Bengaluru: Often referred to as ‘madam’ or ‘aapa’ by her party workers and candidates, Nowhera Shaik has been in the news ever since she floated her own political party in November last year. The All India Mahila Empowerment Party, better known as MEP, announced that it would contest the upcoming assembly elections in Karnataka.
According to a news report, the party’s launch event on November 12 at a glitzy hotel in the national capital was attended by former cricketer Mohammed Azharuddin, tennis star Sania Mirza, film stars Sunil Shetty, Bobby Deol, Aftab Shivdasani, Zeenat Aman and Poonam Dhillon, and choreographer Farah Khan, to name a notable few.
Listed as one of 2,044 “registered unrecognised political parties” with the Election Commission of India, the six-month-old MEP is contesting from all 224 assembly seats. This has generated a lot of curiosity nationally, especially among journalists outside the state and political commentators, about the party and its leadership. In the run-up to the elections, most of the comprehensive reports published by English newspapers and magazines have mentioned the MEP, especially in the context of Muslim votes. Karnataka’s neighbouring states, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, are also abuzz with news of the arrival of the MEP. The party is spending heavily on publicity material. So much so that while travelling from Hyderabad to Bidar district in Karnataka, one could see several advertisements for the party on buses and huge hoardings on the way, as also while travelling within the district.
However, in the several parts of the state that we visited, we were met with two broad reactions on mentioning the MEP. People would either start laughing or dismiss it by saying that ‘It’s nothing but a B team of the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP)’. In Hyderabad, which houses the party’s national headquarters, we were informed by many that Shaik was doing this in order to protect her business interests.
Shaik is the founder and CEO of the Heera Islamic Business Group, a consortium of 20 companies whose trade and investments interests include goods such as textiles, gold, diamonds, jewellery and real estate. According to the group’s official website, it began operating in 1998 and they have international branches in countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Dubai, Canada and China. However, what the official website omits is that the Heera Group has been accused of money laundering and other economic offences. For many, the high returns promised by the Heera Group are highly suspicious. Some of the schemes from their brochure include:
- Scheme A: “Heera has gold manufacturing units at Ghana & Dubai supplying to the whole world. Investments in scheme A (gold) Heera offers yearly profit of 32% to 35%. There is a lock in period of 1 year. During lock in period profit/loss is distributed yearly; thereafter, profit/loss is divided monthly.”
- Scheme E: “Heera runs a manufacturing unit in China that supplies carpets, blankets and bedsheets to different parts of the world. A yearly profit of 62-70% is expected.”
- Scheme G: “Heera Foodex scheme offers an expected 50% profit to the company and 50% to investors. There is a lock-in period of 2 years for this scheme.”
History in – and with – the media
The group has come under scrutiny for its dubious investments, tax evasion and allegations of cheating ordinary investors. Several investigations are on against the group. According to a Times of India report from May 2014, over Rs 84 lakh hawala money was seized in Hyderabad, involving some of the employees of the Heera Group of companies.
But this was not the first or the last case in which Shaik’s Heera Group has been named. In 2012, based on a complaint lodged by Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi, local police registered a case against Shaik for allegedly cheating a large number of investors. “Shaik’s businesses are nothing but castles in the air … Many innocent investors have suffered huge monetary loss as she is cheating several of them,” the complaint read. The Heera Group was once again in the news in 2016, in a case related to the import of gold from Dubai.
In October 2017, a month before the launch of the party, Shaik made headlines when income tax sleuths conducted simultaneous searches in Hyderabad and Vijayawada on three top businessmen-cum-realtors who were allegedly evading tax, particularly in real estate transactions, and unearthed documents pertaining to unaccounted for investments running into hundreds of crores of rupees. According to The Times of India, “In one case, I-T sleuths raided the house and office of realtor, Syed Akhtar of SA Builders and Developers at Tolichowki and found Rs 56 crore of properties and investments. It was found that Syed Akhtar’s companies had made transactions with Heera Gold. Recently, sleuths conducted a survey of Heera Gold Group of Hyderabad and found Rs 60 crore worth of tax issues, after which the firm offered to pay.”
Our repeated requests to meet her in Delhi, Hyderabad or Bangalore did not yield any results, despite being promised initially by the party’s media coordinator, Mumtaz Alim, that we would certainly get a chance to interact with her and ask questions. And we were not the only ones who could not have an interaction with her – most working journalists in Bangalore who have been tracking the MEP have not had a chance to meet her. So much so that journalists and activists have started calling her ‘Nowhere’ instead of ‘Nowhera’ Shaik. A senior editor with the Bengaluru edition of a national daily told us that she was only reaching out to people through PR agencies. This seems to have worked for her, because her ‘interviews’ are being published in Kannada and Telugu newspapers. Moreover, the party has been placing advertisements in local newspapers on a regular basis.
The party has two main working spaces in the city, apart from 28-32 election offices in different constituencies of urban and rural Bengaluru. The most known party office is situated in the business centre of the Leela Palace, one of the most expensive hotels in Bengaluru. Unable to meet her otherwise, we decided to visit her at this business centre in the hotel basement. According to the party spokesperson, the party has been using this space for two months now.
