Asaduddin Owaisi and the AIMIM’s rough-and-tumble politics

09 April, 2019

Asaduddin Owaisi is the president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen—the first Muslim party since Independence to show indications of a pan-Indian appeal—and a three-time member of parliament from the Hyderabad constituency. On 11 April, Hyderabad will vote in the first phase of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In the following extract from “The Seeker,” The Caravan’s September 2016 cover story, Neyaz Farooquee traces Owaisi’s journey from his party’s base in Hyderabad to his political life in Delhi, and his relationship with the Delhi-media, where he is a frequent commentator. Farooquee also details the allegations of communal polarisation and the use of violence against Owaisi and the AIMIM, and his responses to them. “As long as I was with the Congress I was secular, but the moment we left the UPA at the centre and in Andhra Pradesh we immediately became politically untouchable,” Owaisi said. “If you are with them you are holy, and the moment you oppose them you become untouchable, you become communal, you become someone’s agent.”

Asaduddin Owaisi’s re-election in 2014 extended his time in the Lok Sabha into a third term. This was crucial as the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen looked to expand from its Hyderabad base. No matter how the party had fared in the city over the last decade, anything it did there got it, at best, sporadic flashes of national attention—and that mostly when it stirred up controversy. But in Delhi, Asaduddin had managed to use his position in parliament and access to the national media to maximum advantage.

Asaduddin came to Delhi at a fortuitous time. His election to the Lok Sabha in 2004 coincided with the surprise defeat of the previous BJP-led government, which brought the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance to power. The AIMIM joined the UPA, allowing Owaisi, as a member of the ruling government, unprecedented exposure. Ever since, he has commanded outsized attention in proportion to his party’s numerical presence in parliament—perhaps more so than any other Indian politician today. This has only been helped by the BJP’s projection of him as a prime antagonist since it returned to power in 2014.

Part of this is down to Asaduddin’s performance in the parliament itself. In 2014, he was one of 12 MPs to receive the Sansad Ratna, an annual award from a civil-society group, for top parliamentarians as judged by their attendance and participation in debates. Asaduddin is known for his eloquent and often fiery speeches on the parliament floor, which are popular online. It helps that he is the only prominent Muslim in an assembly where the community is badly underrepresented. In 2014, for instance, only 23 Muslims were elected to the 545-seat Lok Sabha. With Muslims accounting for 14.2 percent of the population, the proportional number of representatives, not counting the 133 seats reserved for specific other communities, would be about 60.

Beyond the parliament, Asaduddin’s high profile owes much to his relationship with the Delhi-based media. He often brings chefs from Hyderabad to the capital with him, and puts his city’s legendary cuisine to good use. In a Hindustan Times piece denouncing Akbaruddin’s Adilabad speech in 2013—Akbaruddin is Asaduddin’s brother. In 2013, he had been booked for making inflammatory speeches—the journalist Rajdeep Sardesai could not help but note how Asaduddin, during parliament sessions,

invites journalists and fellow MPs for a Hyderabadi daawat and is always a gracious host. Since my gastronomic habits are distinctly secular (I have had crabs and red wine with the Thackerays and jalebis with VHP leaders), the haleem at Owaisi’s lunch is always a delight.

Last month, I spoke with Asaduddin again at his official residence in Delhi, at 34 Ashoka Road, where he hosts these feasts. He told me he always keeps his door open. “It’s part of Muslim culture,” he said. “If a guest comes, whoever comes—even if an enemy comes—we will serve them. What’s wrong with that?”

Asaduddin is regularly invited to prime-time talk shows, where he is expected to represent the Muslim view. He has consistently been a hit in this role, though not always because popular audiences approve of him. “Hindu interlocutors want to dominate him, and it is difficult to dominate him because he has logic,” the journalist Saeed Naqvi told me. “Therefore, they find him extremely difficult to handle. Since politics and public mood is today shaped by two or three TRP-chasing channels, and in that he is very effective, that is why he is disliked.”

Asaduddin has not shied away from the projection of himself as a national Muslim spokesperson. He has increasingly taken it upon himself to weigh in on issues affecting Muslims well beyond his electoral constituency. In July, Asaduddin announced that the AIMIM would provide legal aid to five Hyderabadi men arrested on charges of associating with the Islamic State—something that prompted charges of sedition against him. This was part of his long-standing criticism of Indian security and intelligence agencies’ habit of arresting Muslim men on unfounded terrorism charges. Subsequently, Asaduddin loudly denounced the Islamic State at a public meeting, calling its members “dogs of hell.” He has repeatedly spoken out against creating a uniform civil code, which would abolish special personal laws for Muslims, pointing to how other groups, such as the Nagas and Mizos, are also allowed exceptional provisions under the constitution. He has also made headlines for saying that the government should scrap its subsidy for hajj pilgrims, and use the money on scholarships for Muslim girls instead.

