Saeed Naqvi’s lament for the treatment of the Muslim as an inferior class of citizen is both misplaced and simplistic.
BY ROHIT HANDA
saeed Naqvi’s Being the Other: The Muslim in India, (Aleph, 2016) is both a hot potato and a fragrant mango. Perhaps this should be the other way around: a fragrant mango and a hot potato. In the Introduction the veteran journalist and commentator says he had:
“Intended this book to be memoir. However, in its final form, a part of it is a procession of images, ‘scratches on the mind’. The rest comprises my observations and eye witness accounts of various seminal events in contemporary Indian history that have a bearing on Muslims. Being the Other is also a lament for the vanished syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture, especially in that crucible of tolerance, the qasbah of Mustafabad, near Lucknow, where I grew up.”
The lament is the fragrant, fully ripe, langda mango. The outcome is the uprooting of its tree that, though laden with fruit, prevented it from reaching more people. The descriptions of a childhood in a rural haveli redolent of the continuing culture of Wajid Ali Shah’s court in Lucknow are sensuous and touching. Though the nawab was deposed by the British in 1856 as they held him to be debauched (“he took advantage of the Shia Law of Muta to marry an astonishing 359 times”) and decadent (he even used itar himself!), the pride the leftovers and descendants of the era’s gentry took in Urdu and its poetry, the jingle of payal and Kathak, Hindustani music and korma is part of the 75-year-old writer’s cultural heritage despite his shift to suit-boot ‘angreziat’ after the financial stringency that followed the abolition of zamindari in the 1950s. English is, for him and others of his vanishing breed, merely a means to a livelihood; the dwindling world of Urdu is what he continues to prize above all. It is an attitude he shares perhaps with the faded aristocracy of Europe, which declined as a result of wars and revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries or, for that matter, the concerns of present-day Europeans at the spread of American culture.
The potato starts to heat up on Independence Day, 1947 and its super-heated skin breaks on December 6, 1992—when a mob demolishes Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid. With this act, it seems the secular Constitution unravelled for the Indian Muslim as a fraud concealed in the garb of Western liberalism to hoodwink him in the first half of the 20th century and look to the Indian National Congress as his protector and political arm.
Naqvi believes they reposed faith in Jawaharlal Nehru, whom he lambasts, till his dying day and in the Congress after him though its leadership demonstrated time and again that promises about the equality of those who followed different faiths were hollow and superficial. It was a deception intended to consolidate the Muslims into a vote bank.
Nehru’s assurances could not obscure the nature of the majority’s project—a Hindu India with second-class status for others, especially the largest minority, Muslims. There were indications of this alienation earlier, but Babri Masjid forced them to look at themselves as the Other “which comprises 14 per cent of the total population [and] has come to be seen as something exotic, backward, uncivilised, even dangerous.”
The Other is the kind of book that requires the reviewer to declare his cards not so much about how his heart beats on the Hindu-Muslim question as it stands today, but also on how his upbringing circumscribes his views on the class of taluqdars and zamindars or, to put it condescendingly, minor rent seekers Naqvi belonged to. He says:
“We were not maharajas, nawabs, taluqdars, not even big landlords. The key characteristic of our family was being genteel rather than grand, more musical low-key than wealthy and entitled. There were no swimming pools, polo or tennis in our lives. Nor did we possess what had been made fashionable in the cantonments, civil lines and the gymkhanas as hallmarks of the colonial high life.”
What did this culture comprise? Obviously, an awareness of origins. Like many upper class UP Muslims the Naqvis came from Afghanistan. The author traced his history to Gardez.
“I was driven to Gardez in search of my roots. This was thanks to Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai… en route our convoy came under fire from Pacha Khan a warlord opposed to Karzai… How did my ancestors make the journey via Gardez and Multan, to Mustafabad?”
