Online Muslim politics

NAZIMA PARVEEN

THE All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s (AIMIM) rising graph of electoral success under the leadership of Asaduddin Owaisi in the era of growing Hindu-majoritar-ianism is seen as a Muslim response to Hindutva.1 The party, and for that matter its leader Owaisi, has been accused of ‘counter-polarization’ of Muslims that in turn, is seen as a betrayal to weaken the ‘secular’ vote. Although Owaisi is also known for his criticism of the BJP-led NDA government on issues like demonetization, privatization, unemploy-ment, national security, anti-Dalit violence and reservation for Other Backwards Classes (OBCs), his image of a scull-capped, bearded and traditionally-dressed devout Muslim with elitist mannerisms seems more relatable to what is known as Muslim separatism.

The paper is primarily concerned with Owaisi’s political presence. It takes Owaisi as an online political phenomenon to examine the manner in which his political ideas are disseminated to establish his multi-faceted image as a Muslim leader. For this purpose, I invoke the idea of online Muslim politics – a network of networks that defines Muslim political identity in cyberspace through certain symbols and metaphors.

This form of Muslim politics is inextricably associated with the expansion of social media. With growing urbanization and accessibility to smartphones and networks, social media has broadened the spectrum
of political mobilization and the formation of a constituency beyond electoral politics through the circulation of all kinds of propaganda and counter-propaganda material. These sites represent a domain where a different form of political mobilization takes place. However, no statement, policy or vision goes without being examined critically. This is a public domain where the statements made by political parties and public representatives are critically scrutinized.

The political campaigns of AIMIM through the party-run social media handles like Facebook pages, Twitter handles, Instagram, and YouTube channels etc. are very significant. A content analysis of these online activities – number of followers, nature of posts/tweets and re-tweets, posters, events, linked pages – unfolds the larger political agenda and Asaduddin Owaisi’s visibility in political, journalistic and other social media circles.

Asaduddin Owaisi, a lawyer by education, is a four-time Member of Parliament representing the Hyderabad constituency in the Lok Sabha. Owaisi is also known for his articulate speeches and active partition as an MP. He is the recipient of the prestigious award, the Sansad Ratna 2014, for his outstanding performance  as an MP in the15th Lok Sabha.2 He outscored the list of top MPs by a great margin with his active participation in debates.3 His speeches in the Lok Sabha are taken seriously by the media. He is also known for using empirical data and official documents for making persuasive arguments. Owaisi has set another record by introducing three private member bills in Parliament in 2019.4

The Owaisi-led AIMIM’s growth over the last fifteen years in Indian politics has made it very relevant. Despite the fact that the party has only one Lok Sabha seat (Asaduddin Owaisi’s own seat, Old Hyderabad city), seven out of 119 MLA seats in Telangana, two MLA seats in Maharashtra, and five in Bihar, Owaisi is often presented as the most powerful Muslim leader of the country.

Unlike other mainstream political parties such as the BJP and Congress, AIMIM does not have its own specific IT cell. In in an interview with me, the party’s official spokesperson justified this tentative and unorganized online engagement. He gave a politically charged explanation: ‘AIMIM is involved in BJP or Congress type IT cells politics, which run or manage the propaganda material, fake news items and other inflammatory material through their private social media handles. Hence, it does not need to have any designated IT cell’.5 However, he did not rule out the significance of virtual space. According to him, online activities are conducted either through the party’s official account or individual accounts of party MLAs and MPs, including the official social media accounts of Asaduddin Owaisi. In addition, multiple social media platforms, which have now become a necessity for gaining popularity amongst the masses, are used and managed by party members.6 

AIMIM’s official website, featuring a broad view of Asaduddin Owaisi, followed by a clip from his public speech on the front page, provides information regarding party’s mission statement, historical legacy, leaders’ profile, and activities in the field of infrastructural development, education, healthcare, minority upliftment, relief initiatives, and governance. The mission statement of AIMIM reads: ‘AIMIM is… dedicated to protect and promote the rights of Muslims, Dalits, Adivasi and Other Backward Classes, other minorities and all other underprivileged communities in India. It further says, ‘…It bears true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India, It strongly believes in the nation’s secular democracy and strive to protect and enhance its quality by effective representation from local municipal councils to the parliament.’7 

The web page dedicated to ‘our leaders’ list down the political profile and achievements of Asaduddin Owaisi, who is addressed as Naqeeb-E-Millat, which means chief/head or the advocate of the nation/community.8 The other pages in this category list Akbaruddin Owaisi as Habib-E-Millat (beloved of the nation), and Owaisi’s, Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi, as Salar-E-Millat (chief of the nation).9 This description is followed by the history of AIMIM and its achievements in the field of politics, governance and reforms listing down women’s empowerment and political parti-cipation as an important focus of AIMIM since 1986. The website is linked to the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts.