But for all his suave manners, Asaduddin continues to be dogged by uncomfortable questions over his style of politics. For instance, there are the concerns over the AIMIM’s use of violence. Just this February, AIMIM cadres assaulted members of the Congress’s Andhra Pradesh leadership in the run-up to municipal polls in Hyderabad—Shabir Ali, a senior Congress leader, alleged that Asaduddin took direct part—and were involved in at least four cases of hooliganism on the last day of campaigning and on voting day. There are also the worries about the AIMIM stoking communalism. These have not been helped by Asaduddin’s stubborn defence of Akbaruddin regarding the hate-speech case he faces for his remarks in Adilabad. To date, there has been no apology from the AIMIM for Akbaruddin’s speech.

I put these issues before Asaduddin in Delhi. On allegations of the AIMIM’s hooliganism, he told me, “No case has been proven. Sab khatam. It’s all lies. … It’s all political.” About the case against Akbaruddin, he said, “Let the court decide. Why should someone, sitting in a TV studio, or in an interview or in a column, decide that?”

There are other questions too, which go beyond just the public face of the AIMIM’s politics. In April 2015, in the village of Aler in Telangana, police shot dead five alleged Islamists in their custody while taking them to court, claiming to have acted in self-defence. Lateef Mohammed Khan, of the Civil Liberties Monitoring Committee, told me when we spoke in Hyderabad that Owaisi had tried, just as he allegedly had after the Mecca Masjid bombing, to hurry up the burials of the victims—three of whom were from Hyderabad.

Asaduddin denied these allegations, both in the case of the Aler encounter and of the Mecca Masjid blast. “How can I stop someone if they say, ‘We will do it in the afternoon or evening, our relatives are coming,’” he said. “I can’t say no to them, I have to go along with their wishes.” He also insisted that he had worked to ensure justice for those detained after the blast. As for accusations that he conspires with the police, he said, “I don’t help any police … but as far as I am concerned and my party is concerned, we have always tried to ensure that peace prevails.”

Other suspicions have come up over the AIMIM’s alleged hand in shady land deals. The most dramatic instance of this came in 2011, when Akbaruddin was ambushed and shot in his constituency. Security guards of a fellow AIMIM MLA fired back, killing one of the assailants—a relative of Mohammad Pehalwan, a real-estate dealer, who was reportedly angry over a property dispute. The attack left Akbaruddin hospitalised for 19 days.

Earlier this year, there were conspiratorial whispers in Hyderabad regarding the AIMIM’s involvement in the sudden removal of a government officer involved with administering waqf properties—mortmain holdings, donated by Muslims to endow religious or charitable institutions. Telangana is a waqf-rich state, and Hyderabad a waqf-rich city, and the AIMIM’s opponents have accused the party of abetting, and benefitting from, the misuse of waqf land. On 22 February—a day before he was due to meet Telangana’s chief minister, Kalvakuntla Chandrasekhar Rao of the Telugana Rashtra Samithi—Asaduddin wrote to the state’s chief secretary to ask for the removal of the director of minority welfare, MJ Akbar (not to be confused with the BJP politician of the same name). Akbar’s responsibilities included serving as the competent authority of the state waqf board, and as the survey commissioner for waqf properties. He had a reputation as an upright officer, but Asaduddin accused him of misusing government money, underutilising funds for minorities, and even using more government diesel than was allotted to him. Akbar was transferred shortly afterwards.

As it emerged, Akbar had earlier issued notices to multiple people and institutions for squatting on waqf land. Among them was the Dargah Shah Khamosh, located just a few hundred metres from the AIMIM’s headquarters. The dargah’s main caretaker is Akbar Nizamuddin—the chairman of the AIMIM-affiliated Darussalam Cooperative Bank, and an officer on several other institutions linked to the party. He is also the head of the Jamia Nizamia, an influential Hyderabadi seminary, and has long been crucial in marshalling clerics behind Asaduddin. In 2014, Akbar Nizamuddin was suspended as the dargah’s caretaker after investigators found that he had sold waqf land. He was also accused of collecting rent on waqf properties, the proceeds from which should have been administered by the waqf board.

Asaduddin dismissed suspicions of wrongdoing by his party and associates, or that he had unfairly targeted Akbar. He said that although the charges against Akbar Nizamuddin are several years old, “Nothing has happened. It was mischief done by the waqf board.” He reminded me that the matter came up while Kiran Kumar Reddy—a Congress leader and former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister—was in power, and after the AIMIM had withdrawn its support for the Congress. “The ball is in their court. Let them prove it.”