He traces the journey through the history of the Delhi Sultanate established by Iltutmish in 1211 to which the panicked Shia Sayyids immigrated with the advance of the Mongols under Genghis Khan and thence to the Indo-Gangetic plain where they settled in qasbahs as:
“The dominant residents [who] were not folksy or rustic; they were genteel. We described ourselves as ‘qasbati shurafa’ or country gentlemen.” This might well be the writing of an Aryan nomad who settled on the Saraswati River. Then there is the second strain of the upbringing: the consciousness of being Shia-Sayyid Muslims, descendants of the Prophet and, though a minority, superior to the Sunnis:
“Like all settlements Mustafabad too needed barbers, bakar qasabs (butchers)…dhobis… the majority of them were weavers… These were Sunnis. There clearly was a system outside the Shia/Sayyid nobility where conversions were effected.”
This passage shows the (almost Brahminical) importance attached to being of pure émigré Central Asian blood and original believers rather than converts from lower Hindu orders. To underscore the point a connection is also made with Iran and:
“The Shah of Iran whose title was Arya Mehr or Light of the Aryan. With this kind of distinction between various sects of Muslims, is it any wonder that the divisions between the hierarchies of Muslim society were as rigid as those in the Hindu caste system. The Ashrafs were the well bred elite. Below them were the Ajlaf or julah (weavers) and arzal, the menial class. The status of the Sayyids was similar to Brahmins among Hindus.”
One must note that having slotted himself in the topmost drawer of the hierarchy, Naqvi turns to the place his clan occupied in the syncretic culture of British India. Here Wajid Ali Shah, that engaging character of the mid-19th century, enters the scene again: to him are owed the music, dance, poetry that continued in:
“The weekly or monthly appearance of marasan (professional singers)—Kalvi or Aseemun with their respective harmoniums, tabla and dholak accompanists. Aseemun, in fact, was an inexhaustible source of musical forms, particularly those popular in the Sufi gharanas… There was a subculture of songstresses like Aseemun who had been trained in the Malhar gharana by Baba Allauddin Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s father…” The Baba was also Ravi Shankar’s guru.
These are awe inspiring names in Hindustani music and it was a sign of the decline of the feudal order that instead of being attached to:
“A particular house, [Aseemun] had become something of a freelancer during the years soon after Independence… It was mandatory for everyone in the family to be in Mustafabad for the ten days of Muharram, to remember the Battle of Karbala and Imam Hussain’s martyrdom. We were also required to assemble for the mango season during the summer holidays.”
Some readers may be familiar with the three tapes, perhaps later transferred to CD, on the appreciation of Hindustani music that Naqvi recorded for India Today. They are a signal contribution to the understanding of music forms, ragas, bandish, etc. I must confess I was a dilettante in the world of music before I heard and absorbed this commentary. So much so that after some time I was able to graduate to Carnatic music–and in time place it above the former!
At this point a reader like me would be led to make a comparison with his own bringing up in the years before Partition. Ours was the household of a senior official of the Indian Service of Engineers. From an early age we were made aware that we were the children of an officer and expected to behave correctly.
Till I was, say, 8, we lived in district towns. They bear no resemblance to the monstrosities of today. There was little company and no schools. When about six or seven the “master” who taught my elder brother added me to his class. He taught me all a child of that age was expected to learn: Some English, maths in which paharas (tables) were learnt in Punjabi but sums done in English, Urdu. Often tutorials were given under the shade of a tree. In addition, my father, a Sanskrit scholar, was keen for the children to learn that classical language.
He read to us from the Gita and Hitopadesha at dawn. As khatri we were at the top of the caste echelon in Punjab. We were also made aware, and proud, of being Aryans. In those days the European theory of migration from Central Asia was accepted. Though the Baman (Brahmins) were also of the same race, they came lower down as they possessed no practical knowledge to earn a modern livelihood. To progressive Punjabis mantras did not matter, treated as a bit of a leftover from an earlier social order replaced by the emergence of professions.
Being at the top meant accepting certain responsibilities, like setting an example for righteous living: getting up prata (the crack of dawn), the rest of the day and life in general was about hard work and scholastic achievement. No ayashi like entertainment was thought of even if it existed. My mother did play Jutika Roy’s and Kanan Devi’s songs on a 78 RPM HMV gramophone.
