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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 32

Pasmanda Movement and the Question of Secularism

Wednesday 30 July 2008, by Khalid Anis Ansari


As I write these words the news of the Left withdrawing support from the UPA Government has just started to pour in. Presumably, it has not come as a surprise to anyone. It had been in the offing for quite some time now. But obviously the political temperatures are bound to go up with various political pundits and players rushing to announce their own recipes for the coming parliamentary elections. With the economy on a downward spiral—symbolically made worse in the public imagination by the frank and helpless statements of the Finance Minister—and all the moves being made by the UPA unable to generate favourable public opinion the chances for the BJP (and the saffron brigade) seem to be brightening up. Surely, these are trying times for the so-called secular camp!

There is something very sinister in the way ‘secularism’ is being parroted unremittingly by the UPA spokespersons, especially Laloo Yadav in his new-found avatar at the Centre. One is forced to speculate why this sole issue of ‘secularism’ is being privileged over other more pressing issues that matter. Is it the lackadaisical performance, perceived or real, of the UPA on all other fronts that places secularism at the centre-stage as a life prolonging nectar? Moreover, does its utility also hinge on the fact that it ensures the easy votes of minorities by religiously drumming up the danger (real, I would quickly add) posed by the BJP and its allies?

Such a scenario, no doubt, offers few options to the electorate—especially, the minorities. If the central issue is secularism (and its negative principle: communalism) is there much to choose between the Congress and the BJP? In the context of communal riots (or pogroms if you prefer) the historical record would implicate the Congress equally. Do not the BJP and Congress share the same caste/class location? Are they both not essentially Brahminical parties?— one is tempted to ask. True it is and yet there is a difference. The BJP is a quintessential fascist outfit which the Congress is definitely not. This, of course, is a thin dividing line between the two [notwithstanding the fact that we have witnessed autocratic tendencies within the Congress (during the Emergency) before and continue to witness its non-democratic decision- making processes even now]. But it is a distinction worth seizing in our times with limited options on offer.

So in the unfortunate absence of any credible ‘third alternative’ to the UPA and NDA the existing political formations will be once again compelled to take sides. This is a lamentable story which is scripted over and over again and teases us remorselessly before each parliamentary election. Surely this equation has to be unsettled sooner or later in the interests of the people of this nation. But for now we can do little but to choose the lesser evil—that is, the UPA. Which side will the Pasmanda Movement (henceforth, PM) take in this duel in Bihar is a moot question. I will come back later on the rationale for asking this question. For now I want to concentrate on the raison d’être of PM and how it has fared in this regard.

The PM refers to the backward/Dalit caste movement among Indian Muslims. In Bihar it is championed by the All India United Muslim Morcha (henceforth, Morcha) led by Dr Ejaz Ali, and the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz (henceforth, Mahaz) led by Ali Anwar. Despite Dr Ejaz Ali being the pioneer of this movement, it is Ali Anwar who has been widely discussed in recent times due to his much celebrated articulation of this movement in his book Masawaat Ki Jung (2001) and in the editorials of the Mahaz’s journal, Pasmanda Awaz.

One key promise that the movement made was to promote ‘secularism’ and combat the forces of ‘communalism’. ‘Secularism hamara motto hi nahin iman bhi hai’ (‘secularism is not only our motto but also an article of faith’), is the slogan that is continuously rehashed in the pages of Pasmanda Awaz. As we know, communalism sustains and flourishes owing to the constructed notion of monolithic religious identities—a fiction maintained by the upper caste/class leadership of all religious communities to preserve their privileges by foxing the people with secondary religious contradictions. (I must stress here the stark co-relationship between ‘caste’ and ‘class’ in the Indian context.) In this sense then ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ communalisms share a symbiotic relationship and feed on each other. Moreover, the former cannot be successfully challenged without waging a decisive war against the latter.

The PM reminds us that just like the Hindu community, Muslim community too is segmented into at least three caste blocs—ashraf (upper caste elite), ajlaf (middle caste shudra) and arzal (lowest caste Dalits), namely. The import of caste politics is that it punctures the balloon of communalism by challenging this notion of monolithic religious identities. It stresses the fact that communities are internally differentiated on the basis of class/caste with different sections harbouring different interests. In its reading of the political reality there is neither univocal community sentiment nor any putative unity of all Hindus against Muslims and vice versa.