The AIMIM’s rough-and-tumble politics, which has proven so fruitful for it in Hyderabad, draws no end of criticism from outside observers. The veteran politician Arif Mohammad Khan told me, “If these people were honestly communal, I would have said it’s a problem of mindset. But their communalism is commercial communalism. They are traders. Ask them only one thing: how much money do they take for admission in their medical college?” Khan, whose decades-long career started with the Congress and ended with him quitting the BJP, was scathing of the AIMIM on multiple fronts. The party’s language, he said, “doesn’t match with our constitution. This constitution doesn’t allow Muslim and Hindu politics.”

Indresh Kumar, an RSS leader who heads the Sangh-affiliated Muslim Rashtriya Manch, told me that Asaduddin “gives some bizarre statements,” and that Muslim leaders should think about how to “live like true Indians.” The use of the community as a vote bank, he said, created “more fundamentalist Muslims, more communalists.”

Even more dispassionate commentators, such as Saeed Naqvi, take issue with the AIMIM’s ways. “Their politics is basically that of a Muslim ghetto,” he told me. “There is no such thing as a Muslim leader in India, and there should not be.”

Adnan Farooqui, a professor of political science at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university who has followed the AIMIM closely for many years, offered a more nuanced take on the party’s ways. “Its initial success in providing, or at least promising, physical security to the Muslims of the old city is still paying off,” he told me. “They have not been able to do what they have been promising”—bring in lasting prosperity—“but they have done at least something.” And that, he said, connects to “the larger problem of Indian Muslims: that parties can benefit by doing so little. The community is still demanding the basic necessities.”

What puts Asaduddin in “a category of his own,” Farooqui continued, “is that he is asking for more now. And here he is not asking for more madrasas, he is asking for more schools, and more primary health centres, asking for abolition of the hajj subsidy.” Asaduddin, Farooqui stressed, “is not asking for special treatment. He is only asking for what the constitution guarantees.”

Farooqui argued that the image of Asaduddin as a polarising communal leader has been exaggerated. He put part of the blame for this on the popular media. “For 50 minutes he will talk about substantive issues”—education for girls, constitutional rights—but “no one would focus on these issues. But the last 15 minutes, when he is addressing his political agenda, that gets highlighted.” Much of the talk about polarisation, he said, amounts to “blackmailing tactics against Muslims by mainstream political parties.”

Asaduddin told me almost the same thing. “As long as I was with the Congress I was secular, but the moment we left the UPA at the centre and in Andhra Pradesh we immediately became politically untouchable,” he said. “If you are with them you are holy, and the moment you oppose them you become untouchable, you become communal, you become someone’s agent.”

He also dismissed the common accusation that the AIMIM is “the RSS of the Muslims.” “I do not believe in, do not aspire to, make India a theocratic country,” he told me. “I want India to remain a pluralistic and diverse country. … The RSS and all these right-wing groups want India to become a theocratic country. This is the basic difference.” As for the persistent accusations that he has collaborated with the RSS or the BJP—including the one by the Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, during the Bihar campaign—he found them laughable. When I asked if he has ever spoken with Amit Shah, he said, “Yes, I met him at Digvijaya Singh’s house in Delhi. And if you want the menu also, I will send you the food menu.” He told me he has never met Narendra Modi.

In occasionally testing, even if cautiously, the limits of what has traditionally constituted Muslim politics, Asaduddin has the capacity to surprise. In December last year, the Hyderabad municipal corporation issued an eviction notice to Lamakaan, a cultural centre located in one of the city’s poshest neighbourhoods, and with a reputation for its liberal leanings. The centre has held events on such things as LGBT issues, tribal rights and conservation, and has often faced opposition for it. Ashhar Farhan, who runs Lamakaan, told me that the eviction notice was prompted by an old couple living across the street complaining that “women smoke in the building.”

Farhan wrote about the notice on Facebook. To his surprise, the first person to respond to his post was Asaduddin. The AIMIM leader had attended Lamakaan events several times, just to listen quietly, but his politics, Farhan said, “clashes with the politics of this place.” Farhan had also written against the AIMIM—especially after an infamous incident in 2007, when a group of the party’s MLAs attacked Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi writer and vocal critic of Islam, when she visited Hyderabad to launch a translation of her work.

After the Facebook post, Farhan said, Asaduddin tweeted about the issue, and took it up with the chief minister’s son. “Within minutes, everything was sorted out.”

This is an excerpt from The Caravan’s September 2016 cover story, “The Seeker.” It has been edited and condensed.