Scramble for Muslim Votes as Owaisi Jumps into Bihar Polls: Abhay Kumar

Guest post by ABHAY KUMAR

Ever since Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (henceforth MIM), addressed a well-attended public meeting in Kishanganj  on August 17, speculation about his party contesting election in Bihar has been rife. Three weeks after the rally, Owaisi, eventually, decided that he would field candidates in Muslim-dominated Seemanchal region of Kishanganj, Araria, Purnia and Katihar. “MIM will put up candidates in Bihar’s Seemanchal region, which is not only backward but also has a lot of problems. There has to be over all development,” Owaisi told media, giving the leaders of anti-Hindutva Grand Alliance jitters.

Contrary to Owaisi’s latest move, some political observers had held the view that given the weak organisational structure of the MIM in Bihar and late entry in the state, Owaisi was unlikely to jump into assembly election. For example, senior journalist and political commentator, Khurshid Hashmi said that if Owaisi had been serious about Bihar election, he would have launched his campaign much earlier as he did in UP.

However, unlike Hashmi, Owaisi feels confident that his party would do well in Seemanchal region, who has handed over the charge of Bihar to a former RJD MLA Akhtarul Iman, who invited him to Bihar. Earlier, Iman drew media attention during the 2014 Lok Sabha Election when he, as JD (U) candidate, withdrew from Kishanganj seat so as to prevent the division of anti-Hindutva votes. A year later the political equation changed so dramatically that the same Imam has now turned a bitter critic of the JD(U) and the RJD and is now looking up to Owaisi for the revival of his fortune.

It is widely perceived among both BJP and anti-BJP camps that if the MIM contests Bihar elections, it may cut into Muslim votes by playing the role of a spoiler for the JD (U), the RJD and the Congress. The anti-Hindutva parties have not forgotten that the MIM, on debut, not only won two seats in Maharashtra assembly election last year but also made a dent into Muslim votes in several other constituencies.

Given that, Muslim leaders of the anti-Hindutva front have been leading from the front to take on Owaisi. For JD (U) Rajya Sabha Member Ali Anwar, who is better known as a Pasmanda (Dalit and Backward castes) Muslim leader, has been a bitter critic of Owaisi, while former Rajya Sabha MP Mohammad Adeeb, Congress spokesperson Meem Afzal have recently written open letters in Urdu dailies, asking Owaisi to desist from jumping into the Bihar electoral race.

Further, the anti-Hindutva forces have accused the MIM of dividing anti-BJP votes in favour of the BJP, alleging that MIM’s entry would facilitate the way for the BJP in the state.

But Owaisi’s supporters, on the other hand, shot back by saying that Muslims can no longer be held hostage by the anti-Hindutva parties in the name of keeping communal forces at bay.  For them, such a discourse is constructed to silence the Muslim voices. To corroborate their point, they show the abject socio-economic conditions of Muslims, despite the fact that governments claiming allegiance to social justice have been ruling the state with the support of Muslims for around two and half decades.

Amid this, Owaisi’s rallies and speeches continue to be a huge attraction among Muslims. For example, in his fiery speech in Kishanganj, did not miss an opportunity to pull up Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, RJD President Lalu Prasad and the Congress for the backwardness of the region and of the Muslims. His attack on Modi came a bit late when he asked the Prime Minister to give a special package for Seemanchal region as well as the setting up of the Special Development Council.  Besides, Owaisi did not forget to build up the image of Iman as a true leader of Muslims when he hailed him as lion (sher), asking people to choose lion over monkeys (bandar).

The competition among anti-Hindutva parties and the MIM lies in the fact that Muslim votes, which constitute around 16.5 per cent of population, are crucial in Bihar assembly election. As they influence the result of around 50 assembly seats, given the fact their votes constitute 15 to 25 per cent in as many as 52 seats.

Historically speaking, the contestations between the MIM and the anti-Hindutva forces are not new. Ever since its revival in 1957, the MIM and other anti-Hindutva parties, including the Congress, regional and Communist parties, locked horns over their claims about who truly represents Muslims.

According to noted political scientist Javeed Alam, the Majlis-e- Ittehadul Muslimeen was floated in 1927 in Nizam-ruled Hyderabad to protect Muslims’ economic, political and educational interests. After Partition, the Majlis was banned in 1948 as the Indian Government found it guilty of waging a fight against the Indian army in its opposition to the accession of Nizam-ruled Hyderabad to India.

After a decade, the Majlis was revived in 1957 by the grandfather of Asaduddin Owaisi, Abdul Wahib Owaisi. But the ascendency of the Majlis came almost three decades later by the 1980s when Wahib’s son, Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi, also known as Sallar-e-Millat (the Commander of the community) got consecutively elected as an MP in 1984 and 1989. Meanwhile, the Majlis also won a couple of seats in the state assembly. Moreover, it also became the largest party in the 1986 Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad, winning 38 seats out of 100. At present, the MIM has won one Lok Sabha seat and bagged seven and two seats in Telangana and Maharashtra assemblies respectively.

It is not its numerical strength but the ideological position and party programmes of the MIM that have come in for sharp criticism.

While MIM’s new constitution, redrafted in 1958, swears allegiance to the Indian Constitution it, at the same time, has been criticizing the institutions of the state for what it calls discrimination against the Muslims. It is interesting to note that the politics of the MIM is framed within the Indian Constitution, yet some of its demands have been interpreted by the opponents as being “divisive” and “sectarian”.

The reason why the acceptability of the MIM increased among Muslims in this period has to do with a large number of factors. Key among them is an active role of the MIM in setting up private educational institutes, particularly engineering and medical colleges. It is among these institutions that a small section of Muslim middle classes was produced, who had to suffer badly from Partition.

According to noted scholar G. Ram Reddy, the MIM has been demanding reservations for Muslims in services, administrations, legislative assemblies and judiciary as per their proportion. In the sphere of culture, it has been a supporter of non-interference in Muslims Personal Law as well as in religion.

To achieve its goal, the party has primarily banked on Muslim support but it has also been able to get some backing of Dalits, who were brought within the party by giving them a “share” in power. Even during his Kishanganj speech, Owaisi referred to Dalits and backwards several times, a move aimed at widening the social base of the party.

However, the party has also been criticized for propagating “communal views” and harping on “the psychological fear of the Muslims” as a tool to maintain its hold over Muslims.  That is why the group does not recognize division of Muslim community on caste, class and gender lines. Besides, the party is also pulled up for remaining a “closed or pocket organization” for Owaisi family.

Despite these limitations, Owaisi has been seen as a political alternative among an increasing section of Muslims, a fact that continues to bother anti-Hindutva leaders of Bihar. For example, Md. Wasim from Begusarai and Md. Masoom Anis from Sitamarhi, say that Owaisi’s speeches are becoming viral among Muslims, particularly among youths.

As Owaisi has taken a final decision that his party would like to politically fly its kite (MIM’s electoral symbol) in Seemanchal regions, the scramble for Muslims votes has heated up. It is paradoxical that while most of the parties, be it anti-Hindutva forces or the MIM, fiercely compete with each other for projecting themselves as the “messiah” of Muslims, the fact remains that Muslim have been pushed to the margin of Indian politics.

Abhay Kumar is pursuing PhD at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He may be contacted at debatingissues@gmail.com

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