By Swapan Dasgupta
If public memory is short, the collective memory of the Indian media appears to be shorter still. This is often borne out by a tendency to perceive political developments as Breaking News—events that are episodic and born out of either nowhere or, at best, from yesterday’s headlines.
The usual flurry of excitement over the excruciatingly long Bihar Assembly election campaign has simultaneously focussed attention on the national ambitions of Asaduddin Owaisi, the smooth-talking MP for Hyderabad. Hitherto, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) had been regarded as a fringe phenomenon, limited at best to the old city of Hyderabad and some Muslim localities of the erstwhile Nizam’s kingdom. However, its successful intervention in last year’s Maharashtra Assembly elections where it contested 20, won two seats and demonstrated its clout in Nanded, Aurangabad and pockets of Mumbai, catapulted it to larger prominence. Now, following a largely attended public meeting in Kishanganj, MIM has decided to field candidates in the Seemanchal region of Bihar where Muslims are the dominant community. For the moment, the MIM is challenging established parties such as the Congress and the Janata parivar for Muslim votes in isolated pockets of India. But at the same time, there are growing whispers that before too long, Owaisi will probably emerge as the most important Muslim leader in Indian politics and reshape the nature of post-Independence India’s Muslim politics.
The extent to which Owaisi succeeds in creating an all-India base and the relationship the MIM forges with pre-existing Muslim groups such as UMFA in Assam, Muslim League in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and the Peace Party in Uttar Pradesh will be watched closely. So far there are indications that Owaisi has been able to strike a responsive chord among Urdu-speaking Muslims using a mixture of historical imager, cultural assertiveness and political victimhood. He has also been able to prey on the Muslim dejection at the failure of the ‘secular’ political parties, particularly the Congress, to prevent Narendra Modi from assuming charge of the Central government. The 2014 election created a political space for alternative Muslim formations. In a competition involving other more radical and less constitutional bodies, the MIM has managed to fill in a part of the void and momentarily channel Muslim energies in alternative electoral directions.
Yet, it would be erroneous to view the Owaisi phenomenon as something new and brought about exclusively by the Muslim community’s visceral hatred of the BJP. Taunting, mocking and even daring the BJP and, for that matter, Hindu nationalism, have been part and parcel of the MIM for long—indeed, ever since Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi assumed control of the old Razakar outfit from his father (who in turn had been bequeathed it by the infamous Qasim Rizvi on his departure to Pakistan) in 1975. Akbaruddin Owaisi, the leader of the MIM in the Telengana Assembly, has acquired legendary fame for a strident oratory that appeals to a community that sees itself as having been short-changed by history and contemporary politics. Since the MIM makes no pretence of being anything but a Muslim body, it has the luxury of directing its appeal and rhetoric to only the Muslims without bothering about its effect on non-Muslims. This enables it to touch upon and address themes that are outside the political range of political parties seeking votes of other communities. There is no difference between the audience of a MIM rally and the congregation of a malulvi inside a mosque.
Yet, the rhetoric of the MIM isn’t theological; it is explicitly political. Where it differs from other parties is not merely in highlighting present Muslim grievances centred on inadequate representation in the legislatures, the non-implementation of the Sachar committee report by earlier ‘secular’ governments and the larger question of Muslim poverty. With different styles of articulation, the Owaisi brothers hark back to a language and political approach that hasn’t been witnessed in India since 1947.
This is the language of identity arrogance that was the hallmark of the Muslim League publicists in Northern India from the time of the Khilafat Movement to the formation of Pakistan in 1947. Beginning with the distinctive all-weather sherwani attire to the generous over-use of literary Urdu (uncontaminated by Sanskritised intrusions), the MIM harks back to the Muslim sense of loss—a lost empire, a glorious ‘high’ culture now endangered, and, most important, the craven capitulation before those outside the fold of respectable discourse. It was to fight against this socio-cultural and political intrusion that the Razakars had waged their last-ditch battle in 1947-48, and the memories of that experience still shape the Hyderabadi Muslim political identity. Now, Owaisi has spread his wings and is directing the same message at Urdu-speaking Muslims outside Hyderabad who last heard it during the heady days associated with the Muslim League’s political jihad for Pakistan.
What is often forgotten is that the Muslim League drew its real sustenance, not from the areas the presently constitute Pakistan, but from the Muslim minority in the erstwhile United Provinces, Bihar, Central Provinces and Bombay Presidency. It was the Muslims in these areas who imagined Pakistan, and then, when it was forged, switched allegiance seamlessly to Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘secular’ politics.
No doubt Pakistan was one of the most hideous Muslim miscalculations—from which the community never fully recovered. But the fact remains that the Muslim pride that the MIM now seeks to invoke against both the BJP and ‘secular’ imposters isn’t new: it was the dominant language of Muslim politics in North India just 68 years ago. Owaisi isn’t talking secessionism—that is not on his agenda. He is conjuring a dream of a Muslim bloc that will insist on power sharing with others, not merely as citizens but as Muslims.
To judge Owaisi and the MIM in terms of their spoiler role in Bihar or elsewhere is only part of the story. The more interesting facet of this Muslim politics is its location in the history of the first half of the 20th century.
Asian Age, September 18, 2015