AURANGABAD, India — Nearly 60,000 Muslims had crammed into the dusty parade grounds here last October to hear Asaduddin Owaisi, the inspirational young leader who promises a new political future for India’s Muslims. Just before Owaisi arrived in his white SUV, young teenagers on motorcycles rode in shouting, “Look, look who has come! The lion has come!”
A burst of firecrackers filled the grounds as Owaisi took the podium. And after reciting a short prayer, the southern Indian politician launched into a sharp-edged stump speech about the discrimination Muslims face finding jobs, accessing bank loans and dealing with the police.
“This is our country as much as it is yours. We are not renters, we are also owners of this land. We should get our rights,” Owaisi said, before he told youths to pray regularly and pursue college degrees. Fans climbed onto the stage to shake his hand and later surrounded his car for nearly a half-hour, delaying his departure.
“I have never seen such a fearless leader before,” said Syed Jawad, a 22-year-old dairy shop owner who watched Owaisi here in this western city about 200 miles from Mumbai. “Owaisi is the new messiah for us.”
A third-term member of Parliament from a small party in southern India, he has continued to emerge as a rising star in Muslim politics by tapping into the growing anxieties of India’s 170 million Muslims following the sharp rise of Hindu nationalist forces after the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi more than a year ago.
Owaisi, 46, is being hailed as a “superstar of the Muslim community,” a “truth-speaking angry young man” and “a ray of hope” among India’s Muslims. Muslims make up 14 percent of India’s 1.2 billion population but have historically had little political influence.
The number of Muslim lawmakers in the lower house of Parliament has dropped to 22 of 543 seats. In the upper house, Muslims hold 24 of 245 seats.
“I want Muslims to come together and find their political voice,” Owaisi said in an interview in New Delhi. “Every community in India has progressed except Muslims.”
“Call me provocative. Call me anti-national. But first, answer all the questions I am posing about discrimination and injustice,” he said.
Recently, he courted controversy when he spoke out against the hanging of a Muslim man, Yakub Memon, convicted of planning terrorist bombings in 1993 in Mumbai that killed 257 people.
He named others on death row who have been pardoned and listed non-Muslim rioters and assassins who were treated more leniently. He said capital punishment has become a “political tool.” His statements were widely shared on social media and have made him a lightning rod, especially among some 15,000 Muslims who joined Memon’s funeral procession in Mumbai. Owaisi said his opposition to the hanging of the convicted terrorist served as a “ventilation” for the Muslim community.
Critics call Owaisi divisive and say his rhetoric could fragment the country’s fragile multi-religious social fabric.
“He is pandering to the Muslim feeling of insecurity,” said Ram Madhav, general secretary of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. “His politics [are] dangerous for India because it deepens the sense of alienation and separateness among Muslims.”
Madhav said Owaisi “is trying to become the 21st century Jinnah,” a controversial comparison to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan who championed the cause of Indian Muslims. Jinnah is widely blamed for the partition of India when the British-ruled subcontinent was cleaved into two nations in 1947, triggering religious rioting.
Since then, Muslims have struggled in India. In many Muslim neighborhoods, residents lack adequate access to education, power, piped water supply, sewerage and decent jobs.
The tall, bearded Owaisi grew up in the Muslim-dominated southern city of Hyderabad. The son of a lawmaker with a law degree earned in Britain, he was exposed to politics at an early age. His family runs a medical college and a hospital.
“Owaisi is educated, he argues well, he knows how to ask the uncomfortable questions, he is able to speak in English and converse with the elites,” said Arshad Alam, assistant professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “For a community that lacks self-esteem and confidence, these qualities in Owaisi fill a crucial gap. But is he only going to do politics of persecution or go beyond it?”
During a speech in Aurangabad last fall, Owaisi left the stage midway for a Muslim call to prayer. Tens of thousands of people from the crowd followed him into the mosque. The skull-capped Owaisi always keeps prayer beads in the pocket of his pin-striped, long buttoned jacket, and he has no armed police guards, unlike most politicians here. He meets his constituents every day in his office.
But despite his suave demeanor, Owaisi is unable to shake off criticism.
In 2007, members of his party vandalized a meeting venue where author Taslima Nasrin, who has been banned and exiled from Bangladesh for criticizing Islam, was speaking. In 2012, his brother, Akbaruddin, was jailed for hate speech and is facing trial.
When Hindu nationalist groups launched a “homecoming” program last year to urge Muslims and Christians to convert to Hinduism, saying their ancestors were Hindus, Owaisi courted controversy by saying that Islam is the real home of all religions and that embracing it would be the real homecoming.
But in many ways, it is his sharp rhetoric that has helped fuel his popularity. Owaisi and his party are now systematically moving beyond his traditional base of Hyderabad. Two of his party’s candidates won in state elections in the western state of Maharashtra in November, and dozens were elected in municipal elections. Owaisi has in recent months tried to broaden his base beyond Muslims to include the socially downtrodden Dalits, who were formerly known as the untouchables in the Hindu caste system.
Now, his party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (or the United Congregation of Muslims) is considering fielding candidates in the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, both key political bellwethers with sizeable numbers of Muslim voters.
“Owaisi’s rhetoric will strengthen Hindu fundamentalist forces because it confirms their worst stereotypes about Muslims,” said Madhu Goud Yaskhi, a spokesman for the Indian National Congress party, until Modi’s victory the dominant force in Indian politics. “The most effective way of countering him is to expose his track record on development. Has he helped set up a factory to create jobs for Muslims? Has he built a road?”
Owaisi wants to push legislation that guarantees job quotas for Muslims in the government.
“Wherever I go, I tell people two things: Educate yourself, get politically active,” he said. “The community does not want tokenisms like Haj pilgrimage subsidy or grand feasts during Islamic holy month from the government. We want education and jobs. With that, there will be a dramatic transformation in just a decade.”