The much replayed rabble-rousing speech that has landed Akbaruddin Owaisi, a legislator of the little known Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), popularly called the Majlis, in police custody is not entirely new to the people of Hyderabad. Such acidic anti-Hindu rhetoric has been part of the party’s general toolkit to snag Muslim votes for itself ever since its inception way back in 1928. In the popular imagination, the Majlis is Hyderabad’s version of Mumbai’s Shiv Sena, given its frequently crass, brazen and no-holds-barred approach to politics. What Akbaruddin did most objectionably, while scouring new lows in invective, was issue a taunt—in his 250-versus-1,000 million poser—that could potentially be interpreted as a call to civil war. In a country such as this, the perils of such irresponsible words cannot be overstated.
Even as conspiracy theories abound on why the police delayed Akbaruddin’s arrest, this is the first time that the leader has courted trouble this way. It may be an indication of the MIM’s calculations after snapping ties with the Congress. Officially, the MIM resists being tagged as a communal party. It claims to represent the interests not just of Muslims but of all those who are socially and economically ‘backward’. It also claims credit for being a rare political party in India with an active educational agenda; among other institutions of learning, it runs medical and engineering colleges, apart from hospitals that offer the poor subsidised services.
Yet, the party’s role in separatism in the South remains an undeniable part of Hyderabad’s history. In the tumult of India’s run-up to Independence, when the Nizam of Hyderabad ruled the state (including the region of Berar), the Majlis rejected future integration with the Indian Union and advocated the setting up of a Muslim dominion instead. As early as 1938, its President Bahadur Yar Jung gave the Majlis an overtly religious manifesto and aligned it with the Muslim League. Addressing an All India Muslim League conference in Lahore, Jung championed the cause of Pakistan.
After 15 August 1947, the Majlis led the banding together of the Razakars, a paramilitary force of Muslims, the Nizam’s army and African Cavalry Guards to fight against the Indian Union’s ‘police action’—pressed forth by New Delhi to take charge of Hyderabad state. As a consequence, the MIM was banned from 1948 till 1957.
The Majlis adapted itself to the Indian Constitution in due course, but turned into a family-run outfit once its leadership passed from Abdul Wahed Owaisi in his dying days in the mid-1970s to his son Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi. Ever since the MIM won a Hyderabad Municipal Corporation seat, it has dominated political discourse within the walled city in a tacit arrangement with the Congress, which for decades left the Hyderabad Lok Sabha seat to Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi. Today, the MIM is led by this man’s sons.
The elder, Asaduddin Owaisi represents the constituency in Parliament. A suave speaker, this London-educated lawyer is an organisation man at heart with ambitions of expanding the Majlis’ appeal across the country.
The younger, Akbaruddin is an MLA and party leader in the Assembly, to which the MIM won seven old city seats in the 2009 polls, its best performance ever. It was a key moment for the 42-year-old Akbaruddin, a medical college dropout who has earned a reputation for inflammatory speeches laced with gory details of the horrors that Muslims have suffered across the country and world. This is common fare for speeches aimed at Muslim crowds, but this time, he finds himself slapped with a sedition charge—a serious brush with the law he may not have anticipated.
At first, the leader tried to avoid arrest on some pretext or the other once he returned from London on 7 January; he claims he is under treatment for a bullet lodged in his leg as a result of an attempt on his life, itself a fallout of an old rivalry. But the police arrested him. The Andhra Pradesh High Court also turned down his plea to have all complaints filed against him (for his hate speech) across the state bundled into a single case. The Court ruled that people have a right to file such complaints. One has even been filed against him at a police station in Delhi by social activist Shabnam Hashmi. Though Akbaruddin’s supporters are up in protest, saying that he is being framed, the existence of evidence on the internet—video clips of his speech went viral—means that there is little else the party can do in his defence. Asaduddin refuses to speak on the matter or take any questions; the matter is sub judice, he says.