All in all we were governed by a kind of moderate austerity and the pleasures of childhood were at first limited to playing marbles, seven tiles and other outdoor games with the servants’ children. Occasionally we would be taken for a drive. My father built a runway in Gujranwala. I remember the thrill when he drove at full throttle in our Oldsmobile on completion. It is a minor irony that it was used by the Pakistani Air Force to bomb Halwara while I was there covering the 1965 Indo-Pak War.
My father was transferred every three years and by the time I was ten I had lived in the spacious compounds of civil lines and canal colony bungalows in Daud Khel, close to where the Kabul River joins the Indus, in the newly settled formerly arid district of Lyallpur (now Faisalabad), Gujranwala and Punjab’s capital, Lahore. Once there we moved with the government to Simla (now Shimla) in the summer to various houses on Jakhu Hill and walked to school a thousand feet downhill to learn, among other subjects, Latin at St. Edwards. There were no compounds and this gave children a huge sense of freedom. One could disappear in twos and more into the deodars, wary only of monkeys that travelled in tribes.
The partition left our family not so much hurt as dazed.
Sometime in 1948 my father was transferred. In this manner we were allowed to strike no roots. For me personally not till I went to a boarding school for six years at age 10. Life in uniform allowed for no prejudice. A boy from Hardwar nicknamed ‘Panda’ Vashisht was no different from Rafiuddin Ahmed.
My father’s generation looked on landlords and zamindars as decadent and native. They spoke no English, never went to college, had no modern profession. Pan-chewing, spittle-ejecting, red-stained-teeth-exhibiting losers whose doom, as Marx had ordained, was imminent. My childhood and teens were spent facing not decay but in contact with the building of the “new temples of modern India”, as Nehru put it while describing the Bhakra Dam.
There was the élan of living in large bungalows where my mother, an avid gardener, grew long rows of sweet peas in winter and beds of Easter lilies in spring. These several acres estates mostly had a small private orchard planted by earlier occupants, that yielded malta (a variety of orange) in winter and mango in summer. A tree I remember with nostalgia grew just outside the kitchen block in 1, Canal Colony, Amritsar, a tapka mango that yielded enough fruit to fill a bucket of iced water almost daily through the later part of the mango season. To my mind nothing can touch the tapka.
So while Naqvi’s childhood world and mine meet around the syncretic theme about the mango, it also parts with his assertion about the langda from his home being the best in world. I can’t quite agree! That is India for you! Obviously, we were brought up differently!
Even if the issue of one’s favourite mango may never be settled, Naqvi could have used this opportunity to settle two other issues. The first is about the commonality of race between Ashraf Muslims and higher caste Hindus and the second about the manner in which the interpretation of history causes friction between the two communities.
The author has traced his ancestry to Afghanistan in the 13th century and the Aryans further back in time. I too have recounted how in my childhood the Aryan theme was predominant among Punjabis. In the Mahabharata, Gandhari and her brother Sakuni were from the household that ruled what is now known as Kandhahar. Mahmud Ghaznavi, who started all the trouble and not only with the sack of Somnath in 1025 CE, came from this region as did Mohammad Ghori about two centuries later, taking Delhi in 1193 CE. A person of Naqvi’s sophistication could have dwelt on this aspect of commonality of DNA between Hindu Aryans and the kith, kin and descendants of Muslim “invaders”and immigrants—like himself.
The rub lies in an incident in which a Greek professor of classical times and the epics held forth on the now fashionable revision of the Aryan invasion theory by emphasising that there was no such thing [also the line taken by RSS ideologue Bahurao Deoras as a device to unify all castes in his interview with Naqvi (p. 105) after the Babri Masjid had been brought down].
I asked the professor if he agreed that among the warring sides in the Gita the princes of kingdoms in today’s Afghanistan were belligerents. After all, they thought of themselves as Aryans who had spread up to Indraprastha, modern day Delhi. When he agreed, I asked whether they could be considered invaders. And if not, why would Ghazni and Ghori be so labelled?
The professor was flummoxed. Sensing his uneasiness with this line of questioning, the chair, a person with Hindutva leanings, came to the rescue with the forthright opinion that the latter were invaders because they were of a different faith and the former were not because they were the people of the Hindu epic!
