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Rethinking the Pasmanda Movement

The century-old Pasmanda Movement, which rejects the notion of a monolithic Muslim identity, received a new lease of life in the 1990s with the advent of the Mandal reservations. Yet, by focusing solely on caste, the revival has already run out of steam. The PM has to engage in both the political and the social if it is to realise its liberatory promise.

COMMENTARYmarch 28, 2009 vol xliv no 13 EPW Economic & Political Weekly8Rethinking the Pasmanda MovementKhalid Anis AnsariThe century-old Pasmanda Movement, which rejects the notion of a monolithic Muslim identity, received a new lease of life in the 1990s with the advent of the Mandal reservations. Yet, by focusing solely on caste, the revival has already run out of steam. The PM has to engage in both the political and the social if it is to realise its liberatory promise.The Pasmanda Movement (PM) refers to the contemporary caste/class movement among Indian Muslims. Though the history of caste movements among Muslims can be traced back to the commencement of the Momin Movement in the second decade of the 20th century it is the Mandal decade (the 1990s) that saw it getting a fresh lease of life. That decade witnessed the formation of two frontline organisations in Bihar – the All India United Muslim Morcha (1993) led by Ejaz Ali and the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz (1998) led by Ali Anwar – and various other organisations else-where. Pasmanda, a word of Persian origin, literally means “those who have fallen behind”, “broken” or “oppressed”. For our purposes here it refers to the dalit and backward caste Indian Muslims who con-stitute, according to most estimates, 85% of the Muslim population and about 10% of India’s population.By invoking the category of “caste”, the PM interrogates the notion of a monolithic Muslim identity and consequently much of “mainstream” Muslim politics based on it. By and large, mainstream Muslim poli-tics reflects the elite-driven symbolic/emotive/identity politics (Babri Mosque, Uniform Civil Code, status of Urdu, the Aligarh Muslim University and so on) which thoroughly discounts the develop-mental concerns and aspirations of com-mon Muslim masses. By emphasising that the Muslim identity is segmented into at least three caste/class blocks – namely, ashraf (elite upper caste), ajlaf (middle caste or shudra) and arzal (lowest castes or dalit) – the PM dislodges the common-place assumption of any putative uniform community sentiment or interests of Indian Muslims. It suggests that just like any other community, Muslims too are a divided house with different sections har-bouring different interests. It stresses that the emotive issues raised by elite Muslims engineer a “false consciousness” (to use a Marxian term) and that this euphoria around Muslim identity is often generated in order to bag benefits from the state as wages for the resultant de-politicisation of the Muslim masses. When the PM raises the issue of social justice and proportional representation in power structures (both community and state controlled) for the pasmanda Muslims it lends momentum to the process of democratisation of Muslim society in particular and the Indian state and society in general.Besides, thePM also takes the forces of religious communalism head on: one, by privileging caste over religious identity it crafts the ground for cementing solidari-ties with corresponding caste/class blocks in other religious communities, and, two, by combating the notion of a monolithic Muslim identity it unsettles the symbiotic relationship between “majority” and “minority” fundamentalism. In short, the PM holds the promise of bringing Muslim politics back from the abstract to the con-crete, from the imaginary to the real, from the heavens to the earth! But despite these brave promises the PM has been unable to create the impact that was expected of it. Any mass movement must strive to maintain a balance between the social and the political. The pioneers of caste movements – Jotiba Phule, Periyar E V Ramasamy or B R Ambedkar – were quite alive to this notion. Apart from raising radical political demands like the one for a separate electorate for the de-pressed castes, Ambedkar is also remem-bered for social campaigns like the Mahad Satyagraha and also for raising labour and gender issues on more than one occasion. Periyar too raised the social question when, inspired by a rationalist worldview, he put to fire religious texts (which he con-sidered exploitative) on the streets of Madras. Phule too defied the standard conventions of his day when he decided to open a school for the education of girls. One can scarcely fail to notice the vigor-ous social and cultural critique of Indian society that they offered both in theoreti-cal terms and in action. The PM has unfor-tunately not taken this aspect seriously. Khalid Anis Ansari ( is a member of a research-activism group, The Patna Collective.
