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The identity question


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— Book cover
— Book cover

AT a time when secular-thinking liberal Pakistanis are under attack from the Taliban, reading Azadi’s Daughter by Seema Mustafa (no relative) proved to be a thought-provoking exercise for me.

Sub-titled Journey of a Liberal Muslim — that is how the author describes herself — the book resonated with me powerfully although India and Pakistan are believed to be worlds apart politically, socially and culturally.

But are they? Fahmida Riaz created quite an uproar in New Delhi when she categorically pronounced a few years ago, “Tum bilkul hum jaisey nikley/ Ab tak kahan chupay thay bhai”. (You turned out to be just like us/ Where were you all along, brother?)

Yet there are some basic differences between the two countries which emerge from Seema Mustafa’s book. Indians have to thank their post-Partition leadership for bequeathing them the secular democracy that has given strength to their system. What is worrisome is the poison of religious fundamentalism encouraged by communalist parties that is seeping into society threatening the country’s secular existence. What implications does this have?

In simple words it means that India may have a Muslim president, a Sikh prime minister and a Dalit chief justice but the liberal-minded social activist, Shabana Azmi, may not be able to rent a house of her choice in Mumbai.

Born in a progressive, liberal and nationalist Muslim family that was involved in politics as a Congress supporter, Mustafa received an enlightened upbringing which allowed her to preserve her multi-layered identity.

Thus she can throw herself into Lucknow’s syncretic culture and at the same time adopt all the modern values that allowed her grandmother, a renowned freedom fighter, and her mother, the first Muslim woman to work as a subeditor in the National Herald, to live a life not limited by conservative interpretations of Islam.

Seema Mustafa is a journalist who reported on many controversial issues such as the Shahbano issue, communal riots, the Kargil war and the Indo-US nuclear deal. She also dabbled in politics.

One would have thought that a country that allows such freedom to a Muslim woman would be a model for a society and state that is tolerant and non-communal. But from Mustafa’s own observation it emerges that the large Muslim community in India has received a harsh deal not just from the communalists but also the police.

This has been testified by the Justice Rajinder Sachar Commission’s report which in Mustafa’s words “placed the socio-economic status of Muslims at par, or below, that of Dalits”. Things have not improved as the Sachar recommendations have not been implemented.

What lessons do we as Pakistanis learn from Azadi’s Daughter? Retrogressive thinking is equally dangerous wherever it may be, especially when it taints the organs of the state. But if constitutionally the state dispenses justice and is evenhanded, there is room for hope and struggle.

The Muslims in India who have suffered at the hands of the communalists have at least been able to fight back when seeking redress with the support of a large section of civil society that is progressive, tolerant and enlightened.

This has been possible because the state is constitutionally secular. That has encouraged a large majority of the Muslim youth to shun exclusiveness and strive to be in the mainstream. It has conclusively rejected the mullahs who are not seen as saviours. The Muslim vote goes to the party that is regarded as being favourable to Muslim interests.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in Pakistan where the establishment has been notorious for pandering to the mullah elements and nursing a soft corner for the extremists. Who suffers? The moderate, progressive Muslims.

The second point to be noted is that a person’s identity is also determined by his class. Identity is a matter of a person’s own consciousness — that is, how one feels about oneself — but social class also determines the mindset and worldview of a person.

In fact, class can at times overshadow all other determinants. Mustafa is scathing in her attack against the privileged Indian Muslims — whether they are political leaders or are the “elite, well-educated and part of the well-oiled ‘establishment’ that constitutes the ‘system’. They are well-connected with parents in top positions, and quite distanced from … the Muslim masses”.

According to her this elite has appropriated the spoils of Partition disproportionately. One may add that in this case the religious identity has been overtaken by the class identity. As for the MPs, they have not used their power to better the lot of the Muslims.

Hence the Muslim youth are fighting back as they try to break the economic barriers. This is a positive development. Sensitive individuals and organisations are helping out by offering new opportunities of education and training to empower the Muslim youth. Here the efforts are directed at overcoming the class identity by extending a helping hand that should ensure upward mobility for many.

