Mr Minister, Muslims need equality not your ‘proper sanctity’

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On Friday, last week, Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad stated that the government of the day has given “proper sanctity” to Muslims despite the fact that they do not vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party. This statement is not just factually incorrect, but also contradictory to the party’s own previous claims. Indeed if the senior minister had spoken to his colleagues, he would not have said what he said.

Moreover, his tone and tenor is short of democratic language when he says, “…have we given them proper sanctity or not?” (Emphasis added.) Such language smacks of arrogance and contempt for constitutional rights and entitlements given to Indian citizens.

RaviShankar

Let’s first examine the claim, “Muslims do not vote for the BJP”. If it is so, then how on earth have BJP national leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Shahnawaz Hussain and Raj Nath Singh been elected from Lok Sabha constituencies with substantial Muslims voters, if not “Muslim majority constituencies”.

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has been a Member of Parliament from Lucknow for five times without any gap, between 1991 and 2009. In fact, since 1991, all the Lucknow MPs have been from BJP. In fact, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh is sitting MP from Lucknow, which has more than 20 per cent Muslim voters.

Similarly, for the first time when former Union minister and national spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain entered Parliament, he did so by winning from the Muslim majority Lok Sabha constituency, Kishanganj (Bihar). Kishanganj has more than 55 per cent Muslim voters. Moreover, in the Bhagalpur constituency from where he got elected twice, first in the 2006 by-election and later in 2009 General Elections, has substantial number of Muslim voters. Not only that, if media reports and poll data are to be believed then a “large number of Muslims voted for BJP” in 2014.  According to this report that cites CSDS data, “45 of the 87 Lok Sabha seats identified by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) as having a high concentration of Muslim voters.”

Now let’s assume for a moment that Muslims don’t vote for the BJP. Does that mean the Union Minister and his party-led government have no responsibility towards Muslims, who are the rightful and equal citizens of this country? More importantly, isn’t that the government’s fundamental duty?

The senior minister needs to remember that Muslims or any citizen of this country don’t need any form of sanctity — proper or not — from his party or government. It is a right enshrined in the Constitution for each and every citizen of India. Moreover, Article 16 of the Indian Constitution clearly states that, “No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, case, sex, descent, place of birth, residence or any of them, ineligible for, or discriminated against in respect of, any employment or office under the state.”

So, by giving jobs to Muslims or involving them in the mainstream, he and his party-led government are not doing any favours to the community, but performing their job.

Rather than stressing on his government’s so-called benevolence, the minister could have done well to start a conversation on the discrimination practiced against minorities, including in in educational institutions. Human Rights Watch (April 2014) notes in its report titled They Say We’re Dirty, “Discrimination remains a major factor affecting access to education for children from marginalized communities, including Dalits, tribal groups and Muslims.” In this context, a book titled Poverty and Exclusion of Minorities in China and India (written by A S Bhalla and Dan Luo) also bring to our notice the problems in the system. It rightly suggests that for the empowerment of Muslims, they must be given their due share in grassroots institutions.

Of course, if the minister still believes that no Muslim is voting for the BJP then perhaps it’s time for the party to do some chintan rather than indulge in self-congratulatory assertions.

First published in NewsLaundry on April 24, 2017.

Syed Shahabuddin: A man who could win over even those who disagreed with him

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In Delhi, the Panj Pira Qabristan adjacent to Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti, 82-year-old Syed Shahabuddin was laid to rest on Saturday (March 4, 2017) afternoon.

Vice-President Hamid Ansari, former Lieutenant Governor of Delhi Najeeb Jung, former Foreign Secretaries Muchkund Dubey and Salman Haider, senior journalist and editor of Mainstream weekly Sumit Chakravartty and noted social activist Swami Agnivesh were some of the prominent people who were present there. He is said to have died due to a cardiac arrest.

Syed Shahabuddin

A picture with Syed Shahabuddin in Delhi/ October 2009

I first heard of Syed Shahabuddin in the late 1990s when I was a high school student in Bihar. At that time, Shahabuddin used to be identified as a controversial politician, whose name was associated with the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, the Shah Bano controversy and the ban on Salman Rushdie’s book in India.

