Owaisi: WHAT DOES THIS MAN WANT?
The leader of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, Asaduddin Owaisi, is exploring the unthinkable idea of a pan-Indian party of Muslims to defend secularism. Will it work?
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
“Stop worrying about Indian Muslims. Sixty years back we took a decision to stay on that side of the border and we stand by it. India is our country,” Asaduddin Owaisi, fiery orator and President of the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), told a Pakistani panel during a debate on Geo TV. “We have a Constitution whose preamble states that India is a secular country,” he continued with barbs at the Pakistanis in perfect Dakhani Urdu. “The word jihad has a different connotation for me,” he responded after a Pakistani panelist from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa said that jihad is one of the pillars of Islam. “The biggest jihad is the fight against the self. We should first work on our own flaws,” he told him as the Pakistani audience continued to applaud.
The 45-year-old Owaisi, mostly clad in a sherwani and skull cap, and sporting a beard without a moustache—the stereotypical appearance of a Deobandi Muslim cleric—is a third-time MP from Hyderabad, the erstwhile capital of the Nizam. Yet he refuses to identify himself with any one school of thought of Islam, true to his organisation, MIM, whose name roughly translates into ‘council of Muslim unity’. Politics, he says, is what he follows and practises and dares the clergy to contest elections if they want to enter politics. He is an unusual Muslim politician who cannot be boxed into any one description.
His politics, which revolve around Muslims and how they continue to be treated as second-class citizens, variously invites admiration, awe and even hatred. He has passionately taken up the issues of innocent Muslims being charged with terrorism, forced conversion and the pathetic economic status of the community. On the other hand, he has been against some progressive ideas such as reservation for women in Parliament which would have empowered Muslim women too.
From October to November last year, Sudarshan News, a news channel known for giving a Hindutva spin to events, ran a daily telecast. The hour-long show, “Owaisis ka nanga naach”, had hardline RSS supporters, including Subramanian Swamy, discussing (in language that could easily qualify as hate speech) how to contain Asaduddin and brother Akbaruddin. The telecast later led to vandalism at his Delhi residence which happens to be in a high-security zone sandwiched between Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s residence and the Election Commission of India. Even some liberal Muslims view him with scepticism. “Another orator making an impact. And I won’t be surprised if he actually manages to challenge Mulayam in UP and Lalu in Bihar. But is it good for India in the long run? Just as Modi pushed out secular Hindus towards irrelevance, Owaisi too will only strengthen the hardliners among Muslims,” wrote a Muslim journalist in the social media.
However, there are many others who believe that he is rational and fearless and takes up all the right issues. “A battered party like the Congress needs at least 10 such people to be able to make up a solid opposition in Parliament,” a former strategist for the Congress commented.
Many liken his outfit, which for a very long time was confined to Hyderabad, to the Shiv Sena. And, like Bal Thackeray, the late Sena chief, he and his brother are gifted public speakers. Many say they have a mafia-like grip on the old city in Hyderabad. They often use rhetoric and ridicule to woo their largely Muslim support base. Last January, Akbaruddin, who has a knack for speaking nonsense to grab eyeballs, was booked and jailed on charges of sedition, more than a month after he delivered a two-hour-long hate speech targetting the Hindu community. On an earlier occasion, he had threatened to kill Taslima Nasreen, the controversial Bangladeshi writer who was once heckled by MIM cadre during a visit to Hyderabad. Asaduddin, however, is suave, assertive and incorporates facts and figures in his addresses in Parliament and outside. He was awarded the Sansad Ratna for the overall best performance in the 14th Lok Sabha.
He disputes the comparison with the Shiv Sena. “We don’t go around threatening migrants. And we were not involved in a riot like they were,” he says. Yet, he refuses to criticise his brother. “Let the courts decide,” he says. “He is more shrewd than me when it comes to politics.” He narrates how the younger sibling had to quit studying for a medical degree midway. “My father, Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi, was extremely unwell and I was in London. That is when Akbaruddin came in and entered politics and got so involved that he never completed the degree. He is senior to me,” he says.
