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The identity question

May 08, 2013
— 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.