As the leader of a small Hyderabad-based party, Asaduddin Owaisi has been punching above his weight. He is the sole representative in the Lok Sabha of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen, better known as MIM, but that hasn't stopped him from presuming to speak on behalf of Indian Muslims both within and outside Parliament.

Over the last year, Owaisi has risen in prominence, partly due to his combative opposition to Hindutva rhetoric, but also because of electoral victories in Maharashtra. With the MIM seeking to expand outside its traditional area of influence in the erstwhile Nizam state, to states like Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, Owaisi has invited the charge of being an agent of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The argument is that his party's expansion is designed to splinter Muslim votes and undermine the prospects of the rivals of the Bharatiya Janta Party.

On Wednesday, the Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh denied Owaisi permission for political meetings. Last month, the Indian National Congress government in Karnataka blocked him from speaking in Bengaluru.

In a conversation with Scroll last week, Owaisi railed against curbs on his meetings. He also spoke about his political ambitions, reservations for Muslims, the danger of political ghettos, the Aam Aadmi Party and more.

Your party has just one seat in Lok Sabha, seven seats in the Telengana state assembly, and two seats in Maharashtra assembly. And yet you are making news across the country. Why?
I don't have a PR agency that runs my campaign unlike some other big leaders. But yes, there is interest in our party. It is good when people come and want to ask questions about us. That is a good way of understanding what kind of politics we do rather than the stereotyped image which has been created about us as those who give so-called rabid speeches. In this day and age of social media, YouTube, etc, you have to be a good communicator.

But its not just through social media, you are also making your presence felt on the ground.
We are trying our best whether we will be successful or not, that is a different thing. But response is there, enthusiasm is there, specially among the youth, the educated youth. But stopping me [from addressing meetings] has become a regular feature. It saddens me. For example, in Bengaluru, first permission was given to me, then it was cancelled. They forget that in first week of February, I was in Bhatkal for the 100-year celebration of an organisation. The inaugural function was addressed by Deve Gowda [of the Janata Dal Secular]. The second day was [Chief Minister] Siddaramaiah [of the Congress] and the concluding day was mine. Nothing happened. On January 27, I had addressed a huge meeting in Ilkal in Bagalkot district of Karnataka. Forty thousand people were there. Nothing happened.

This is nothing but [an attempt] to ensure that the so-called might of state is used so that I don’t exercise my right of free speech. A political atmosphere is being created that only those voices will be heard who are going to support the government of the day, whether in the centre or the state. I cannot do that. I am here to bitterly criticise whether the state government or the central government. Let’s have a cerebral debate. If you don't like what I have to say, counter me. But unfortunately, wherever I go, either permission is not given or before every public meeting, Section 144 notice is given to me that you should not give a speech which will create animosity.

This isn’t coming out of thin air. In 2013, your brother was booked for hate speech.
That matter is in the court. But since then, both of us have addressed more than 25 meetings each in Maharashtra assembly elections. Not a single case has been registered against us. Our political opponents have not managed to point out a single instance in the election commission of anything that we said which has polarised the atmosphere. The test of what I am saying should be elections. A model code of conduct was in place, the media scrutinised us, but nothing happened. I can speak in Parliament but I cannot speak in Bengaluru, what kind of logic is this?

You have become active across states. Is this a particularly opportune time for your party?
Yes, we are trying to establish our organisation in Uttar Pradesh – not the whole state, it is a very big state, but in some areas. In Karnataka, we are active in some few areas. In Maharashtra, we have elected MLAs, we are trying to build on that.

But why this expansion now? Your party has been around for long.
No, this work has been going on for a long time. In Karnataka and Maharahstra, we have been trying for seven years. In Uttar Pradesh, for the last three-four years.

In Uttar Pradesh, why did you start your campaign from Gorakhpur, the area of influence of Yogi Adityanath?
We got permission from there only, what can I do? [laughs] We applied at two-three places but they didn’t give us permission.

It wasn’t chosen deliberately?
Not at all.

Why do you want to adopt village in Azamgarh?
What is wrong in that? I don't have a rural area in my constituency.

But you have rural areas around your constituency.
The guidelines say if not (a village) in your constituency, then in the adjoining constituency or the state. I have written a letter to the government of India. I don’t know whether it will accept it or not.

But why Azamgarh? You could surely explain that.
Why not Azamgarh? This is the debate I want. What is wrong with Azamgarh? It is unfortunately being projected as safe haven for illegal and unsocial activities.

