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‘Jai Palestine’: Why an Indian MP invoked Gaza war while taking oath | India Election 2024 News

‘Jai Palestine’: Why an Indian MP invoked Gaza war while taking oath | India Election 2024 News

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A usually staid swearing-in procedure where Indian parliamentarians take their oath of office has exploded into a controversy after veteran opposition legislator Asaduddin Owaisi chanted “Jai Palestine” after reading out the pledge on Tuesday.

In Sanskrit, the word “jai” literally translates to victory, but is used more broadly to connote support, so in effect, Owaisi’s slogan amounted to: “Long live Palestine.”

Parliamentarians from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have accused him of violating the very constitutional pledge he was taking by, according to them, demonstrating loyalty to another nation – a charge Owaisi has denied.

So what really happened, why have Owaisi’s words become controversial, what else happened in the Indian Parliament on Tuesday and what’s next for Owaisi?

What exactly did Owaisi say?

Owaisi took his oath as a member of parliament (MP), alongside 542 other legislators who were declared winners of India’s mammoth national election.

The white kurta-clad Owaisi advanced to the podium in Parliament amid scattered applause from other parliamentarians before reading out his oath in Urdu.

“I, Asaduddin Owaisi, who has been elected as a Lok Sabha member, swear in the name of Allah, that I will remain solemn and loyal to the Constitution of India. I will maintain the supremacy and integrity of India and I will fulfil my duties, assigned to me under this position, with loyalty,” he pledged in Urdu. The Lok Sabha is the directly elected lower house of India’s Parliament.

Then, he chanted “Jai Bhim, Jai Meem, Jai Telangana, Jai Filisteen” before stepping away from the podium.

“Jai Bhim” is a pro-Dalit slogan that refers to Bhimrao Ambedkar, the Dalit founding father of the Indian Constitution. Dalits have historically been at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy. Meem is a part of the Urdu alphabet that transcribes closely to “M” in English, and Owaisi is believed to have been referring to his party, the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), mostly known just as MIM – pronounced “meem”.

Telangana is the state Owaisi comes from, and Filisteen is the Urdu and Hindi word for Palestine.

Who is Owaisi?

Asaduddin Owaisi has been a five-time MP of the Lok Sabha, from Telangana’s Hyderabad constituency since 2004. He comes from a political family and was preceded by his father, Salahuddin Owaisi, a six-time MP of Hyderabad from 1984 to 2004.

Owaisi is also the president of the AIMIM since 2008. The regional party’s manifesto espouses Muslim rights, the broader rights of all religious minorities, as well as Dalit rights. Owaisi is also known for his fiery oratory in Parliament.

During this election, AIMIM was neither part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) spearheaded by the BJP, nor was it allied with the opposition INDIA alliance led by the Congress Party.

Could the Indian MP be penalised?

In evoking Palestine, and effectively invoking Israel’s war on Gaza, Owaisi drew criticism and allegations that he had signalled his allegiance to Palestine.

BJP members argued that Owaisi flouted the Indian Constitution. The BJP’s information technology head, Amit Malviya posted on X on Tuesday: “As per extant rules, Asaduddin Owaisi can be disqualified from his Lok Sabha membership, for demonstrating adherence to a foreign State, that is Palestine”.

Malviya posted a snippet of Article 102 of the Indian Constitution, that lays out grounds for disqualification from Parliament, underlining a clause of the article that says a person shall be disqualified for showing adherence to a foreign state.

Yet, other experts said Owaisi had broken no rule – even if he had deviated from convention, like many other politicians on Tuesday.

“I don’t think [Owaisi can be disqualified] because while taking the oath, nearly all members have raised different kinds of slogans,” political analyst and Hindi professor Apoorvanand told Al Jazeera.

Apoorvanand explained that while being sworn into office after earlier elections, parliamentarians would typically confine themselves to the oath. “This time, the election was different and different issues were at stake. The atmosphere became different and members felt the need to express themselves”. The election was a tense, high-strung contest between the BJP and the Congress-led INDIA alliance, in which Modi’s party failed to win a majority for the first time after a decade in power, but managed to form a government in coalition with allies.

Apoorvanand also pointed out that Owaisi’s Palestine chant had come after he had completed his official oath – in which he had pledged allegiance to India.

“Hailing Palestine does not violate the Constitution of India. You’ve taken the oath and after that, if you say anything, it’s not on record,” said Apoorvanand.

Even the BJP’s Radha Mohan Singh, who was in the chairperson’s seat, tried to reassure angry BJP parliamentarians that slogans made after the oath-taking would not go on the record.

Still, local media reported that Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kiren Rijiju said he would review the rules regarding this issue.

Did other MPs say anything controversial?

The BJP’s Chhatra Pal Singh Gangwar ended his oath with “Jai Hindu Rashtra” (Long live the Hindu nation). The BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has long called for India to be made a Hindu state.

Gangwar’s chant drew protest slogans from lawmakers belonging to the INDIA alliance. India is constitutionally a secular nation. Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav objected to the chant, saying that “it was against the values of the Constitution.”

Another BJP member, Atul Garg, said “Narendra Modi Zindabad” [long live Modi] after he took his oath. Heckled by the opposition, he returned to the podium and said “Dr Hedgewar Zindabad,” referring to Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS.

Did some MPs take oath with a copy of the Constitution?

Many opposition legislators, including Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Congress party, and Yadav, took the oath while holding out a copy of the Indian Constitution in their hands as a sign of protest against the alleged excesses of the BJP under Modi.

However, Modi and other BJP leaders hit back, accusing the Congress of hypocrisy. Tuesday also marked the anniversary of the imposition of a state of national emergency by then-Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. During the state of emergency that was lifted in 1977, thousands of critics and political activists were arrested, civil liberties were suspended, and the press faced a crackdown.

“Those who imposed the Emergency have no right to profess their love for our Constitution,” Modi wrote in an X post on Tuesday.

Apoorvanand argued that the myriad debates that erupted out of Tuesday’s oath-taking ceremony pointed to a more complex reality confronting India.

“The election hasn’t ended yet, unlike previous years,” he said. “This battle is continuing and has not ended with the declaration of results.”

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