Rajdeep Sardesai was the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He has 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26.
During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000.
An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.
It has been my experience that the best way to deal with political rabble rousers is to call their bluff and bluster. I have never met Akbaruddin Owaisi, the 42-year-old MLA of the Hyderabad-based Majlis-e-Ittihad al Muslimin, but listening to his recent incendiary speech at a public gathering in Adilabad, I see no reason for him to roam free. Clearly, his hateful vocabulary has no place in a civilised democracy.
I have, however, met the elder Owaisi brother, the MIM MP, Asauddin Owaisi. Senior Owaisi in private is a soft-spoken, highly courteous gent, with a Bar at Law degree from the prestigious Lincolns Inn. During Parliament sessions, he invites journalists and fellow MPs for a Hyderabadi daawat and is always a gracious host. Since my gastronomic habits are distinctly secular (I have had crabs and red wine with the Thackerays and jalebis with VHP leaders), the haleem at Owaisi's lunch is always a delight.
And yet, away from the genteel lunches, the crowded by-lanes of the walled city of Hyderabad present a very different picture. This is the Owaisi family bastion where first the father Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi was a six-time MP and now Asauddin is a two-time MP. Why does an otherwise dignified individual transform himself into a fiery demagogue the moment he steps into his constituency? The answer must lie in political compulsions. In Delhi, Asauddin Owaisi is a back-bencher MP; in Hyderabad, his self-image is of a strident "protector of Muslims" who seeks votes by preying on the fears and insecurities of his core followers. It is a peculiar schizophrenia that one could almost excuse if only it were not so dangerous.
Indeed, 20 years ago, Owaisis and their ilk would be dismissed as fringe politicians, the kind who perhaps wouldn't even deserve an edit page column. Today, they must be taken a little more seriously because their politics strikes a more ominous chord well beyond the Charminar. First, in the last two decades, post the Babri demolition; we have seen a heightening of the Hindu-Muslim political divide with violence and terror giving it a more frightening dimension. Any inflammatory speech by a responsible public figure of either community only ends up widening the mistrust and polarisation between communities. Akbaruddin Owaisi may believe he gets votes with his shrill oratory but he only ends up demonising the average Muslim in the eyes of the majority community.
Secondly, the rise of the Owaisi brand of politics only legitimises the emergence of similar religio-political fundamentalists amongst the majority community. Every speech or action of an Owaisi strengthens the likes of VHP leader Praveen Togadia who otherwise would be pushed towards political irrelevance. With their competitive ideology of hate and prejudice, groups like the VHP and MIM feed on each other, only adding to an atmosphere of unseemly intolerance.
Thirdly, old Hyderabad maybe the den of the Owaisis, but in the age of social media and the Internet, its political echo now reverberates across geographical boundaries. Mainstream media has tended to ignore the Owaisis' rantings as a manic fringe voice but social media amplifies it and gives it a potency. Akbaruddin Owaisi's speech went viral on the net with millions of hits and tweets, almost forcing prime time television to intensely debate it. For global Internet Hindus in particular, Akbaruddin is now enemy number one, offering a strong reason to justify their own venom against the minorities.
However, it is unreasonable to expect the Owaisis to effect an image makeover when their political survival is dependent on sharp identity politics. What can change though is the way we deal with such fundamentalist forces. At the very outset, the law must act speedily against all sellers of hate speech. Akbaruddin has made similar speeches in the past but has got away. This time he must not be allowed to slip out so easily. Nor should the likes of Togadia, or indeed, any mainstream political party figure who spreads enmity among communities escape prosecution. They must be arrested and convicted.
Moreover, parties which claim to be 'secular' must totally distance themselves from individuals and parties who profess such politics. The MIM was a member of the UPA till a few months ago, and their presence in the alliance, despite being a single MP party, raises troubling questions over how secularism has become a badge of convenience for some.
Liberal Muslims too need to speak out strongly against the MIM brand of politics. Only an alliance between Hindu and Muslim liberals can isolate noisy extremists from both communities. The silent majority can't remain silent any longer. Don't forget it was the same Akbaruddin Owaisi who physically attacked the Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen at a public function a few years ago. Why wasn't there a similar outcry then, one wonders.
Finally, the Indian state must realise the need to deal with minorities even-handedly, not on the basis of neglect and discrimination. The arbitrary manner in which Muslim teenagers were arrested in the aftermath of the 2007 Mecca Masjid blasts in Hyderabad reflects a shocking mindset that stereotypes Muslims as terrorists. That the bombs were the handiwork of right wing Hindu terror groups was found out much later but by then the damage had been done.
Indeed, the day after we debated the Owaisi issue on television, I got a mail from a young Hyderabadi Muslim. He wrote: "I am from the old city but I have never voted for Mr Owaisi. Let me ask you though, where were all your studio panellists when innocent Muslims were arrested by the police. Who bailed them out? We Muslims still have faith in the judiciary and the Indian nation, but don't create a situation where we Muslims will have to seek our own legal and political representation." In the troubled times we live in, his words deserve our collective attention.