Bengaluru: In a Youtube video titled ‘Staff Meeting of Heera Group in Mumbai on 24th April 2018’, Nowhera Shaikh, a big woman in a black burkha with diamonds embroidered on her headscarf, speaks into a microphone.
“When did we buy the Kochi Marriot? I think, just about three years ago. I went to the hotel and liked it, so I bought it. But ever since, for these three years, I have kept the hotel shut. You know why?”
Her audience waits.
“Because I would have had to open a bar and get a liquor license. And we are a halal business. That’s why. I could be earning thousands of crores from that hotel. Instead I kept the hotel shut. Because we follow Allah’s rules and participate only in businesses approved by Allah.”
At this, the audience breaks into applause.
A young man in a lilac shirt comes to the microphone. He identifies himself as a junior direct sales agent.
“Ma’am, I don’t have a question but I want to say something. I want to thank you for all you do for us. Because even those that suspect you and ask questions about your business have prospered because of you. We are with you.”
Many in the audience sit up and begin clapping vigorously. Their CEO, Shaikh, a woman who single-handedly runs the many businesses of Heera Group (Heera Gold, Heera Foodex, Heera Fancy World, Heera Developers, Heera FinCapital, Heera Diamond, Heera Textiles, Heera Electronics) while consistently delivering extraordinary profits month on month, has certainly earned their allegiance and a solid round of applause.
Shaikh is also leader of the newly-launched All India Mahila Empowerment Party (MEP), a national party that is contesting all 224 seats in this month’s Karnataka assembly elections. Mumtaaz Aleem, spokesperson of MEP Karnataka, says Shaikh herself will contest the Lok Sabha elections next year. When asked from which state, Aleem said, “We don’t know.”
How does a lone woman manage both a multinational conglomerate (Heera Group claims to have offices in Dubai, China, Canada and Ghana) and a national political party? Shaikh explains:
“I work in my office from 8am to 3pm, till the markets are open. After that I go to meetings. Business meetings and political meetings. When we decided to contest Karnataka elections in January, people told me, Appa, there’s not enough time, how will you fight these elections in so little time! But I said, for me this is a lot of time. And see! We are now contesting all 224 seats!”
Nowhera (meaning ‘new diamond’, an unsubtle nod to the Heera Group) Shaikh first appeared on the internet in July 2006, in an article in the Hindu. At the time, she was Alhima Shaikh Nowhera, and she identified herself as president of At-Tawheed International Dawah Centre for Women, which had no affiliations with existing organisations but had chapters in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and in Ahmedabad. She was also associated with the Al-Mu’minah School for Muslim girls in Mumbai. Both these institutions claimed to be dedicated to uplifting Muslim women. She is also said to have set up the Heera International Helpline for Women which, if it ever existed, does not anymore.
In 2010, multiple websites popped up declaring Shaikh to be the CEO and MD of “Diamond” brand of laptops and smartphones and the CEO of Heera Finance (an interest-free group undertaking that claims to provide loans for marriages, homes, cars and gold purchases, but fails to mentions how to apply for such a loan) as well as the CEO of Heera Foodex Gulf that apparently sells rice, wheat and pulses, and Heera Gold Exports and Imports Company.
Shaikh herself first appeared on Youtube in December of that year, in a video uploaded by “heeragroup123” in which she is seen examining the jewellery of Heera Group.
The following year, more videos were added on Youtube, including one of an exhibition of Heera Group products in Tirupati. The products on display included jewellery that was declared “100% original”, a red bedsheet that was proof of a newly-launched Heera Textiles, and fake Chanel bags allegedly designed and manufactured by Heera Fancy World.
Over the next five years, there were more websites, more videos, more speeches, more exhibitions.
In 2016, The Ken reported that Heera Group, based out of Hyderabad and Tirupati, accepted investments from Muslims on an “interest-free” basis – rather than enjoy a fixed rate of return, the investors share both the profits and losses of the company. Direct sales agents collected investments from local communities and the collections were transferred to the Heera Group (an umbrella term for her numerous shape-shifting and name-changing businesses) once a month. Customers received Rs 3,200 a month for a Rs 1 lakh annual investment, delivered directly to their bank accounts. The original investment could be withdrawn at any time. Heera Gold does not appear to have ever defaulted on a payment. But the report also points out gaping holes in the Heera Group narrative.
The returns Heera Group provides its customers with would require profit margins of 120-150%. Those would be bizarre numbers in any commodity market. The company also appears to have insufficient public records, and many of the awards it claims to have received and products it claims to sell don’t really exist.
