BMC Election 2017: Why Asaduddin Owaisi makes us uneasy
Akbaruddin Owaisi canvassing for AIMIM at Govandi yesterday
ON Saturday, Akbaruddin Owaisi was at Govandi in Mumbai. The fierytongued, clean-shaven Owaisi, separated from his better-known, elder sibling only by a year, was canvassing for the AIMIM (All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen). The party is fielding 50 candidates in next month’s BMC elections.

Asaduddin Owaisi himself, in the meanwhile, has been campaigning furiously in Uttar Pradesh, laying himself open to the charge of dividing the Muslim vote. Why, for instance, could he not support the Samajwadi-Congress combine in UP in such a crucial election?

“Will this question haunt me for my entire life?” The exasperation is communicated clearly through the phone line. “Are we the only scapegoats on whom to pin the responsibility for BJP victories? Why don’t you ask the Congress why it lost in Jharkhand, Haryana, Delhi, where we didn’t fight?”

Yet, for all his seeming reasonableness — not only of his argument but also of all the causes he takes up passionately — Asaduddin Owaisi stirs a certain disquiet in many people, including those from his community.

In the last five years the Owaisi brothers have expanded the footprints of their father Salahuddin’s provincial party beyond the Old City in Hyderabad. They have a reasonable presence in Maharashtra (with the AIMIM likely to do better than Raj Thackeray’s MNS in next month’s municipal elections) and Asaduddin is now making determined forays into UP politics.

The inhumanities of Gujarat 2002 and Muzaffarnagar 2013 are a constant theme in Asaduddin Owaisi’s speeches. Most people forget Mumbai 1992-93, but as Dr Rama Shyam, who lives in the Muslim ghetto of Jogeshwari, points out, Owaisi is the only one who brought up the nonimplementation of the Srikrishna Commission Report in his recent speech in the city. Shyam also says that while the denial of civic amenities to Muslim areas has long been a reality, Owaisi is the only politician to have made this an election issue.

“But while I support him for raising these two issues, I cannot ask people to vote for him,” says Shyam, who runs the NGO, Saher, in Jogeshwari. “I cannot support his brand of identity politics.”

For many young Muslims, Owaisi, with his command over English, his oratory and his suaveness, is a role model. Junaid Qureshi, who has completed his Masters in Commerce from Mumbai, and who is set to do a PhD, says, “He substantiates his arguments with facts and can hold his own against anyone. He’s not an embarrassment to us like Abu Asim Azmi.” Professor Mulani, who teaches at a Mumbra college, backs the M.Com student: “No one else speaks up for us. Owaisi is our messiah.”

The Owaisi brothers’ strident espousal of their community’s concerns only serves to highlight the silence of other elected Muslim representatives, whom the elder brother describes as “slaves of so-called secular parties”. While the Owaisis harp on Muslim victimhood, they also aggressively exhort the community to rightfully stake a claim to the India pie — under the Majlis’ leadership. This rhetoric is, however, always accompanied by a thorough trashing of secularism. “What has secularism given us?” asks Owaisi, “Jails instead of schools.”

“Why should we not speak?” asks Asaduddin in his election rallies, mocking editorials that advise him not to “play the communal card.” For 65 years, he says to his approving crowds, “we listened to you, now we will speak and you will listen. You want us to be your slaves, but now the Majlis is here, and Majlis and fear do not go hand in hand,” he proclaims.

The “we” in this defiant challenge obviously refers to Muslims; but who is the enemy? Is it secular parties like the Congress and the Samajwadi Party? Or is it Hindus? This leeway for interpretation is cause for alarm.

Thanks to the Owaisis’ rhetoric over the last two years, ie, since the BJP came to power, many young Muslims feel that only a Muslim party (unlike the Samajwadi Party, where the Yadavs are equally important) can most effectively fight for the community. Isn’t Owaisi in danger of becoming a Jinnah-like divisive figure?

He protests strongly at the idea. “That’s such a travesty of justice. My forefathers rejected Jinnah. They changed the Constitution of the party and said they would abide by the Indian Constitution.”

