Asaduddin Owaisi’s Bid to Redefine Indian Secularism
Muslims need their own nationwide party, he believes. And he’s going to build it.
NEW DELHI—Asaduddin Owaisi, one of India’s rising political stars, is fondly addressed as a “lion” by his young, mobile-savvy Indian Muslim fans.
On a sunny December morning in 2019, some of his campaign managers warmed up the crowd at a rally in the east Indian state of Jharkhand. “Muslims of India,” one thundered, “your time to be misled is over.” As a chopper neared the ground and tossed up a swirl of earth, the speaker continued. “Our true leader is here,” he said, and the crowd broke into a rhythmic chant: “Look, look, who has arrived! The lion has arrived!”
Donned in a trademark sherwani, clipped beard, and skullcap, Owaisi addressed the crowd of more than 5,000 mostly Muslim supporters. Looking out over a sea of green-hued Gandhi caps with his party’s name and symbol, the 51-year-old leader lifted his hand in a seasoned political gesture, and quiet spread over the crowd. He shut his eyes before beginning at a sermon pace: “Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim” or “In the name of Allah, most gracious and merciful.” By the time his remarks were over around 30 minutes later, he had reached a booming crescendo. “We Muslims,” he declared, “have rejected Pakistan to make India the home of our hearts. Now, it is time for the Hindus to prove their patriotism and reject Modi.”
Later that day, Owaisi recounted his critique of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Hindu-majority Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has alienated the country’s nearly 200 million Muslims. But it isn’t just Modi that Owaisi blames. He told me that his entry into the din of Indian politics was meant “shake up the political equilibrium,” which has “forever taken Muslims for granted.”
A barrister and member of the national parliament, Owaisi has galloped his way to fame via blazing speeches, the wild conspiracies that surround him, and (according to detractors) nefarious motives for disrupting the political balance between Modi’s BJP and its main rival, the Indian National Congress party.
He is leader of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) party, which, despite its name, has a relatively limited reach. In elections this spring, he dreams of expanding his party across the country to give Muslims a greater voice. The community constitutes 15 percent of the vast democracy’s population and has seen discrimination rise under Modi as populism and Hindu majoritarianism have become more pronounced
Mob violence, militant attacks on Muslims and Muslim-owned businesses, and other acts of discrimination are routine. Meanwhile, anti-Muslim legislation, such as the cancellation of Kashmir’s special status; the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which allowed citizenship to be tied to religion; and the inhibiting of interreligious marriage in certain parts of the country has put even more pressure on Muslim communities.
Right before India shut down due to the pandemic, a nationwide protest movement against the CAA led to riots in the capital. Owaisi channeled this anger, delivering furious speeches in parliament and taking on Modi’s many fans on mainstream media channels, typicaly in flowing Urdu, which used to be a mark of Indo-Muslim high culture. In December 2019, he even tore up a copy of the controversial CAA in parliament for all to see. The same month, he led thousands of followers in an anti-CAA demonstration in Hyderabad, where participants read the preamble of the Indian Constitution in Urdu and English.
It is no wonder, then, that his fans see him as a bulwark protecting India’s Muslims. For his detractors though, he is a wild maverick—worthy of suspicion—who aims to disrupt deep-seated electoral calculations in Indian politics for personal gain.
India’s political parties divide up the country’s communities by caste, religion, and language. Political representation of Muslims as a group has long been abysmal. As of this year, Muslims hold only 27 out of 543 seats in the lower house of parliament, the second lowest total since the 1970s. The lowest was during Modi’s first term.
One factor in the underrepresentation has arguably been the lack of a national Muslim party. Contradictory to stereotypes of Muslims voting as a bloc, the community is spread geographically thin around India and does not vote as a single national monolith—much less for religious parties. In the aftermath of the violent partition of the Indian subcontinent along religious lines, most Indian Muslims lined up behind the secular Indian National Congress to allay fears of religious separatism. Prominent Indian Muslim leaders denounced any ambitions—or even talk—of separate Muslim politics.
Even though religious parties exist at the local and regional level, quite a few Muslim leaders still carry the mantle of secular Indian politics at a national level. Indeed, even though Modi has consolidated Hindu nationalists under the ruling BJP, no national party exists based primarily on Muslim religious identity in India.
And that is where Owaisi sees an opportunity. The Indian National Congress party “has always been treating the [Muslim] community as sheep that ought to be herded,” said Adnan Farooqui, a professor of political science at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia who has researched extensively on Muslim parties. “With Asaduddin’s rise, that clearly is not the case today.”
