On a humid morning during the holy month of Ramzan, nearly 50 families were camping outside the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) office in Hyderabad’s Old City area. Each one had a sob story — one woman’s house had been demolished; many others were desperate for medical help. The crowd, dominated by women, had no doubt that Asad bhai would put an end to their misery. At 11.15 am, Asaduddin Owaisi, 44, arrived in an SUV. The London-educated barrister met the families and promised all possible help.
Owaisi is certainly a man in demand. When the Congress Working Committee gave its nod for the creation of a separate state of Telangana on 30 July, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the party in-charge of Andhra Pradesh until June, made the first call to Owaisi, the sole MP belonging to MIM, which boasts of seven MLAs and two MLCs.
As part of its post-Telangana calculations, the Congress is desperately looking for allies. PCC chief Botsa Satyanarayana sees the MIM as a “Congress-friendly” party and opines that the MIM will prosper by cashing in on the 18 percent Muslim votebank in the newly formed Telangana. Hyderabad’s fate notwithstanding, the MIM’s grip over the city’s electorate is not expected to soften anytime soon. As per the 2011 census, Hyderabad’s population is 40 lakh, of which Muslims constitute more than 16 lakh.
Even though the MIM’s control over the Muslim votebank is negligible in the rest of AP, political observers believe that the party has what it takes to gain massively in the new two-state arrangement. The MIM has been aggressively campaigning in the districts of Nizamabad and Adilabad in the Telangana region as well as Guntur in Coastal Andhra and Kurnool in Rayalaseema.
But Owaisi’s ambitions are not limited to AP. In the past three years, the MIM has been aggressively expanding in the districts of Nanded in Maharashtra and Bidar in Karnataka. In last year’s civic polls in Nanded, it took on the might of the Shiv Sena and the Congress and won an impressive 11 out of 81 seats.
The MIM’s two prominent faces are Asaduddin and his younger brother Akbaruddin, 43. The brothers are a study in contrast. While Asaduddin is the suave, English-speaking diplomatic leader, Akbaruddin is the populist, who revels in swaying the crowds with his speeches in Dakhini Urdu. While Asaduddin is always spotted in a sherwani, Akbaruddin can be found wearing a T-shirt and jeans, vacationing in London and Chicago.
While Asaduddin appears often in New Delhi’s television studios, Akbaruddin gained national infamy after delivering a vitriolic hate speech at a party gathering in Nizamabad last December.
After talking about the 2002 Gujarat riots and his pet hate, Gujarat CM Narendra Modi, Akbaruddin went on his infamous rant. “You are 100 crore and we are 25 crore. Keep the police away for 15 minutes and we will show what we are capable of,” thundered the MIM MLA.
Hyderabad’s Muslims were among the first to protest against the hate speech. Intellectuals, social workers, journalists and businessmen presented a memorandum to the DGP, urging him to arrest Akbaruddin. “What he said that day was unbecoming of a Muslim,” says former State Minority Commission member Syed Qadri. “Islam does not allow insulting anyone, including followers of other faiths.”
As the public outcry refused to subside, Akbaruddin was arrested on 8 January and put behind bars for a month.
Akbaruddin has a chequered past. In 2011, he was shot and critically wounded after he got into an argument with a rival group over a real estate deal. After leaving the hospital, he told a gathering that the Prophet had appeared in his dreams to assure him that he would survive.
When contacted for an interview, Akbaruddin refused citing ill-health, and instead directed TEHELKA to meet Asaduddin. The elder brother is astute and clear when he talks about the dangers of minority polarisation and the rise of Hindutva. He is determined and unapologetic when he says, “We will stop Modi from being the PM” or “Yes, I signed the letter urging Obama not to give visa to Modi.”
However, he is clumsy when it comes to the issue of Telangana. On 29 July, he warned that Telangana was going to be a disaster for Muslims. However, three days later, he told a gathering at Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad that his statement was an act of playing reverse psychology with the government. “They do the opposite of what we say,” he said, claiming credit for the Telangana announcement.
