Thousands gathered to protest against the Uniform Civil Code, at the AIMIM headquarters in Hyderabad.
People scurried about making arrangements, setting up chairs, lights, checking the sound system, even as a large battalion of policemen were huddled in a corner of the ground, with a senior officer addressing them.
Police had been deployed as part of regular bandobast for a public meeting. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) had called a meeting to discuss the Uniform Civil Code. Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owasi, a member of the Board, would be one of the speakers.
As the sun set, the ‘Maghrib’ or the fourth prayer of the daily five prayers of Islam, blared from loudspeakers mounted atop mosques in Aghapura, where Darussalam is located.
As the prayer finished, people started pouring into the grounds, with a sense of anticipation and high expectations from the public meeting.
“Dekho aaj Owaisi saab kya jawab denge in logon ko (See how Owaisi sir replies to these people today),” a man told his friend as they headed towards the stage in the ground opposite the AIMIM headquarters.
A ‘special arrangement’ was made for women to watch the proceedings on an LCD screen set up at the venue. They were seated in an area right behind the main stage which they could access through a separate entrance. The entire walkway to the area was covered with a large curtain.
The meeting was addressed by leaders from all Islamic sects and schools of thought and went on till late in the night on Wednesday.
As the crowd poured in and the dignitaries started arriving on the stage, Owaisi was one of the first to arrive and the program begins despite half the podium being empty. There was no woman on the stage.
No time is wasted in getting the crowd fired up, as the host of the evening, goes into a monologue talking about how Muslims have remained discriminated for too long amid affirmative nods.
The crowd continues to gather as speakers also step up their game with slogans like “Zamanat badlega par Quran nahi badlega (The times may change but the Quran never will),” and “Mar jayenge lekin Shariat badelne nahi denge (We will die, but we will never let anyone change the Sharia law).”
Soon the men in the crowds are clapping, shouting, cheering and hooting.
Many male senior leaders were also present at the event, including AIMPLB Secretary Moulana Khalid Saifullah Rehmani, who proclaimed that Muslim Personal Law is a matter of life and death for Muslims.
“Muslims will shed their last drop of blood, offer their heads and make any sacrifice but will never bow to any law which stops them from obeying the orders of ‘Allah’ and the Prophet Mohammed,” he said, amid a roar of applause.
Hamid Mohammed Khan, chief of Jamat-e-Islami’s Telangana and Odisha unit said the NDA government was trying to impose UCC to cover its failures on all fronts. He said the BJP-led government was working for communal polarization with an eye on the impending elections in Uttar Pradesh.
Condemning the attempt to bring changes to Muslim personal law, he pointed out that the country already had a uniform criminal law and 99 per cent of even civil laws are uniform.
Women members of the AIMPLB event too spoke up. From behind the curtain, Asma Zehra’s voice rang out: Sharia was oxygen for Muslim men and women and under no circumstances would they agree to any changes in it.
“This law is by the creator and thus it is in tune with the human nature. It’s well balanced and has given status of respect and dignity to women. They are protected, safe, secure and satisfied,” she said, and condemned attempts by what she called handful of people and a section of media to malign Sharia by using few “self-styled Muslim women”.
Another member of the AIMPLB, Sabiha Siddiqi said from behind the curtain, that the government was wasting its time and machinery in creating conflict in society.
There were the occasional speakers who asked Muslims to introspect and understand the “intent” behind the laws. But the hushed response of the crowd, made it clear where their sentiments lay.
Ever since the issue of the Uniform Law Code came up recently, Hyderabad has been at the forefront of most campaigns against its establishment.
In their sermons, imams speak about what they see as the first step toward imposing the Uniform Civil Code by the government at the Centre. They are exhorting Muslims to unite to defeat the proposal.
In tandem, various organisations are collecting signatures of both men and women to oppose any move “to interfere with Muslim personal law”.
The campaign has been taken up at various mosques in the city with men and women signing a pro forma prescribed by the AIMPLB.
A section of the form signed by women reads: “We the undersigned Muslim women do hereby declare that we are fully satisfied with all the rulings of Islamic Shariah, particularly Nikah, inheritance, divorce, khula and Faskh (dissolution of marriage). We deny that these need any reform or there is any scope for change therein.” The pro forma also says the signee “firmly stands” with the AIMPLB to “safeguard Sharia law”.
Similar signature forms were distributed in the public meet on Wednesday.
After nearly six hours of speeches, it was finally time for the main act. Asaduddin Owaisi walked to the mike amid deafening applause.
For the duration of his speech – an hour – every face in the male crowd wore a smile, or cheered loudly.
Owaisi played to the gallery. He would often make jokes, many of them openly or slyly on the RSS. Once, he said that RSS members “have been wearing knickers since childhood”.
The next moment he was reminding the whole country that Muslims were an integral part of India, they had been pioneers of the struggle for freedom from the British.
On several occasions, he became a story-teller, taking several minutes to drive home his point. To say that India is a secular country, Owaisi began by reminding his audience, that Modi has often said “Jai Shri Ram”. He asks if a Muslim PM would be able to say “Allah hu Akbar”. He then tells the audience that Modi gifts the Gita on foreign trips. To finish the story, he addresses Modi: “Modi ji, it is clearly written in the Constitution that India is secular and has no religion” Naturally, the crowd cheered wildly.
It was a performance, to be sure; but its overall message was not entertaining.
At the very beginning, Owaisi alleged that the current political dispensation wanted to destroy the secularism of the country. But his own narrative of instances of genuine victimization many Muslims have experienced was laced with a dangerous imitation of the RSS’ perfected art of pitting one community against the other.
Although he repeatedly mentioned the RSS, the line between RSS and the larger Hindu community was often blurred.
His speech, was, as the man said before the public meet began, an “answer” from “us” to “them”.