And yet, its followers are ardent and many. This is because Heera Group has adopted a Trojan horse to make inroads among its followers. This Trojan horse is religion.
In Islam, it is considered haraam to receive a fixed return – an investor must share the burden of risk to enjoy its benefits. The core of Heera Group’s identity is that it is halal, its motto is “Towards an interest-free world”. The goods and commodities it claims to trade in are halal as well – gold, electronics, textiles – and investments in them are open only to Muslims.
As part of this halal identity, for the first decade of her public career, Shaikh appeared at all times in a full-face burkha, with only her eyes visible to her audience. (Early on, her public addresses had been open only to women.) She spoke in Urdu, beginning all public addresses with “Alhamdulillah” and punctuating them with “Bismillah” and “Inshallah”.
Many of these events were attended by celebrities, including Sania Mirza, actors Karishma Kapoor, Suneil Shetty, Khali, Aftab Shivadasani, director Farah Khan, cricketers Mohd Azharuddin and Atul Wassan, Supreme Court advocate Vineet Dhanda, a retired high court judge, IPS officers and even BJP Union minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju.
In spite of the star-studded parties at five-star hotels, office launches and websites designed to offer a sheen of legitimacy, by 2016 videos began appearing on Youtube and WhatsApp warning people that the Heera Group was haram and worse, a pyramid scheme. Several imams passed fatwas against them to that effect.
The Heera Group had no choice but to address the allegations. And this is how Shaikh came to appear in public for the first time with her face uncovered.
A video released in September 2017 titled ‘Dr. Nowhera Shaik response on all the allegations made on her company’ opens to many framed certificates on Shaikh’s office wall, and an award from the Heera Group on her table. Facing the camera, she speaks confidently and emphatically.
“By Allah’s grace we have received much success, and by Allah’s grace this company will continue till the morning of Qayamat (Judgement Day). People are saying that we are a Ponzi scheme, but a Ponzi scheme is a company with no office that will put your money in their bags and run away. We have so many big offices, we use the banking system, we have been returning your money year after year. How can we be a Ponzi scheme? Those who say things against us have purdah on their eyes. They cannot see the truth. They are jealous. They are jaalim. They don’t believe a woman can run such a big company.”
Precisely a month after this, Shaikh launched the MEP.
Chand Bibi Hazra of Vijayapur, Karnataka, had never before been active in politics. She first heard about the MEP in early March this year. At the time, weeks before the other parties began their paper campaign, all of Karnataka saw massive highway banners of Shaikh and the MEP.
The banners said,
“Mahila Empowerment Party, registered under part IV a of the Representation of Peoples Act (1951) as a national party. “
The banners also carried a photo of Shaikh speaking passionately, standing at a podium. She was identified as “Nowhera Shaikh, Founder, Mahila Empowerment Party.” And below, its motto: “Justice for Humanity”.
Hazra began to see advertisements and videos on television. The promise, justice for humanity, delivered by a woman in a hijab just like herself, was a balm compared to the Muslim-baiting and violence-mongering of the rest of contemporary politics. Plus, she adds, “Aurat hi aurat ko samajh sakti hai (Only a woman can understand another woman).”
She had also heard about Shaikh from someone she knew. So when the MEP began to seek applicants for electoral tickets across Karnataka, she sent in an application. She was one of (according to the MEP) 5,700 applicants. The MEP then invited over a thousand of these applicants to an event at a five-star hotel in Bengaluru, where the first list of candidates would be announced. (Shaikh, along with a few candidates and celebrities endorsing the party, were living out of the Leela Palace in Bangalore, a fact frequently mentioned in their videos.)
Two nights before the big five-star event, Hazra and all the men in her family, plus a few others, began to camp outside the MEP office in Bengaluru, waiting for a confirmation of her ticket. She was practicing public speaking outside when I first met her, and I asked her why she didn’t join a bigger party, like the Congress or JD(U), instead.
“All these parties make tall-tall promises but they do nothing. And here, madam (Shaikh) herself, she herself has said that if there is any corruption I will remove the person in one hour. In one hour. When everyone is scared that they can be kicked out then there is no chance of corruption,” she nods knowingly.
“What laws will you pass if you enter the Karnataka assembly as a legislator?” I ask.
“Just like madam said, we will remove poverty. We will make the country safer for women. We will improve education.”
“How will you improve education?”
She laughs like I am asking an obvious question. “Whatever rules there are, we will follow them. That’s how.”
