It has been my experience that the best way to deal with political rabble-rousers is to call their bluff and bluster. I have never met Akbaruddin Owaisi, the 42-year-old MLA of the Hyderabad-based Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), but listening to his recent incendiary speech at a public gathering in Adilabad, I see no reason for him to roam free. Clearly, his hateful vocabulary has no place in a civilised democracy.
I have, however, met the elder Owaisi brother, the MIM MP, Asaduddin Owaisi. Senior Owaisi in private is a soft-spoken, highly courteous gent, with a Bar-at-Law degree from the prestigious Lincoln's Inn. During Parliament sessions, he invites journalists and fellow MPs for a Hyderabadi daawat and is always a gracious host. Since my gastronomic habits are distinctly secular (I have had crabs and red wine with the Thackerays and jalebis with VHP leaders), the haleem at Owaisi's lunch is always a delight.
And yet, away from the genteel lunches, the crowded bylanes of the walled city of Hyderabad present a very different picture. This is the Owaisi family bastion where first the father Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi was a six-time MP and now Asaduddin is a two-time MP. Why does an otherwise dignified individual transform himself into a fiery demagogue the moment he steps into his constituency? The answer must lie in political compulsions. In Delhi, Asaduddin Owaisi is a back-bencher MP; in Hyderabad, his self-image is of a strident 'protector of Muslims' who seeks votes by preying on the fears and insecurities of his core followers. It is a peculiar schizophrenia that one could almost excuse if only it were not so dangerous.
Indeed, 20 years ago, the Owaisis and their ilk would have been dismissed as fringe politicians, the kind who perhaps wouldn't even deserve an edit page column. Today, they must be taken a little more seriously because their politics strikes a more ominous chord well beyond the Charminar. Firstly, in the last two decades, after the Babri demolition, we have seen a heightening of the Hindu-Muslim political divide with violence and terror giving it a more frightening dimension. Any inflammatory speech by a responsible public figure of either community only ends up widening the mistrust and polarisation among communities. Akbaruddin may believe he gets votes with his shrill oratory, but he only ends up demonising the average Muslim in the eyes of the majority community.
Secondly, the rise of the Owaisi brand of politics only legitimises the emergence of similar religio-political fundamentalists among the majority community. Every speech or action of an Owaisi strengthens the likes of VHP leader Praveen Togadia who otherwise would be pushed towards political irrelevance. With their competitive ideology of hate and prejudice, groups like the VHP and the MIM feed on each other, only adding to an atmosphere of unseemly intolerance.
Thirdly, old Hyderabad may be the den of the Owaisis, but in the age of social media and the internet, its political echo now reverberates across geographical boundaries. Mainstream media has tended to ignore the Owaisis' rantings as a manic fringe voice, but social media amplifies it and gives it a potency. Akbaruddin Owaisi's speech went viral on the internet with millions of hits and tweets, almost forcing prime time television to intensely debate it. For global internet Hindus in particular, Akbaruddin is now enemy number one, offering a strong reason to justify their own venom against the minorities.
However, it is unreasonable to expect the Owaisis to effect an image makeover when their political survival is dependent on sharp identity politics. Though what can change is the way we deal with such fundamentalist forces. At the very outset, the law must act speedily against all sellers of hate speech. Akbaruddin has made similar speeches in the past, but has got away. This time he must not be allowed to slip out so easily. Nor should the likes of Togadia or, indeed, any mainstream political party figure who spreads enmity among communities escape prosecution. They must be arrested and convicted.
Moreover, parties which claim to be 'secular' must totally distance themselves from individuals and parties who profess such politics. The MIM was a member of the UPA till a few months ago, and its presence in the alliance, despite being a single MP party, raises troubling questions over how secularism has become a badge of convenience for some.
Liberal Muslims, too, need to speak out strongly against the MIM brand of politics. Only an alliance between Hindu and Muslim liberals can isolate noisy extremists from both communities. The silent majority can't remain silent any longer. Don't forget that it was the same Akbaruddin Owaisi who physically attacked the Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen at a public function a few years ago. Why wasn't there a similar outcry then, one wonders.
Finally, the Indian State must realise the need to deal with minorities even-handedly, not on the basis of neglect and discrimination. The arbitrary manner in which Muslim teenagers were arrested in the aftermath of the 2007 Mecca Masjid blasts in Hyderabad reflects a shocking mindset that stereotypes Muslims as terrorists. That the bombs were the handiwork of right wing Hindu terror groups was found out much later. But by then the damage had been done.
Indeed, the day after we debated the Owaisi issue on television, I got a mail from a young Hyderabadi Muslim. He wrote: "I am from the old city but I have never voted for Mr Owaisi. Let me ask you though, where were all your studio panellists when innocent Muslims were arrested by the police? Who bailed them out? We Muslims still have faith in the judiciary and the Indian nation, but don't create a situation where we Muslims will have to seek our own legal and political representation." In the troubled times we live in, his words deserve our collective attention.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal