It is fitting that the first time Waris Pathan made news after being elected to the Maharashtra Assembly, was for his refusal to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. The position the Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen legislator took is characteristic of what his party stands for – a defiant assertion of exclusive Muslim identity. On Wednesday, Pathan was suspended from the Assembly for dismissing demands from fellow legislators that he should hail India as a mother goddess, an act some Muslims believe violates their religion's precepts of monotheism.

Pathan was one of two MIM candidates who were elected during the 2014 Maharashtra Assembly elections. He was voted in by Muslims in Mumbai’s Byculla to punish the Congress for taking them for granted. At the time, Muslims also wanted to give a chance to the fiery Owaisi brothers – Asaduddin, a member of Parliament from Hyderabad, and Akbaruddin, a legislator from Telangana – who head the party. But since his election, Pathan has done nothing for his voters.

Cynical Muslims who refused to come under the spell of the Owaisi brothers’ oratory had predicted the MIM’s non-performance during the Assembly election campaign itself.

Déjà vu for Muslims

Ahead of elections in Maharashtra in October 2014, Asaduddin and Akbaruddin Owaisi declared themselves to be the saviours of the Muslim community who would provide the aggressive leadership needed to counter the newly elected Hindutva Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his mentors, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party were vilified as having failed to represent Muslims, their secularism a sham.

On Wednesday, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party legislators lived up to this description when they joined the Shiv Sena and BJP in demanding Pathan’s suspension from the Assembly for refusing to say “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.

This episode may have given Muslims a sense of déjà vu as they are being asked to prove their patriotism yet again. This has been happening far too frequently since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, said Afsar Usmani of the Movement for Peace and Justice. And yet again, the Congress, the professed defender of secularism, has betrayed the community to retain any section of the Hindu vote bank it may have left.

Pathan’s suspension was a rare, but ugly display of Hindutva power in a representative institution that is supposed to uphold the Constitution. But while there is sympathy for him for being wronged as an MLA, a representative of Muslims and as a citizen, there’s nothing but anger against his party chief who made a non-issue into an issue. These are words being used across the board to describe Asaduddin Owaisi’s speech in Latur on Sunday, when the MIM leader waded into a controversy that had, so far, nothing do with Muslims.

The timing of Owaisi’s response to a statement by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat is significant. On March 2, Bhagwat said it was time to tell students to say “Bharat Mata ki Jai” to inculcate nationalism in them. Eleven days later, Owaisi made his by now famous speech: “I will not say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ even if a knife were held to my throat."

But Bhagwat had not made any religious references in his speech at all: he was referring to students within the context of the Jawaharlal Nehru University controversy, and not to Muslims. That, said Muslims, gave the game away.

Changing the narrative

In the first week of March, JNU’s students, led by the charismatic Communist Party of India’s Kanhaiya Kumar, were giving it back to the RSS like few had before. “For the first time, questions were being raised on basic issues which no political party had raised,” said Inquilab editor Shahid Latif, who has given front page space in Mumbai’s leading Urdu daily to the controversies about JNU, the Dalit scholar Rohit Vemula who committed suicide at Hyderabad University in January, and before that, to the strike by students at the Film and Television Institute of India.

Said Latif: “They were being raised beautifully and confidently by a student whose speech was watched internationally. His [Kanhaiya Kumar's] speech changed the atmosphere in the country. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill secular vs communal speech. From nationalism to poverty, he forced us to confront every fundamental problem. It was important for Muslims to be part of this movement, this ray of hope.’’

And they were. From religious scholars to businessmen, almost every Muslim this reporter spoke to ascribed Asaduddin Owaisi’s speech to what they called a "setting" or arrangement with the BJP, to divert attention from the challenge thrown to the ruling party by students from Hyderabad to Delhi to Allahabad, in order to narrow down the national discussion to the issue of Hindu-Muslim confrontation again.

“Was there any pressure on Owaisi to say Bharat Mata ki Jai?” asked Afsar Usmani. “Why couldn’t he have ignored Bhagwat’s remarks? Bhagwat wasn’t saying anything new.”

Ever since the MIM fielded candidates for Maharashtra’s Assembly election, many Muslims have accused Asaduddin Owaisi of playing the BJP’s game. They say Owaisi is doing all he can to weaken those fighting against the saffron party. They are delighted that his party was sent packing during last year’s Bihar’s Assembly elections, where he put up candidates despite the fight being a crucial battle between the BJP and the Nitish-Lalu combine.

Till now, it wasn’t obvious that this allegation was true. The ambition of Asaduddin Owaisi is to be the sole spokesperson of the Muslims, to wipe out all parties that have claimed the allegiance of Muslim voters – be it the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra, the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, or the Lalu-Nitish combine in Bihar.

The moment the MIM puts up candidates, it automatically splits the Muslim vote. That by itself is no evidence of the Owaisis playing the BJP game. Any party that tries to provide an alternative to the Congress could be said to be helping the BJP because it would cause a split in the anti-BJP vote. Arvind Kejriwal did this in the last Lok Sabha elections – Muslims flocked to his AAP in droves even though he did not appeal to them to vote for him as a community.

But Asaduddin Owaisi’s strategy is the opposite. He appeals to Muslims as Muslims. His politics is as much about Muslim identity and creating a Muslim vote bank as the politics of the RSS is about creating a Hindu vote bank. They mirror each other and, indeed, feed on each other’s rhetoric.

This time however, the allegation that Owaisi played the BJP’s game has substance to it. In the entire debate on nationalism that has seized the country, Muslims, or any other minority, have had no need to intervene as a community. It has been a battle of secular Indians vs Hindu nationalists. As activist Feroze Mithiborewala pointed out, even the loudmouth Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan from Uttar Pradesh has kept quiet.

With his aggressive statement, Owaisi turned the nationalism debate into one of Hindu nationalists vs anti-national Muslims. The BJP will reap the benefits of this in the upcoming Assembly elections in several states.

But the dangers to ordinary Muslims are more. Will Muslim students now be cornered in universities and made to say “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, a slogan that started as a patriotic cry during the freedom struggle, but that the RSS converted into a religious one?

The silver lining to this entire episode is that the demonstration by the MIM in support of Waris Pathan drew barely 200 party members – this in the party’s heartland of Nagpada. As Aslam Ghazi, spokesperson of the Jamaat-e-Islami said, “The MIM is digging its own grave.”