The PM which started as a ‘social movement’ could not stay away from electoral politics for long. In the last assembly elections in Bihar (2005) the Mahaz decided to support Nitish Kumar’s JD(U). This was a problematic move for an organisation claiming to be practitioners of secular ethics and yet ironically supporting a party that was contesting elections in alliance with a fascist party like the BJP. Moreover, as the PM was still in its formative years with its presence restricted to only a few districts of South West Bihar the decision apparently seemed to lack in political wisdom. Was it a classic case of a premature entry into politics? Any farsighted movement requires at least a minimum consolidation of its constituency to achieve a meaningful bargaining power in the political market. This arguably the Mahaz had not done. In hindsight, this urgency of the Mahaz’s leadership to plunge into political waters could only be attributed to the petty ambition and greed of its leaders.

However, Ali Anwar has tried to rationalise this move in his own characteristic manner subsequently. In the editorials of his journal and speeches, he has often dubbed Laloo Yadav’s apparent M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) alliance as being an FM-Y (Forward Muslim-Yadav) alliance in substantive terms. There is a constant reference in his speeches to a conference which the Mahaz organised just before the elections to discuss the implications of ‘Ranganath Mishra National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities’. This Commission was allegedly seen as a move by the Centre to grant reservations to the Muslims as a whole, a position which the Mahaz has consistently opposed. In this conference he invited both Laloo Yadav and Nitish Kumar and asked them to express their stand. While Nitish Kumar was forthright in supporting the demand for scrapping the Ranganath Mishra Commission, Laloo Yadav on the other hand treaded cautiously and was circumspect regarding it. (This was understandable as the Commission was set up by the UPA Government of which Laloo was a part.) However, this feeble gesture from Laloo Yadav on the issue of scrapping the Commission was sufficient ground, the Mahaz has subsequently argued, to lend its weight behind JD (U) in the ensuing elections which it won handsomely. The Mahaz has since been taking credit for the JD (U)’s victory, an emotion which has been recently reiterated after the results of the Vikramgunj by-election. Another rationalisation and one often offered in private conversations has been that if Ambedkar could support the British colonial masters in his efforts to challenge the caste system, what sin has the Mahaz committed in supporting the JD(U) if its agenda is being furthered by doing so?

The only problem with such rationalisations is that they miss the wood for the trees. True, Laloo Yadav keeps the ‘Forward Muslims’ in good humour. But that is because they bring him the desired Muslim votes. By virtue of their hold on community institutions and their historical social/cultural capital they still apparently represent the Muslim community even when they constitute only a small proportion of its population. It is only recently that the PM has begun to question their illegitimate representative status as far as community issues are concerned. Like any seasoned politician Laloo would have weighed Mahaz’s claims in the political balance back then and would have found them wanting. Mahaz, after all, was and still is a potential political force, not an actual one. It has not yet undertaken the task of mass mobilisation seriously and without it no substantive political bargaining is possible. As far as Nitish Kumar is concerned, since he was contesting elections with the BJP as an ally and given the Muslims’ abhorrence for the same, it made perfect political sense to bag any number of Muslim votes he could due to Mahaz’s influence. Each Muslim vote was a bonus for him. The second rationale for supporting the JD (U) (and consequently the BJP) is absurd to say the least. Our erstwhile colonial masters, howsoever exploitative in the material plane, were not casteist in their approach. In fact, by allowing access to education and public offices for the suppressed castes they also paved the way for their liberation. Without this move would a Phule, Periyar or Ambedkar have been possible given the caste system’s barring of suppressed castes from seeking knowledge and acquiring property? One needs to ask of the PM’s leadership what benefit has the BJP brought to the Muslim masses except riots and pogroms? Moreover, one is clueless on how the agenda of PM will be furthered by supporting the BJP!

Many questions remain even if we agree to purchase Ali Anwar’s rationale momentarily for argument’s sake. As the Mahaz was not yet a political party (which it still is not) but a loose social formation could it not have taken a principled stand of taking a neutral position (or supporting RJD candidates) in the seats where the BJP had fielded its candidates while supporting JD (U) candidates in others? What prompted Ali Anwar from not considering this position? What made him campaign for the BJP’s Shahnawaz Hussain in Bhagalpur Lok Sabha by-election and especially without informing the core members of the Mahaz as now I am told? Political compulsions, I guess. But doesn’t he resemble here a convict who blames God for the crimes he committed because He created sin in the first place!

