On July 5, 2016, nearly 3000 people gathered for an Iftar celebration at the huge ground in Darussalam, the headquarters of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in Hyderabad’s Old City. It was just two days before Eid and the holy month of Ramzan was nearing its end. There was a festive spirit in the air, but also an underlying tension.
On June 28, late night raids led to the detention of 11 Muslim youngsters for alleged links with the ISIS. The next day, five of them were arrested for plotting terror attacks, with the National Investigative Agency (NIA) claiming that they have ‘proof’ against the five.
On the same day, AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi offered legal help to the terror suspects, almost immediately triggering off a controversy, with BJP leaders calling for his arrest under sedition laws. Owaisi dismisses these calls, slapping his head in disdain, “They don’t know the law or the Constitution.”
It isn’t just the arrests that are dampening the Ramzan festivities at Darussalam. Just a day earlier on July 4, a deadly suicide bomb attack was carried out by the ISIS at the holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia. Muslims across the world reacted in shock and disbelief, and those feelings were shared by those in the Old City.
Dark clouds loom in the sky over Darussalam, as a long line of participants wait in the light drizzle for the special Iftar. Security is tight, with policemen in safari suits frisking visitors thoroughly with metal detectors.
Inside, under a huge open tent, hundreds of people line up along tables to break their roza at sunset. Men walk around in crisp pajamas and suits. There isn’t a single woman in sight.
The scent in the air is an exhilarating mix of the after-rain scent of petrichor, fragrant Hyderabadi ittar and delicious biriyani.
Closer to sunset, a black Scorpio rolls into the ground, and there is sudden activity. Akbaruddin Owaisi, Asaduddin’s younger brother steps out of the SUV, surrounded by his security men. He has an elegant gait, piercing look and projects a mean streak.
He is shouting at the people around him in his husky and authoritative voice, his hands gesturing aggressively. I move closer to find out what has him so disturbed and it turns out he is making sure everyone has dates at hand to break the fast. “Why don’t you have khajur in your hand?” he asks, an endearing question delivered threateningly.
The sun sets, prayers ring the air, and Akbar breaks his fast to wild camera flashes. His security men too break their fast, khajur in one hand and an automatic weapon in the other. I ask for an interview, and he says crisply with a smile, “I don’t give interviews. Come after Eid, we can sit and have a chat.”
Asaduddin, the man in the eye of the controversy, is inside the office building, offering evening prayers with other members of the community. After the festivities are over, he is fielding various requests from his community, and promises time for all of them the next day.
When we sit down at his office the next day and Asaduddin goes straight to his reasons for giving legal help to the terror suspects arrested by the NIA
“Look around my office. One day before Ramzan, there are at least 15 Muslims here asking me for help, either a phone call or a letter, or something else. How can I say no to a person asking me for help, when the help being asked is well within the limits of me being a Member of a Parliament or a politician? I am giving them legal help, not stating that they are guilty or innocent,” he says.
But as a politician, does he have to do this? “If I don’t do it, someone else will. We have a legal cell so we are defending them in the court of law, and that is their fundamental right. The whole argument itself is wrong. You or I cannot decide, I am saying let the court decide. What is wrong with that? What kind of a mindset is it to say that if they have been arrested, they must be guilty?” he asks.
If the NIA is to be believed, there is “strong proof” against those arrested. The investigative agency is said to have recovered live ammunition, chemicals meant to make explosives and digital communication linking them to the ISIS. “I am not denying these selectively leaked reports. Let them all be tested in the court of law. The NIA must immediately file a charge sheet after the police custody is over.”
As I press him further about whether he is not worried that it may send a wrong political message if he defends terror suspects, he shoots back, “What wrong message? What message? If someone is arrested for a heinous crime, does that mean they are convicted? Even if my bitter political opponent is arrested for a crime, I might take some sadistic pleasure in it, but I cannot call that person a convict.”
But even as he defends his move on the basis of the law, the real motivation of his interest to defend the suspects emerges – the history of the law enforcement agencies’ treatment of terror suspects.
In 2007, after the Mecca Masjid blast, about 70 Muslim youngsters were picked up and interrogated. An independent commission of enquiry found that they had been subject to third degree torture, “the kind which would have made the CIA happy,” says Owaisi, “There was no proof against even one of them. They were acquitted, and the then CM Kiran Kumar Reddy offered an apology on the floor of the house. This is why no one trusts the NIA. And you are telling me that I cannot offer legal help to these boys?”
Now, several Hindu right-wing activists with previous links to the RSS and other Hindu extremist organizations, including Aseemanand, are under trial over the Mecca Masjid blasts.
“Five years Muslim boys lost being wrongly accused of the Malegaon blasts. Eleven years Muslim boys lost fighting a false case on the Akshardham attack. There are so many examples I can give you where boys have been incarcerated for years and exonerated. This is the narrative, and I am just saying I will help them with a lawyer and let the courts decide,” says Owaisi.
Owaisi however also says that the ISIS is a real threat.
“ISIS is a reality, and their evil methods are a reality. I have been talking about ISIS for two-and-a-half years, speaking against them. How they have no understanding of Islam, they have killed more Muslims than any other organization and have maimed Muslim women. Now they have attacked Islam by attacking Medina. They are dogs of hell, and I keep saying that. But 98% of Muslims in India are against the ISIS. And the community will rally around to make sure not even one person supports them.”
And then he quickly adds, “But that does not mean the innocent should be punished. Why have a trial, let’s just bump them off then?” he asks, with a hint of anger.