It is important to note that the website does not have any official document of the AIMIM, such as party constitution, election manifestoes or any specific resolution. This is an interesting omission. The party has been representing the Hyderabad constituency for a long time and has expanded across regional boundaries in the last few years. The parliamentary speeches of Asaduddin Owaisi, speeches delivered by the party’s elected members including Akbaruddin Owaisi, parliamentary or assembly questions, and private member bills that Owaisi has presented in Parliament or even press releases are not archived on the AIMIM’s website.10 

The description of the party’s leadership lacks any information on its organizational structure or even a list of MLAs as if they do not exist. Even health and education, and minority upliftment related information is reduced to the Salar-E-Millat Educational Trust, Owaisi School of excellence, Owaisi Livelihood Trust and other Darussalam institutions. There is no mention of AIMIM’s development related achievements in terms of MLAs’ work or MP-led developmental activities at the constituency level in Hyderabad where the party has held seven out of 15 MLA seats since 2014.

AIMIM’s Facebook (FB) page was created on 25 June 2011.11 The profile photo of the page represents party’s election symbol, the Kite, and its slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Justice’ along with a slogan: Patang ka nishan, suraksha aur samman.12 The page is linked to a number of other FB pages. Most of these web links are dedicated to AIMIM’s electoral missions in different states like Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. In addition, the personal FB page of Asaduddin Owaisi, his brother Akbaruddin Owaisi and some pages created by other AIMIM leaders’ and followers are also linked.13 

Asaduddin Owaisi’s FB page was also created in the same year on 9 October.14 Owaisi’s FB page starts with a statement in Hindi, ‘dke;kch feys ;k uk feys] eSa Hkkjr ds dksus dksus esa tkmaxkA vc eq>s dksbZ ugha jksd ldrk] flok; esjh ekSr ds (Whether there is success or not, I will reach to every single corner of India. No one can stop me now).15 A short video clip showing Owaisi attending election rallies with popular support in different states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, UP, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and West Bengal follows the FB page. The video depicts Owaisi as a powerful, courageous, daring, bold and fearless leader urging Muslims to stand on their feet to raise voice against injustice with his voice saying: ‘this is my duty and commitment to reach every corner of Hindustan to spread the message of my organisation. No one can stop me from this except Allah’16.

The text in the video reads the AIMIM’s mission, ‘mazloomon ki awaz ko siyasi awaz banane ke liye, insaf ke liye, apni shinakht barqarar rakhne ke liye apni awaz khud banein aur Majlis se judhein (for giving a political voice to the marginalized, for justice, for keeping our identity/existence alive become your own voice and associate with Majlis).17 

Owaisi’s Twitter handle was also created in July 2011.18 He is quite active on social media especially on Twitter in comparison to other opposition leaders. Although the number of Owaisi’s followers is less than other prominent leaders’ followers, the total number of Tweets that Owaisi has made ever since he joined the twitter is 37.5 K (increased from 31.7 K in February 2021). This number is much higher than the Tweets posted by leaders like Congress president Rahul Gandhi (6,323 till date), West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, Bahujan Samaj Party national president Mayawati, Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav, Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray, and Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan.

Owaisi’s Tweets are reposted and circulated through his and his party’s FB page. This active participation of Owaisi on social media is quite in line with his performance in the Parliament as an MP. Apart from this, there is AIMIM’s official Twitter handles and a number of individual accounts run by Owaisi’s fans such as AIMIM Fan Club, Habib-e-Millat Political Research Centre (dedicated to Akbaruddin Owaisi) and others.19 There is also an Instagram page assigned to Asad Owaisi with an ID asadowaisiofficial. The Instagram page also posts and re-posts Owaisi’s statements and news items.20 

AIMIM official YouTube news channel called AIMIM Live was created on 10 March 2014. The channel mainly features the parliamentary and public speeches of Asaduddin Owaisi on different relevant issues, electoral campaigns in different states, interviews, TV news channel debates, and other party related information. It is linked with the 4TV News channel.21 Another AIMIM YouTube Channel, run privately by some Javed Alam, was created on 3 December 2017.22

A systematic content analysis of Owaisi’s social media activities underlines four broad themes. The targeted violence against Muslims, Dalits and other OBC communities is the first important theme. Owaisi and his party have been vocal about continuous lynching of Muslim men in the name of cow slaughter, cow theft, beef eating and harassment of madrasa students which have taken place as random incidents of violence in the state of UP, MP, Rajasthan and Gujarat.23

