Saeed Naqvi’s bold book could have been better had he touched upon the importance of reforms among the Muslims
On August 14, a national newspaper carried a report quoting some Muslim clerics from a Bareilly dargah saying that Muslims must participate in Independence Day celebrations in large numbers so that the right message is sent to the communal forces who brand them as anti-national. Another mufti went a step further. He insisted that celebration of national holidays is legal under Islamic law. These clarifications were in response to a query raised by a resident of Ahmedabad, who wanted to be sure that he was on the right side of religion when celebrating Independence Day.
This incident took me back to one such conversation I had heard on a Kashmiri radio show many years ago. It was an Islamic show where listeners were invited to call in with their doubts and questions. In the segment that I heard in the taxi, the caller wanted to know from the show’s resident cleric whether it was acceptable for a Muslim to grow grapes and supply them to wineries, even when he himself doesn’t make or drink wine.
The cleric commended the caller for his faith before reciting a few verses from the Quran in Arabic. Then by way of explanation he told the doubter that it would be alright for a person to grow grapes as long as he doesn’t know what was happening to his produce. But if he knows that his produce is used to make wine, which is forbidden in Islam, he should not grow grapes. If he is unable to find another vocation and must grow grapes, then he should not supply them to any winery.
These incidents played on my mind as I read Saeed Naqvi’s brave and bold book, Being the Other: The Muslim in India.Throughout the reading I had a niggling sense of something missing; like a soufflé which doesn’t rise too well or collapses before being served. It was only when I had nearly finished the book that I figured out why I didn’t completely warm up to it. In narrating the story of the Muslim getting ‘othered’ in India, Naqvi overlooked a very important character in the tale: the Muslim himself. This is the reason, perhaps, why the above two incidents kept popping up every time I closed the book.
In the long chain of pre- and post-Independence events which contributed to the marginalisation of Muslims in India, Muslims themselves played a substantive role. They have used religion to put themselves away in a corner which they believe lends them exclusivity but in reality puts them out of the mainstream. And I am saying this as a fellow Muslim. No one can argue with Naqvi when he says that Indian politics has been dominated by majoritarian prejudices, which has had a negative impact on the Indian Muslims; after all, there is too much evidence to say otherwise, but the bigger tragedy of Muslims in India has been that while being the victim, they have also been the perpetrator of misery to their own selves.
Just look at the politicians they throw up today. Of course, all communities have their rabble-rousers, but they also have erudite and progressive voices. Where are those amongst the Muslims? From Abul Kalam Azad and Zakir Hussain we have come down to Azam Khan and Shahnawaz Hussein!
Public life in India has always been defined by religion, caste, community, region etc., the cloak of secularism notwithstanding, as Naqvi himself iterates in his book; yet, communities smaller than Muslims have managed to side-step the inherent prejudices of the majority to carve out a ‘mainstream’ life for themselves, largely through education. Muslims, on the other hand, have wallowed in victimhood, which has created a vicious cycle, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The running theme of Naqvi’s narrative is betrayal. He establishes right in the beginning how a large majority of Muslims had thrown their weight behind the Congress party in opposition to the Muslim League, well before Independence, and have been repeatedly betrayed by it. He references books, articles, private conversations and letters (now made public) and popular perception to make the point that many Congressmen, including Patel, were staunch Hindus at heart and believed in the Hindu right to rule independent India with only token participation from others. Temperamentally, Nehru was too refined and anglicised to be a bigot, yet he could not stem the dominant tide of communalism within his own party. Naqvi asserts that even Gandhi allowed himself to be persuaded by Patel in keeping Muslims on the periphery of political power.
He quotes a letter Gandhi wrote to Nehru dissuading him from accommodating Abul Kalam Azad in his Cabinet because Patel was opposed to his candidature. Gandhi concluded his letter to Nehru by saying that, ‘It should not be difficult to name another Muslim for the Cabinet.’ Naqvi quotes this letter from Gandhi’s biography written by his personal secretary Pyarelal.
Azad, referred to as Maulana Azad, is revered by Indian Muslims as the tallest Muslim leader because of his erudition, several publications (including a newspaper) and long-standing political career. He was also the longest serving Congress president, with tenure from 1939 till 1945, interrupted by a three-year spell in Ahmednagar fort jail. Understandably, his diminution as a mere Muslim in Congress party must have come as a shock to those Muslims who chose him as their leader against Jinnah.
Naqvi writes: ‘Note Gandhiji’s tone in his letter to Nehru… Gandhiji is quite clear. All that Nehru needs to keep up the secular pretence is to have a token Muslim in his cabinet. How different is this from the one in vogue all the years since 1947?’