Whatever the arguments and rationalisations, the bottom line is that both Ali Anwar and Drnm Ejaz Ali have been awarded with Rajya Sabha memberships for their services to the JD(U) subsequently. One is left to wonder if that would further the agenda of the PM or seal their tongues on issues that matter! At least on the question of protesting against the recent issue of reservations granted to upper caste Muslim ‘Maliks’ by Nitish Kumar’s government the latter seems to be the case.

We have noted before that ‘majority’ communalism and its ‘minority’ variety are two sides of the same coin. Though both forms of communalism need to be opposed, arguably it is the former which is more dangerous as it has the potential to capture state power and turn it fascist. In this context, the PM’s toying with majority communalism ( the BJP) even through the smokescreen of the JD(U) is fraught with dangerous implications. While the PM has condemned minority fundamentalism in the strongest possible words, somewhere down the line its attack on majority fundamentalism has attenuated. In cornering minority fundamentalism and turning a blind eye to majority fundamentalism it is putting the cart before the horse. This is bad strategy to say the least and a vulgar display of an extremely opportunist streak to say the worst.

Many years back Jotiba Phule had suggested that if Brahminism (and its contemporary form Hindutva one may add now) is to be vanquished in India, it is by mobilising and consolidating all the depressed castes/classes across religious identities (indigenous peoples) under the rubric of ‘Bahujan Samaj’. The PM could have worked towards that end. However, the petty ambitions of its leaders have dissuaded them from taking this task in earnest till now. In fact, one may wonder if the stream is flowing in the opposite direction of late. We all know that the BJP is a pariah for Muslims and rightly so. A united Muslim voting pattern, howsoever problematic, keeps it in check and introduces an element of countervailing power in the political system. However, the PM’s efforts to fragment the Muslim monolith without undertaking an equally strong parallel process of fomenting solidarities with corresponding caste movements/groups in the majority community could have dangerous implications. The lag between the two processes could only go on to serve the saffron brigade in the short run. And, as Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead!

To my utter amazement, this does not seem to be of any concern to any of the cadres or office- bearers of the Mahaz or the Morcha. Though there have been dissensions and splits in both organisations of late, none of the various factions has raised this issue. Ershadul Haq, a member of the Mahaz and on the editorial team of their journal, has also recently fired a salvo at the PM’s leadership by publishing an article that criticises it bitterly. [‘Bihar Muslim-Dalit Movement Dying?’, Dalit Voice, June 15, 2008] However, the dominant theme in all these critiques and dissensions is the material corruption that comes with power or grudges of not being treated fairly by the leadership. In fact, I was horrified when in one of the recent conversations a young cadre suggested that if Muslims join the BJP in substantial numbers it would transform its agenda in favour of Muslims. No one seems to be least bothered with the PM’s total surrender to the JD(U) and the gains which will indirectly be reaped by the BJP in the coming elections as a result of this. I would even venture to go as far as to suggest that none of these cliques and factions is even willing to think beyond the JD(U) and is more likely to succumb to the slightest temptation offered by it.

Surely Nitish Kumar must be credited for having read the writing on the wall at the earliest. By co-opting the PM’s leadership and initiating various measures for the suppressed castes and sections [like reservations for the extremely backward castes (EBCs) and women in local bodies/panchayat elections] he has tried to rescript Bihar’s political landscape. However, Lok Sabha elections are not merely a Bihar affair. They are a national affair. A second term for the BJP would be suicidal for the country. Hence, in the interest of the nation and the community the PM must chalk out a fresh strategy and pledge to defeat the BJP in the coming elections. Rather than delivering fiery speeches across the country Ali Anwar and Dr Ejaz Ali would do well to travel across Bihar and prepare their constituency for this task. If they do not act now and allow the fascists to piggyback on their shoulders to power it would be a complete betrayal of the central promise of the PM. In that case neither would they require the motto nor faith in secularism as then hardly any secularism would be left to talk about!

The author is a member of a research-activism group called the Patna Collective. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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