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Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi, the long time president of Hyderabad based Muslim political party, Majlis-e –Ittehad ul Muslimeen (MIM/Majlis) died on 29 September 2008 at the age of seventy two (b-1936). The Hindu daily called him a ‘colossus’ and the Deccan Chronicle remembered him as the symbol of an ‘era’. Similar responses came from other newspapers. Compared to the English, the Urdu press was cautious in appreciating him, where as the attitude of English press itself was surprising. Here was a man who was always ignored by the press or only talked about his negative aspects was suddenly respected.
Soon a few articles in Urdu newspapers were published and innumerable condolence meetings were conducted at every nook and corner of the old city of Hyderabad. There was a discussion everywhere about the personality of Owaisi (he was affectionately called ‘Salar-e-millat’—commander of the community—or ‘Salar’, a title given by a poor Muslim who used to regularly contribute two rupees every month for the party), and his contributions to the Muslim situation of Hyderabad. These meetings and discussions gave a different picture of Owaisi’s personality and his contributions. The content of these meetings, discussions and personal views are summarized in the following pages. It is an attempt to look at this grand figure of Hyderabad from the perspectives of Hyderabad Muslims who supported, opposed or watched Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi and his party.
Muslim's Concerns and Owaisi's Responses
After the Accession of Hyderabad to Indian Union in 1948, the situation of Muslims changed drastically. They lost the supportive bases of a government (of the Nizam) and a party (the Majlis) that was interested in them. They also lost jobs and properties along with lives and self-respect. Accession disturbed the classes and demography of Hyderabad. Muslims lost all these things in a short time resulting in a deep shock and far reaching socio-psychological impacts. The uncertainty about the future made the situation more difficult. In such situation new concerns emerged and became the priority of all the Muslims in Hyderabad.
In interviews, people reported that after ‘Police Action’ they developed three kinds of insecurities in relation to three fears. The first was the fear of the new government. They saw that most of the Muslim, Nizam and Majlis haters became ministers and important officials in the new government. They started fearing that these people will further harm Muslims and their interest in some way or the other. The second fear was about the Hindus. Many Muslims overnight saw a change in the attitude of many Hindus on whom they were dependent for many reasons. Though many Hindus supported Muslims in such difficult times and such Hindus outnumbered the hostile Hindus but still this fear took its roots. The third fear was about destiny, making them uncertain about the future and uncomfortable about the past.
The challenge before the Muslim leadership was to provide a solution to these and similar other fears, and to restore confidence. It became important for them to resist the government if it had designs against the Muslims, resist those Hindus who hate Muslims and reduce the anger of God by becoming virtuous. In the period after Police Action we see some perspectives emerging in this regard, which can be summarized, as cautious, low profile and inward looking. When the Majlis was revived in 1957 (It was banned in 1948) a significant change occurred in the people’s responses to it. It is said that Owaisi constantly used to roam in the streets of old city from morning to lunch and keep meeting people for many years. Even though he was a young man in his early twenties but the name of the party, Majlis and the support of his father, who was its president, both helped and created difficulties for him. Few supported and many opposed him. On the other hand there were communal tensions and riots were always a possibility. In such conditions Owaisi was always the first to be on the spot. According to the people this habit of Owaisi’s helped in developing similar tendencies in the public. Owaisi realized the importance of being on the hot spot in difficult situations and made it his policy to be present on the situation. This policy encouraged his party colleagues also to travel on the same path. Over a period the tendency to be on the spot and confront adversity became a strong tradition of not only the Majlis but also the Muslim residents of Hyderabad.
When the communal riots began in the late 1970s, the Muslims found them selves at the receiving end of Hindu ire, but this confrontationist attitude changed the situation and created a power balance between the two communities. Owaisi’s mastery of the art of being on the spot for the people resulted in a positive support for Muslims. The common Muslims who were scared and insecure felt that there was somebody who could understand their pains, show solidarity, and was ready to fight for them. Owaisi’s presence and later, the presence of a whole group from Majlis, was an extremely reassuring factor for the poor and affected Muslims. On the other hand it seriously discouraged rioters and scuttled their plans. As one person said, ‘what ever bad things that can be said about Owaisi, the truth is that he was always there for the people in times of trouble and moments of panic and fear’. It is also said that ‘Owaisi played a major role in controlling and ending the communal riots from Hyderabad’. His strategy of confrontation and presence explains this claim and thus played a major role in providing a sense of security to the Muslims of Hyderabad.
