What is the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Asaduddin Owaisi? As far as popular imagination goes, it mostly revolves around him being a firebrand politician known to stoke communal conflagrations in sensitive areas. The problem with this image is with the way "perceptions" are understood as some sort of concrete "reality". The inherent prejudice that a modern, Hindu, urban voter has about Muslims in general gets in the way of caricaturing Owaisi.
Our biases are stark and skin-deep when one thinks of this tall, sturdy bearded figure donning a skull cap and kurta. It is as if he is bound to be "like how most Muslims are". A more charitable, yet equally problematic take is to commend him by saying how he is not like normal Muslims!
Recently in Pune, Owaisi addressed a rally at a time the corporation elections are round the corner. He was initially rejected permission for the same by the police under the pretext that his speeches have communal overtones. This makes us wonder if those like the Thackerays never resorted to communal politics. When a Muslim talks of representing the interests of his community at large, the popular psyche gets jittery and nervous.
We start building a thread of naive presumptions about how damaging this is for democracy. Needless to say, this image of Owaisi being a communal polariser has been polished by the media. It fails to show what Owaisi actually thinks about the everyday concerns of the people and where he sees Indian Muslims in near future.
Consider this: in a recent interview to The Hindu, Owaisi made a really basic, yet remarkably significant statement. He said, “I speak the language of the constitution. I believe in the plurality and diversity of this country. Like others, I don't want to turn this country into a theological entity".
Not bad for a man who has largely been accused of circumventing the law by deploying parochial means to satiate his ideological goal. Be it his astute and shrewd remarks on the floor of the House or his well-mannered, polite and to-the-point arguments on TV debates, Owaisi steers away from being ideologically close to the attitude that the lunatic fringe of the Sangh Parivar boasts of.
One recalls the famous video clip of Owaisi, in which he categorically stated to moderators of a Pakistani news show that they should stop worrying about Indian Muslims as they had made their decision 60 years ago.
|By projecting himself and his party as one that speaks for all Muslims, without any sectarian bias, Owaisi emerges as a beacon of new hope for some. [Photo: DailyO]|
An Indian Muslim defending fellow Muslim citizens and the robust democratic apparatus of his own country in an enemy land should have actually spurred displays of patriotic support by the fellow citizens.
Of course, we never saw any of that as our nationalism, today, is contingent to the religion you belong to. We have happily internalised the vacuous distinction of "Good Muslim and Bad Muslim" where the good one always has to assimilate himself in the mainstream culture to prove his or her nationality. Doses of morality apply only to people like Owaisi who dare to speak about the virtues of the politics of difference.
Owaisi is a barrister who graduated with a degree from the UK. As one with a sharp mind and a tight grip on the changing realities, he very well understands the pulse of the young, aspirational Muslim. In fact, in more ways than one, his personal demeanor and career achievements - apart from his political life - are what the ordinary Muslim youth looks up to. Having said this, nobody is trying to hold a brief for him in the objective sense.
The image of him running Hyderabad almost as a political fiefdom, being ruthlessly radical in his solutions and attacking the opposition in their own language of venom and hatred has certainly limited and even accentuated the popular belief that non-Muslim voters have about him.
By falling for this perception, one forgets to acknowledge the progressive difference he associates himself with - which is in stark contradiction to the ideals of what someone like Raj Thackeray may espouse.
The way oratory is received in our country is anything but secular. When Raj Thackeray hurls invectives with callous disregard to his critiques, it is immediately lapped up as being a “fitting reply”. When Owaisi does the same, he is conveniently branded as a communalist.
This intensely Brahmanical logic goes back to what Ambedkar had said once, when the majority stakes a claim to power, it is secularism and when a minority claims its share of power, it is communalism!
If we can have parties catering to specific castes, regions, religions and ideologies, can we really have a problem with someone who is unabashed about his politics, which revolves around safeguarding the future prospects of his community?
Owaisi will find it extremely difficult to make his voice heard at the national level. Yet, by projecting himself and his party as one that speaks for all Muslims, without any sectarian bias, he emerges as a beacon of new hope for some. At the same time, by including Dalits in his intriguing slogan of "Jai Bheem, Jai Meem", he has shown the willingness to broaden the ambit of his political imagination.
By treating Dalits as a natural ally in his political project, he understands the merits of this integrationist politics, which vows for the collective emancipation of the marginalised groups at large.
It is for the prejudiced people to decide if they want to embrace Owaisi, the patriot.