His provocative statements could have won him the tag of the enfant terrible of Maharashtra politics. But for 25 per cent of Mumbai’s migrant population of 5.1 million people, many of them from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Abu Azmi, 53, is a hero. He was in the news recently for being assaulted by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) legislators in the assembly for taking his oath in Hindi.
The MNS might hate him, but on November 17, the Samajwadi Party will felicitate Azmi for taking on Raj Thackeray.
Born in 1955 in Manjeer Patti, in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh district, one of the seven sons of landlord Haji Niyaz Ahmed followed his father to Mumbai in 1973 to start his professional career.
Working in his father’s embroidery unit in the congested Bhendi Bazaar area, Azmi revealed his business ambitions by starting a manpower recruitment agency that sent people to West Asia. He also began to dabble in real estate.
Today, with personal assets of Rs 126 crore, Azmi represents the migrant dream in Maximum City Mumbai.
But Azmi’s two-decade-long journey has been full of tumult and controversy. He has been accused of having underworld connections. He was arrested and acquitted by the Supreme Court in the Bombay bomb blast case in 1994.
He was also accused of inciting a mob to lynch two policemen in Bhiwandi in Thane, stopped from entering half-a-dozen districts in Maharashtra, had his passport impounded and recently, was assaulted in the hallowed precincts of the legislative assembly.
Then, his restaurateur son Farhan, married to actor Ayesha Takia, was picked up in Dubai on drug abuse charges in 2002.
But he is also one of the few leaders in Maharashtra to have won from two assembly seats — Mankhurd in suburban Mumbai and Bhiwandi in Thane district.
Whenever the father of five daughters and one son leaves home, his family members get nervous.
“Yes we are scared,” says his baker daughter Shehna Azmi. “But his conviction in his values helps us cope with the situation.”
Sure, Azmi’s candour has become his trademark. Sitting in his office overlooking the Arabian Sea, clad in trousers and a crisp shirt, Azmi said his detention under the Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act drove him toward politics.
“What I can’t stand is injustice and dictatorial tendencies to crush voices of dissent,” Azmi told HT.
“Till these forces are around, I am going to raise my voice no matter what happens.”
Azmi says his stint in prison made him commit himself to a life in politics. A meeting set up by Raj Babbar in 1994 with Samajwadi chief Mulayam Yadav set the ball rolling.
Since then the ‘socialist’ who loves collecting guns and racing his Mercedez Benz bicycles with his grandsons in Colaba’s by-lanes, has been taking up issues related to minorities and North Indians.
According to the last census in 2001, Mumbai’s population was 11.9 million. Of these, 1.25 million are migrants from Uttar Pradesh.
Azmi’s zeal in taking on “fascist and communal forces”, as he likes to describe most political parties, is known. At the same time, his detractors accuse him of opportunism.
His men helped the Shiv Sena win the Nashik Municipal Corporation polls in 2007 and critics allege Azmi has business ties with MNS leaders.
Many would blame Azmi for being two-faced and shrill on the Marathi versus Hindi issue, but he knows how to draw a crowd and hold on to it.
“For people who constantly live under the fear of being attacked, men like him give us hope that our voice will also be heard,” said Dinesh Yadav a migrant from Uttar Pradesh, who plies his taxi near Colaba.