People were dejected and confused after the Police Action. Because of the collapse of social systems with the end of Nizam’s rule and because of in and out migrations there was chaos and disturbance everywhere. This situation was dangerous and it was necessary to collect the community on some grounds. On the other hand people’s inclination to the Communists parties was considered as threat to Muslims faith and religion.
It is interesting to explore how this unity was achieved in Hyderabad and how different strategies were adopted by the MIM in the earlier and latter years. For Owaisi, the concern for unity was always important, as it was in other groups dealing with Muslim issues. Owaisi’s concern for unity expressed itself in a call that the Muslims should show unity through one political party. Owaisi played a major role in creating this understanding in the people. This was so complete that whoever talked about unity was considered as talking and supporting Owaisi’s version/definition of unity. The efforts for an alternative unity as proposed by MBT (Majlis Bachao Tehreek, a break away faction of the MIM) and other religious revivalist groups who are not pro Majlis could not gain currency. The electoral success of Majlis contributed widely in spreading Owaisi’s particular connotation of unity. It will be a useful project to evaluate how this meaning of unity as used by Owaisi has an impact on Hyderabad affairs. Another visible strategy used by Owaisi to achieve unity among Muslims, according to an observer was that ‘ Owaisi always tried to give representation to different Muslim sects of Hyderabad. Presently the lone MLC is a Shia, one MLA is Mehdavi, two are Pathans and one belongs to the traditional soofi circle. He always tried to maintain this kind of harmony and include all the groups in Hyderabad’.
The Muslim question lost its legitimacy with the formation of Pakistan at the national level and with the defeat of Razakaar and Majlis at Hyderabad level. The active and passive supporters of Pakistan and separate Hyderabad lost their face and were overtaken by guilt. But the people who neither supported Pakistan nor a separate Hyderabad also lost confidence. The common Muslims who were least bothered about Pakistan or Hyderabad ironically became the biggest sufferers of losses in Accession. In such a situation there was an urgent need to address the Muslim question politically but the circumstances were against it and also no one—neither Hindus nor Muslims—were feeling courageous enough to do so. There was a dominant tendency among the Muslims to suppress their voice and concerns, and to escape, though there were instances of one or two Muslim leaders coming forward to take up the Muslim issues.
In Hyderabad when the Majlis was revived, the question of legitimacy was the most prominent. It was considered widely that the Majlis has no right to reestablish itself because of its earlier history/positions and its consequences. But when it was revived the important priority was to prove to the Muslims and to the government that its revival is justified. Abdul Wahid Owaisi, the new president of Majlis, struggled hard to prove its justification by changing the Majlis’ constitution and redefining its aims and objectives according to the principles of new Constitution of India. Secondly the people endorsed his presidentship of the party since he was nominated initially (though still many consider that his president ship was not endorsed properly).
Thus two legitimacies were achieved by Abdul Wahid Owaisi, but his son Salahuddin achieved the third legitimacy, i.e., that from the common Muslim’s perspective according to some observers. This was an extremely uphill task and required consistent hard work and presence. Owaisi spent his whole life for the people’s problems and gained not only legitimacy for the Majlis, the party but also a reputation for himself.
The relationship of the Muslims of Hyderabad with the post 1948 governments was difficult most of the time. This relationship was determined in the earlier phases by the activities of the new military government and then later on by those of the civilian government. After Police Action the Muslims were nervous as well as hope full about the new government but soon they realized that the government’s decisions were directly influencing their lives negatively. They felt that their fears were not illusory. The governments subsequent to the military rule also continued this trend in different ways. And the later governments literally dumped the Muslims of Hyderabad. This worsening attitude of different governments to Muslims also brought change in their relationship with the governments.
