In India, a vocal Muslim party expands its base

AIMIM makes a foray into Muslim-majority areas, tapping into Muslim frustrations about opposition parties.

Owaisi, a four-time MP, has emerged as a face of Muslim politics (File: Aijaz Rahi/AP Photo]

Hanan Zaffar 24 Nov 2020

Mudassir Nazar’s family has traditionally voted for opposition parties that espouse secularism but in the recently concluded elections in the eastern Indian state of Bihar they instead cast their ballot for the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) party which advocates for the rights of Muslims and other marginalised groups.

“Our village [Bohita] almost unanimously voted for AIMIM,” said Nazar from Muslim-majority Kishanganj district in Seemanchal region of Bihar.

AIMIM managed to win five seats from the state which has a substantial Muslim population. Its residents say India’s opposition parties which espouse secularism have ignored the impoverished region for decades, which is wedged between Nepal and Bangladesh.

“There is a sense in the (Muslim) community that secular parties like (Indian National) Congress have betrayed the Muslims,” Nazar told Al Jazeera.

“They (the so-called secular parties) have been reluctant to even talk about the anti-minority decisions of the ruling government, let alone oppose them. AIMIM on the other hand has been pretty vocal and seems to have gained the trust of the community,” he said.

Indian Muslims, who form 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion population, have become increasingly marginalised in recent years as they suffer from political underrepresentation. The new Bihar cabinet will have no Muslim minister for the first time in its history.

Currently, out of the 543 members in the lower house of India’s bicameral parliament, only 27 (less than 4 percent) of its members are Muslims – a gain of four seats compared to the 2014 elections, which was the lowest in 40 years.

Hindu nationalist agenda

Since coming to power in 2014, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as part of its Hindu nationalist agenda, has passed several laws and legislation that critics say discriminate against Muslims.

Last year, a controversial citizenship law, which activists say is not in line with the country’s secular constitution and a proposed citizenship register sparked nationwide protests led mostly by Muslims.

For decades, AIMIM was confined to the southern city of Hyderabad in Telangana state but in recent years it has managed to venture into Muslim-majority areas, tapping into Muslim frustration about political disenfranchisement [File: Noah Seelam/AFP]

The Modi government also stripped the disputed Kashmir region’s limited freedoms last August and placed the Muslim-majority region under a communication blockade for more than six months.

Opposition parties such as the National Indian Congress party, for whom Muslims have traditionally voted for, have been accused of being silent on key issues which threaten the Muslim community – India’s largest minority group.

For decades, AIMIM was confined to the southern city of Hyderabad in Telangana state but in recent years it has managed to venture into Muslim-majority areas, tapping into Muslim frustration about political disenfranchisement.

The party is led by Asaduddin Owaisi, a four-time member of parliament known for his feisty debates in parliament as well as on TV. Owaisi has emerged as a vocal conduit for Muslim issues in the country.

AIMIM has accused India’s opposition parties of failing to speak out against Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda.

“These (secular) parties out of various electoral compulsions have not come forward openly to protest against the decisions of the (BJP) government that go against fundamental values of the (Indian) constitution. That has led some sections of Muslims to turn to AIMIM, as they see it as a counter-force,” Avinash Kumar, an assistant professor in political studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, told Al Jazeera.

“When every so-called secular party is competing to prove itself as a torchbearer of majoritarianism, while ignoring the condition of marginalised communities, it is a very natural process to see the rise of a party with [a] focus on the plight of a particular community.”

A nationwide appeal

During state election campaigning in Bihar, the Congress party and its regional ally the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) avoided raising issues that were pertinent to Muslims.

“These parties campaigned on issues like employment and development only, because by raking up minority discrimination issues, they didn’t want to let go of the majority votes,” Majid Alam, a journalist based in Bihar, told Al Jazeera.