Why does he attack secularism in his rallies and harp on Muslim grievances as if they are unique? Will this tactic not isolate the community further?

“As if!” he replies scornfully. “As if they are not already isolated. As if they are not living in ghettoes, being denied accommodation everywhere, as if everything is hunky dory and I am spoiling it all by mentioning it. Is your secularism just throwing iftaar parties and eating sheer korma? Does it lie in reciting Urdu poetry?”

“My main problem is that in the name of secularism, we have been left at a loss. Does secularism mean that only so-called secular parties get power while we remain deaf and dumb? We are not a herd.”

While Owaisi is right about vote bank secularism having failed Muslims, he and his brother are guilty of practising the same kind of politics. How is it any different from the BJP’s extreme brand of rhetoric when Akbaruddin Owaisi says: “To those who tell us to leave Hindustan, we say: Why should we? We have given Hindustan the Taj Mahal, the Qutb Minar and the Red Fort, from where every PM unfurls the flag. What have you given us? Gujarat, Muzaffarnagar?”

In fact, the Owaisis’ brand of identity politics mirrors perfectly the BJP’s brand of politics. If the RSS wants Hindus to forget caste differences and unite as Hindus, so that the BJP has a consolidated vote bank, the Owaisi brothers, in rally after rally, exhort their Muslim audiences to forget their sectarian differences and unite under the AIMIM banner. While the elder brother harps on Muslim grievances, the younger challenges them to assert themselves, even if it means coming out on the roads. Remember his famous speech in Nirmal, Andhra Pradesh, in December 2012, where he had challenged, “Just remove the police for 15 minutes, then see how we 25 crore Muslims take on 100 crore Hindus.” The elder brother has not yet condemned this speech. A similar assurance that the Majlis would ensure that the community, which had been struggling with the problem of animal sacrifice on Bakri Eid, could “sacrifice cattle on the streets on Bakri Eid”, swayed many Muslims to work for the party. Today, some of them are remorseful at having been carried away. They now acknowledge that their support for the AIMIM drove their Hindu friends away from them.

Together, the brothers leave their audiences with emotions fully aroused to take on the world — ie, the Hindu-dominated society around them. What could be a more ideal scenario for the BJP?

“What’s the point of rousing emotions within the community when you don’t show them a solution?” asks Hamid Khan of Aurangabad, where the AIMIM recently won 26 seats in the civic polls. “Such appeals can only isolate Muslims from the rest of society,” adds Afsar Usmani of Mumbra. Both are activists of the Movement for Peace and Justice, which works among Muslims on access to government schemes.

The Owaisis’ own record in their fiefdom of Hyderabad’s Old City, a classic ghetto characterised by the same denial of civic schools, hospitals and sanitation that Asaduddin bemoaned in Mumbai’s Muslim wards, only makes their exploitation of genuine Muslim problems more cynical.

In their rallies before the Assembly elections of 2014, the Owaisis had scoffed at Maharashtra’s meagre minority budget, but 70 % of Telegana’s minority budget goes back unused. The area remains in the grip of money lenders and “pahelwans”. The Owaisi brothers as well as three of their MLAs have criminal cases against them, including assault and under Sec 153 A, ie, arousing communal enmity.

The tragedy is that under the BJP many Muslims feel so besieged that they are content that Owaisi speaks up for them. Rues Mohammed Sher Malik, an ex-AAP activist, now with the Swaraj Abhiyan, “Anyway, nobody actually does any work. Many youngsters feel at least he raises these issues.”

Given the failure of secular parties to counter the BJP’s communal politics, Asaduddin Owaisi can look forward to a long run. However, all is not lost. As Muslims themselves point out, wherever there has been a party, or even a candidate, that has worked for Muslims, the community has voted for them. This happened in Bihar’s assembly elections, where again Asaduddin Owaisi had campaigned strenuously, and in Muslimdominated Mumbra during the Maharashtra assembly polls.

A lot also depends on the bonds between the two communities at the grassroots, where both feel their problems are shared, not separate. The BJP is working hard to break these bonds; the more it succeeds, the more the Owaisis will benefit. The reverse holds equally true.