The Question of Muslim leadership in India

Is Asaduddin Owaisi the only hope for Indian Muslims? Asks SHUJAAT BUKHARI, Editor of "Rising Kashmir"

During a recent interaction with Muslim youth leaders of his party, Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi asked them one pertinent question: Why the community has not been able to produce a leader of the stature of India’s first Education Minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad? Rahul was quizzing them as to what were the factors responsible for not having a Muslim leader with countrywide character. The young Muslims who aspire to be a part of policy-making in India had apparently no answers.

Rahul’s quest to know the reasons about absence of a personality like Maulana Azad on the political scene is not out of place in the backdrop of the plight of Muslims in India today. The community, comprising nearly 20 percent of Indian population, much higher than many Muslim countries in the world, is virtually orphaned on the political front. After Azad, there is hardly a Muslim leader of national character who could represent them in the real sense of the term. If it was he in 1950s, there could be many in line who could be considered “Muslim leaders” but it is difficult to place them in the category of one who could represent the entire Indian Muslim community.

Rafi Ahmad Kidwai and Ziaur Rehman Ansari are few odd names but their influence was limited and they could not emerge as a voice for the entire community. Similarly the likes of G M Banatwala and Salahuddin Owaisi emerged on the political turf but again with a confined and limited area of influence. Banatwala’s Muslim League was a party confined to fringes of the South and Owaisi, despite being a hardcore political stalwart, could not speak for the entire Muslim population of India.

It was, however, in 1980s that a name like Syed Shahabuddin emerged on the scene. He was not only a seasoned diplomat but also a sound intellectual with an appeal that could make him the strong voice of the community. Though he reached Parliament yet his voice lost soon after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. He became the sole voice of resentment against the demolition of the Masjid. Unfortunately, he became the victim of the conspiracies of being branded as “communal” and he soon vanished in thin air.

On the other hand, Muslim religious organisations could not come out of the perpetual guilt complex of Partition and failed to give direction to their community. Different religious schools in India played in the hands of one or the other political party, thus concentrating on short-term interests and sacrificing larger ones. The seminaries across north India failed to empower the community both educationally and socially. Their conformist attitude left them far behind to be exploited by fringe elements in the political set-up. Votes in the name of Muslims were garnered by leaders of all political parties. Even Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Ghulam Nabi Azad, two political stalwarts of Jammu and Kashmir, contested from Bihar and Maharashtra and reached Parliament. Similarly, when Saifuddin Soz was briefly pushed into political wilderness by his political mentors in the National Conference, he too was offered to contest from a Muslim-dominated area in India. But he refused and chose to lose from his traditional constituency in Baramulla. There are surely 29 Muslim members in Lok Sabha but hardly any of them could be considered as a leader who genuinely represents Muslims not only in Parliament but in other forums as well.

Take the recent example of the massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Burma and in Assam. With India having the second largest Muslim population in the world, no leader or a body could force the Indian government to register its protest with the Burmese government. Likewise, in Assam all forces were out to shift the focus to “illegal immigration” into Assam from Bangladesh. But if Muslims are solely responsible for the violence in Assam “who gave 5000 AK 47 rifles to Bodos in Assam,” questions Dr Tasleem Ahmed Rehmani of the Muslim Political Council. The plight of Indian Muslims in the camps is pitiable. Parliament Member Badruddin Ajmal told Outlook magazine that 90 percent of those killed in Assam were Muslims. But there is no cohesive political movement that could safeguard the humanitarian rights of the people in Assam. Those occupying the top positions in the government under the quota of being Muslims have only used that power to further their own interests. For this huge gap, Congress being the premier political force in India has also played a role in discouraging the emergence of an able leader. This could be seen in the backdrop of how they felt bitten by a person like Mohammad Ali Jinnah. However, the party has largely banked upon Muslim votes and done nothing substantial for them in nearly half a century rule it enjoyed in India.

There is, however, only one hope for Indian Muslims, which can be seen in the young, articulate and non-compromising Assaduddin Owaisi. Despite being under attack from Arnab Goswami for what he called his “irrational statement” in Parliament, Owaisi emerged as the only genuine leader who voiced his concern in the right perspective. After visiting 15 relief camps, Owaisi called upon the nation to be cautious about a third wave of radicalization of Muslim youth. He cited Babri Masjid demolition and Gujarat pogrom as the reasons for two waves that led to radicalization of youth thus exploited by what he called anti-national forces. Assam’s violence is a case for introspection for the community leaders who have failed to represent them, that too in the largest democracy of the world.

Today, Muslims in India are orphans at the political level, and they deserve a strong leadership, which could move towards undoing the injustices brought out by the Sachar Report and also facilitate their living as proud Indian citizens. This is the biggest challenge the leadership faces.

The role of Muslims in the Indian freedom movement has been profound. Noted American author Gail Minault maintains in her book The Khilafat Movement  that “whether as individuals or as a community, Muslim influence on the direction of Indian political activity was profound during this period”. But the way the community has suffered during the six decades following Independence is partly because of lack of genuine leadership and partly for reasons that Indian polity has taken a different direction. Wounds of partition did not have much effect in succeeding years but after 60 years that situation has forced the community to live in an atmosphere of hope and despair. Violence is no solution to any form of injustice but they need many Assaduddins to live like rest of Indians. (

MG comment:
Mr Rahul Gandhi should have also asked: why India has failed to produce a person like Gandhi and Nehru in the post-Independence era? The fact is that the ruling party/parties consciously crush any emerging personality and find ways to send him/her into wilderness. See how Congress treated Syed Mahmood, or how the polity treated Dr Faridi and Shahabuddin or how the Muslim League trashed Banatwala. Kashmir was expected to produce an Indian Muslim leader of national stature but none has emerged after Shaikh Abdullah. I was present in a meeting in which former Union minister and former governor Khurshid Alam Khan narrated that during a cabinet meeting he raised a Muslim issue. Indira Gandhi was enraged and asked him: “have Muslims sent you here?” The message is clear: all Indian political parties from Congress downwards want a few Muslim showpieces to demonstrate to their Muslim voters that their voice is being heard when, in reality, it is not. The decadent polity based on note and vote has created an army of worthless individuals who project themselves as “leaders” and swarm political parties’ offices offering their services on the cheap. The demoralised Muslim community too has not risen to the challenge and forced the polity to accept a Muslim leader on its terms (Zafarul-Islam Khan).