadav, the centre also constituted a National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities under the chairmanship of former Chief Justice of India Justice Rangnath Mishra in 2004 which recommended 15% of jobs in government services and seats in educational institutions for minorities including 10% exclusively for Muslims. Again in 2005 another committee headed by Justice Rajinder Sachar, former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court was commissioned by the Prime Minister for a report on the social, educational and economic condition of the Muslims.

Nitish Kumar the Chief Minister of Bihar, who understood the new awakening of Pasmandas, concentrated on Mandal recommendation for the marginalized caste-group of the Muslims and convincingly mobilised their support in 2005 assembly election which led to his victory in Bihar.

After becoming Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar reversed the Laloo Yadav’s decision on inclusion of Muslim backwards from upper OBCs group to the lower OBCs group. He also accommodated their leaders of the latter suitably in the legislative and political posts. With this master stroke against Laloo Yadav, he not only divided the Muslim community in Bihar and got the massive support of Pasmandas in 2010 assembly election Both the Committees in their reports categorized the entire Muslim community in India as a backward group and recommended reservation for them in different fields including reservation in Government jobs. All the Ashraf controlled Islamic institutions and organization like Darul Uloom Deoband, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, Jamiat Ulema-e –Hind and Imart-e-Sharia welcomed the two reports and started putting pressure on the UPA Government for their immediate implementation.

Pasmanda leaders however, maintained that if the entire Muslim community is clubbed together for reservation it would mean a competition between two un-equals and jeopardise the interest of the backward caste Muslims as they would be cornered by the upper caste Muslims who are socially and educationally affluent for centuries. Despite such consistent opposition of Pasmanda leaders against inclusion of Ashrafs for benefits of reservation for Muslims, political parties particularly the Congress, Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Rastriya Janata Dal of Laloo Yadav supported the recommendation of the two committees in categorizing the entire Muslim community as backwards.

It is interesting to note that in the recent UP elections prominent Ashraf candidates like Mohd Umar, son-in-law of Syed Ahmed Bukhari, Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid Delhi who contested on Samajwadi Party ticket, Luis Khurshid wife of Congress leader Salman Khurshid who contested on Congress ticket and Haji Yaqoob Qureshi, who contested on RLD ticket, lost the election. The humiliating loss of upper caste Muslims in Uttar Pradesh election is an indication that the political bonding among the backward castes from both the Hindus and Muslims worked as a catalyst for a counter- hegemonic solidarity movement for liberation of the Ajlafs and Arzals from the Ashraf hegemony.

As said earlier, the outcome of the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh elections shows a paradigm change in Muslim politics. From a religion based politics, it is moving onto "caste based politics". In a way it could be a good development as the Pasmandas may no longer allow themselves to be shackled by the higher caste Ashrafs in future.

First published in Click here

Also read-
1. India – Empowerment of Pasmanda Muslims is a must.
2. Rethinking caste: Why we can’t be so one-dimensional