‘Muslims are secular; they want development with dignity’

In conversation with Asaduddin Owaisi, the leader of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party. The following are excerpts from an interview:

Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

MIM has been a party engaged in identity politics. Lately, it seems that you are moving towards embracing more modern ideas…

I don’t agree with your contention that MIM is engaged in identity politics. In 1960 we contested the municipal elections for the first time. There was a ban imposed on this party in 1948, and during its revival the Constitution was amended, saying that we will abide by the Indian Constitution. Out of 15 municipal corporators who got elected in Hyderabad, four were Dalits. This was in 1960. So how can you say that we are doing identity politics? Now, if I am asking for empowerment of the weaker sections of the Muslim minority, how is it identity politics?

You said we are moving towards modern ideas… . In 1970 we established an ITI. In 1984, when NT Rama Rao was overthrown, we got permission to start a medical-engineering college. So how do you call it identity politics or politics of rhetoric or politics of emotion? I am really surprised. This is not the truth. 

At the same time how do you view your cadres attacking Taslima Nasreen or your brother, Akbaruddin Owaisi, delivering a hate speech…

Fine. That is there. And the court will look into it. 

But do you regret what happened with Taslima Nasreen?

The court will decide if it was bad. How can I comment on it now? Vandalism happened in my house last month. 

They have put a barricade now…

No, the barricade is because of the home minister who lives next door, not because of me. The biggest vandalism India has seen was the destruction of the Babri Masjid. 

You move around among the Muslim community quite a bit. What has been the reaction of the Muslim community since Modi became Prime Minister?

It is wrong to refer to it as a post-Modi situation. Muslims are really in great need of political representation and voice. This has got nothing to do with the coming of Modi or anything.Also, Muslims want development, along with dignity. Neither has happened. Whenever there is talk of secularism, the whole burden comes upon the Muslim community. For the last 60 years we have been carrying this burden of secularism; development has not happened. You can disagree with me, but I can corroborate my assertion by placing before you the findings of the Sachar Committee. I can put Ranganath Mishra’s data in front of you. The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data is also there. The political representation of Muslims is on the decline. 

Why do you say the burden of secularism is on the Muslims? This is something which Azam Khan also says…

The difference between me and Azam Khan is that his party uses Muslims to remain in power and exploit. The Samajwadi Party was established on December 6, 1992, we should not forget that.

The most unfortunate part is that Azam Khan, being the minister in charge of Muzaffarnagar, did not even have the guts to visit all those places where 50,000 Muslims were rendered homeless. He did not have the courage to ask for the arrest of those culprits who raped many women of which 10 moved the Supreme Court for action. The SC has recently asked the state government to take action, or it will initiate contempt of court proceedings.

Azam Khan couldn’t even ask Akhilesh Yadav to provide 16 percent reservation for Muslims, even when it was a promise made by them (the SP). He couldn’t ensure that those innocent boys living in jail on trumped-up charges were released. A Muslim boy died in police custody, and there was no action taken.

Azam Khan can only talk. He can only make loud claims. But what has happened during the last two-and-a-half years of the SP government is there for everyone to see.  And that is the case in UP, where you have Muslims as 18 percent of the population. In 2009 eight Muslims were elected to the Lok Sabha. And in 2014, from within the SP, five MPs get elected, from just one family, from one caste only?

I don’t want this kind of secularism. Secularism as a burden should be shared by everyone and the fruits of secularism should be equally distributed. 

You mentioned expanding to UP. But the Hindi belt has never been kind to outfits like yours…

This is a challenge and an opportunity for me. I will try my utmost. That is the beauty of democracy—you are successful if you are able to convince the people. If you fail to convince, it is the end of the road. 

But your party has a Muslim name. You take up issues pertaining mostly to Muslims. Other outfits, such as the SP or the Congress have been batting for Muslims
all these years…

Yes, and using them for their own political interest and their own survival. Nothing substantive has been done for the Muslim community in those areas. 

But you were also aligned with the Congress party. What caused that rupture?