Akbaruddin’s record on such matters, though, is well known. In 2007, he had threatened to issue a fatwa to have Salman Rushdie killed and Taslima Nasreen beheaded if they dared visit Hyderabad. Much of his rabble-rousing has had to do with the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, which he raises over and over. In 2011, press reports quoted him as saying had former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao not died, he would have killed him with his own hands for vacillating while mobs demolished the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya.
Recent Hindu-Muslim tension in Hyderabad, however, has been stoked by alleged attempts by Hindu rightwingers to expand a Bhagyalakshmi temple that abuts the historic Charminar. The VHP’s Praveen Togadia is alleged to have threatened to turn the city into another Ayodhya, and Akbaruddin is alleged to have made derogatory remarks about the deity whose temple is in the spotlight. Both the monument and temple are under heavy police protection now.
On an earlier occasion, Akbaruddin Owaisi had evoked laughs of derision from a crowd by referring to Ajmal Kasab as an ‘infant’ in terror compared to Gujarat CM Narendra Modi. He also dared Modi to show up in Hyderabad, a dare of bravado he reiterated in the speech he’s been hauled up for.
Muslims constitute about 40 per cent of the old city’s population and the Majlis’ domination of their votes has perhaps never been stronger. “Even NT Rama Rao found it difficult to cross the Nayapul [an old city bridge across Moosi River] when the whole state was hit by his wave in 1983,” Asaduddin often gloats. He has been the city MP since 2004, when his father retired after having held the seat since 1984. Sultan died in 2008.
Still, for all the bluster, the MIM has been unable to make inroads in Karimnagar, Medak, Guntur, Kurnool and Anantapur districts, all of which have large Muslim populations. A Majlis leader, who does not want to be identified, admits that Muslims remain indifferent to the party even in the coastal and Rayalseema regions: “We have never won a single seat outside the old city. Voters in Telangana too are not happy with the MIM’s position in favour of Hyderabad being made a union territory in case Telangana is carved out of AP.”
The Majlis’ rhetoric has paid dividends in Maharashtra, though, where it recently won 11 seats in Nanded’s civic body. Its leaders spoke angrily of police harassment of Muslim youngsters in the area (for their alleged terror links). In Assam, meanwhile, Owaisi led a team of doctors to provide medical aid to Kokrajhar’s victims of violence. Critics say the party’s intervention here, given the dynamics of local politics, has not done Assam’s Muslims much good. Back in AP, the Majlis has raised the ante against the Congress, calling its Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy ‘communal’. The Owaisi brothers accuse the Reddy government of pandering to the Sangh Parivar by ignoring the Majlis demand that charges against innocent Muslims dragged into cases of communal clashes—of which there have been several since 2010—be withdrawn. In the past, the Owaisis have praised former CM YS Rajasekhara Reddy for his commitment to Muslim welfare, exemplified by his 4 per cent job reservation move (struck down by the Supreme Court). Now, YSR’s son Jaganmohan Reddy promises to pursue similar policies, and the Majlis is keen on an alliance with his party, the YSR Congress. This has been clear ever since Asaduddin visited Jagan in jail last year. “The Majlis could emerge as a kingmaker in the event of a hung assembly,” says an MIM member.
If it works out, this would be the first pre-poll alliance the Majlis has had in independent India. But will Jagan agree? To the MIM’s credit, the party’s affairs have largely been free of scam taints. There have been whispers around dubious roles it has played as an arbitrator in old city land deals, but except one case of an attempt to grab state property for a hospital, no major charge has really stuck.
There are, of course, voices like that of Syed Pasha, a taxi driver in Hyderabad. “Yeh Majlis logan bahut haraami, saab,” he says, “Inho Musalmanon ko udhareech rahna chahte.” (These Majlis people are scoundrels, they want Muslims to stay oppressed). Akbaruddin’s speeches do not impress as many Muslims as he might think.