In Pakistan the socio-economic identity barriers that have been erected appear to be insurmountable. Poverty can be lethal when combined with features such as adherence to a minority faith, speaking a language that is not spoken by the elite and being a member of the weaker gender. Worse still, even within religion the sectarian divide has splintered society. The light at the end of the tunnel that Mustafa sees in India will be a long time in coming to Pakistan.

Comments (24) Closed

shiv May 09, 2013 05:32am
seriously, is lahore shining?
Anidesh, Mumbai May 09, 2013 05:14am
@Javaid Bashir Brother, You say here that your nation is protecting rights minority Hindus But as many of them escaped to India during past 65 years even recently too. At the same time the Muslims in India never prefer to go to Pakistan. Even after the so called hatred , communalism and human rights violation by Indian majority as mentioned by you , they still find India as the far better place for them
Mian Shahid Mehmood (@MianShahidasj) May 08, 2013 04:54am
Both the societies and governments (India & Pakistan) are hostage to their respective religious elements/extremists.
Javaid Bashir May 08, 2013 05:01am
Zubida Mustafa has written a well thought out article about identity question in context of Indian secular , democratic society after the partition. the muslim elite has amassed wealth due to their status and position. They are part of the Indian establishment and well connected. They benefit from their onnections , and has better Socio - economic strength. She has made comparison of class conciousness of the Muslim youth in both thre society. India has repead benefits from its secular philosophy practiced in the society. Here she goes wrong, because this secular propaganda is all hog wash. THe religious asnd communal riots indicate the false hood of secular state stance and approach to problems. It is a vicios circle of mullah orientation and religious divide. We must refrain from such rhetoric and not fall in this trap of secular nature of Indian ssociety. Infact we should beware of its true nature based on Hindu hatred of Muslims. The communal riots that kill hundreds on a given day are best evidence of my position with regard to so called Indian Secularism. Pakistan is a declared Muslim State, but the minorities right are protected under the constitution. Although we do not wear secular thinking on our sleeves , yet we are practicing Secular State in true sense of the word. Indian record of Human rights violations is worst in the world, and puts the Society to shame. In comparison our record if not glorious is not bad at all. we are facing worst kind of terrorism , yet we have not become hate mongers or intolerant as a society. . We must shun the communal hatred, and recent genocide of Shia and Hazara communities. The religious instigated violence must be wiped out. We must stand against mullaism prevalent in our society It has caused severe and specific consequences to communities and masses in general. If we take out the religios propaganda out of the equation we can eliminate the hatred among the communities. JAVAID BASHIR LAHORE
MKK34 May 08, 2013 05:57am
There is hope. Many realize that killings intolerance and other bad things associated with Faith, mean searching other paths. And one of them is liberal and secular. That is good news
moderate landya May 08, 2013 06:19am
There is no such thing as moderate muslims....hahaha joker
BRR May 09, 2013 02:30am
Yes it is all propaganda in India, there is no secularism, and true secularism can ONLY be found in Pakistan, where people live according to their religion, are very peaceful, and are kind to minorities, who are all very thankful to the majority for all the great benefits of living in an Islamic society.
SBB May 09, 2013 02:28am
Dear Zubaida, long before Shabana Azmi had trouble renting an apartment in Bombay, there were at least 12-15 parts of Bombay where no non-Muslim count rent an apartment. Secondly, I have news for you - people who are in a position to rent an apartment can choose who they want as a tenant. This is true in all countries of the world, not just India or Pakistan. And finally, Shabana Azmi has a lifestyle that only about 10,000 Indians can afford. She is in the top 0.0001% of the population. Let's not cry over her ability to afford rent (which is a bogus story) because she owns more houses and wealth than *all* your readers. I grew up in a middle class family in Bombay - Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, and even a Jewish family made our building their home.
Human May 08, 2013 08:31am
But India is saved by "light at the end of the tunnel" i.e. a secular constitution. Justice delayed but not used to punish whole communities as no such blasphemy law that encites mobs to burn down houses. Try to see the deeper thought Zubeida tried to push & is very much missing in Pakistan as a society which is TOLERANCE.
Zahid May 09, 2013 02:19am