It is seen that Muslims in Hyderabad are very sensitive to the governments and have strong opinions. According to one set of opinions all governments are bad for Muslims; according to another, governments are slow, weak and corrupt but interested in the betterment of its people. The people who have the second opinion are supportive of the good intentions of the governments. They think that governments should be approached for the Muslims problems in a sensible and wise way. According to the third set of opinions the ruling politicians matter most since they can influence the government. So the success and failure of the government in relation to Muslims is dependent on this relationship.
The MIM tried to include all the three elements in its understanding of the relationship with the government. Owaisi was the chief architect of this relationship and implemented his understanding throughout his long career as Majlis president. One very significant aspect of this relationship was that Owaisi never disowned any government; he always worked for some kind of relation ship with it, either critical or cooperative. Thus there are three elements in this relationship, one is about resisting, opposition and criticism, the second is about cooperation and collaboration, and the third is about applying pressure, lobbying and encouragement. It is also seen that people generally have a high regard for Owaisi’s judgments and are impressed by his boldness with governments. It is said that, ‘he is liked for the fact that he always interacted with the governments on equal basis and on his terms. He was never overawed and never went out of his way to get things from any government’.
Disinterestedness, passivity, fear and suspicion arose among Muslims in the context of Hyderabad’s accession. It was realized that this attitude would further damage their future prospects and present abilities. It was an extremely critical situation and demanded an immediate corrective. There was a need to speak to the people and made them aware so that these negative developments could be arrested. Thus we see that reaching out to the people and create awareness was the most important activity of the new leader’s agenda.
The first one to take a bold initiative in the earliest years with in the Muslim circle was Khallelullah Hussaini of the Tameer-e-Millat. But when the Majlis was revived Abdul Wahed Owaisi tried to reach out to the public in a new way. There are narratives that say that no one used to attend the public meetings conducted by Majlis initially but soon came a period in which people became obsessed with their public meetings. Many people confirmed that ‘some times there used to be three public meetings in a day and they used to rush to attend all the meetings and listen to the same speech again’. What they gained from these meetings was hope and an electrifying motivation. It is said that there used to be only two star speakers in these earliest public meetings- Abdul Wahed Owaisi and Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi—one was old and wise and the other was young and dynamic.
But after the death of Abdul Wahed in 1975, Salahuddin became the president and continued this trend. It is said that ‘Majlis is the only party in India which conducts so many public meetings all the year round with in Hyderabad’. The purpose of these meeting which became famous as ‘Jalsa Halat-e-Hazara’ (meeting about present circumstances), was to educate the people about the recent national and local socio-political developments and make them aware about its implications for Muslims and the options available for them. Public participation in these meetings is always found to be high even today. These meetings are conducted in every corner of the Muslim dominated areas and especially in lower income group localities. The impact of these meetings were serious and far-reaching. As one opponent of Majlis confessed grudgingly, ‘Majlis’ greatest contribution is that it created a political consciousness among the Muslims’. Another impact was, ‘Owaisi taught the Muslims to speak’. This was an important achievement for the people who lost hope and voice in the post Police Action period.
After Police Action many people started migrating to Hyderabad from the affected areas. The military government allotted some areas for the settlement of these migrants and refugees along with providing some other kind of help. But people found these efforts meager and insufficient, at this moment the Muslim community came forward on its own to help the needy. As one resident recalled ‘my mother sent me to Nampaly railway station to find a needy family and get them home. I found one family who just arrived from Marathwada area. I asked them if they are searching for a place to stay. They said, ‘yes’ and I told ‘my home is available, please come’. I brought them home to Moghal pura in a rickshaw and gave a room in our relatively large house. This family took our help for few weeks monetarily and after couple of months left our house when the head of the family got some employment’. Accordingly many families came forward to rehabilitate the affected families. The government’s insufficient response thus did not create much resentment but the people were resentful when they saw that the government is not helping them in getting back their lands and houses in their native villages that was forcefully taken from them.
