Are Owaisi Brothers Leading Muslims in the Right Direction?
It is a positive step when Muslims form a secular political party in conjunction with other oppressed minorities and struggle for equal rights, development and justice for the dispossessed, while paying adequate attention to their own community. Some examples of this approach are, All India United Democratic Forum of Maulana Ajmal in Assam and Indian Union Muslim League in Kerala. Both have refrained from exclusive and shrill Muslim identity politics, instead focusing on better integration of Muslims in the nation's mainstream. They have refused to embrace the approach of Hindu exclusivist parties like Shiv Sena and BJP. Both of these Muslim dominated parties are mildly successful in their regions of Assam and Kerala respectively.
But in the last one year one Muslim party - the Muslim Ittihad Muslimeen (MIM) of Hyderabad - is increasingly trying to replicate the polarising religion based politics of Shiv Sena and BJP. Perhaps this is so because of the success of these two Hindu fundamentalist parties in recent elections. MIM's tactics and strategy appear to be a throwback to the pre-independece politics of the erstwhile Muslim League and its leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. MIM's two top leaders Asad Owaisi and Akbar Owaisi have increasingly adopted shrill religion based political tactics in tapping the despair and anger of the dispossessed Muslim youth.
Of the 24 MIM candidates in Maharashtra, 21 were Muslims whose rivals in almost all instances were also Muslims from other secular parties. Thus in many constituencies MIM diverted Muslim voters from voting for Muslim candidates of secular parties, dividing the Muslim community votes and helping the BJP and Shiv Sena candidates win. Of the 24 MIM candidates only 2 won. One wonders what 2 MIM MLAs can achieve for Muslims in an Assembly where 185 MLAs belong to the Hindu fundamentalist Shiv Sena and BJP.
Asad Owaisi, a British educated lawyer and member of Indian parliament who used to be relatively moderate. His public speeches, now mostly in heavy Muslim concentration poor neighourhoods, are liberally laced with emotional and angry protest rhetoric. Akbar Owaisi, a college dropout, now specializes in flaming rhetoric that tries to intimidate India's majority Hindus and the government with belicose expressions. Last year in a public speech to a largely Muslim audience in Nirmal, a town in Telangana, he demanded that the government remove police for a day so that Muslims can settle the score with Hindus. In the same speech he made uncharitable comments about the cultural traditions of Hindus.
Together the two Owaisi brothers appear to be emulating fiery extremist Hindu leaders like Parveen Togadia, Sadhvi Rithambra, Uma Bharti, etal, who make similar emotional outbursts to feed on the religious sentiments of Hindus. For their political strategy the Owaisi brothers appear to have chosen the hardcore Shiv Sena and BJP leaders like Uddhav Thackeray, Amit Shah and Mahant Adityanath. The well known Mumbai journalist Jyoti Punwani has reported from a rally of the Owaisi brothers in Mumbai that many Muslim youth enthusiastically claimed that " Owaisi Brothers are Mussalmanon ka Modi" . These youth also told Punwani that they think Owaisi brothers are the saviours of Muslims and that Muslims should not pay attention to the MIM candidates themselves, but simply vote for whoever the Owaisi brothers tell them to vote for. This too is exactly how BJP and Modi campaigned the 2014 parliamentary election.
Significantly in Nanded, Maharashtra, where MIM has had 11 corporators in the city's municipality for two years, they have made very little contribution to development in the Muslim majority city. Indeed MIM had difficulty putting up candidates from Nanded in this month's election and the few candidates they put up lost receiving relatively few votes.
The net result of MIM's religion based shrill minority politics is that many Hindu votes consolidated in favour of BJP and Shiv Sena and several candidates, Muslim and non-Muslim, of secular parties including the Muslim friendly Samajwadi party lost in the Maharshtra election and a record number of Shiv Sena and BJP candidates won. The total number of Muslim MLAs in the Maharashtra state Assembly which was a paltry 11 has been further reduced to 10, in a state where Muslims are 12 percent of the population. Owaisi brothers and MIM are claiming that their winning 2 seats in the Maharahtra Assembly is a big success and they plan to replicate this strategy in future elections in West Bengal, Assam and UP, states with significant Muslim population.
Jyoti Punwani has also reported that in Maharashtra a large number of Muslims are concerned about Owaisi brothers' Muslim identity based negative politics that focuses mostly on the emotional and religious sentiments of pockets where Muslim voters are concentrated. They feel that such negative and religion based approach can severely damage the larger educational, economic and social interests of Muslims in a state where Muslims are only 12 percent of the population, and alienate them further from the nation's mainstream. They wish that MIM drop the negative tactics and embrace a positive approach.
India's Muslims need to ponder over the historical backdrop of India's pre-partition politics, and the pros and cons of a polarising religion based Muslim identity politics in a country where they are no more than 15 percent of the population. Where they are thinly spread throughout the country, and where half their community that lives in deprivation, sorely needs educational and economic uplift so that they can be on a level playing field with others. Is the path of shrill polarising politics likely to endear them to the nation's mainstream and help them achieve the badly needed uplift? [20 October 2014]
Kaleem Kawaja lives in Washington DC and is associated with Association of Indian Muslims of America (AIM). www.aimamerica.org