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NON-FICTION: THE LOST ETHOS OF INDIA

Updated Apr 21, 2017 08:01pm
Putting religious differences aside to engage in a game of cricket | Imgur
Putting religious differences aside to engage in a game of cricket | Imgur

Eminent Indian television and print journalist Saeed Naqvi’s book Being the Other: The Muslim in India is, in fact, two books rolled into one. The first, about the Ganga-Jamuni culture of Awadh, is a memoir of his days in Mustafabad, a qasba (larger than a village and smaller than a town), and Lucknow, once the capital of the princely state and, for the last century and a half, the capital of UP (United Provinces, now Uttar Pradesh).

The second is about the “otherising” of Muslims in India — a process that has its roots in the divide-and-rule policy practiced by the colonial powers, and which has gained strength in the last two decades or so.

First book first: When Naqvi began writing, the book was intended as a memoir and a description of the syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture to which he belonged. “Ours was a Muslim home. But the cultural derivatives of the Islam we lived were set against a broad Hindu civilisational framework. It was not something we talked about. It was something we lived,” he clarifies in the introduction. He quotes quite a few examples, including that of sohar (a song sung when a woman in the family is in the advanced stages of pregnancy). The opening line of a favourite sohar of the author’s mother was, “Allah mian hamray bhaiyya ka diyo Nandlal” [Oh, my Allah, bestow on my brother a son like Krishna].


A chronicle of an inclusive and syncretic culture that has slowly disappeared


Naqvi describes life in Mustafabad in absorbing detail — how the family assembled in the hometown during festivals, and how luscious mangoes added colour and flavour to the lives of people, irrespective of caste or creed. He laments the division of the family when many members crossed over to the other side of the newly created boundary as a result of Partition.

Urdu was the lingua franca of Awadh and enjoyed the same prestige as English does now. While discussing the importance of composite culture, Naqvi refers to Urdu, which was an unmistakable medium of expression in north India. He also highlights the contribution to Urdu literature made by poets and writers belonging to different faiths — for instance, one of the greatest Urdu poets of the preceding century, Raghupati Sahay Firaq Gorakhpuri, was Hindu. It was also the first language of no less a person than Jawaharlal Nehru. But come Partition and the strengthening of Hindutva, Urdu was dubbed the language of the Muslims. What Naqvi doesn’t mention was Pakistan’s adoption of Urdu as its national language, which gave the right-wing elements among Hindus in north India a trump card to use in their favour.

In the first part of the book the author explains the difference between Sunnis and Shias mainly for his non-Muslim readers, just as he highlights the creation of Brahmo Samaj in the second half. Most non-Hindu readers, particularly in our part of the subcontinent, would not know that this sect, that emerged in 1828, propagated the worshipping of one God, stressed the need for women’s education, and most importantly, the discontinuation of the tradition of sati (the self-immolation of wives after the death of their husbands). Then there were other reformist movements such as Prathna Samaj and Arya Samaj, to mention a few.

In the context of Partition, Naqvi maintains that it was not Muhammad Ali Jinnah who was responsible for the creation of the two states. Jinnah had been compelled to make that demand. Had Congress adopted a reconciliatory attitude, India would have remained one country, but that didn’t suit the likes of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and other Hindu communalists. As, according to Naqvi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee once said in an unguarded moment, Partition suited the Hindus for they had fewer Muslims to deal with. He was right, for Muslims in the two wings of Pakistan and in India would have today been close to 30 per cent of the population of united India, instead of being 13.4 per cent.

What intrigues Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s Muslim admirers — this reviewer included — is the question of why he accepted Partition. Had he listened to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s advice there would have been no division of the country. Azad had the foresight to realise that both major religious communities would benefit by remaining together.

However, Gandhi’s fair-mindedness and dedication to non-violence was beyond doubt. His decision to campaign against the rioting in Calcutta in 1947, in the company of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, saved the lives of thousands of people, more Muslims than Hindus. Also, his insistence that India should pay the share of Pakistan in cash and kind, which Nehru and Patel had refused to part with, was proof of Gandhi’s impartiality. Sadly, many communal-minded Hindus did not favour Gandhi’s stance and one of them pumped three bullets into the leader’s frail body.

Naqvi questions the Congress government’s decision to invade the princely state of Hyderabad and annexe Junagadh on the pretext of Muslims being fewer in number than Hindus. By the same token, he is convinced that there was no justification for India to hold on to Kashmir with its Muslim majority.

Naqvi is critical of terrorism, whether it emanates from a neighbouring country, in much the same way as he expresses his strong disapproval of state-sponsored terrorism.

The author has interviewed a large number of people, within and outside India, who played a major role in the world. His favourite is Nelson Mandela. He interviewed Benazir Bhutto twice, once when she had come with her father to Simla (now Shimla), where a peace agreement was signed by the top executives of Pakistan and India. Later, he met her when she was prime minister of Pakistan.

Excerpts from the text of his two-hour long interview with Bhaurao Deoras — “the most important ideologue of the RSS” — amply reflect the communal philosophy of the party. This was the time when the Babri mosque and Ram Mandir crisis was at its peak, but the demolition of the mosque had not taken place.

Naqvi also covers in detail a number of anti-Muslim riots and highlights the role of the police, who at best looked the other way when Muslims were being attacked and, at worst, took part in the violence. He had a narrow escape in Godhra when two rioters identified him as Muslim and “lunged” (his word, not mine) at him, but Rajiv Vohra of the Gandhi Peace Foundation and Brooke Unger of the The Economist, who were accompanying Naqvi, came to his rescue.

Naqvi is also critical of the Muslim clergy that often exploited the situation to tighten their grasp over the young men of the community. He writes in detail about the Congress government’s policy of appeasing Muslims, which proved counterproductive. The Shah Bano case, where the Supreme Court gave a landmark judgement in favour of a 62-year-old divorcee who had been denied maintenance by her ex-husband, is a convenient example. This annoyed conservative Muslims. Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi tried to placate the Muslim vote bank by restoring the Muslim Personal Law, angering the liberals among Muslims and Hindus alike.

In a meeting with Rajiv, Naqvi mentioned that what Muslims needed were jobs, education and entrepreneurial help, and not sheer appeasement.

There are some touching stories in the book as well. One of the most emotive scenes is when Naqvi was going to cover the war of 1971 in the Chhamb sector for The Statesman. Dressed in army uniform, he went to pay his respects to his nani ammi [maternal grandmother], who gave him two imam zamin [protective talisman] — one for him and one for her other grandson, Major Akhtar, who was in the Pakistan Army. She thought that during a break in the fighting, Naqvi would meet his cousin.

All said, one cannot over-emphasise the horrible fact that Partition brought in its wake hardships for minorities in both countries. In conclusion, this reviewer wonders if a Hindu in Pakistan would ever dare write a book on the plight of his community, and if he did, would a publisher in this country dare publish it?

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities

Being the Other: The Muslim in India
By Saeed Naqvi
Aleph Book Company, India
ISBN: 978-9384067229
239pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 16th, 2017