Why would you want to feed into the religious polarisation in UP?
This is a question which people keep on asking me. I have become an expert in the answer. Firstly, after the victory of Samajwadi party, what happened to the promises they made for the upliftment of the overall weaker sections and minorities in particular? Muzzafarnagar happened. Apart from that huge communal riots and incidents [took place]. Then, in the parliament elections, BJP won 71 out of 80 seats. For all these factors, who is responsible? I am not responsible. My party is not responsible. Now when I go there after all this has happened, suddenly the question is put to me: would this lead to polarisation? It's already there. I want these issues to be addressed, these questions to be asked.

Just because polarisation already exists, how does it justify increasing it further?
I am not justifying, or condemning or condoning, I am just saying when this allegation is put to me that you are polarising, I am saying I didn't do it. Polarisation has happened because of the kind of politics that has been done by those parties.

You start your campaign from Gorakhpur, you say you want to adopt a village in Azamgarh. These are clear signs of a certain kind of politics which intensifies existing social divides.
No, not at all. How can you say that? Who knows polarisation might even come down because of our work? Because we are not talking of Muslims alone. We are saying let’s work with Dalits and OBCs.

Muslims are not a monolithic community. Do you think a party from the Deccan will find acceptance in North India?
(Phone rings. The man at the other end is calling from Barabanki district of Uttar Pradesh and wants to invite Owaisi to a meeting.)

This should answer your question. [laughs] But yes, you are right. We don’t know what it would be like in UP. But we are going to give it a try. For a political party, Uttar Pradesh is very important. It is like the Eden Garden of cricket.

Why have you chosen to work in Bengal and not Assam?
There is already Baddruddin Ajmal [of the All India United Democratic Front] in Assam. Although we practice different politics, I have been to Assam in 2012. I have seen AIUDF work over there. Why should I go and create problems? In fact, if there is a need, I have told Ajmal Sahib, I am going to come and support you.

AIUDF is also making inroads in Bengal. Will you be in alliance with them?
No, we have no plans for an alliance. 

Recently, you addressed a rally in Nagpur where you demanded reservations for Muslims.
Please understand that in Maharashtra, reservations are not given to all Muslims. They are given only to 50 Muslim sects which are educationally and socially backward. The High Court bench that was hearing Muslim and Maratha reservation said in its interim order that they have stayed Maratha reservation but not Muslim reservation. You have the reports of Sachar committee, Ranganath Misra, Mahmoodur Rahman. When you have empirical evidence of social and economic backwardness of a community, why can’t you give them reservations?

But the community has been accessing reservations as part of the OBCs reservations.
Where and upto what percentage? Can someone give me data on how many Muslims are accessing 27% reservation? Not even 1%, I would say.

Where is that data point coming from?
There have been field studies from Bihar and UP, wherein those Muslim sects which are part of 27% OBC reservations are not getting it. The present BJP government at the centre has publicly supported Jat reservations. My question is what about 4.5% reservation to minorities?

The matter of religion-based quotas is being heard by the Constitution bench in the Supreme Court.
It is for the present government of the day to remove legal obstacles to provide 4.5% reservation. But they are not. I am saying don't give it on basis of religion, give it on the basis of social and educational backwardness. As for the argument that reservation based on religion is not possible,  what is Article 341 of the constitution which says that only Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists can be counted as Dalits. Isn't that based on religion?

But why is there a need for a sub-quota when other studies show that Muslims are getting their share in OBC quotas in states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu without a sub-quota?
Every state has a different mechanism of addressing these issues. In Andhra Pradesh and Telengana, a sub-quota has helped. Also, within the central OBC commission, they need to do their work properly. There are so many for examples of sects in Karnataka Muslims that are yet to avail reservations at the central level because the categorisation of their sects is stuck in the OBC commission.

But isn’t it incumbent on the community leadership to help people avail of the existing benefits, instead of simply earning political brownie points by asking a sub-quota?
In Maharashtra, why did it take the Congress so long to think of a sub-quota? Only after parliament election, lighting struck them and they brought it up. Community leaders have to take some blame. We cannot run from it. But it is the ruling party who have not been serious in addressing issue.

What do you think of the Aam Aadmi Party? Muslims in Delhi voted for it in large numbers.
They wanted to defeat the BJP. They didn’t want to waste votes.

