By Swapan Dasgupta
24 August, 2012
The violence in Assam’s Kokrajhar district and its unsettling reverberations in the rest of India have ignited passions and triggered a return of identity politics. This shift and its ominous implications have already begun to be dissected in politics, the media and society.
There is, however, one aspect of the recent outbreak of sectarianism that has received insufficient attention: the definite emergence of Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi as the foremost pan-Indian Muslim leader.
Even before the troubles in Assam, the leader of the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) was a familiar figure. As an uncompromising defender of “Muslim interests” this bilingual, articulate, England-educated Barrister was a great favourite of the English-language channels. Unlike, say, Badruddin Ajmal, Azam Khan and Abu Azmi who were seen to be authentic but limited, Mr Owaisi defied familiar stereotypes. His belligerence notwithstanding, he came across as someone familiar with the modern idiom of politics.
Although he is second to G.M. Banatwala, the Mumbai lawyer who represented the Mallapuram district of Kerala for the Muslim League for many terms, as a parliamentarian, Mr Owaisi has made a mark in the Lok Sabha. His short intervention in the Lok Sabha during the adjournment motion on the Assam troubles may have earned him some notoriety — he warned of a possible “third wave” of Muslim militancy — but, in the process, he came across as the most decisive voice of the Muslims in Assam. Mr Owaisi was the only Muslim MP who spelt out the demand for the immediate abolition of the Bodo Territorial Council, a body viewed by the immigrants as the impediment to its “rights” in Kokrajhar and elsewhere.
Mr Owaisi’s clear articulation of the Muslim community’s demands in Assam, as opposed to mouthing platitudes, wasn’t surprising. Since the troubles erupted in Assam, he personally visited the relief camps where Muslims have been sheltered and, in addition, organised teams of doctors and volunteers from his constituency. Increasingly, the scope of his interventions has been growing. He may be elected from a constituency in Hyderabad which has come to be regarded as the MIM’s pocket borough, but he doesn’t seem to be content confining himself to the concerns of the congested bylanes around Charminar.
True, his father Salahuddin Owaisi also attempted a wider role during the Ayodhya years and even floated his own Babri Masjid Coordination Committee (which rivalled the better known Babri Masjid Action Committee) but the Salar-e-Millat, as he is now reverentially called, never quite managed to break the dominance of the Muslim politicians from North India.
The younger Owaisi’s quantum leap forward in stature coincides with interesting developments in the Muslim community. After 1947, the idea of a single Muslim organisation representing the political interests of the community stood discredited. The community either rallied behind the Congress or, post-1996, attached itself to other mainstream parties. A separate Muslim party remained confined to the Malabar region in Kerala and the city of Hyderabad.
In the past few years, a new trend is emerging. In Assam, the All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by perfume merchant Ajmal has emerged as the main Opposition party, and is at loggerheads with chief minister Tarun Gogoi. In Uttar Pradesh, the Peace Party played spoiler in the Lok Sabha poll of 2009 but won four Assembly seats in 2012. Its ability to make a more decisive intervention in 2014 should not be underestimated. Certainly, a fresh wave of communal incidents in Uttar Pradesh suggests that there are stirrings that are taking place outside the national parties. The activities of the Popular Front of India have received some attention.
The trends are still early but it would seem that a new sense of victimhood and the larger process of radicalisation in the wider Islamic world are tempting Indian Muslims into experimenting with interventions outside of the mainstream “secular” parties. There is no indication, as yet, to suggest that these disparate movements will coalesce in an all-India body. However, it is certain that these different formations are seeking wider linkages that could see the emergence of a loose coordinating body that maintains the autonomy of the regional bodies and increases their electoral manoeuvrability. It is in this context that Mr Owaisi, with his ever-growing connections and acceptability in the larger political class, assumes importance.
To see Mr Owaisi as merely a modern face is, however, to ignore the baggage he carries. The MIM may be socio-cultural body which also dabbles in electoral politics, but its pedigree is dubious. Those familiar with history will recall that it acquired prominence after 1937 as the upholder of an Islamic state in the Nizam’s territories. Its two pre-Independence leaders, Nawab Bahadur Yar Jung and Kasim Razvi never made any secret of their desire to keep the erstwhile Hyderabad state as an Islamic outpost outside the Indian Union. Apart from the sinister terror launched by the MIM-led Razakars in the final months of the Nizam’s rule, the MIM was noted for its opposition to democracy, its contempt for non-Muslims and its belief in the innate superiority of a Moghul court culture that was preserved in Hyderabad.
Mr Owaisi has often maintained that today’s MIM is different from the pre-1948 body. The unfurling of the Asafjahi flag in Delhi that Rajvi dreamt of is clearly an impossible mission. But has the MIM shed its social and cultural assumptions? Or, are the irredentist and supremacist assumptions of a “modern” leadership going to shape the mindset of a community with an exaggerated sense of anger?
The writer is a senior journalist