Thus, syncretism needs to be updated and placed in the larger perspective of modern anthropology, archaeology and genetics. Naqvi seems stuck in time and a narrower groove than one would expect.
Just how the issue of who among those who crossed the Khyber Pass were invaders and who were not is something people like the author ought to have raised with the Hindutva element that is so influential at present. The resolution of this hang-up may soften many of the communal differences that rage in the country.
The second issue is the misinterpretation of the political map of the subcontinent as it evolved from the Puranas. Could the subcontinent then, or in the Ramayana, or in the 12th century, be termed India? The name owes its origins to the Greeks and they applied it only to those areas they conquered, i.e. the land of the Indus river system, from which the name derived. Yet Naqvi writes as follows without comment:
“At the time that Pope Urban II ordered the first crusade in 1095, the temple of Somnath in Gujarat was under attack from Mahmud of Ghazni (he actually sacked the temple in 1025.) No desecration of a temple by a Muslim invader has left such a scar on the Hindu psyche… H. M. Elliot and J. Dowson’s History of India records the event almost as a call for revenge: When the Sultan … went to wage religious war against India, he made great efforts to capture and destroy Somnath …The Indians made a desperate resistance … The number of slain exceeded 50,000.”
Such writing distorts the facts. Instead of accepting the term “Indians” one would expect a person of Naqvi’s erudition to correct such mistakes by rephrasing it as “When the Sultan went to wage religious war against the Solanki kingdom in coastal Kathiawar, now Gujarat”, the emotive element would be replaced by the factual situation of a subcontinent with hundreds of kingdoms many of which, like Ujjain, Gwalior, Kalinga, Kannauj, Delhi and Ajmer Mahmud had faced and defeated as a confederacy as well as others in Punjab that he vanquished singly.
Mahmud was a force in the north-west of the subcontinent for nearly a quarter of a century before the sack of Somnath on his 16th expedition. No one gets emotive about the defeat of, say, Gwalior or Ujjain. There is a lesson to be learnt in this respect from European history. No one says the Moors invaded Europe in the 8th century.
“The Spanish occupation by the Moors began in 711 AD when an African army, under their leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa and invaded the Iberian peninsula ‘Andalus’ (Spain under the Visigoths).”’ No one’s blood boils and no European seeks revenge for the rape of Europe. There was no Spain, nationalism and certainly no Europe as we know it today.
Thus writers and scholars such as Naqvi owe it to their craft to get their narrative right, especially as they are passionately involved in maintaining and promoting our secular democracy. The name India, the political territory, applied to the whole of British India, including the princely states, from 1858 to 1947 and thereafter to the leftover part after Partition: to Bharat that is India as stated in the Constitution. The only time (British) India was invaded was when the Japanese reached Kohima in Nagaland towards the end of the Second World War.
But to go back to what makes Muslims today feel like the Other and induce others to see them as dangerous. There was and remains a persistent tension between that part of the population that follows the Quran and the earlier immigrants, the part that claims its descent from the prehistoric Aryan horde that recited the Vedas. The contention arises from what is popularly conceived as a fundamental difference: street-level perceptions that Islam is uncompromising. It follows the book. No deviation is permitted. Its followers must conform not only to its beliefs but also to rules of dress, food, even personal appearance. Each Muslim owes a duty to convert non-believers till the last person on Earth becomes a follower. Hence jihad, if that is what is required to achieve this end. Seeing the situation in Pakistan and the Middle East, it is the danger of Indian Muslims being infected by savagery that makes for this apprehension. And history, as Naqvi honestly notes, doesn’t help. Especially pop history.
There are civic issues as well. A leading Muslim philanthropist, Ahmad Rashid Shervani, scion of the eponymous politically eminent Allahabad family and managing trustee of Bharat Sewa Trust, which has schemes for improving educational standards particularly among Muslims, to whom I sent a draft of this piece wrote back to say:
“Moreover, if they [the Muslims] are disliked, should they NOT see (NOT EVEN TRY TO SEE) why? At 5 a.m., loudspeakers blare azaan and full namaaz with long dua from a dozen mosques. Is this the way to get loved by all?” There is certainly a lack of introspection in Naqvi’s work.