A small but notable shift in the Muslim community’s support from traditional secular parties to his Muslim led-AIMIM is already notable. Owaisi has already expanded out of his home area of Hyderabad to Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Gujarat in the west and Bihar in the east.
Owaisi’s AIMIM is the rebranded and refurbished version of the Ittehad Bainal Muslimeen (MIM), which was founded in 1927 in the princely state of Hyderabad under British India to support the “Nizams,” the region’s rebellious Muslim princes. When the All-India Muslim League—the movement led by future Pakistani leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah—insisted on separate electorates for Muslims, a demand that eventually led to the subcontinent’s violent partition, the MIM agreed. They hoped that Hyderabad would be able to join Pakistan, or become an independent state, but that was not to be.
After the creation of Pakistan, the Nizam left in India turned renegade. They employed a local Muslim militia—the Razakars—which had been associated with the MIM to fight back against their state’s merger with India. The Razakars unleashed a weekslong cycle of rape, murder, loot, and arson against the Hindu majority (and others, including communists, progressive Muslims, and Indian National Congress party affiliates), sparking retaliatory violence.
The newly independent Indian government, led by Jawaharlal Nehru and the steely Sardar Patel, cracked down with heavy-handed force and made the Nizam surrender. The MIM’s headquarters in Darussalam, Hyderabad, were seized, and its leaders either hid or sought asylum in Pakistan.
As the old guard left, a young barrister, Abdul Wahed Owaisi, took up the remnants of the party and rebranded it the “All India MIM” (AIMIM). He created a new party constitution, unfurled India’s flag on top of his office, and swore allegiance to the new republic.
Many influential Hyderabadi Muslims were not able to forgive that treachery. In the old city of Hyderabad and among a section of the Muslim elite, the AIMIM was treated with suspicion and Muslims flocked to the Indian National Congress party.
But Abdul Wahed continued his door-to-door electioneering and eventually his son, Salahuddin Owaisi (Asaduddin Owaisi’s father), made it to the state legislature in 1962. Salahuddin took over AIMIM leadership in 1975. Although his communal rhetoric polarized Hyderabad, he also worked to win hearts in his community through major philanthropic investments like constructing new schools and hospitals in the old city.
Hindu-Muslim strife never left Hyderabad completely after India’s partition. With Salahuddin flexing AIMIM’s muscles, Hindu groups retaliated. And he eventually entered a covert partnership with old rival, the Indian National Congress party.
With the rise of the right-wing BJP in northern India in the 1980s, communal tensions mounted still further. In 1990, hundreds of people were killed in clashes in Hyderabad over the BJP-led “Ram temple movement” that demanded the building of a temple at the site of a historic mosque in North India. The movement became political fodder for sectarian politics in India for decades to come, eventually enabling the rise of Modi and catapulting the BJP into national party status.
Civil liberty groups blamed both the BJP and AIMIM for the communal violence. But in 1991, Salahuddin was reelected to parliament from Hyderabad.
“The Razakars have left for Pakistan,” Owaisi said when asked about his party’s history. “This is the MIM that believes in and fights for the Indian Constitution.”
Owaisi is keen to brush aside his party’s violent history. Now, he paints it as a group of beleaguered Muslims out to protect the secular Indian Constitution.
A London-trained lawyer, he fought and won his first election in 1994 after completing his law degree and being summoned back to India by his father. Amid a seething rebellion in the party over leadership, he fought and won three state and parliamentary elections, learned the tricks of the trade from party elders, and was readied for the turbulent seas of Indian politics. He described the whole experience as a “baptism by fire.”
But his real public reckoning happened in a lane in old Hyderabad in 1999, when political rivals attacked him and cracked open his skull. Thousands of supporters gathered outside the hospital where Owaisi lay in a medicated stupor when his father came to visit him. “I asked for a bandh [strike], but he ordered me to swallow my pride and head home.” He said his father asked why he should trouble the people to avenge his son. “It hurt my ego,” Owaisi said, “but it was the right decision.”
Owaisi has learned from his father’s work ethic. At his public rallies, he repeats the words “deewangi” (madness) and “ishq” (passionate love) to describe his politics and demands the same from his audiences. “Do not step into politics if you cannot tolerate the burn,” Owaisi said, his eyes wide. “Politics is like unrequited love, nothing less.”
The politician does seem to love his job. He was awarded the 2014 Sansad Ratna, a prize given to parliamentarians for high attendance and engagement. (India’s parliament suffers embarrassingly high absenteeism.) Even some Owaisi’s opponents might agree he is a devoted professional.
