In Hyderabad, communalism and Islamist terrorism are locked in a deadly embrace.
In April 1948, a man dressed in an impeccably tailored traditional suit announced to the Associated Press that he intended to plant the flag of the Nizam of Hyderabad “on the Red Fort in Delhi.”
As Indian troops battled the Razakar militia in Hyderabad, the Islamist leader Kasim Rizvi fought to save the theocracy-based world the terror groups who carried out last month’s strikes in Hyderabad now hope to recreate. Despite covert backing from Pakistan, Rizvi came nowhere near success — but his struggle is still celebrated by Islamists.
Half a century later, in November 1999, another Islamist leader promised to succeed where Rizvi failed. Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the supreme spiritual and temporal head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, promised to “unfurl the Islamic flag on the Red Fort.” Soon after, in February 2000, his second-in-command, Abdul Rehman Makki, promised to liberate Hyderabad from “Indian rule.”
Understanding this project — and the legitimacy it has found among some young men in Hyderabad — needs engagement with Hyderabad’s unique inheritance of hatred.
Religious identity watered the political soil in which the Hyderabad jihad flowered. The last Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, administered a system in which religious affiliation was a key source of legitimacy building. Although Muslims made up just 10 per cent of his realm’s population, they held three-quarters of state jobs. And of the seven major feudal estates, six were controlled by Muslim notables.
During the two decades before independence, Hyderabad saw the growth of two competing communal movements — one challenging the established order, and the other in its defence.
Speaking for an emerging Hindu industrial bourgeoisie, the Arya Samaj argued that practices such as idol worship had weakened the faith, and thus facilitated centuries of what it characterised as alien rule.
Muslim elites, in turn, set up the Majlis-e-Ittehad ul-Muslimeen, or Organisation for the Unity of Muslims. The Majlis was founded on the doctrine that Hyderabad Muslims were its natural hakim kaum, or ruling race. It was deeply influenced by the work of the nineteenth century revivalist Sayyid Ahmad of Rae Bareilly who, as the scholar Vali Nasr has recorded, “identified false Sufism, Shiism and errant popular customs as the sources of religious corruption and hence declining Muslim power.” These competing communal movements collided in April, 1938, when the city saw its first communal riots.
Besieged by the Congress’ demands for democratic elections and the Arya Samaj religious mobilisation, Osman Ali Khan responded to the growing violence by proscribing both. He turned to the Majlis for support. Rizvi set up the Razakars as a paramilitary sword-arm of the Nizam. Majlis leaders, the scholar Lucien Benichou has recorded, candidly stated that their objective was to “keep the sovereignty of His Exalted Highness intact and to prevent Hindus from establishing supremacy over Muslims.”
In 1947, Rizvi unleashed his forces in support of the Nizam’s claims to independence. Thousands — both Hindus and Muslims opposed to Osman Ali Khan — were killed before the Indian Army swept into the State in September 1948. Within five days, Hyderabad capitulated. While the Nizam became the titular head of state, Rizvi was captured and imprisoned. He was finally expelled to Pakistan in 1957.
Rizvi’s expulsion did not mark the end of the story. The Majlis was reborn in 1957 under the leadership of the affluent cleric and lawyer, Abdul Wahid Owaisi. Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi, his son, took over the organisation in 1976. Salahuddin Owaisi’s sons, Member of Parliament Asaduddin Owaisi and Akbaruddin Owaisi are, in turn, now its most visible faces.
Starting from nothing, the Majlis rapidly established itself as the principal spokesperson for old city Muslims. The Majlis spoke for two distinct constituencies within the old city: a devout traditional elite disinherited by the coming of democratic rule, and an urban underclass which remained economically disenfranchised despite it. By 1977-1978, the Congress was seeking electoral alliances with it. In 1986, a Majlis-Congress alliance took charge of Hyderabad’s municipal corporation. The party has held the Hyderabad Lok Sabha seat since 1984.
Communal violence propelled the Majlis’ rebirth. Varshney has recorded: “In the 1960s, there were riots in eight out of ten years in Hyderabad. After 1978, the trend towards communal violence took a turn for the worse. Except for the period 1986-89, riots took place virtually every year between 1978 and 1993, often many times in the same year.” Majlis leaders had the resources to defend the city’s Muslims — and slowly became their sole spokespersons.