In the same chapter, Naqvi traces the partisan behaviour of the police during communal clashes in independent India to an incident during post-Partition riots in Delhi, where Muslims were being massacred. In an argument between Nehru and Patel about providing security to the Muslims, Gandhi supported Nehru, which piqued Patel who apparently said that, ‘He’, implying Gandhi, ‘seems determined to blacken the name of the Hindus before the world.’
Writes Naqvi: ‘To explain police inaction to protect Muslims, Patel put out a story that “deadly weapons” had been discovered in the Muslim quarters of Delhi… if the Hindus and Sikhs had not taken the first offensive, the Muslims would have destroyed them… As proof, Sardar Patel ordered arms recovered by the police from Karol Bagh and Sabzi Mandi to be brought to the Government House… The evidence was to be examined by Lord Mountbatten and the Union cabinet. Dozens of rusted kitchen knives, pocket knives, spikes and fences from old houses and cast iron water pipes were piled on a table. Mountbatten was amused at the exhibition. The Viceroy smiled and remarked that if they had really expected to take Delhi with pen knives then they had an incredible sense of military strategy…
‘Patel, it turns out, may well have established the pattern for the future. In all Hindu-Muslim conflicts, it would be put out that Muslims were well-armed… In cases of alleged terrorism and communal violence, ready-made evidence will be found heaped upon him (Muslim).’
Naqvi maintains this tenor throughout the book, narrating incidents from the perspective of betrayal of Muslim trust by the successive governments, including in Kashmir, where the state-supported pogrom changed the demographic profile of Jammu. In doing so, several reputations are demolished, not the least Sardar Patel, who incidentally has never been a favourite of Indian Muslims but a hero in the right-wing pantheon. The construction of the gigantic statue of Patel, called Statue of Unity (which apparently will be bigger than its obvious inspiration, the Statue of Liberty) off the coast of Gujarat by the BJP government reinforces these perceptions about Patel.
But all this is politics. And its role in the development or progress of a community, though important, is limited, as long as the Constitution provides for equal opportunities and fair-play. Fortunately, for Indian Muslims, the Constitution deals them a fair hand, it’s only at the level of execution that prejudice, and sometimes deep-seated hatred creeps in. And frankly, both of these sentiments have a somewhat complex antecedent.
Take the freedom struggle itself. Muslims took a long time to recover from the trauma of the first war of independence (1857). When the momentum for the freedom struggle started to build-up in the early decades of the 20th century, Muslims were not the most enthusiastic participants. Perhaps, they were still nursing the wounds of 1857. But perhaps, having been removed from political power after 1857, they feared further marginalisation at the hands of Hindus in independent India; after all, they had stolen the march over Muslims in both social and economic upward mobility. Moreover, many Hindus did feel that Muslims were outsiders in India.
This was one of the reasons why Hindu-Muslim political unity was an artificial construct and did not come about naturally or instinctively, despite economic interdependence. They came together under Gandhi’s leadership against a common enemy — the British. Once the common enemy was gone, old suspicions, prejudices and dislikes returned.
Another nuance here is that, while a large number of educated, professional Muslims felt that they would have better prospects in a Muslim-dominated country, and hence jumped on the Muslim League bandwagon; many of those who stayed back in India did so because they did not want to suffer the pain and uncertainty of relocation. Of course, there were many who were deeply attached to the land of their birth and couldn’t countenance leaving it. In those complex times, nothing could be described in absolute terms like patriotism or betrayal.
Coming to my earlier point, it is true that Muslims who stayed back especially in north India, were largely impoverished and illiterate — the landed gentry like Naqvi’s was a miniscule percentage —, but that they continue to be so after all these years points a finger at their own follies and not merely a series of political betrayals. Sure, Muslims are politically emasculated, but what stops them from empowering themselves educationally and socially? Instead of annual donations to a variety of madrassas and mosques, why have rich Muslims not created educational institutions? How much can political prejudice thwart such efforts?
The biggest bane of the Muslim community in India, especially in the Indo-Gangetic plains, is the firmly attached umbilical cord with the clergy, to such an extent that half-literate mullahs have the power to determine what Muslims should wear, study and do. I wish Naqvi had dwelled on this aspect of marginalisation of the Muslims with some depth. He writes about reforms in Hinduism, whereas he should have written with authority on what reforms were needed amongst the Muslims. Given his background and expertise, his voice would have really gone far.
Aleph Book Company