India's unofficial apartheid

BEING THE OTHER

The Muslim in India

Saeed Naqvi

Aleph

239 pages; Rs 599

At the height of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi asked an audience at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), equally divided between Hindus and Muslims, if any of the Hindus had visited a Muslim home and whether the Muslims had ever seen the insides of a Hindu abode. Not a single hand went up.

Hindus and Muslims have "lived in a state of uninstitutionalized apartheid for decades, even centuries," he writes in Being the Other: The Muslim in India, an engaging autobiography that explores the continuing marginalisation of Muslims in India in the post-partition years.

Elsewhere, Mr Naqvi points to how Sir Syed Ahmed Khan founded the AMU, in the late 19th century, as a campus only for the "Ashraf" or genteel elite - the Sayyids, Pathans and Shaikhs or converts from Hindu upper castes.

Below the Ashraf were Ajlaf, or the julahas (weavers), and Arzal, the menial class. To this day, the AMU claims minority-institution status and does not implement the reservation policy for scheduled castes, tribes and other backward classes.

Mr Naqvi's experience, therefore, is symptomatic of the ever-widening post-Partition divide between the upper castes of both Hindus and Muslims.

Mr Naqvi writes of innumerable examples of a composite Hindu-Muslim culture across India, which survives among non-upper caste communities of Hindus and Muslims, but has suffered among the upper castes with the decline of a shared Urdu culture of takalluf and poetry with the dominance of English.

For this, Mr Naqvi blames the post-partition policies of the "soft-Hindutva" Congress governments under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He acknowledges the British fuelled the Hindu-Muslim divide after the Uprising of 1857, but points out that Nehru, by not standing up to Hindu right wing elements within the Congress, and Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi's unabashed communalism contributed to the destruction of the Hindu-Muslim syncretism. One example, Mr Naqvi says, was Nehru's refusal to mark the centenary of 1857 - an example of Hindu-Muslim unity - possibly in deference to British sentiments.

Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar physically razed this Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb built over a millennia. He points to Atal Bihari Vajpayee's lesser- known speech on the eve of the razing of Babri Masjid where he appealed to kar sevaks to level the ground in Ayodhya.

The author cites the annexation of Awadh by the British, the Uprising of 1857, the partition and the abolition of zamindari as four events that broke the back of the Muslim gentry. He blames Nehru and Patel for being in a "hurry" to partition India because they didn't want to share power with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and knew that the Muslim League leader didn't have long to live.

Mr Naqvi says the two understood that they could outsmart Jinnah easily, particularly with the help of Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy. Nehru shared a sparkling rapport with Mountbatten and his wife Edwina, while Jinnah wasn't just cold to the man but refused to appoint him the first Governor General of Pakistan.

In his book India Wins Freedom, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad penned with brutal honesty the duplicity of his colleagues and how the Congress rule that replaced the Raj wasn't secular but "undiluted Hindu Raj".

The Maulana had left instructions that 30-odd pages of his book were to be made public after Nehru and he were dead. Mr Naqvi bemoans that these pages, when made public in 1988, invited motivated criticism but "did not inspire the extended debate, which [they] deserved". It is likely that neither would Mr Naqvi's book.

Mr Naqvi traces the genesis of several other contentious issues, including how the British effectively used cow slaughter to sow the seeds of Hindu-Muslim discord, the invasion of Hyderabad by Indian forces and also the mess that Nehru and Patel created with Kashmir.

The author says he views the Hindu-Muslim problem as a triangle: India-Pakistan, New Delhi-Srinagar, Hindu-Muslim being one set of issues and three sides to the triangle. "It is a law of triangles that if one line, or angle, is addressed, the other two will be correspondingly affected," he says, noting how Mr Vajpayee was receptive to his formulation and during his Lahore bus journey asked whether Mr Naqvi thought one line of the triangle has been addressed by the visit.

Mr Naqvi says the realisation that he was part of the 'other' came late in the day, in 1990, when Vinod Mehta, editor and his friend of 60 years beginning with school, asked him to write a column for his magazine from a "Muslim perspective". The author says he glared at Mehta but understood that if India "were to keep up the pretence of secularism, and equality, it needed the 'other', but such people were in short supply."

As for the future, Mr Naqvi isn't optimistic. The socio-economic condition of the common Muslim, as the Sachar Committee report highlighted, is pitiable. He says a poor Brahmin because of his caste network could still feel secure. The continuing churning among caste groups will help them find new levels of empowerment. Mr Naqvi says the Muslim is likely to be kept below the churning by his clerical leadership, which strikes bargains with the political class and keeps the community mired in religion.

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