Misri Gym in Hyderabad’s Tadban is not a place one would normally associate with politics. Swankier than most gyms in the area, it has as its logo a picture of the owner flexing his muscles, a tribute to his fame as a professional body builder. Esa bin Obaid Misri is a former Mr Universe silver medallist and one of the most prominent in a long line of body builders the city has produced. The facility, opened in July, represents Misri’s desire to have “excellent gym facilities” in the Old City that are comparable to those in newer parts of Hyderabad. Next week, Misri will participate in an entirely different kind of contest: as Telangana goes to the polls, he is the Congress candidate from city’s Chandrayangutta Assembly constituency.

It is no easy fight. He is up against Akbaruddin Owaisi, the flamboyant leader of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen in the Telangana Assembly and younger brother of the party’s chief Asaduddin Owaisi, who is an MP from Hyderabad. “If Misri is Mr Universe, Akbar bhai is Mr Hyderabad,” said Old City resident Moinuddin, who described himself as a “die-hard Majlis supporter”. “If Misri is a heavyweight champion, Akbaruddin is a political heavyweight champion.”

Misri is an interesting choice for the December 7 election. He is the first Muslim that the Congress has nominated from Chandrayangutta since 1985. The party had fielded Hindu candidates in all previous six elections even though the constituency has a substantial Muslim population. Some put this down to the party’s informal understanding with the Majlis, particularly when YS Rajasekhara Reddy was the chief minister. This understand apparently broke when Akbaruddin Owaisi was arrested for alleged hate speech in 2013. Relations between the two parties have worsened over the past five years, with the Majlis putting up candidates in the state elections in Maharashtra, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – a move the Congress claims benefitted the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Wrestling with politics

More than political equations, however, Misri’s presence in the electoral arena is symbolic of the position that Pahelwans, or musclemen, occupy in the Old City’s politics. Pahelwani is particularly central to the identity of the Chaush community. Chaush – meaning “guard” in Turkish – originally referred to the Arabs, mostly from Hadhramaut in Yemen, who were brought to Hyderabad to serve in the Nizam’s army. Misri is Chaush. The Siddis, who are of African descent, also often self-identify as Chaush.

During the Nizams’ rule, Pehlwans were seen as symbolising both piety and physical strength. But after the annexation of Hyderabad in 1948, as the state stopped supporting them, Pahelwans faced a livelihood crisis. Many took to working for politicians and builders. Some entered the real estate business themselves.

“Most Pehalwans are from families that have generationally engaged in it as a profession,” explained Khatija Khader, a researcher who has studied Hyderabad’s Hadhramis. “They are locally respected and they translated this into political patronage.”

Khader has done much of her fieldwork in Barkas, Chandrayangutta, and AC Guards near Khairatabad. While Barkas is dominated by the Hadhramis, AC Guards has a significant Siddi population. “Barkas is replete with award-winning wrestlers who eventually got into the real estate business, as owners or as handymen, because of lack of support and jobs,” she said. “So, the culture of Pahelwani in Hyderabad often gets associated with politics and illegality.”

While Pahelwans are mostly aligned to the Majlis, the Congress and the Majlis Bachao Tehreek also make use of them. A few Hindu Pahelwans are with the BJP as well.

Understanding the political importance of wrestling in Hyderabad, the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi organised the KCR Kesari wrestling competition on the birthday of Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao in February.

Mohammed bin Omar al-Yafai, centre, with Esa bin Obaid Misri. Photo via Facebook

Fighting the Owaisis

Over the past few years, the Majlis has faced opposition from a Chaush Pahelwan named Mohammed bin Omar al-Yafai in the Chandrayangutta area. Al-Yafai, better known as Mohammed Pahelwan, was accused of orchestrating an attack on Akbaruddin Owaisi in 2011. On April 30 that year, the Majlis leader was stabbed several times and shot at outside his party’s office at Barkas. His supporters clashed with the attackers, leading to the death of Mohammed Pahelwan’s nephew Ibrahim al-Yafai. It is claimed that Akbaruddin Owaisi was trying to reclaim a piece of land Mohammed Pahelwan had allegedly encroached upon. Mohammed Pahelwan was acquitted last year, but four members of the al-Yafai family were convicted of being involved in the attack.

After Ibrahim al-Yafai’s death, his brother had filed a case of murder against Akbaruddin Owaisi, the Majlis legislator Ahmed bin Abdullah Balala and the Barkas corporator Mansoor bin Mohammad Awalgi. Balala and Awalgi are both Chaush. The case, however, was shut in 2013.

The attack had put Akbaruddin Owaisi in hospital for several days but he came out politically stronger. He won the Chandrayngutta seat by a margin of nearly 60,000 votes in the 2014 Assembly election. “They fired three bullets at him, stabbed him, even hit him with a cricket bat, yet he survived,” said Mazhar Ali, an Majlis supporter in the Old City.

Mohammed Pahelwan’s family aligned with the Congress in 2016, and they are likely to back Misri against Akbaruddin Owaisi in this election.

Contours of the contest

It may not worry Akbaruddin Owaisi much, given his popularity and his party’s hold on Chandrayangutta. The Majlis swept the area in the election to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation in 2016. Moreover, the Congress is weak in Chandrayangutta. It has, in fact, never won the seat.

Chandrayangutta used to be the turf of Amanullah Khan, who held the constituency from 1978 to 1989, first as an independent and eventually as a Majlis nominee. He split from the party to launch the Majlis Bachao Tehreek in 1993, and in the following year’s election defeated the Majlis candidate by 36,000 votes.

It was a disastrous election for the Majlis in 1994. The party lost every seat it contested except Charminar, where Asaduddin Owaisi managed to win. But five years later, Akbaruddin Owaisi retook Chandrayangutta for the party on his electoral debut. It was a turning point for the Majlis in its rivalry with Khan’s party, which has never won a seat in the city since.

The Congress’s nomination of a Muslim only makes it tougher for the Tehreek this time since Misri could potentially spilt the anti-Majlis vote. The party, which is contesting as part of the Bahujan Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is still to declare its nominee for Chandrayangutta. Its candidate Khayyam Khan finished second in each of the last three elections.

Misri likes recalling a fight where he took down a wrestler more than twice his size. It remains to be seen if he can punch above his weight in the electoral arena. But no matter which way this bout goes, Pahelwans will continue to flex their muscle in Hyderabad’s politics.