Islamists are those who advance the cause of Islam, not people’s interests, in public life by political and legal means. In the years leading to Partition, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was demanding a separate territory for Indian Muslims. Eight decades later, Asaduddin Owaisi and other Islamists are demanding separate quota for Muslims in government jobs and educational institutions. The politics is for Muslims, but Islam is the criterion. In Maharashtra, where Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen is nursing an electoral constituency, events are organised every week where Muslims are told to unite for reservation in jobs.
These demands are meant to address Muslim deprivation, but for practical purposes these events advance a certain politics, a necessary precondition to benefit from which is to believe in Islam. Unfortunately, the Islamic lobby in India—steered by Owaisi and Islamists from the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind and aided by well-intentioned non-Muslim politicians like Mani Shankar Aiyar—has erroneously convinced Muslims that they are deprived of reservation benefits. This is incorrect: the Other Backward Class (OBC) Muslims do get quota benefits.
But Owaisi’s politics demands that believers of Islam, not just the poor but all of them, must benefit. Not people, Islam is the criterion for Owaisi, as it was for Jinnah.
It is immaterial how Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat conceives of Hindutva. It is consequential that Hindutva is seen as a sectarian ideology militating against the universalism of Hinduism. Owaisi’s recent statement, a retort to Hindutva leaders that “everyone is born a Muslim and then he is converted to other religions” may have surprised many but it is a familiar argument taught by Islamic scholars. Even if it were not catalysed by Hindutva groups, Owaisi’s politics nurtures a religion-based representative politics for Muslims. It will damage the interests of Muslims, as Jinnah damaged the future of Muslims and non-Muslims of Pakistan.
In many ways, Owaisi is Jinnah of modern India. For Jinnah, Owaisi and jihadist groups like al-Qaeda, this propensity to see everything separate for Muslims from non-Muslims originates from Islam. Liberal writers defend Islam, arguing that it teaches coexistence. They cite the Quranic verse (109:6): “To you your religion, and to me mine.” However, this verse teaches separatism from non-Muslims, not integration and pluralism. It was revealed when non-Muslims of Mecca invited Prophet Muhammad to live together. The offer was rejected by the prophet who told them: to you your religion, to me mine. Islam drove Jinnah’s politics; Islam drives Owaisi’s politics.
To elaborate what Owaisi is doing to India’s politics, one must grasp that the Two Nation Theory is a concept, a theory that camouflages, rather than clarifies, Islam’s role in politics. In popular understanding, the following view has been perpetuated: the Two Nation Theory means Muslims and Hindus cannot live together. In reality, this theory is not merely about Hindus versus Muslims; it is rooted in Islamic idea that Muslims cannot mix with non-Muslims. Islamic clerics tell us that Islam is a noble religion which protects non-Muslims; what they do not tell us that it protects non-Muslims only when they live as dhimmis (second-class citizens) under Islamic rule.
Jinnah was secular, but he wasn’t always secular. Urdu poet Muhammad Iqbal taught Islamism to Jinnah. Iqbal wrote this Urdu couplet: Hazaron saal nargis apni benoori pe roti hai/Bari mushkil se hota hai chaman mein deedawar paida (For thousands of years the narcissus laments its colourlessness; with great difficulty the one with true vision is born in the garden). Akbar S Ahmed, author of Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin, writes that the scholars of South Asia agree that in this couplet Iqbal was speaking of his own success in converting Jinnah to the cause of an Islamic state, a cause espoused today by jihadist leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and the end goal of Owaisi’s politics.
Under Iqbal’s influence from 1937 onwards and after Partition, Jinnah’s speeches were laced with imageries from Islam. He made statements: “Muslims… have not been crushed during the last 1,000 years”; “I shall never allow Muslims to be slaves of Hindus”; “The cows that Hindus worship Muslims eat; the villains that Hindus malign, Muslims idolise”; “The goal of Pakistan is not only to get freedom and autonomy but the Islamic concept of life”; “It is Prophet Muhammad’s spiritual blessing that Pakistan came into being. Now it is Pakistanis’ responsibility to turn it into the model (state) of the Righteous Caliphs.” Owaisi can hardly disagree with Jinnah.
The story remains the same as when Muhammad refused to share power with the non-Muslims of Mecca, when Jinnah refused to live together with Hindus, when Owaisi refuses to see that Muslim OBCs get reservation and advances the cause of Islam in India’s political discourse. In the town of Beed on January 6, Owaisi said: “Muslims are seeking reservation on the basis of their backwardness, not religion.” To Islamists, OBC Muslims do not exist. Although Owaisi denies that Islam is the cause, his ideas are rooted in Islam, much like Jinnah’s were. At the root of this thinking is the conception of Islam as the only ruling ideology.
Owaisi’s Islamism thrives in Hyderabad and Mumbai, the most fertile regions for radicalisation of Muslim youths for jihad. Despite the bloodiness of Partition, we adopted an inclusive constitution. One way to reject Owaisi’s politics could be to quash all reservations and invent a welfare plan for the truly disadvantaged: those who hold cards like BPL, below poverty line, or women below certain income tax levels. Next time you see a girl in torn clothes begging at a railway station, stop seeing if she is a Hindu or Muslim. Vanquish your mind if it tells that she needs, so to say, 0.05 per cent reservation. The quota politics is the response of intellectually bankrupt Indians ruling over us. By creating Pakistan, we thought we bought lasting peace, but Owaisi is dangerously rebirthing Jinnah’s politics. Pakistan’s experience teaches this: Indian Constitution alone must be our religion.