Owaisi also speaks against the incidents of caste based discrimination and violence which is very much in line with the party’s political agenda to emerge as a Muslim political party representing the marginalized sections of society across religious communities.24 For instance, he extended his support to the Bhima Koregaon agitation and aligned with the Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh during the Maharashtra assembly elections in 2018. The party leaders travelled across Maharashtra under the banner of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi called the Third Front uniting Malis, Dangars, and smaller OBCs along with the Ambedkarite forces to symbolize Dalit-Muslim-OBC unity. Owaisi also re-Tweeted a number of newspaper articles showing solidarity for the cause.25 This stand is quite in line with AIMIM’s vision statement.

National security is the second significant theme that determines Owaisi’s social media presence. AIMIM has blamed the central government for adopting a soft policy towards the Pulwama attack, expansion of Chinese forces in Ladakh, terrorism and radicalization of youth. A terror attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy that took place in Jammu & Kashmir’s Pulwama district in which 40 Indian soldiers killed has been thoroughly discussed.

Owaisi attacked the BJP-led Union government for its intelligence failure. He Tweeted, ‘The Pulwama attack is a political, bureaucratic and intelligence failure.’ He also criticized Jaish-e-Mmohammed (JeM) chief, who took responsibility for the Pulwama attack. He Tweeted ‘You can see that 300 cell phones were there in Balakot, but you failed to see how 50 kg RDX was moved to Pulwama under your nose.’26 He was very critical of the Pakistan based terror outfit JeM’s chief. Owaisi tweeted, ‘Masood Azhar is not a maulana (cleric) but a satan.’27 He also called the JeM a ‘Jaish-e-Shaitan’ (the Devil).’28 Owaisi also blamed the Pakistan government for Pulwama attack while he criticized the Indian government for its ‘political failure’.29 

Radicalization of youth is the third thematic feature of Owaisi’s online politics. Owaisi has been very critical of the radicalization of Muslims. However, he does not subscribe to the given interpretation of radicalization. A systematic analysis of his social media engagement shows that he does not rule out the threat of an ISIS like organization and for that reason, he is more interested in opposing the agenda of terrorist organizations. Owaisi openly calls such terrorist groups as being anti-Islam and anti-Muslim. He can also be seen criticizing controversial preachers such as Zakir Nayak for propagating incorrect interpretations of Islam and the Quran.

Distancing himself and his party’s status from such controversial figures, Owaisi calls upon Muslim youth to stay away and be critical of such people who only teach the use ‘jihad’ against their own nation. He also appreciated the Maharashtra government’s efforts for the government’s strategic intervention in the direction of de-radicalization of those Muslim boys and girls who were suspected of being brain washed by such militant groups.

Owaisi, however, makes two crucial points in this regard. One, he criticizes governments and secular parties for their biases, violence and exploitation against Muslims, general demonization of the community, lack of economic and political representation and political isolation of Muslim youth as key factors potentially contributing to reactionary tendencies. At the same time, he appeals to Muslims to actively participate in democratic politics. In his view, if Muslims get trapped in radical politics, their future generations will have to face sever consequences. In addition, radicalization will also provide opportunities to terrorist groups and communal parties to manipulate Muslim vulnerabilities.

In one of his post-Eid public speeches in 2020, Owaisi strongly condemned the ISIS, calling them ‘dogs from hell’ and ‘enemies of Islam and humanity.’30 He said, ‘We have to acknowledge with all honesty that the Muslims have a problem called the ISIS. We cannot hide behind conspiracy theories or just blame others (read West) and sit easy… we have to introspect… (and) counsel our youth to keep them away from the death cult which goes by the name of Islamic State.’31

In another speech in Maharashtra on 13 March 2019, Owaisi called on the Muslim community for action against radicalization. He said, ‘don’t die for Islam. Live for India. We have all the democratic avenues to pursue our grievances. Live for India’s democracy and secularism. If you want to go for jihad, then educate the poor, feed them, fund education and marriages of girls. That will be real jihad.’32 Citing his party’s line of argument, he stated that Muslims need a powerful political voice, a party of their own to raise their concerns and fight for democratic rights.

Second, he also raises the issue of the radicalization of Hindu youth. Highlighting the increasing incidents of the lynching of Muslim boys, Madrasa students, and meat traders, Owaisi criticises the governments for letting, what he calls, Hindutva radicalization, to flourish. He said in an interview: ‘why there is no surveillance by the Counter Terrorism and Counter Radicalization (CTCR) division of the Union Home Ministry on the cow vigilantes. It is important to know how they are getting radicalized to such an extent that they are killing people in the name of cow slaughter and beef,’33 He further asked, ‘Are the acts of killing women, distributing swords and even ministers killing people not radicalization? Radicalization can happen anywhere… you have to investigate who were the persons who carried out the blasts at Ajmer Shrine and Mecca Masjid.’34 He blames the political parties for manipulating unemployed Hindu youth for their political interests.