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 28, 2009 vol xliv no 139Right from the days of the All India Momin Conference (its pre-eminent leader being Abdul Qayyum Ansari) way back in the 1930s to its present post-Mandal ava-tars, the PM has singularly concentrated on affirmative action (now the politics around Article 341 of the Constitution) and electoral politics at the expense of other pressing issues. It has been completely ineffective in developing a comprehensive alternative social/cultural/economic agenda and the corresponding institutions and mass mobili-sation that it necessitates. As a result of this perennial weakness it has failed to preserve an independent outlook and has incessantly been subsumed by one political formation or another. If the Momin Conference was assimilated by the Congress, both Ali Anwar and Ejaz Ali have been co-opted by Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) in Bihar. Moreover, it has been lackadaisical in forg-ing alliances with corresponding caste/class movements in other communities thereby shying away from the task of forming a broad coalition of suppressed communities across religious identities or the “Bahujan” alternative as Phule labelled it. Conse-quently, it remains captivated by its limited electoral agenda and has been transformed into an easy route for realising the petty political ambitions of the nascent middle class elite in pasmanda communities. Need to Focus on SocialIf thePM is to do justice to its potential, it is imperative that it incorporates the social into its agenda. I can think of at least three interventions in this regard as of now, and all of them flow from the main features of caste system itself. The caste system is premised on three essential features: (a) the princi-ple of hierarchy in accordance with the elaborate rules of purity-pollution as regis-tered and legitimised in the canonical reli-gious texts; (b) endogamy; and (c) heredi-tary occupational specialisation. These three features apply to the Muslim community too in varying degrees. While caste as a principle ofsocial stratification is not acknowledged in the Holy Quran (the inclusion of a close category “class” is a contentious issue though) but for all practical purposes it op-erates as a category in the Islamic juristic/legal corpus and interpretative tradition as it has evolved in India (see: Masood Alam Falahi,Hindustan Mein Zaat Paat Aur Musalman (in Urdu) (Delhi: Al Qazi Publi-shers, 2007)). Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that the process of Islamisation has only worked to reinforce ratherthan weaken or eliminate caste distinctions. Endogamy is still rampant in Indian Muslims as the various matrimonial columns in the newspapers/internet testify. As far as the link of caste with hereditary vocation is concerned the market economy has eroded it to some extent but a large number of pasmanda Muslims still find themselves engaged in caste-based callings. Due to the above-mentioned trajectory of caste in Indian Muslims, the task for the PM seems clearly cut-out. One, it must offer a critique of the Islamic interpretative tradition as it has evolved in India and if possible construct an alternative Islamic hermeneutics from the perspective of the marginalised. The dalit/bahujan move-ment has often rejected Hindu religion in totality and located its philosophical and ideological roots in the Indian mode of dialectical-materialist discourse and in their day-to-day interaction with nature. Hence, its epistemology has had a strong material basis and also an inclination to link itself to the production process of the Indian subcontinent as expressed histori-cally in the discourses of Lokayats or Bud-dhism. ThePM, however, has correctly critiqued and protested the casteist inter-pretations of Islam forwarded by the Indian ulema and has reclaimed the strong emphasis of Islam on social equality. But what is its take on economic equality on which Islam is presumably silent? Is it willing to interrogate the interpretative methodologies of “imperial” Islam which has been bequeathed us and is being con-stantly indoctrinated to pasmanda students via the obfuscating and unimaginative curriculum and pedagogical practices in Islamic seminaries (madrasas)? Is it will-ing to discover the rationalist and progres-sive trends in Islamic history (theMutazila andQaramita for instance)? How does it relate to the materialist tradition in Indian society as earlier mentioned? How does it relate to the liberation theology move-ments in contemporary Islam in other locations (in South Africa for instance)?Two, broad campaigns and effective social interventions need to be undertaken to encourage inter-caste marriages (and also love marriages!) in Muslim society. There is a strong link between caste and patriarchy in India. By resorting to these measures caste politics will be engendered and set on the liberatory track. Three, a rigorous analysis of the Muslim working class is imperative and strategies must be designed accordingly. The entire politics of reservations concentrates on challenging the monopoly of upper-castes in the organised public sector which con-stitutes only a small – though privileged – segment of the job market. While this is essential, it only affects society indirectly by democratising the state in the long run. A majority of pasmanda Muslims, however, work in adverse conditions and depressed wages in the unorganised sector (which provides about 90% of Indian employment) either as labourers in sectors where caste plays a minimal role (farms, brick kilns, construction industry, bidi manufacture, etc) or in caste determined vocations (as weavers, potters, oil-pressers and so on). The PM would do well to make common cause with movements that are working towards narrowing this huge gap between the organised and unorganised sector at a macro level and also think of organising caste-based occupations in cooperatives or retraining those skilled workers whose tra-ditional skills