In a corner of a Hindu-majority India lies a Muslim-majority district, Kishanganj. In India’s politics Kishanganj has a rich history. It was from here that a journalist friend of Rajiv Gandhi, MJ Akbar, had won a seat in India’s parliament in 1989. Akbar is today a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which in itself speaks volumes about Indian politics today and the thorny place Indian Muslims find themselves in.
With the rise of Hindu nationalism in electoral politics, Muslims have found it harder and harder to be represented in India’s central and state legislatures, reducing their ability to be heard in the corridors of power. “Secular” parties that do not subscribe to Hindu nationalism find it tough to put up Muslim candidates in election for the fear that he or she may not get the votes of Hindus.
Amid such a political reality, there are small enclaves where Muslims are in large enough numbers to make sure they can elect a Muslim to the legislature. Kishanganj in India’s east with 68% Muslims is one such place. The old city of Hyderabad in the south is another. Asaduddin Owaisi has been the member of parliament from Hyderabad since 2004. He leads a party whose name suggests it is a party of Muslims: All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. Before him, his father held this seat continuously since 1984.
In 2014, Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister, and with him, his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party gained a clear majority in the national parliament for the first time. Hindu nationalism had arrived, front and centre. In 2015, Asaduddin Owaisi arrived in Kishanganj. His AIMIM announced it will contest 6 seats in the Bihar assembly elections that year. Consider the many levels at which Owaisi’s politics is ambitious, daring and even a little crazy. Firstly, given that a ‘Muslim party’ the Muslim League, had managed to Partition India in 1947, it is a tribute to Indian’s multiparty democracy that a ‘Muslim party’ even exists.
Secondly, it is daring to be expanding this party in pockets of Muslim concentration across India since secular parties have been on a campaign labelling AIMIM as an extremist party, a mirror image of Hindu nationalism. It is, in fact, not extremist at all, if you discount a crazy speech or two by Owaisi’s hot-headed brother.
Asaduddin Owaisi is a fierce Constitutional nationalist, his speeches in Parliament envied by parties across the board. He appeals to so many Muslims, especially the youth, because he tells Indian Muslims they do not need to think of themselves as second-class citizens: the Constitution gives them equal rights.
Thirdly, it is quite unconventional for a bunch of Hyderabadi Muslims to travel into remote places across India and lay the ground for electoral politics. I’d love to hear all the funny anecdotes of the exchange of Hyderabad humour with Bihari lingo. There are only two truly national parties in India, the BJP and the Congress. Regional parties which dominate the politics of their states have found it difficult to expand their footprint to even more state. The only other people who have managed to do so in the past are the Communists.
Rise of Muslim leadership
In Kishanganj in 2015, I met Asaduddin Owaisi. I asked him what he really wanted. His critics compare him to Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. The more charitable ones say he’s funded by the BJP to split Muslim votes, helping the BJP candidates win in a multiparty democracy.
Owaisi patiently explained he only wants a few Muslim representatives in India’s assembly and parliament who can speak up for the rights of Muslims, the developmental neglect of Muslim concentration areas. Secular parties that seek Muslim votes in the name of saving secularism fail to do justice to these voters, he complains. And if he was really out to divide Muslim votes and help the BJP win, why would he contest a handful of seats?
Working with the poorest
In that election in 2015, I met voters who said they loved Owaisi, but wouldn’t vote for him, as he was not going to be in a position to form government. A secular alliance led by Nitish Kumar was going to get their votes. The AIMIM did not win a single seat.
What has happened since then tells you why the AIMIM has just won 5 seats in and around Kishanganj. Nitish Kumar betrayed the trust of Muslim voters and joined the BJP. Secular parties have failed miserably in speaking up for Muslims on various issues, especially the issue of amendment of India’s citizenship laws.
When Rajiv Gandhi’s daughter, Priyanka Gandhi, hailed the inauguration of the construction of a temple on the site of a mosque demolished by Hindu fundamentalists in 1992, the AIMIM made sure every voter in Kishanganj got to know what Priyanka Gandhi had said.
In this Bihar election, another secular alliance tried to come to power, but failed. It is now blaming Owaisi. But the AIMIM’s vote split may have helped the BJP win at most one seat out of 243. There is a message the Muslim voter is sending through Owaisi’s 5 seats. The Indian Muslim voter does not feel represented or even heard by secular parties, who think they will win elections if they can pretend their Muslim voters do not exist.
Along with Bihar, there were critical bypolls in Madhya Pradesh that could have replaced a BJP government with a Congress government. The Congress party in Madhya Pradesh, led by Kamal Nath, tried to appeal to Hindu identity to win the election but failed miserably. This is the message from Kishanganj: if secular parties want Muslim votes, they will have to treat them as equal citizens and give up their tried-and-failed strategic silence about secularism and minority rights.