Hate speeches in diverse India are not rare, but those delivering venomous speeches have more often than not either evaded their arrest, dodged the authorities, or not been taken to task for various reasons; strong backlash from their followers being one of the many fears. Akbaruddin Owaisi, the 41-year-old floor leader of his party Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen [MIM] in the Andhra Pradesh legislative assembly, faces serious charges like “waging war against the state, sedition, promoting enmity and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings”. Owaisi was finally arrested on Tuesday and sent to 14-day judicial custody on Wednesday after a vociferous campaign in the Indian media. Holding Owaisi’s pictures and placards, many of his supporters are also holding massive protests against his arrest in some parts of Andhra Pradesh like the capital Hyderabad and Nirmal area. Some have turned violent and even attacked the media vans.
This arrest gave birth to a fresh debate in India regarding who would decide the fine line between ‘free speech’ and ‘hate speech’.
Taslima Nasreen, a controversial Bengali writer in exile, supported Owaisi’s arrest but raised some concerns about the possible threat to free speech. “If you make hate speech illegal, you make free speech illegal. Book Owaisi for making violent threats,” Nasreen was quoted by the Indian media as having said so.
Some political observers said Owaisi is notorious for making hate speeches. India’s popular weekly magazine, Tehelka, wrote that in 2007, Owaisi got away with threatening to behead Taslima Nasreen if she set foot in Hyderabad.
What did Owaisi actually say in his speech and where did he deliver the alleged “hate speeches”?
Owaisi is under the scanner for the “objectionable” speeches he made at Nizamabad recently and at Nirmal in Adilabad district of Andhra Pradesh against the majority community last month. The Internet made life difficult for him, as the videos of his speeches went viral on YouTube and Facebook, both popular social networking sites.
It is alleged that Owaisi in his speech at Nirmal had remarked that “the 25 crore Muslims will take care of the 100 crore Hindus if only the police was removed for 15 minutes”. He is also accused of using distasteful language against the majority community and their gods and goddesses.
The politician was booked for promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion. He has been accused of “waging” or “attempting to wage war” against the Government of India. Also, he has been charged for “deliberate” and “malicious acts” to “outrage religious feelings” of any class by insulting its religion or beliefs.
Many of his supporters had gathered at the Hyderabad airport to greet him after his return from London, where he had gone for treatment. He was undergoing treatment for intestinal injuries, which he had sustained after being attacked by his rivals over a land row. Citing health reasons, he had asked for more time before he would face the law. What Owaisi had actually said in his speech before boarding a flight for London is nothing new for him. He had been delivering such speeches in the past as well.
Akbaruddin Owaisi is the younger brother of Asaduddin Owaisi, another influential Muslim politician and parliamentarian from Hyderabad. Senior Owaisi had assured the media that his brother would not run away from the law. “We are not against Hindus. We are against the BJP and Kiran Kumar Reddy [the Chief Minister of the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh],” he told Indian television channel NDTV.
Another private Indian television channel ‘Times Now’ aired a debate on junior Owaisi’s controversial speech while asking: “Should the case of Owaisi be an example to drill fear into the hearts of hate-mongers?”
“Politicians like him (Owaisi) do the biggest disservice to Indian Muslims, the deprived and poor community. Owaisi is guilty of something very serious. It is easy to arouse passions in the name of Allah and Ram, it is difficult to provide good governance,” said Shazia Ilmi, member of newly formed Aam Admi Party.
Siddharth Nath Singh, the BJP spokesman, said India has changed. “Any hate-monger cannot be accepted by the Indians, politicians and the media fraternity.”
Dr. Zafarul Islam Khan, editor ‘Milli Gazette’ and President All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawrat, did not agree on making Owaisi an example to instil fear amongst “hate-mongers”. He favoured equal treatment. “We want justice and equal treatment. You can’t make an example of one individual. No action has been taken on the ‘Owaisis’ on the other side. I want one rule for the whole society. I see no action on the other side.” Dr. Khan was making an indirect reference to the hawkish Hindu speakers like Praveen Tagodia, Raj Thackeray and Varun Gandhi.
Thackerays in Maharashtra, Mumbai, have always delivered inflammatory, provocative and threatening speeches against Muslims and other immigrants from Assam and Bihar. Some leaders of other Hindu nationalist and fascist organisations such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and Shiv Sena have a history of making provocative speeches and issuing anti-Muslim statements and threats.
Many radical organisations including the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindu Raksha Samiti have demanded a complete ban on the MIM. But they are tight-lipped on the hate-speeches made by their own leaders and mentors as a matter of routine.
Meanwhile Congress spokesperson Rashid Alvi compared MIM’s politics to the idea of Pakistan. “India had chosen to be a secular state contrary to Pakistan which opted to be an Islamic country on the very first day after its creation. Everyone has equal constitutional rights in India but some parties still fan communal hatred for political gain. Law will take its course on what has happened in Hyderabad” Alvi told journalists.
Whatever happens to Akbaruddin Owaisi in the court of law, many analysts in India feel there are clear “double-standards” when it comes to dealing with cases of such nature from the other side.
The writer is a professional journalist with international experience. He has worked as the Editor at Deutsche Welle in Bonn, Germany. Previously, he has also contributed features to the BBC website. Send your feedback at: firstname.lastname@example.org