Asaduddin remains coy when asked about the hate speech. “Let the courts decide,” he says. “The people will decide through the ballot boxes if we are wrong.”
However, popular sentiment seems different. “They (Owaisis) use religion to flare up sentiments. It’s wrong,” says Naseer, an autorickshaw driver. “But show me another party that I can vote for.”
CPI leaders have alleged that the MIM and the BJP need each other to survive as the BJP’s Hindutva brand of politics feeds off the MIM’s victimhood politics. But BJP leaders scoff at the idea. “The MIM is a family-run party that is communal and opportunistic. They have betrayed the Muslim community more than anybody else,” says AP BJP chief G Kishan Reddy.
The Owaisis’ Dar-us-Salam Educational Trust (DET) runs an engineering college, a medical college-cum-hospital and a slew of minor educational institutions. Akbaruddin, an MBBS dropout, manages the medical college. Their openmindedness when it comes to science education is laudable. But, despite this leaning towards modernism, Asaduddin opposes the legalisation of homosexuality and the 33 percent reservation for women in state Assemblies. No surprise then that the MIM has hardly any female members and the AIMIM (Council of Union of Muslims) is lampooned by rivals as Majlis-e-Munafiqeen (Union of Hypocrites).
In 1947, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel sent the Indian Army to force Hyderabad Nizam Osman Ali Khan and his mercenary army of Razakars to accede to India. The police action (which also aimed at neutralising armed Communist guerillas) and the violence that followed resulted in the death of more than 50,000 people, a majority of them Muslims. The Razakars’ chief was none other than Kasim Razvi, who was the also the chief of MIM (a party that was founded in 1920 by Nawab Mahmood Nawaz Khan Qiledar). The massacre that followed the army action played a big role in shaping the MIM’s politics.
After nine years in prison, Razvi struck a deal with the Indian government. In exchange for freedom, he promised to leave India. Before leaving for Pakistan, he is said to have handed over the MIM’s reins to Abdul Wahid Owaisi. Thus Owaisi, a lawyer, who could barely pay the rent for his house, went on to lead the MIM.
In 1975, Abdul Wahid’s son Sultan Salahuddin succeeded him. Salahuddin, who became the Hyderabad MP in 1984, never lost the seat and was re-elected six times. Asaduddin, Salahuddin’s eldest son, became the MIM president in 2008 after his father’s death.
Members of the MIM’s first family claim to be descendants of Owaisi, the great Islamic preacher of Yemen — who never married, let alone have any descendants. Detractors say that the members are actually Awaisis, who hail from Ausa village in Nanded.
Explaining the MIM’s penchant for fanning communal passions, social activist Wahid Pasha recalls at least three instances when the MIM “wilfully” let illegal temples to come up, just to use it as a bugbear to scare the Muslims later. “For example, take the Bhagya Laxmi temple controversy,” he says. “No doubt, the ASI should not have allowed it. But we cannot demand it to be demolished now. But it serves the MIM as a prop of Hindu aggression, which ensures them electoral gains.”
The temple is a structure that, as photographs from The Hindu archives have shown, came up after 1965, but the Sangh Parivar claims it’s as old as the Charminar.
“MIM leaders have administered Hyderabad since 1984, while supporting Congress regimes at the Centre. Yet, they have brought no development, either in primary education or infrastructure,” says Telakappalli Ravi, editor of Prajashakti, a Telugu daily. “The backwardness of Muslims has helped the MIM maintain its stronghold, coupled with the other parties’ disinterest in minority issues. The BJP portrays the Old City as a den of pro-Pakistanis and the MIM has gained from this victimhood. Electorally, the MIM faces absolutely no opposition, apart from the TDP’s Zahid Khan. The CPM was successful for a while but has lost ground.”
Editor of popular Urdu daily Siasat, Zahid Khan was once Salahuddin’s close friend and a DET trustee. He created a flutter in 1999 when he published a series of articles condemning educational institutions for demanding hefty donations from students. These articles highlighted the plight of Muslim students who suffered because of the donation system. The Owaisis, who run several educational institutions, were not amused. Soon, MIM goons even tried to assault Zahid Khan.