In 2012, when AP saw many communal incidents and we were constantly requesting the then Congress Chief Minister, Kiran Kumar Reddy, and the Congress leadership to take action, nothing really moved. That was when we decided to withdraw support to the Congress government in the state. It was then that we also started thinking about how we could support the Congress government in Delhi when we had withdrawn support in Hyderabad? So we came out in 2012. 

But in times when there is a government at the centre which is perceived to be majoritarian, don’t you think that breaking social alliances is a bad idea?

I broke in 2012, and at that time the talk was ‘Oh no, the country will not allow Modi to become the Prime Minister’. When Nitin Gadkari was appointed president of the BJP, I told the Congress leaders that Modi would be the prime ministerial candidate. They laughed at me. They said, ‘Forget it, you are a kid, this country won’t accept such a man’.

I told them you can’t say it with so much conviction. This is a democracy and you can’t stop it. They still didn’t believe me. They would reply in a patronising way and say, ‘We are there, nothing will happen.’

Look what has happened. Who is responsible for Modi’s victory? It is these secular parties. How am I responsible? I contested just two Lok Sabha seats: Hyderabad and Secunderabad. Modi has won 280 seats. Who is responsible for that? Had these parties done their work properly, I am sure the BJP could have been controlled. 

Is the BJP’s victory helping in a counter consolidation for a party like MIM?

No. Had that been the case then I should have had at least 10 MLAs in the Maharashtra assembly or at least seven to eight MPs in the Lok Sabha. 

How was your experience in the Maharashtra assembly elections?

In Maharashtra we tried. We have been working there for the last three-four years. We contested municipal elections, won some, lost some. In the assembly elections, we tried our utmost in 24 constituencies out of which five candidates were non-Muslims. We got 5,24,000 votes. The total Muslim vote polled in Maharashtra was about 60 lakh. There are about one  crore Muslim voters in Maharashtra.

Out of the 60 lakh, assuming all the votes we got were from Muslims, where did the other 55 lakh votes go? They must have gone to the Congress and NCP or some independent candidates. So how am I responsible for that? Despite all these things the BJP is winning.

The important question that needs to be asked of these secular parties is, ‘How is it that your votes have gone to the BJP?’ Muslims have never left secularism. But if your votes have gone to the BJP, isn’t that a defeat for secularism? When I stand up and say we should contest elections, fingers are immediately pointed at me, saying, ‘This guy is out there to weaken secularism’.

Your vote has gone to the BJP, your brother, sister, family, caste is voting for the BJP. But that is not the defeat of secularism, you say. The moment I contest, they say I am weakening secularism.

I am not going to shoulder this burden. I will not lift this weight. You asked me is this the right time? I will not shoulder this burden alone; I will not allow my community to do it either. This weight has to be shared by all, and the fruits of secularism have to be shared by all.

It shouldn’t so happen that in times of trouble you come to us and then when you succeed you enjoy it alone. I won’t let that happen. Even the Muslim youth have aspirations. When you talk about aspirational India, what about the Muslim youth? They also want to progress, live a respectable life. They want jobs, government jobs and then they have political aspirations. They want development with dignity. They are not out there with a begging bowl.

But how are Akbar’s trademark hate speeches going to help the Muslim community or their aspirations?

In the Maharashtra elections, show me one case that has been booked against Akbar. In Maharashtra, wherever I went, they served me a Section 149 CrPC notice. I used to show it to the people that I have got one more love letter. Everywhere my speeches are recorded by my opponents, by the ECI, by the police, yet no case was booked. If in our public meetings people don’t fall asleep why do you blame me? What Saeed Naqvi wrote, that this is like another Parsi theatre (laughs). 

Do you think that there is a bias against a Muslim leader like you?

Yes, the political executive and the police under them are biased. The judiciary is different. It is through the justice system, though in a delayed way, that we are still being exonerated. It is so, whether it is the Akshardham attack case, or other cases. It is taking time. 

It is possibly so even within institutions like the ECI. Amit Shah gives a hate speech in Muzaffarnagar, but is still allowed. You, on the other hand, we learn, have been stopped.