Stories

But the stories I heard about him were in sharp contrast to these controversies. These were stories of a Shahabuddin who was chock-full of talent.

Relatives told me how, along with our first President Dr Rajendra Prasad, Syed Shahabuddin’s certificates were displayed at Delhi’s Red Fort so that subsequent generations could get inspiration from them, and how he had command over several languages and so on.

Today I feel a bit amused when I revisit those stories about Syed Shahabuddin. But I have no hesitation in admitting that those stories were a great source of inspiration for us and drove us to work harder. When I eventually met Shahabuddin sahab, I told him about all those stories. He laughed loudly and couldn’t stop for quite some time.

‘I was not a Leftist’

Syed Shahabuddin was born on November 4, 1935 in Ranchi, then the summer capital of undivided Bihar. After completing his M.Sc from Patna University, he joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1958. He resigned from service 20 years later, in 1978, and plunged into politics. It is said that he was the first diplomat to do something like this in independent India.

In 1955, in Patna around 20,000 students gathered to protest against police firing in Bihar’s Nawada and to demand justice for the victims. The demonstrating students wanted to express their anger around Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit. The students were being led by a student leader called Syed Shahabuddin, who was then part of the Communist Party of India.

A consequence of this negative police report was that he couldn’t join the civil service immediately after clearing the exam. He was later able to join the Foreign Service after the direct intervention of PM Nehru.

In an interview given in 2011, Shahabuddin said, it is true I was leading the protests but it is absolutely false to say that I was part of the Communist Party. I do admit that because of my beliefs, I was known as a Left worker and till today I consider myself a socialist.

‘India’s Jinnah’

Syed Shahabuddin remained associated with the Janata Party for a long time and was an MP in the Lok Sabha for two terms and Rajya Sabha for one term. He also formed his own Insaf Party and was associated with the Congress for a brief while. But what really made Shahabuddin famous, or rather infamous, was his position on the most important issue for Muslims in independent India.

Often, he has been compared to Mohammad Ali Jinnah because of his beliefs. It is believed that had he not intervened, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses would not have been banned in India.

I believe that he should not have demanded a ban on the book, that too without reading it. If he had an objection with the content of the book, he should have expressed it through a book or an article.

Similarly, he should have handled the Shah Bano and Babri Masjid issues more delicately. On two occasions, he asked me to work with him as a research assistant. Perhaps because of these reasons I was unable to take up his offer. This is not to belittle the importance of what he did for Indian Muslims.

Argumentative Shahabuddin

Shahabuddin was an extremely able and competent man. He was a committed, multifaceted and complex personality. It would be a mistake to reduce him to a couple of issues. Shahabuddin, his work, his politics and his struggles should be viewed in the context of the prevailing political atmosphere at that time.

We must remember that this was the first time since independence that a leader articulated the rights of Muslims within the constitutional framework, that too in such an effective manner. This was later adopted by other leaders.

It is true that he gave issues a ‘Muslim colour’ but it was always backed with arguments, facts and figures.

Much before the Sachar Committee Report (2006), he brought out the educational and economic backwardness of the Muslim community through his magazine Muslim India. He was engaged in data journalism much before all of us had even heard of it.

This is the reason why he was respected by even those who disagreed with him often. “We didn’t always agree with each other but the facts and arguments he presented, couldn’t be dismissed easily,” said Syeda Hameed, former member of the Planning Commission and an expert on minority-related issues while paying tribute to him on Saturday (March 4) at a meeting.

The late Dr Asghar Ali Engineer wrote an article on Shahabuddin titled: “A Friend Whom I Often Opposed”. He wrote: “I am convinced, he is a sincere, committed person who wants to see India as an untarnished secular democratic country and also wants to serve the Muslim community and work for its welfare.”