Hinduism (if there is any such single church) on the other hand is seen as cogitative, debating, accommodative of the better argument and accepts change without violence. So if a new raga in which the amalgam of two different tenets of belief was sung in Awadh, it had to accept and fold into the earlier syncretic tradition that bound the various sects and offshoots of Vedic and aboriginal beliefs. The addition of dark-skinned Shiva to the Hindu pantheon is the prime example. Thus the author’s mother’s favourite Sohar was:
Allah mian hamray bhaiyya ka diyo Nandlal.
(Oh my Allah, bestow on my brother a son like Lord Krishna)
Those of us who have known Naqvi for very long may say that the mannat has to some extent been fulfilled, though for herself!
Some observations come to mind from the remaining five chapters. These are accounts of events: “Partition’s Long Shadow”, “The Lessons of Meenakshipuram”, “The Breaking of Babri Masjid”, “Unholy Riots”, “A Procession of Prime Ministers”, “The Making of the Kashmir Problem”, “Global Error: The War on Terror” and an Epilogue.
Most of this reporting, though engaging, is old hat. “Partition’s Long Shadow” deals again with the question of who was responsible for accepting it in such a hurry. On the conversions of 588 Dalit inhabitants in Meenakshipuram to Islam he notes that “the Hindu anxiety, according to people like Vajpayee, has been singular: his tribe can always be denuded but not augmented. This is because a Hindu will always belong to the caste in which he was born.”
He forgets the Arya Samaj and ‘ghar wapsi’, Hindutva’s riposte to Islam’s ingress. But the issue as stated does make one wonder what caste those who go back would be placed in. Would even the ashraf be taken into the Brahmin fold? Where would the julaha fit in? Why should he accept SC status? The breaking of Babri Masjid is again a replay of the so-called Hindu right wing’s conspiracy and Congress’ complicity.
I watched this event on television. My first reaction was not that some “badla” had been achieved or peace disturbed but that criminal action should be taken because a monument protected by the Archaeological Survey of India had been damaged. Perhaps this thoroughly babu approach was the result of my background.
The next two chapters are worth reading for style and emphasis even though his account has nothing fresh. “The Making of the Kashmir Problem” is interesting insofar as it begins and ends with the editorial written by Ian Stephen, editor of The Statesman, on October 28, 1947, that advised Junagadh and Hyderabad to join the Indian dominion and Kashmir to go to Pakistan. Though many people may agree with that view, matters have gone too far and it seems a little impractical to stick to that advice today.
Thus Naqvi concludes that: “Given this reality, it will be very difficult to find a happy ending to the tragedy of Kashmir. Nevertheless we have no option but to try.”
To end, I will quote one passage from the Epilogue:
“A country emerging from layers of feudalism had necessarily developed a system of networks. For a time caste networks ruled. Everyone was affected… That powerful network began to collapse as a huge churning overtook Indian society that will continue well into the twenty-first century. Groups and castes will find new levels.
“But given the socioeconomic conditions of the Muslim, as spelt out by the Sachar Committee, he is likely to be kept below the churning by his political class which strikes bargains with the powers and keeps the community mired in religion in enclaves distant from modernity.”
I got evidence of this truth when I visited Hyderabad in January. After the collapse of the Mughal dynasty, two centres of Mohammedan culture emerged: Lucknow as Shia and Hyderabad as Sunni. The first was uprooted by Lord Dalhousie in 1856 but Hyderabad survived as the “oldest ally of the British” till the police action ordered by Vallabhai Patel in 1948 ended the Nizam’s rule in the wake of the Razakar insurgency and imposed a military governor.
It remains a bastion of syncretic culture in the south. Curiously, it is also the stronghold of that diehard champion of Islamic conservatism, Asaduddin Owasi, three-time MP from Hyderabad and his brother Akbaruddin. Did Muslims of the Deccan also feel they were the Other?
According to long-time residents, the number of people showing their identity by wearing burqas and skullcaps has increased many-fold from the days of the Nizam. When I was a child few Muslim women who came into contact with the modern world wore burqas. Men did not wear skullcaps and only some high class Muslim men wore a red Fez, perhaps also as a mark of protest against British rule. They looked oddly distinguished caricatures.