Similarly during communal riots the government announced some compensation that would never come; but the people’s need was immediate and urgent. In this period Owaisi asked the people to contribute financially for this purpose resulting in a large collection of donations and charities. Owaisi immediately distributed this money after any communal riots and restored peoples livelihoods and confidence. This response became a policy for Majlis, i.e., to support the people with people’s money and not to rely on the government’s help. Making the Muslims of Hyderabad self-reliant was an important desire of the Muslim leaders especially those of the Majlis from the beginning. It was considered a good in itself because it can raise the community morally and materially, also it could help the Muslims not to rely on the false promises of the governments. The struggle towards self-reliance was shown in different ways in different phases. It is widely believed that Majlis is the biggest supporters of small traders, service providers and marginal workers. It is also widely acknowledged that Majlis aggressively protect their interests and that this group is the biggest supporter of Majlis. Majlis provide protection to this group against the police and local anti social elements.
The protection of small livelihoods was the concern of Majlis but the practitioners of trades and skills felt a moral responsibility of spreading their skills to other members in their family or locality. It is widely noticed that cycle mechanics, auto drivers, welders, electricians, plumbers, zari workers, painters, tailors and other similar trades train many young persons so that they can help them learn skills and also help in starting their own units. Many children are also found to be in such trades seeking to acquire some skills. This trend was quite widespread and helped many people acquire productive skills quickly, without spending any money and by taking admission in to the training institutions. Owaisi encouraged such trends by providing protection and also encouraged people to take up some trade/skill for their livelihood.
Majlis established an Industrial Training Institute in 1970 when it got some money from the government as a rent for Darusalam (the Majlis office, which was used as a fire station by the government). A decade latter the MIM lobbied with Chenna Reddy government to establish SETWIN (Self Employment in Twin Cities) in the old city to give training in new skills to repair refrigerators, air-conditioners, TVs and other electronic goods, screen-printing and many such trades. This training institute brought a significant change in the vocational skills and spirits of the young people. Owaisi was the biggest supporter of this institute, which encouraged people to take up technical skills in a new way. This resulted in the spread of many service providers in the old city and helped various young persons to go to the Middle East for employment. Those who do not like Majlis feels offended when they see a lot of them everywhere in the old city and feel sorry for the Muslims who practice such trades. They also accuse that Owaisi has a vested interest in keeping the people poor and illiterate. However, when we examine the situation after Accession, and look at the affected rural/urban and semi-literate people, who were without any relevant economic skills, and who with in three decades have acquired significant skills and changed the livelihood landscape of old city and conditions of their own lives, our opinion of Owaisi cannot but be positive.
Thus it is widely believed by many residents of old city that Owaisi’s attitude and approach towards self reliance through vocational skills, his respect for the working class and their political protection played a vital role in helping the Muslims of Hyderabad stand on their own feet and live respectable lives.
These were some of the thoughts that circulated in the old city regarding the role of Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi and about the conditions in Hyderabad. In order to understand the Muslim politics of Hyderabad we need to look at the whole situation from 1940 onwards from the Muslim perspective. Adapting developmental, secular and nationalist perspectives will only contribute in perpetuating an unacceptable picture of the reality. It looks strange when you look at the contributions of Owaisi from the residents of Hyderabad and compare it with the image about him in the so-called mainstream. He is the hero, visionary, statesman, and a deliverer for the people, but for others he is a demon, an antihero, a villain and a pre-modern politician who thrives on exploiting peoples’ vulnerabilities. In such a scenario asking the proper questions about the Muslim politics of Hyderabad requires certain sensibilities about the lives of Muslims and awareness about the underside of official history.
Apart from these there are many questions that need to be asked for academic and practical purposes about the role of Owaisi, the Majlis, various other groups, the nature of Muslim politics, its dynamics, compulsions and limitations. Presently I am interested in asking what could be the role and limitations of minority politics of Hyderabad in the context of the larger Muslim and National politics of India. What could be the further relevant questions and points to focus on?