Notices were issued, but I wasn’t stopped. I wasn’t told by the ECI that I should not give a speech before the Maharashtra elections. On normal days I am stopped. In Azamgarh my meetings were cancelled thrice. Is Azamgarh the personal fiefdom of the Yadav family? If I want to criticise them I will do it, as long as I don’t attract Sections 153 and 155. 

Do you think the Muslims are looking for a leader from within the community, post the election results?

Muslims want political representation. They want development with dignity.  Modi’s victory has destroyed this myth of a Muslim votebank. For that I must thank him. There has always been a majority votebank. 

Why would you call it a majority votebank?

It is because the system that we are following was supposed to be a participatory form of democracy. It should be a representative form of democracy which represents each and every section of the society. Unfortunately, in the last 15 Lok Sabha elections which have been held, apart from 1980 when you had some eight percent of Muslims in the Lok Sabha, there have always been four to six percent MPs. So what kind of representative politics is this? Isn’t this communalism? 

 You recently demanded in the Lok Sabha that all minorities be given SC status. How has this gone down with your Dalit support base?

They also accepted it. What is wrong in that? It is injustice. How can an article of the Constitution violate a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution? How can you have two contradictory articles? You say you have the right to equality, rule of law, freedom of religion. So how can an article go against a fundamental right, which is sacrosanct?

In the Keshavanand Bharti case they said the basic features of the Constitution cannot be touched. Here you have Article 341 which is violating rule of law—equality before law, right to religion, because 341 is based on religion. So this is a mistake which has to be corrected. I am sure the Supreme Court will do justice. 

What are your views on the uniform civil code?

It is not acceptable to the Muslim community. Although there are some issues, for example, the social evil of dowry or some instances of ill-treatment, but this is for the Muslims themselves to reform. The Muslim Personal Law Board, of which I am also a member, has held many public meetings and started a process which we call Islah-e-Maushara, that has been successful. The scholars have condemned and given a fatwa against dowry. The Muslim Personal Law Board has taken a stand that we will not agree to a uniform civil code because it is nothing but a device to hurt the Muslim community and to make India a theocracy. 

But some organisations like the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan have been working on it.

Fine. They came out with this thing called the Nikahnama, but they failed to do their homework properly. The Nikahnama is in existence in Hyderabad state for the last 80 years. If you come to Hyderabad and ask for the records of nikaahs in the last 80 years you will get it. This is because, during Nizam rule, the great scholar, Dr Anwarullah Shah Faruqi, said that this document with all the details should be there. So what they have done is nothing new. As a community we will have to go and talk about it. But a uniform civil code of what? 

Divorce laws, property rights, et al.

Everything is there. It is the implementing part which the Muslim community will have to do. But I am not for a uniform civil code. Wherever social evils like dowry exist we have to eradicate them. 

The accusation has often been that these are just a group of men who are deciding for the whole community.

No, you are wrong. Next time, when the Muslim Personal Law Board meets, I will invite you. And you will see a lot of Muslim women members sitting there, of which some are Islamic scholars. 

You have been quite vocal against Imam Bukhari. What role should the clergy play for Indian Muslims?

The clergy has a very important role, but Bukhari is not an aalim. He is not even a complete hafiz. He is a hafiz of only 22 paras. He doesn’t even lead the tarawih prayers in Ramazan for the remaining eight chapters. Yes, I admit the clergy has an important role in eradicating social evils, in making Muslims understand their religion. But if they want to enter politics, then they must contest elections. See, anyone can contest elections in India, any maulana, pandit, or pastor. If they want to enter politics, they must contest elections because that is how they can be accountable. 

You don’t like them giving a fatwa or a political advice in a Friday sermon?

How can you give a fatwa on politics? A fatwa can only be given on the question of understanding of Shariah. And a fatwa is given by a Mufti, not by any Tom, Dick or Harry of an Imam who is not a hafiz of the Quran. He cannot give a fatwa. And if he has to give a fatwa then he should contest elections. He should contest, win and then tell us how popular he is.   

PHOTO: Valay Singh 


This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2015