On an incident of medical negligence against a Muslim couple that occured in Rajasthan in April 2020, he tweeted: ‘Hindutva radicalization has become so brazen because it is backed by the government or because it is embraced by a large section of society? Will anything be done to counter it?’35 He tweeted at other occasions: ‘Man who lynched a child, Junaid, was guest speaker there (Seemanchal). In 2017 mahapanchayat was held for Junaid’s killers too. In 2018 Union minister garlanded lynching convicts in Jharkhand. 2 BJP ministers spoke at rally in support of 8 yr old Ashifa’s killers 2/3.’36

 

The fourth important theme of Owaisi’s online politics is about the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and Muslim personal law. A number of his Tweets address the religious and cultural diversity to abandon any call for having a UCC. He supports the personal laws to recognize Indian diversity, something that he finds in the Fundamental Right to freedom of religion. Owaisi was highly critical of the Triple Talaq Law 2019, calling it an anti-Muslim women and anti-family law. However, he is equally critical of the practice of Triple Talaq. He tweeted, ‘this law is against Muslim women & marginalizes them even more. The law forces a woman to stay in a marriage with an imprisoned man who’d verbally & emotionally abused her. It puts the burden of proof on Muslim women & forces her into impoverishment.’

Owaisi reiterates that the law is against the constitutional rights guaranteed to minority communities. He posted: ‘It is a testing time for those of us who believe in rule of law & the guarantees of non-arbitrariness, freedom of religion & right to distinct culture enshrined in the Consti-tution.’37 This adherence to consti-tutionalism is also invoked to offer support to the anti-CAA/NRC agitations, especially in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. Owaisi established a direct link between the Triple Talaq law and CAA and called them discriminatory in nature. In his opinion, these laws use religion as a category to exclude Muslims silently. He tweeted: ‘We’ll protest against any law with religion as basis of citizenship.’38 He called it a communal design for displacing Muslims and for creating fear in their minds.

Apart from these four themes, one also finds a powerful critique of economic policies of the Union government. For instance, Owaisi criticized demonetization calling it a complete disaster.39 He commented, ‘what has demonetisation really effected, what has been the gain for the country, apart from distress, apart from people’s lives. Two per cent is the loss to the GDP.’40 

The social media’s popularity has a very different connotation when it comes to translating it into actual significance or influence. The number of followers does not necessarily mean political support or ideological conformity. In this sense, Owaisi’s visibility on social media sites demonstrates the significance of his powerful political presence in the cyber space. This online political presence also favourable for TV news channels run TRP exercise. These channels find Asaduddin Owaisi as the most vocal and in a way most controversial figure to speak on ‘Muslim’ issues. They organize shows around his statements, comments, and social media posts. AIMIM, on the other hand, takes this wider acceptability of Asaduddin Owaisi very positively. The party-run social media handles post and repost Owaisi’s comments, interviews and statements verbalized on news channels at different occasions. As a result, a network of networks dedicated to online Muslim politics has been created, nurtured and sustained.

 

Footnotes :

1. I am thankful to ICSSR for funding and CSDS for providing intellectual and administrative support for this project. The paper is a small part of the larger study entitled, ‘Online/Offline Muslim Politics: A Study of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM)’, conducted under the ICSSR Postdoctoral Fellowship Programme 2018-2020.

2. The finalists for awards have been made as per the data released by PRS India on 10 December 2013 on the overall performance of the 15th Lok Sabha.

3. PRS India https://www.prsindia.org/mptrack/asaduddinowaisi

4. ‘Asaduddin Owaisi Pushes two New Bills’, Deccan Chronical, https://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/current-affairs/040818/asaduddin-owaisi-pushes-two-new-bills-in-parliament.html. The three bills include: setting up the Seemanchal Region Development Council; against mob violence; and for reducing the age for contesting Lok Sabha and Assembly elections from 25 to 18 years.

5. Interview with the party spokesperson, Hyderabad, 25 December 2018.

6. Ibid.

7. AIMIM official website, http://www.aimim.org/about-us/

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. The parliamentary and public speeches delivered by Owaisi can be accessed on other linked pages like the YouTube channel but not on the party website.

