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Holding them captive?

The grip of the Majlis-e-ittehadul Muslimeen on the community remains strong, despite minor dents.

WITH A Member representing Hyderabad in the Lok Sabha, four members in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly, 36 corporators in Hyderabad and 75-plus members elected to various municipal bodies in Andhra Pradesh, the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen is one of the foremost representatives of the city's Muslims.

The Majlis was formed in 1927 "for educational and social uplift of Muslims". But it articulated the position that "the ruler and throne (Nizam) are symbols of the political and cultural rights of the Muslim community... (and) this status must continue forever".

The Majlis pitted itself against the Andhra Mahasabha and the communists who questioned the feudal order that sustained the Nizam's rule. It also bitterly opposed the Arya Samaj, which gave social and cultural expression to the aspirations of the urban Hindu population in the Hyderabad State of those days.

By the mid-1940s, the Majlis had come to represent a remarkably aggressive and violent face of Muslim communal politics as it organised the razakars (volunteers) to defend the "independence" of this "Muslim" State from merger with the Indian Union.

According to historians, over 1,50,000 such `volunteers' were organised by the Majlis for the Nizam State's defence but they are remembered for unleashing unparalleled violence against Hindu populations, the communists and all those who opposed the Nizam's "go it alone" policy. It is estimated that during the height of the razakar `agitation', over 30,000 people had taken shelter in the Secunderabad cantonment alone to protect themselves from these `volunteers'.

But the razakars could do little against the Indian Army and did not even put up a fight. Kasim Rizvi, the Majlis leader, was imprisoned and the organisation banned in 1948. Rizvi was released in 1957 on the undertaking that he would leave for Pakistan in 48 hours. Before he left though, Rizvi met some of the erstwhile activists of the Majlis and passed on the presidentship to Abdul Waheb Owaisi, a lawyer.

Owaisi is credited with having "re-written" the Majlis constitution according to the provisions of the Indian Constitution and "the realities of Muslim minority in independent India", according to a former journalist, Chander Srivastava. For the first decade-and-a-half after this "reinvention", the Majlis remained, at best, a marginal player in Hyderabad politics and even though every election saw a rise in its vote share, it could not win more than one Assembly seat.

The 1970s saw an upswing in Majlis' political fortunes. In 1969, it won back its party headquarters, Dar-us-Salaam — a sprawling 4.5-acre compound in the heart of the Old City. It also won compensation which was used to set up an ITI on the premises and a women's degree college in Nizamabad town. In 1976, Salahuddin Owaisi took over the presidentship of the Majlis after his father's demise.

This started an important phase in the history of the Majlis as it continued expanding its educational institutions, including the first Muslim minority Engineering College and Medical College. Courses in MBA, MCA and other professional degrees followed. The 1970s were also a watershed in Majlis' history as after a long period of 31 years, Hyderabad witnessed large-scale communal rioting in 1979. The Majlis came to the forefront in "defending" Muslim life and property.

Salahuddin Owaisi, also known as "Salar-e-Millat" (commander of the community), has repeatedly alleged in his speeches that the Indian state has "abandoned" the Muslims to their fate. Therefore, "Muslims should stand on their own feet, rather than look to the State for help'', he argues.

This policy has been an unambiguous success in leveraging the Majlis today to its position of being practically the "sole spokesman" of the Muslims in Hyderabad and its environs.

Voting figures show this clearly. From 58,000 votes in the 1962 Lok Sabha elections for the Hyderabad seat, Majlis votes rose to 1,12,000 in 1980. The clear articulation of this "stand on one's feet" policy in education and `protection' during riots doubled its vote-share by 1984. Salahuddin Owaisi won the seat for the first time, polling 2.22 lakh votes. This vote-share doubled in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections to over four lakhs.

The Majlis has since continued its hold on the Hyderabad seat winning about four-and-a-half lakh votes each time.

Despite remarkable economic prosperity and negligible communal violence in the past decade, the hold of the Majlis on the Muslims of Hyderabad remains, despite minor dents. And despite widespread allegations of Majlis leaders having "made money", most ordinary Muslims continue to support them because, as one bank executive put it "they represent our issues clearly and unambiguously''.

A university teacher says that the Majlis helped Muslims live with dignity and security at a time when they were under attack.

Asaduddin Owaisi, the articulate barrister son of Salahuddin Owaisi and leader of the Majlis' Legislature party, compares the Majlis to the Black Power movement of America.

The Majlis that emerged after 1957 is a completely different entity from its pre-independence edition, he says adding that comparisons with that bloody past are "misleading and mischievous". "That Majlis was fighting for state power, while we have no such ambitions or illusions".

He stoutly defends the need for "an independent political voice" for the minorities, which is willing to defend them and project their issues "firmly".

"How can an independent articulation of minority interests and aspirations be termed communal," he asks and contests any definition of democracy which questions the loyalty of minorities if they assert their independent political identity. "We are a threat not only to the BJP and Hindu communalism, but also to Muslim extremism," Asaduddin claims. "By providing a legitimate political vent for Muslims to voice their aspirations and fears, we are preventing the rise of political extremism and religious obscurantism when the community is under unprecedented attack from Hindu communalists and the state''.

A.A.

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