At the government’s oath-taking ceremony in Ramlila Maidan, young Muslim men had come from as far as Mumbai and Kolkata. Do you think the AAP has great appeal for young, educated Muslims who do not want to be boxed into a political ghetto?
[Laughs] Why do all film stars complain that they don't get flats in Mumbai? They are film stars, not Asad Owaisi, a bearded man with skull cap. People pay so much money to go and watch them. They whistle when they sing and dance. If they are complaining, what will a common man do?

The common man might go and join the common man's party. People want to be identified as common people and not just as Muslims.
Good, good. I have nothing against it but as is being written in the media, famous personalities are being told we cannot allow you in our societies because you are Muslim. 

But such discrimination can be challenged by a party that is not based on religious identity?
Any political party should challenge it. Why only a religious party? This has to be broken. We are doing it in our way. Everyone should do it.

Just as young voters don't want to be boxed into identity-based parties, if you did not have a certain lineage and legacy, would you have liked to be part of a political formation that wasn't based as a religious identity?
This is your assessment of me which is wrong. I don’t agree with it. I am saying that the political voice of Dalits and minorities is very important. And it has to be an independent political voice. For example, from 1956 to 2014 in Maharashtra, how many Muslims became MPs? Who is responsible for the abysmal number of just 18-19 MLAs? Where is the political empowerment? Without political empowerment, without having a political voice, how can your daily issues be addressed?

And that political voice is only possible in separate political party?
What is the Congress doing by not allowing Muslims to win? Why in 2009 and 2014 elections, not a single Muslim won from Maharashtra and Karnataka. When NCP talks of regional feelings, that is not wrong, they still win elections and become part of the government. Why is that this whole question comes and rests on my shoulders? I am tired of being a coolie of secularism.

You have said this before.
And I am again saying this. The argument starts very well but it’s like a cloud, it slowly comes and hovers on my head. I don't want that. My (Muslim) social and economic indicators are pathetic. The Kundu committee says that my school dropout rate starts at 10 years, while for others it starts at 11. Bank priority sector lending to Muslims is low. These are things you don't want to talk about. But these are very important to me. Am I only good for Iftar parties, Ajmer ki Dargah, Phoolwalon ki Ser. Where are the Muslims in other political parties? Why have they been reduced to ceremonial functions? 

The failures of the past do not rule out the possibility of Muslim empowerment in non-identity based parties.
In Hindi, there’s a saying ‘Hum doodh ke jale hai, chach ko bhi fuk fuk ke piyenga.' A person who does not learn from the failures of the past, how will he build his future?

You use the phrase “coolie of secularism” frequently. Could you explain what you mean by it?
When we were contesting elections in Maharashtra, [we would be told] "Arre kyun ladhte hai aap, kya hai ismein hasil. kyun ladhte hai aapki wajah se nuksaan ho jayega."  [Why are you contesting elections? This will damage secular forces.]

A senior journalist told me in central hall four days ago, that everything you say is right, but fayada kissko ko raha? [who will gain from this?]  I said, "Sir, mujhe ho raha. Aapke fayade ke liye main kyun nuksan uthao. Yeh kaunsa sauda hai?  Fayada hona, aapko hona, mereko bhi hona. Aap koi sahukar to nahi hai na, ki aap ka fayada hona aur main labour hoon jo poore din mehnat karke aake bolon ko 'aaka dijiye mujhe'." [You are not a merchant and I am not your slave that I labour for your benefit.]

I contest elections in Maharahstra and I am called RSS agent. We win elections in Maharashtra and people say because of you, BJP came in power. Tell me, how will 24 [the number of seats the MIM contested] impact 288 [the total number of seats in the house]? I got 5 lakh 24 thousand votes. 60 lakh Muslims voted. Where did the other 55 lakh votes go? You are not able to defeat BJP and nach na jaane to aangan teda [you blame someone else for it].

What should I subjugate myself to you? That’s what I am saying: I will not do it. Why should I allow you to be my leader? I will be my own leader, I will raise my voice. It is for people to accept or reject me.

It boils down to aspirational India, which these parties are not able to see. I also have aspirations and dreams which I want to realise. Thirty-40 years is enough time for these people. Ab baithiye aap. Now let us try. India is changing, but these people don't want to change. You don’t want to work. But the space for Muslim political empowerment is there. I want to fill that space. What is wrong with that?