An improved economy certainly helps in maintaining communal harmony and this is being seen in India over the last decade.Young people are more interested in their economic progress than getting distracted by the communal parties. The constitutional securalism despite its faults still helps Muslims in India unlike the blasphemy law in Pakistan which puts all its minorities at grave risk, as evident over the last few years.
Subhash May 08, 2013 09:19am
Shabana Azami not getting a house of her choice should not be considered as religious discrimination.It is part of Indian ethos, Indian chaos or Indian caste system. There are housing societies specific to a community in Mumbai and persons outside the community are not allowed. For example Malyalis only society will not allow non-Malyalis. Jain Marwarhis will not allow non-veg, onion eating non-Jain in their society. What is important is tolerance of this non-tolerance or non-sense if you may call it.
Ann May 08, 2013 12:00pm
Why is an Indian Muslim's condition a concern for Pakistan? Mind your own business!!! Pakistan was not created for Muslims of the subcontinent but for those Muslims who wanted it. Better mind the conditions of Muslims in your own country.
Chaman May 08, 2013 12:28pm
Not true my friends. There are lots if them around if you try to mix and mingle without any preconceived notions. I have found free thinking and close minded people in every place and every religion.
Krish Chennai May 08, 2013 12:32pm
Shabana Azmi has tremendous respect from almost all Indians, both as an actress and as a human being. With regard to her father Kaifi Azmi, he made no bones about being a Communist, like other leading Muslims of the subcontinent, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas and even Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and others. Shabana herself faced criticism when following 9/11 events, she spoke about wrong interpretation of Islam, and the Shahi Imam of Juma Masjid came on TV referring to her as a "naachne-gaane waali tawaiif" ( dancing-singing nautch girl ) to a huge uproar from the public across all sections.
Baighairat Kafir May 09, 2013 04:03pm
'Moderates Muslims' are those who aren't Taliban or Al-Qaeda directly (too coward to do that), but support them financially and morally.
sumit May 08, 2013 03:07pm
What nonsense! Just because something ``has existed'' does not mean we have to be for it. Should we accept the caste system as a part of ``Indian ethos'' and let it continue foreever? I am stunned by the large number of thumbs up - are Indians so nationalistic?
sumit May 08, 2013 03:09pm
No. This is because a significant fraction of the under 50 urban population in India have ceased to identify themselves by their religion for many years now. From this and other Pakistani newspapers this does not seem to be true for Pakistanis.
Sridhar May 08, 2013 06:51pm
Wake up! Equating does not make problems disappear in the country that has more problems. Religious extremism is not equally virulent in India and Pakistan. Such statements are merely delusional. It is like saying poverty is a problem everywhere: in Pakistan, India and the United States. The poor person in the US is much more secure and well provided than his counter part the Indian sub-continent. We need to recognize and act on it.
Shri May 08, 2013 08:03pm
I read a lot written on Indo-US nuclear deal by Seema Mustafa in the Asian age and some other papers and it became imminent to me that Seema is not capable of analyznig any issue in an unbiased way. She was opposed to the deal giving the same reasons as those given by the disgruntled Leftists in India. Muslims have to understand that the meaning of secularism is nt having a second government of convenience. It is a pity that Muslim masses have used their votes in such a way that the democracy has nothing to do with development. They are so easily swayed by clerics. These are Indian Muslims who are responsible for playing a significant role in keeping the corrupt and inefficient in power. They prefer medressahs to modern education. They have established states within states. They want a separate set of laws for them, and oppose common civil law even though there is nothing that is against their religion. How there could be harmony when Muslim masses want to be governed by Sharia law in a secular country and put their religion ahead of country ? Hindus have every reason to be concerned about how secularism and freedom granted under India's constitution are being misused to establish small states within state and their relationship is determined by mullahs. India's secularism is not under threat from Hindu communalists, but Muslim masses.
Ramana May 08, 2013 09:13pm
The writer
Satyameva Jayate May 09, 2013 07:04am
Ms. Azmi's inability to rent a place has nothing to do with the subject under discussion. Nearly none of the VEGETARIAN landlords and neighbours would like to have a tenant that cooks or kills animals on the premises.
Sandipan May 09, 2013 07:42am
you are full of contradiction Mr. Javaid. First set your thoughts straight.
Sue Sturgess May 09, 2013 08:50am
Every country has its choices to make, and must pay the price accordingly
Gary May 09, 2013 10:10pm
It's debatable if they have been left behind or fallen behind... There is a strong relationship between poverty, education, and gender inequality...