When asked about his enmity with Zahid Khan, Asaduddin is abrasive. “Those who attacked him were not my partymen. But the Siasat editor… Is he a politician or an editor? You cannot be both at the same time. If you want to be in the rough and tumble of politics; please be ready.”
While Zahid Khan stops at suggesting that Asaduddin should not stoop so low as to make politics simply about the rough and tumble, Siasat Managing Editor Zaheeruddin Ali Khan is more vocal. “The MIM’s politics is reactionary. They are the enemies of Muslims,” he says. “The MIM survives by keeping Muslims in the dark and keeping them shackled to the patronage of the Owaisi family.”
A former MIM leader remembers a time when the party was “nice”. “However, they got power hungry,” he says on the condition of anonymity. “In Hyderabad, the MIM has destroyed every institution that could help the people. For instance, they have destroyed primary education by clubbing small schools together and selling the now ‘freed’ real estate.”
A Muslim contractor, who builds roads, schools and other amenities for the government, claims that he has never got a contract without paying at least 25 percent as bribe. “The lowest bidder gets the contract for building, say, a road. Ten percent is paid immediately to the contractor. The rest 15 percent goes to the MLA and others,” he says on the condition of anonymity. “The lowest bidder is usually one who has quoted just 50 percent of the budget. With the remaining 25 percent, we are expected to build schools and roads. Most of the corporators/MLAs we have to bribe are from the MIM.”
TEHELKA could not independently corroborate this allegation.
Activists point to the Waqf land scam as perhaps the MIM’s worst betrayal of Muslims. Whereas some allege inaction, others say the MIM profited from the scam. As per reports published by Hyderabad’s three major Urdu dailies — Siasat, Munsif and Rahnuma-e-Deccan — 40 percent of the 1.33 lakh acres of Waqf land has been encroached upon by politicians and realtors with the help of revenue officers. Hyderabad has been the crown jewel in the scam with realtors, government servants and Waqf trustees banding together to make millions of rupees, while usurping prime land that was meant to be put to use for the welfare of Muslims.
Consider, for instance, the Lanco deal under which 108 acres of the Dargah Hussain Shah Wali in Manikonda village (1,654 acres worth Rs 30,000 crore) was sold by the YS Rajasekhara Reddy government to Lanco Industries owned by Congress MP Lagadapati Rajgopal in 2004. Even though the market price was Rs 20 crore per acre, it was sold at Rs 4 crore.
According to Siasat’s Zaheeruddin Ali Khan, Lanco Industries made a tidy profit of Rs 10,000 crore from the deal, while giving only Rs 60 crore to the Waqf Board. Last April, the Andhra Pradesh High Court ruled that the said land indeed belonged to the state Waqf Board. The Supreme Court is currently hearing the case.
Interestingly, Akbaruddin impleaded himself as a party in the case when a Divisional Bench heard it in 2007. The high court had passed a stricture against Akbaruddin for filing an affidavit with no documentary evidence, even calling his move as a “publicity interest litigation”.
The scam took place when MIM MLC Altaf Hyder Razvi and Syed Shah Ali Akbar Nizamuddin, chairman of Owaisis’ Dar-us-Salam Co-operative Bank and a DET trustee, were Waqf Board members.
The MIM’s tempestuous alliance with the Congress startles many and suits others. In fact, such was the close ties with the Congress that Asaduddin wrote to Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy last year, asking him to give the family-owned trust 16 acres in the heart of the city, worth Rs 4,000 crore, so that they could build a bigger party HQ and a new office for Etemaad daily. The newspaper is run by Burhanuddin, the second, supposedly non-political brother, of Asaduddin.
The MIM would rather have Muslims be reliant on their patronage than allow them to expect a functional state administration that serves their needs. As the Owaisis reign supreme, the party’s politics is unimaginative at best, dangerously polarising at worst, but unstoppable nonetheless. At least for now.