However, I was pleased to find some Muslims, including women, who verged on atheism, part of the idiom across the youth of today. Most Muslims seemed to hold mullahs in contempt and as a hurdle to progress. There were controversies not only over triple talaq but, hidden from public view, also on such matters as the place and treatment of wet nurses (doodh ma).
Islamic law make it a person’s duty to look after the doodh ma and her family. But what if a child had more than one, or if she fed him only for a short time? There is also debate about whether a man can force his slave girls to have sex with him. Even though none exist today, the diehard say laws are forever, so what if slavery makes a comeback?
The most heartening conversations centred on the lack of education among Muslims. In his paper “SO BAD AS ALL THAT?” Shervani writes that in Delhi in the 1970s 1.7 per cent of a total of 70,000 Muslim children appeared for the Class X board. The proportion of Muslims in Delhi was 8.5 per cent.
“The present position roughly may be that out of all students appearing for the matriculation board examination in north India, about 2.5 per cent are Muslims. According to their proportion in population (now about 14 per cent) they are still five to six times behind others at this crucial level. His research shows that Muslims are 500-600 per cent behind other Indians at the Class X level. This gap increases to 1,000 per cent beyond Class XII.” No comment required.
Naqvi fails to see or wilfully ignores the point that if Muslim children, especially boys, are uneducated they cannot qualify for government jobs. Accusations of deception by Hindus and the secular system are meaningless if the fault lies with the minority community. Girls are now better educated and qualifying for white collar jobs. Boys are taken on as apprentices of artisans and earn a decent living but that does not seem to add to their prestige.
In Hyderabad, among those who emerged from the shadow of the Charminar there were new expectations and therefore new uncertainties. Of the future, especially those who had come into modern education; of the kind of jobs they would get or held, their place in the world, etc. Among others there was no holding back on expressions of pan-Islam sentiment.
Surely, as the Hindu diaspora in the US comes into prominence, there will be pan-Hindu expression as well. Curiously, as far as religions that originated in Palestine and the Middle East are concerned, there was a greater manifestation of Christianity. The number of churches that have come up all over Andhra Pradesh far exceeds mosques.
With Hindus also wearing marks of their identities (e.g. tilak), Otherness is not limited to Muslims. Perhaps the following quote sums up the dilemma those of us with no sectarian leanings face:
“I have had an eventful life, rich with experiences gleaned from this country and a hundred other countries. In that sense I am the ‘other’. I was fortunate in that the liberal secular outlook gifted to me by my environment turned out to my advantage… I have never had the experience of tens of millions of Muslims in this country of being treated with suspicion and disfavour because of my faith.”
It is the gift of education that it allows one to look upon the principles of human behaviour though the message of the French Revolution: Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
Most people in India are the Other within the other. These differences are implicit in a multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-religious society. I find this stimulating. And if this stimulation were lacking, a book like Being the Other could not have been written. It is a complex work, well worth the attention of those who hope to see this complex society flower into the kind of artistic expression so vividly contained in our culture. And the syncretism of Naqvi’s Awadhi upbringing and my own syncretic amalgam with the Indo-British strain can meet over rationalism and take life a step beyond art by adding science to it.
Being The Other is a romance gone sour. It comes across as something written by a person who lives by all his senses. Even so, somehow there is a call for help. It is obvious that Muslims have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It appears Naqvi paid little attention to this aspect even as editor of the six southern editions of the Indian Express.
But in the end one has to ask: Is there such a great divide between the reaction that the destruction of Babri Masjid was first an act of vandalism that merited action under the law on protected monuments and Naqvi’s perception of it as an act of senseless religious revenge that we cannot sit and have a meal together? I hope not. He is a man of parts and savours biryani! It matters little that he is a Muslim—all educated and sentient people are beings to be befriended.
Rohit Handa is the author of two novels, Comrade Sahib and A Twisted Cue. He was an assistant editor of The Indian Express and a war correspondent during the 1965 Indo-Pak war.
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