At the Leela Palace office, the first thing which struck us was the presence of several muscular bouncers outside, clad entirely in black. In fact, it was the bouncers who we had to initially confront, answering their questions on who we were and what was our business there. It was only after they were satisfied with our answers that we were asked to wait in the hall.
What caught one’s eye was the lack of women on the premises – hardly two or three out of more than two dozen people who were present. After waiting for a good ten minutes, we were met by one Mariam, who was both angry and anxious. “You should not have come here. Go to our office at Infantry Road,” she shouted at us. According to her, this office was for the candidates, and the media wasn’t allowed inside. One could see MEP candidates and supporters in the waiting area on the other side, conversing and waiting to file their Form-B, the nomination form for a candidate. By now, it was hardly surprising that most of them were men. As we tried to take a photograph, Mariam chided us furiously and demanded that we delete the one that we had taken.
More men than women
While leaving Leela Palace, we were met by a few women on the ground floor of the other side of the hotel, in the waiting area for party workers. Among them was Syeda Fathimunisa, a resident of Hosadurga taluka in Chitradurga district of Karnataka. Fathimunisa contracted polio when she was a year old and has since lived with the disability. As a member of the Karunada Rakshana Vedike, she often volunteered for social work in the district. Besides that, she runs a small clothes shop in Hosadurga. Syed Ismail, the state president of the Vedike, who is also the Chitradurga district president of the MEP, encouraged Fathimunisa to contest in the elections. She agreed, believing in its mission to empower women. She especially hoped to fight against the prevalence of domestic violence in her town.
Fathimunisa claims to have spent Rs 7 lakh in campaigning since February. However, to her disappointment, despite her experience and background, the party decided to give the Hosadurga seat to a man, and one who Fathimunisa says has done no work for the community. “[The party] didn’t even commiserate over the phone and has not offered me any other post. I’m very disappointed,” she told The Wire, visibly dismayed.
Another candidate we spoke to, who runs educational charitable trusts, was Anita Smith from Bangalore. An Anglo-Indian, she was hoping the party would nominate her for the reserved seat in the state assembly. “The party backed out from supporting me citing I am too old,” alleged Smith. She had been trying to meet Shaik regarding her dismissed nomination but her meeting was blocked by an MEP leader she didn’t want to name.
In contrast to the claim made by the party chief after the launch of the party that “80% of the MEP members will be women, irrespective of their religion or caste”, less than 20% of the total candidates given tickets are women, just a mere 40 out of the 224. When asked why more women were not given tickets, party spokesperson Siraj Jafferi, whom we later met at the party office on Infantry Road, Bangalore, said that “This was because only around 30% of out the approximately 5,800 applications we received were from women, and not all were eligible as they lacked the right experience.” However, he did not say if there was any special effort by the party to make sure that more women join the party and contest elections.
Jafferi was unable to answer our questions, especially those related to business operations of the party supremo and the financing of the party. Initially, he argued that “Madam’s party and business are two separate entities.” However, when pressed, he said he will provide all the relevant information a few hours after the interview. This never happened, despite several reminders. Similarly, Jafferi promised to provide information about party funding and finances, but never did. At the Infantry Road office, the number of women was even smaller. In fact, in both places, there were more bouncers than women.
Both Fathimunisa and Ismail, however, did mention speaking to one Noorulla from MEP, and said that he might be Shaik’s brother-in-law. The 2013 business profile of the Heera Group mentions a Noorulla Shaik, who is the business in charge of the Tirupati branch. If indeed the two Noorulla’s are the same person, then contrary to the MEP spokesperson’s claim, there is most likely a connection between the political party and the Shaik family business.
Ties with the BJP
The party spokesperson denied that the MEP has any connection with the BJP. “This is a false propaganda against us,” said Jafferi. “As far the question of division of secular votes due to emergence of MEP is concerned, by that logic no new party will come up. And those distributing certificates of secularism must explain what they have done in so many years.”
However, even a quick background check informed us that the picture is not as simple as the party spokesperson tried to portray.
For instance, Azhar Ali, the Karnataka state working president of the MEP whom Jafferi described as a human rights activist, was indeed a part of the BJP. On his Facebook page, there are pictures in which Ali can be seen wearing a saffron scarf with the BJP’s sign on it or participating in meetings of the BJP. In one of the pictures, he can be seen standing with B.S. Yeddyurappa, BJP’s chief ministerial candidate. Another state-level leader, Farida Begum, was also a part of the BJP. “She is a women rights activist and I was told that she was also part of BJP,” confirmed Jafferi. Interestingly, these two persons were responsible for building the party in the state.
Smith had also told The Wire that she got in touch with the party through one Muji Khan, who is associated with the BJP. Moreover, a truck was recently found carrying publicity material for both the BJP and MEP. These connections have made people suspicious of the party and its agenda.
This brings us back to a question that is on everyone’s mind. Will the people, especially the Muslims of Karnataka, vote for the MEP? It is unlikely that people will vote for a party in large numbers, which is not only new but also lacks credibility. This includes Muslims, even if the candidates are Muslim and the party is led by a Muslim. However, what many fear is that given the public relations campaign and media outreach adopted by the MEP and the close fight on many seats, even if the party manages to bag a few thousand votes, it could benefit the BJP by dividing the secular votes.