With the Congress and the Majlis locked in political embrace, Hindu nationalist forces were able to represent themselves as the sole credible defenders of Hindu interests. Violence served the political interests of all sides, giving rise to what historian Paul Brass has described as an “organised riot system.” Gangs of killers were set up to wage war on behalf of their respective religious communities, operating under political immunities granted by various groups — a phenomenon documented in psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakkar’s book, The Colors of Violence. “The distinction between crime and valour,” Ashutosh Varney has noted “thus disappeared for a large mass of Muslims and Hindus in the old city of Hyderabad.”
Islamist terrorism in Hyderabad marked the breakdown of faith in the Majlis’ riot system: Muslim interests, recruits to terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba argued, could only be defended by integration in the global jihad. However, the new Islamist terror groups drew on much the same resources as had the Majlis: organised crime and communal hatred. Recruits from the mafia of Mohammad Fasiuddin, for example, were used by jihadists to assassinate Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Papiah Goud and Bharatiya Janata Party’s Nandaraj Goud in 1993. Both politicians were alleged to have played a central role in organising anti-Muslim violence during the 1990 communal riots.
Among the architects of the murders was Mohammad Azam Ghauri, a Fasiuddin lieutenant who had helped set up the Mumbai-based Tanzim Islahul Muslimeen in 1985 — the organisation that later became the Indian wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. In the wake of the riots which followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Ghauri’s group planted bombs at the Medina Education Centre in Hyderabad, the Andhra Pradesh Express, and the Secunderabad Railway Station’s reservations complex in 1994. It assassinated Hyderabad-based jeweller Mahaveer Sharma, an alleged financier of the Hindu right-wing, in 1997, and killed Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist Devender Sharma two years later. Ghauri was eventually killed by the police in 2000.
Parallel cells, however, continued to flourish. Mohammad Mujeeb, who organised the assassination of Additional Superintendent of Police G. Krishna Prasad, and Asghar Ali, established deep links with the Hizb ul-Mujahideen in Jammu and Kashmir. Mirza was killed in a shootout in southern Kashmir but Ali survived — and went on to execute the assassination of Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya.
Ali, in turn, was responsible for recruiting several of the key figures in the Harkat ul-Jihad Islami terror cell thought to have carried out last month’s bombings. Mohammad Abdul Shahed and Mohammad Amzad, both of whom are now wanted by the international police organisation, Interpol, for their alleged role in the attack, were part of a group of over 20 Hyderabad men who trained Islamist groups in Pakistan. Ali’s recruits joined the jihad after the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat — just as earlier generations of Islamists had been motivated by the Babri Masjid riots. And, just like their predecessors, their journey into the jihad was underwritten by an organised-crime cartel: the mafia of Gujarat gangster Rasool Khan ‘Party.’
Interestingly, most terror recruits appear intensely hostile to the Majlis seeing it as too compromised by political power to serve the Islamist cause. Aware of the threat they pose to its political position, Majlis leaders have often criticised terrorism in no uncertain terms. At the same time, they have adopted increasingly militant postures to undercut their Islamist opponents. Last month, for example, the Majlis held out death threats to the Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin. Tensions between the Majlis and the Hyderabad jihadis run high. In a recent interview, Asaduddin Owaisi noted that “these misguided youths call me a kafir.” “I am on their hit list,” he said.
What lies ahead? For one, Andhra Pradesh desperately needs to separate local politics from policing. Hizb ul-Mujahideen terrorist Mujeeb was released after serving 14 years for the murder of Krishna Prasad, in a gesture designed to build bridges with city Islamists. Within months, though, he had to be rearrested, after investigators found him in receipt of funds for building new terror cells.
But freeing policing from politics will not be enough — and the deeper problems may prove less amenable to easy solutions. Media commentary has suggested that the grind poverty of old city Muslims lies at the heart of the Islamist success in Hyderabad. But, as Varshney pointed out in 1997, “Hyderabad Muslims have done much better than their Lucknow counterparts. Their success however has led not to a reduction but an increase in communal tensions, partly through a strengthening of the Majlis. The relative economic betterment of Muslims is not a cause of increased tensions. An absence of symbiotic linkages is. The two communities do not constitute a web of interdependence.”
Just how this might be brought about is a problem that needs to be addressed not by police officers but politicians and, indeed, India’s people.