The hashtag #OwaisiTerrorPolitics, which trended on television and social media following a remark made by the three-time MP from Telangana, Asaduddin Owaisi, says everything and nothing about the controversy that erupted around him.
While terror and politics were both integral to the AIMIM leader's comments, the more appropriate hashtag, in this context, would have been #facepalm.
Owaisi was attacked by members of the BJP and the JD(U) for offering to provide legal help to five terror suspects, allegedly with links to the ISIS, who were arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) from Hyderabad. In keeping with the rhetoric of our times, in no time there was a chorus accusing him of "betraying" the country and abetting terrorism, in other words, of being an anti-national.
Card-carrying nationalists were quick to take offence. K. Karuna Sagar, a lawyer in Hyderabad, filed a police complaint, while Anil Kumar Bakshi, a member of UP Bar Council, filed a petition seeking to register a case against Owaisi, citing a slew of sections from the IPC.
The irony, in all this brouhaha, is that Owaisi, who is a trained lawyer himself, was saying nothing out of form. Article 39A of the Indian Constitution mandates the State to provide free and fair legal aid to individuals on "a basis of equal opportunity". By promising to offer legal support to the suspects, Owaisi wasn't doing anything that would otherwise not have come their way.
More pertinently, as Owaisi pointed out himself, it would ultimately be up to the courts to decide the outcome of the case. There was no question of any influence from him or his party on the proceedings. Nor was there any reason to conclude that a party keen to ensure free and fair trial of suspected terrorists was offering support to terrorism. If such were the case, the Indian State would
have been culpable of a similar offence for putting Ajmal Kasab through a trial for his role in the 26/11 attacks, absurd as the idea may sound. (As an aside, it needs to be pointed out here that given the NIA's record, there's no reason to believe that anyone it suspects of wrongdoing will be held guilty by the courts.)
By promising to offer legal support to the suspects, Owaisi wasn't doing anything that would otherwise not have come their way.
Of course, it would be naive to assume that any politician would make a comment, with potential public repercussions, without having an eye on gain, especially if they happen to belong to a party supported by a specific vote bank. But the Hindu nationalist parties and their cronies have not shied away from such blatantly opportunistic behaviour either. A case in point, as Owaisi himself pointed out, is Subramanyam Swamy's defence of the Hindutva brigade's favourite 'godman' Asaram Bapu, accused of rape.
Earlier this year, Owaisi spoke out against the ISIS on social media and was threatened by the outfit with dire consequences. He still went on say on record that "ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, as it indulges in violence, including against Muslims," and called their mindset "evil". Those who are busy pointing fingers at him now either do not know of this episode or have conveniently forgotten it.
This incident begs one last question: how else, other than through due legal process, would these irate critics of Owaisi have liked to deal with these terror suspects? Given India's penchant for wild justice, and the spate of encounter killings and miscarriage of justice in recent memory, the answer does not inspire much faith.