have dated and no longer gene-rate anappropriate demand in the market.However, I must stress here that the above mentioned suggestions are provi-sional in nature and not well-formed intel-lectual positions as yet and I merely offer them here for a debate among individuals and groups who sympathise or are connected to the PM is some way. Also many more is-sues could be taken up and added to the list – for instance, education, health, environ-ment, models of development, art, popular media et al immediately come to my mind.Reconsider IconsBesides, I also feel a need to reconsider the icons that have been selected by thePM because the semiotics of any movement arguably defines and circumscribes its politics. Three personalities have usually been celebrated by the movement: Baba-e-Qaum Abdul Qayyum Ansari, VeerAbdul Hameed andUstad Bismillah Khan. Abdul Qayyum Ansari, who belonged to the julaha (weaver) community, challenged
COMMENTARYmarch 28, 2009 vol xliv no 13 EPW Economic & Political Weekly10the “two-nation theory” and Muslim League politics squarely, but failed to see through the caste/class composition of the Congress politics and was ultimately subsumed by it. Abdul Hameed, who belonged tothe darzi (tailor) community, was awarded with the highest gallantry award Paramveer Chakra posthumously for his bravery and martyrdom in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. Ustad Bismillah Khan, who belonged to the halalkhor (sweeper) community, as we all know, was a renowned musician. I do not intend to underestimate their achievements but it must be said that all these icons are problematic in terms of their liberatory impact. While Abdul Qayyum Ansari’s career ended in a political compromise and could not transcend the immediacy of electoral politics, Abdul Hameed’s contribution entails a danger of succumbing to apologetic nationalism (as was evident in the emotive slogans and songs inspired by his life that were ren-dered in the Pasmanda Waqaar Rally held in Patna recently on 1 July 2008). More-over, Bismillah Khan’s symbol is so inno-cuously apolitical as to make us speculate if it serves any purpose at all. Can the PM move beyond these icons and rediscover more liberatory figures in history? Can Kabir – with his working class background, his unflinching critique of both Hindu and Muslim religious pre-tensions and obscurantism and above all his explicit positioning against the caste system – be offered as a candidate here? Can other liberatory symbols from Islamic and Indian history fit the bill?All in all, the crux of the argument here is that thePM needs to grow beyond quota politics and rethink its abnegation of the social/cultural/economic aspects of the movement. Along with its present accent on democratisation of the state it would do well to also consider the more far-reaching issue of the democratisation of society at large.PM needs to engage in a balancing act between the political and social. This will create the much desired synergy necessary for launching the liber-atory promise of PM on track.UGC Proposal: The Academician’s NightmareGeetha VenkataramanThe draft University Grants Commission proposals for promotions are guaranteed to encourage mediocrity and penalise high quality intellectual effort as academicians race to collect “points” to climb up the academic ladder.The University Grants Commission (UGC) is an apex body of the gov-ernment of India charged with pro-viding funds and maintenance of stand-ards in institutions of higher education. An important aspect in its mandate is ad-vising the union and state governments on the measures necessary for improvement of university education.The recent document that the UGC has made available on its web site (see the draft proposal at is one such effort. The document is 37 pages long and apart from the notifications on the revised pay scales, and the minimum qualifica-tions for appointment of teachers to uni-versities and colleges, it also contains pro-posals for maintenance of standards. Intricate as they are, these proposed changes have far-reaching implications not only for the varsities but also in a wider sense. India is a country still with miles to go in terms of the reach of and access to quality higher education. We face a challenge on how to increase the numbers enrolled in higher education while being able to ensure that quality does not suffer. It is an axiom that one cannot improve the quality of higher education without improving the quality of teaching and research in universities.In order to address the issue of quality and ensuring that it gets upgraded over time, theUGC has proposed a series of measures in its draft proposal. The inten-tion and impulse are positive, and the effort long overdue. It is also heartening that this document is available for all to study. What was unfortunate though was the short period of just four days given for a response to the measures proposed in the document. Given the far-reaching implications of such measures this was hasty to say the least.The two new measures that have been introduced are the Academic Performance Indicator (API) and the Weightage Point (or WP) tables. Both these are to be used to judge the merit of a candidate for selection to posts other than at the entry level and for promotions at both college and university departments. The API requires an assess-ment of the aptitude of the candidate for teaching, research, administration, com-munication and other academic or administrative skills that are required in higher education. A key element in this assessment will be a Performance Ap-praisal Scoring System (PASS) that the concerned university has to evolve based on the WP tables that have been included in the draft proposal of the UGC. Significantly, the WP tables are tucked away in the appendices at the very end of the draft proposal. They are easy to Geetha Venkataraman ( is at the Institute of Lifelong Learning, University of Delhi.

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