11. It has 9,57,000 followers (increased from 8,99,601 from February 2021 and 5,35,491 (current updates are not available) people have liked the page to date.

12. AIMIM Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/PartyAIMIM , accessed in February 2021.

13. It includes AIMIM All India Majlis-e-ittehadul Muslimeen, AIMIM, AIMIM Uttar Pradesh, Akhtarul Imam Fans (politician), Akbaruddin Owaisi (Fan page), AIMIM Mission Bengal (political organization), AIMIM Jubilee Hills youth icon (political organization), Dr Kanhaiya Kumar Supporter, Campus Front of India Hailakandi (organization), Masjid-e-Ibrahimi Qader Bagh, JIH Humnabad (social service), AIMIM Morena All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, AIMIM Gorakhpur, Prayagraj ki Majlis (personal blog), AIMIM West Bengal, AIMIM Gujrat are linked to different pages especially the main FB page.

14. The page is followed by 3,731,569 (increased from 3,548,475 in February 2021) and is liked by 3,263,263 (increased from 3,174,960 in February 2021) people.

15. Asad Owaisi Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Asaduddinowaisi/ accessed February 2021.

16. This promotional video was released on Owaisi’s and AIMIM’s FB account https://www.facebook.com/Asaduddinowaisi/

17. This promotional video was released on Owaisi’s and AIMIM’s FB account https://www.facebook.com/Asaduddinowaisi/ 

18. Link to Owaisi’s twitter Handle:  https://twitter.com/asadowaisi?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5
Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor accessed in February 2021. The twitter page has 1,414 followings and 2.4 million followers (increased from1.9 million in February 2021).

19. AIMIM, https://twitter.com/aimim_national?lang=en

20. Instagram page, https://www.instagram.com/asadowaisiofficial/related_profiles/ accessed in February 2021. The Instagram page is being followed by 3.6 million people and has recorded 3,785 posts till date.

21. AIMIM Live, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNJAFwJuwI-5hCf2ijuQrmg/featured.The channel has 104,000 subscribers and has had 13,100,654 views till date. It is also linked to Hyderabad Deccan NEWS. https://twitter.com/HYDDeccanN?ref_src=tw
src%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Eembe
ddedtimeline%7Ctwterm%5Escreen-name%3AAimimFansClub%7Ctwcon%5Es1_c1

22. AIMIM News Channel,  https://www.youtube.com/c/AIMIMNewsChannel/about, accessed August 2022. The channel has recorded 83,569,821 views till date. It also has a Facebook page with 131,520 people as followers and 49,903 likes. It has 684,000 million subscribers till date.

23. Tweets: https://twitter.com/asadowaisi/status/1139592336638218241?lang=en

24. Tweet: https://twitter.com/asadowaisi/status/1126107224508473344?lang=bg

25. Tweet: https://twitter.com/asadowaisi/status/1013732582788247552

26. ‘Not beef, Modi ate dhokla and slept during Pulwama attack: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/asaduddin-owaisi-pm-modi-dhokla-beef-biryani-1486520-2019-03-26

27. Hindustan Times, ‘Asaduddin Owaisi Slams Pak for Pulwama Attack…’, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/asaduddin-owaisi-slams-pak-for-pulwama-attack-calls-jaish-chief-masood-azhar-a-satan/story-W5ERxvp4tGHdtFS
6KuCa4N.html

28. Times Now, https://www.timesnownews.com/videos/times-now/india/what-has-government-learnt-from-pulwama-attack-asks-asaduddin-owaisi-over-the-blast-in-jk/25402

29. ‘Owaisi Blames Pakistan for Pulwama Attack, Modi for Political Failure’ https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/owaisi-blames-pakistan-for-pulwama-attack-modi-for-political-failure/1484591

30. Ibid.

31. ‘Owaisi Surprised Many with his Remarks’ https://www.ndtv.com/blog/owaisis-speech-shows-he-can-be-a-good-leader-1430414

32. Ibid.

33. ‘Asaduddin Owaisi Slams Centre Over Watch on Muslim Youth’ https://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/politics/230418/asaduddin-owaisi-slams-centre-over-watch-on-muslim-youth.html

34. Ibid.  

35. https://twitter.com/asadowaisi/status/1246495219983331328

36. Ibid.

37. https://twitter.com/asadowaisi/status/1156209143914491906

38. Tweet on CIA: https://twitter.com/asadowaisi/status/1320276119124283392?lang=en

39. Tweet: https://twitter.com/asadowaisi/status/903493531615952896?lang=en

40. ‘Demonetization is a Disaster for the Country’, The Indian Express, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/demonetisation-a-disaster-for-the-country-says-asaduddin-owaisi-4822915/