As the post-Mandal (that is after 1990) politics in India, especially in the northern half, of the country has undergone a sea change. A sizeable number of public opinion makers have by design or out of ignorance started drawing the exact parallels between Hindu and Muslim societies. This is not to suggest that there is no caste differences within the Muslim society and that feudal mindset does not work here. It needs to be mentioned that caste system has no religious sanction in Islam.
Yet it is also a fact that the daughter (not son) of Dr Ejaz Ali, once the leading light of the erstwhile Backward Muslim Morcha was a couple of years back married to an influential upper caste family. Dr Ali’s son-in-law is the grandson of late Mr Nauman of Patna. The latter was a prominent leader of Bihar unit of Muslim League in pre-partition India. The marriage ceremony was attended by people and politicians cutting across the party and religious lines.
This is also a reality of the Muslim society as till a decade back Dr Ali was known for firebrand oratory against the upper caste Muslims.
Notwithstanding such isolated incidents the need of the hour is to objectively analyse the issue in proper historical perspective.
There is no doubt that backward Muslims could not get due representation in the politics of secular parties even in the pre-1990 years. Those were the period of the Congress domination and the backward Muslims, especially Ansaris across the country used to overwhelmingly vote for this party.
In the pre-1947 years a sizeable number of affluent and upper caste Muslims threw their lot behind the Muslim League. Even after independence there were occasions when many upper caste Muslims voted for the non-Congress parties. In spite of this fact the Congress had more upper caste leaders than backward Muslims, who till the post-Emergency 1977 election were their main vote-bank.
In 1980s a series of communal riots in Moradabad, Meerut, Aligarh, Kanpur, Bhiwandi, Biharsharif, Bhagalpur etc. greatly distanced Muslims as such and backward among them more as powerloom, handloom, lock, brassware and leather industries were greatly affected. Backward Muslims have a sizeable presence in these businesses.
The social, economic and educational backwardness of this section of Muslims may be responsible for the less representation of backward Muslims in Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and state Assemblies–obviously in comparison to the upper castes.
A peep into history would reveal that if the British politically and militarily defeated the upper caste Muslims they economically destroyed the backward ones. Though there was no such upper caste-backward caste divide then, the latter were especially engaged in cloth-making, embroidery, construction work as well as in other art and craft professions.
Pre-Industrial Revolution India was then a big economic power and Muslims, though a small minority had a sizeable share in business and trade.
The British systematically destroyed all the castes–of Hindus and Muslims–engaged in textile, art and craft work as they wanted to bring their own products in the markets. Many Indian products were so good that they were exported to the countries in the vicinity.
A study of 1857 War of Independence reveals as to why many Muslim social groups engaged in manufacturing sector strongly fought against the British. More than half a century later they were the ones who openly backed Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign of Swaraj. The symbolic use of ‘charkha’ by him attracted those engaged in weaving profession cutting across the religious lines. In fact this was the single largest business in which Indians were employed in such a large number.
The loyalty of backward castes towards Congress continued in the post-independence India. But the politics were still largely dominated by upper caste leaders, though prominent figures like Maulana Asim Bihari, Abdul Qayyum Ansari etc emerged from two towns of Bihar–Biharsharif and Dehri-on-Sone respectively.
However, after their demise in 1953 and 1973 respectively no such figures emerged from the backward castes. Incidentally, both were Ansaris.
Curiously, the backward caste Muslim politics underwent a big shift in north India after the formation of the Backward Muslim Morcha by Dr Ejaz Ali in the post-1992 Babri Masjid demolition days. Unlike in the past this time the leadership of the backward were in the hands of a person coming from Rayeen (Vegetable merchant) caste and not Ansaris, who are numerically the strongest social group among Muslims.
Dr Ali is the son-in-law of Ghulam Sarwar, who was the Speaker of Bihar Assembly during the first tenure of Lalu Prasad between 1990 and 1995. Sarwar, a prominent Urdu journalist, never got engaged in caste politics and was considered as a prominent anti-Congress voice among Muslims.
Both he and Lalu did not like the idea of Dr Ali to float such an organisation at the height of Babri Masjid demolition movement. Many Muslims, including several backwards, even started casting aspersions over Dr Ali.
But the latter’s popularity increased in Bihar, UP, Bengal and some other states. Dr Ali received a big setback after one of his associates Ali Anwar Ansari parted ways after a few years. He floated Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz. Unlike Dr Ali, who is a surgeon, Ali Anwar started his career as left-leaning Hindi journalist, who later came close to Lalu too.
But Lalu was not very much impressed by the politics of both. This was so notwithstanding the fact that there were several other well-known backward caste faces in Lalu’s own team. Apart from Sarwar, Ilyas Husain was a trusted lieutenant and minister in his cabinet.
Jawaid Eqbal Ansari was also a minister. Mumtaz Ansari was elected to Lok Sabha and Aas Mohammad Ansari was sent to Rajya Sabha in 1994. This was besides several Muslim leaders of Seemanchal where the backward-upper castes divide was quite different. Mohammad Taslimuddin went on to become Union minister of state for home in the United Front government. He was from Kulhaiya caste.
Akhtar-ul-Iman, who became RJD MLA for the first time in 2005 was a prominent Surjapuri face. He left the party in 2014 to join Janata Dal United and subsequently crossed over to All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen on the eve of 2015 Assembly poll.
When Nitish Kumar became chief minister in Nov 2005 he went on over-drive to woo Muslims–in whatever way possible. Though Dr Ali and Ali Anwar were now locked in a bitter struggle to lead the backward movement Nitish sent both to Rajya Sabha. In fact Ali Anwar got two full terms till he was denied ticket in 2014 and subsequently thrown out of Janata Dal United.
Lalu, on the other hand, chose to make Ghulam Ghous an RJD MLC. He is the nephew of Sarwar and a political novice then. He went to become the leader of opposition in Council in 2011. Lalu promoted Ghous as he wanted to cut Dr Ali to size. It is other thing that Ghous too crossed over to Janata Dal United in 2014.
In the meantime Dr Ali too softened his anti-upper caste position and replaced his Backward Muslim Morcha with the pan-Muslim outfit, All India United Muslim Morcha. Ali Anwar too lost his destination.
No doubt several smaller organisations have come up–or are surviving from the past–yet they could not expand their support base.
So very much like Peace Party of Dr Mohammad Ayub Ansari in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh Dr Ali later wanted to emerge as the leader of Muslim community as such. Dr Ayub who got elected as MLA in 2012 faded into oblivion after the electoral defeat in 2017.
In Bihar too, both Dr Ali and Ali Anwar had realised that they are now a spent force and have no bargaining position. So be it Dr Ayub of UP or these two backward leaders of Bihar they all have in a way conceded that they can flex their muscles when secular parties are in power and the community as such has a better representation in Assembly or Parliament.
(The writer, a senior journalist, is based in Patna. The views are personal.)