Owaisi’s rising popularity—fueled by a strong social media presence—notwithstanding, winning elections is a game his Muslim-led party hasn’t yet aced.
In practice, Muslims in India still mostly vote for parties that have the strongest chance of defeating the BJP. Those calculations have left the seven registered Muslim parties in India—AIMIM among them—limited to regional influence. But AMIM may be the party to break through. It has begun to make a mark outside its home state, registering state legislature-level victories in districts in Maharashtra and Bihar, some of which have more than 30 percent Muslim populations.
It is now vying to disrupt the virulent three-pronged political contest in West Bengal this month, although enthusiasm was dulled when Owaisi’s Bengal partner in the region, a local Muslim cleric named Abbas Siddiqui, jumped ship to join the “secular” Left Front-Indian National Congress party alliance. Owaisi declared he’d go solo in the fiercely contested state and still contest from a few districts.
Bengal politics has been characterized less by religion than by language. For Bengali-speaking Muslims, it is Mamata Banerjee—a secular politician of Bengali origin—who has captured their votes for decades. The Muslim vote is so coveted in the state that Banerjee recently took potshots at Owaisi and Siddiqui, accusing them of “attempting to split the Muslim votes.”
Owaisi, for his part, took a dig at one of Banerjee’s trusted electioneers, who, in a conversation with journalists, had claimed that secular parties in India have alienated Hindus by “appeasing” Muslims—a time-worn charge in Indian politics. “Allah protect us from such appeasement,” quipped Owaisi in a Twitter thread. “Muslims are 27% of the state BUT have only 6% govt jobs, only 11% of students in higher education are Muslims & 80% of rural Muslims earn less than ₹5k. 6 worst performing districts on healthcare have a Muslim population share of more than 25%. But their share in prison population is 37%.”
For Owaisi, there is no reason why old electoral calculations like in the state of Bengal should not be overturned. Although parties like the Indian National Congress and Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress do pay lip service to protect Muslim interests, they’ve never really done so when push comes to shove. In that regard, he said, “my priority is not to win elections but to give alternate politics to India’s Muslims.”
In his national campaign, that politics is secular. But in Hyderabad, Owaisi often plays the part of cleric for the community. A member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board like his father, he has taken the conservative line on many issues. He has variously pressed for the Ahmadiyya community to be declared non-Muslim and has lambasted writers like Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie for being anti-Islamic. Meanwhile, his brother Akbaruddin—also an elected state representative from the AIMIM party—is even more extreme. Akbaruddin, who enjoys his own parallel social media stardom, famously served jail time for a remark in 2013 when he declared that if the police were removed for 15 minutes, “we (Muslims) will finish 100 crore Hindus.”
Maintaining these separate lives can be no easy task. However, if one can keep both liberal Indians and conservative Muslims happy at the same time, why not?
Owaisi may be a hit among many Muslims, especially younger ones, but he still raises hackles for others.
Shahid Siddiqui is a former member of parliament who belonged to the North Indian caste-based socialist Samajwadi Party. He was also, for decades, the Muslim spokesperson for some of the other most important secular parties of North India, including the Indian National Congress.
Siddiqui believes the complacency of secular parties is pushing Muslim voters toward Owaisi. But he believes AMIM will not be able to make a sizeable, long-term dent in the heartland. “Muslims realize to go to a separate Muslim party would be suicidal. They always rejected a Muslim party,” Siddiqui said. “Owaisi is bound to fail.” Owaisi is thus accused of playing the spoiler in elections; some have even called him “Jinnah 2.0”—the new Muslim separatist of India. And given the dichotomous relationship between right-wing Hindu and Muslim parties, many have referred to him as the BJP’s “B-team.”
But Owaisi is unfazed. He has long-term plans. “The first election is to lose, the second to make the other party lose, the third to win,” he said, quoting his political role model Kanshi Ram. Ram was the pioneering politician who built a party for Dalits, India’s formerly untouchable lowest caste, and took it to near-national status. Owaisi aims to eventually create a coalition of the marginalized in India. His party has fielded several Dalit and tribal candidates in the past.
Ultimately, Owaisi’s decision to contest elections outside of his den may be part posturing and part positioning himself as a potential ally for secular parties in the future, but it can’t be ignored. In that way, the stakes are high. Indian democracy may accept or reject him, but either way is forced to engage with him, a popular English-speaking Muslim barrister running his own party. He’s the type of leader India hasn’t produced in decades, and he hopes to redefine Indian secularism itself.
Soumya Shankar reports on electoral politics and social movements with a South Asia focus. She teaches journalism at Stony Brook University in New York.