What stands out about MEP’s candidates is how little they know about the party. No one I spoke to could talk to me about the Heera Group, or tell me why someone from Andhra Pradesh was fielding candidates in the Karnataka elections.
(MEP candidates and party workers presently include Vandana Jain, producer of Balwinder Singh Famous Ho Gaya, who accused cricketer Amit Mishra of assaulting her in a hotel room in Bengaluru, and Jayalaxmi, a local celebrity who has been on Big Boss Karnataka and shot to fame in 2007 when she released intimate photographs of herself with BJP MLA Renukacharya.)
I meet Hazra again at the announcement of the first list of candidates. She is standing in a queue with approximately a thousand other applicants from across the state. Everybody is wearing white. An event management company has provided a crew of men to take down the names of each person from this long line of applicants, hand them an MEP flag and an MEP scarf, and and escort them inside. The crew managing the event has never heard of the MEP but are wearing t-shirts with the party logo on it. The sound systems are managed by journalists at H News, Heera Group’s in-house media that frequently reports MEP activities and events on Youtube. Many journalists present at the event are from the paid sections of their respective media houses.
A pre-recorded video greets applicants as they enter.
“Hi, my name is Vibhav,” begins a young man in a gym t-shirt, “and I congratulate Nowhera Sheikh for Mahila Empowerment. Ek aurat hi apne aap ko bada karti hain, phir apne parivar ko, phir apne desh ko. (A woman raises herself, then her family, then her nation). I wish all the very best to you.”
A long line of celebrities, television actors and beauty pageant winners congratulate Shaikh for launching the party.
Hazra isn’t paying attention to the screen. Instead, she chats with other female candidates (no more than 20% of the room).
“Dekhte hain (Let’s see),” she grins.
Shaikh enters a full hour later, and with her enter dozens of journalists, camera persons and security personnel. (She famously hired Sandalwood stuntmen to be part of her security team.)
Everybody stands to attention. She arrives on stage and speakers begin to blare first the national anthem, then the state song of Karnataka.
Finally, she comes to the podium and opens an envelope.
“I have used justice to decide who will get tickets to stand for the MEP because that is what our party stands for. Justice. You will see that all our choices have been secular. There are Hindus and Muslims, women and men.”
She begins to announce the first list of candidates one by one. (She announces only 50 candidates, the remaining 170 odd candidates are to be announced later at the Leela Palace.) Hazra wins the Vijayapur ticket.
At least one member of the RSS was present at the event where Shaikh released the first list of candidates. RSS spokesperson Rajesh Padmar confirmed this but denied that there had been any communication with the MEP.
I ask him if they would be open to an alliance with the MEP.
“Why not? We are a social organisation and anyone who wants to do social work with us is free to join us.”
“They don’t have any local presence,” he added. “Who are they? How do we know? They haven’t taken stands on any local issues. They will need a local presence and an organisation recognisable in Karnataka.”
There have been many rumours that the MEP – a party that will serve to break Congress’s Muslim vote – has been planted by the BJP, but there exists no evidence to prove this. Shaikh herself has denied all allegations of collusion with the BJP as many times as she has denied that the Heera Group is a pyramid scheme.
And yet there are signs.
Given that the MEP is primarily a party of and for Muslims, the BJP benefits most from its existence. Further giving this argument legs to stand on are advertisements that have appeared in newspapers where Shaikh congratulates Prime Minister Narendra Modi for “Laying stone of starting Bullet Train and for initiating Swachh Bharat Abhiyan”.
Kiren Rijiju was present at a Heera Group event to honour the families of Uri victims.
On April 16, a month before the polls, it was reported that 40,000 MEP caps and 3,000 BJP scarves were found aboard a private bus in Sulaga, being brought in from Mumbai to Bangalore. Both parties’ election paraphernalia was said to be manufactured by the same tailoring company.
That the MEP should contest elections and not raise any eyebrows is suspicious. In an Op-ed in the Deccan Chronicle, Saeed Naqvi says,
“Here is an obvious target — a woman in a black hijab, millionairess, comfortable only in seven-star luxury, dispensing money to 224 candidates … But the politician is as silent on her as the media is.”
In a video being circulated on WhatsApp, Chand Bibi Hazra, MEP candidate from Vijayapura, sits next to a man wearing an MEP scarf.
The man says, “If the BJP wishes us well then in the coming days we will lend our support to them. We will lend our support to anyone who does good work. And that is our promise.”
When the man finishes, Hazra, perhaps because she sees the “tall-tall” claims here too, claps sullenly.
Sneha Vakharia is a freelance reporter.