Andhra Pradesh MLA from the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party (MIM), Akbaruddin Owaisi, is now facing consequences for his rant against the Hindu community 10 days ago. Whatever the legal process decides on Owaisi’s alleged hate speech, however, there is near-unanimity that his words were abhorrent, and do not belong in a civil or responsible public discourse.
The real punishment for this kind of extremist agenda will have to be a political one. Owaisi belongs to a small party, confined to old Hyderabad, whose stock in trade has been to play on the anxieties and insecurities of sections of the Muslim community. The MIM has spoken in a harsh and irresponsible language on matters that supposedly impact Muslim selfhood, from Taslima Nasreen to the recent violence in Assam. It had seemingly been forced to temper its stand when it was part of the UPA. Now, like other parties in post-YSR Andhra Pradesh, the MIM is also trying to politically differentiate itself and rally its base. It sees no reason to hold its tongue, especially after it parted ways with the Congress in November over a dispute about a temple neighbouring the Charminar in Hyderabad.
Those who compare Owaisi with Varun Gandhi are partially right — his alleged hate speech is like similar speeches from those claiming to speak for the Hindu community. However, on both sides, for all their stridency, these are voices from the fringe. Varun Gandhi got the attention he did because of the drama of his situation — a young man from the Nehru-Gandhi family, speaking words that made the BJP cringe — and not because he represented anything or anyone other than himself. Owaisi’s is also the self-serving view of an outlier. National parties must be conscious of the signal they send when they ally with such forces. What’s more, Owaisi has blundered even in his attempt to communicate with the “Muslim voter” who is supposedly jittery after Modi’s victory in Gujarat. That story has changed. The Sachar Committee revealed the diversity among Muslims, the fact that like other Indians, their primary concerns are education, employment, a better life. Parties that seek their vote are now learning to address these issues, rather than calling up old fears. Owaisi, clearly, has failed to keep up even with the people he thinks he speaks for.