“It wasn’t that I always wanted to enter politics,” Owaisi goes on. “I was having a good time in England.” The TV set in his spartan living room blares a debate on Prahlad Singh Gunjal, the BJP MLA from Rajasthan who threatened a Chief Medical Officer a day earlier. “They have suddenly become so powerful,” he comments as our discussion meanders back to his days at Lincoln’s Inn in London, which also happens to be the alma mater of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. “Life was tough. I don’t even remember the number of McDonalds and other such outlets I had to work at to make up my expenses. I didn’t visit India even once during those three years. One, I had no money and, second, I was enjoying it. Since I was never a bright student, I wasn’t funded but the kind of exposure I got during those days was unmatchable,” he recalls.
“When I came back, I was persuaded to contest the Assembly elections,” he says, “and since I was the only one from the party to win I ended up as a full-timer. And the next five years I was just travelling and building up the party.”
“At least my seat will be safe if Modi is anointed the BJP’s PM candidate,” he had told this reporter with a tinge of humour during an earlier meeting. And since Modi was elected the Prime Minister with a thumping majority, things have started looking up for the Owaisis and the MIM. In the recent Maharashtra elections, where the party fielded 24 candidates, including five non-Muslims, it managed to win in two places and got an impressive 0.9 per cent votes. With three Dalits in the fray and to forge a Dalit-Muslim alliance, the party hoisted ‘Jai Bheem and Jai Meem’ (the Urdu alphabet for M) as its slogan. Interestingly, in Parliament he asked for SC status for all minorities, leading many to wonder if he was serious about securing Dalit support. He is contemplating contesting the forthcoming Delhi elections and has already started building a state unit in UP. “The Aam Aadmi Party will suffer a great deal if we contest the elections in Delhi,” he says, though unsure if his party will field candidates. His entry has the potential to upset the AAP’s calculations in at least eight or nine seats with sizeable Muslim populations.
Muslim community-specific pages on Facebook and other social media platforms are full of adulation. Many pitch him as the Muslim answer to Modi. “They are my supporters, who do it independently. We don’t have a social media team. I was myself averse to using Twitter and Facebook till the moment I realised one can’t continue without them in these times,” he says. Yet, he continues to play to the gallery with his symbolism leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind. After Modi adopted a Hindu majority village in Varanasi, Owaisi was quick to adopt a Muslim majority one in Sanjarpur, Azamgarh, which has seen a spate of arrests of youths allegedly involved in terror activities.
Moreover, he started the membership drive from Gorakhpur, the home turf of Yogi Adityanath, the rabble-rouser BJP MP notorious for his anti-minority views. His planned foray into UP and Bihar has unnerved the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). “Owaisi looks like an RSS agent,” Lalu Yadav said towards the fag end of his recent speech which was mostly targetted at Modi and the RSS, at the Janata Party protest at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, recently.
“Let them run scared,” says Owaisi. “We have to take them head-on.” He blames the Congress for the BJP’s victory. “Modi is like Bob Hope. He continues to give out one-liners while the cadre wreaks havoc. Why were ghar wapasi, love jihad, and such things not happening with so much vigour before this government came in? How can one say he doesn’t approve of them? Had the Congress started their campaign in 2012, things wouldn’t have been so bad,” he says. The MIM walked out of the Congress-led government over the Bhagyalakshmi temple issue. Later, Owaisi was arrested in a 2005 case and sent to jail.
Owaisi represents an interesting rupture with the past, when the interests of the minority community were served by secular parties like the Congress and later the socialists. His rise suggests that the Muslims of India are once again willing to repose their faith in a Muslim leader. This is cause for anxiety and wariness amongst those who fear that this development has the potential to repeat another partition if allowed to be taken to its logical conclusion. But Owaisi is a secular Muslim leader attempting to battle the stereotyping of members of his community and their punishment for demanding basic things like jobs, dignity and respect for their faith. Is he asking for too much?
Corrigendum: Akbaruddin Owaisi was arrested a month after his hate speech and not an year as was earlier mentioned. At another place, Asaduddin Owaisi withdrew support over the Bhagyalakshmi temple issue. Both the factual inconsistencies have been duly rectified.