I feel that this sets Syed Shahabuddin apart from other Muslim leaders. This is evident in the fact that several people who disagreed with him made it a point to attend his funeral. There is a lot to learn from Shahabuddin’s strengths and weaknesses. And this will shape the nature of Indian politics, especially Indian Muslim politics.

It remains to be seen if we absorb his strengths or get affected by his mistakes.

First published by CatchNews on 6th March 17.

Book Review : Citizen and Society by M. Hamid Ansari

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On being asked whether he was apolitical, after being elected as vice president of the Indian Union, Mohammed Hamid Ansari’s answer was both surprising as well as instructive. “No citizen is apolitical; as a citizen, by definition, has to take interest in public affairs,” he was reported to have said in August 2007. This was surprising because it is often argued, in a parliamentary system like ours, that the office of the President and the Vice-President should be apolitical, and that this is hardly contested. It was also instructive because his answer asserts that the office of the Vice-President is not just a decorative position in its nature despite its limited power, but has an important role to play and take political decisions as and when required. Pertinent to add here is that someone being political does not necessarily means being a member or flag-bearer of a particular political party and guided by electoral and party politics. Moreover, implied in his answer was, even if someone becomes vice-president of India, it does not absolve him or her from his duty as a citizen of the country. In other words, every citizen has to be political no matter what position s/he is in.

One of the persistent themes of Ansari’s latest book, Citizen and Society, a compilation of his speeches and lectures delivered in different parts of India and abroad over the years is citizenship and its relationship with state of democracy, dissent, justice and empowerment for society as well as polity. The compilation presents before us a range of well researched, thought-provoking and engaging articles and papers. Divided in five broad sections, it covers issues of vital importance such as polity, identity, security, empowerment and global affairs. Ansari in his arguments and presentation is both scholastic as well forward looking. He engages with his audience, provoke them to think, question and take action instead of taking a back seat and keep cribbing about the sorry state affairs. What is remarkable is that, in doing so, he is not patronising and does not absolve the state, of which he is a representative, from its duties.

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Book: Citizen and Society By M. Hamid Ansari Rupa Publications, Pages: 323, Rs. 595/- Hardbound, ISBN: 9788129137562

For instance, in his lecture on “Democracy and Dissent” he passionately argues that in a democracy the right to dissent is also duty of dissent. “It has been observed with much justice that the history of progress of mankind is a history of informed dissent. This can take many forms, ranging from conscientious objection to civil or revolutionary disobedience. In a democratic society, including ours, the need to accept difference of opinion is an essential ingredient of plurality. In that sense, the right to dissent also becomes the duty of dissent, since tactics to suppress dissent tend to diminish the democratic essence.” And he goes on to conclude that, “Every citizen of the republic has the right and duty to judge. Herein lies the indispensability of dissent.”

Likewise in his lecture titled, “Indian Muslims: Quest for Justice”, addressing leaders and activists of Muslim organisations, after dealing with the status of Muslims in India and reasons behind it, he proposes a threefold agenda. According him empowerment of Indian Muslims will come through a “sustain(ed) the struggle for the actualisation in full measure of legal and constitutional rights, to do so without being isolated from the wider community, and to endeavour at the same time to adapt thinking and practices to a fast changing world.”

Another very important article included in the compilation is on “Roles of Editors in Today’s Media”. In his address, which was delivered in March this year, at the inauguration of a seminar orgainsed by Rajya Sabha Television, he discusses the decline of the institutions at length, especially in the wake of speed news, evolution of digital space and social media. “It has to be admitted regrettably, that examples of editorial daring and demonstrating the high professional and ethical standards are now few and far between,” notes Ansari. However, he is quick to remind that does not mean the era of tall editors is over. “The challenges before editors arising from ready access that readers have to alternate sources of information and the increasing expectation on editors to focus on marketing and revenue – even as a larger proportion of the editorial staff gets deployed to revenue raising work, is daunting”. To deal with the situation Ansari suggests “an editor must “ensure that the content is accurate and relevant, be impartial and independent and be fair and respectful.”

In his lecture titled, “A Century of Turmoil in West Asia: Some Pitfalls of Nationalism” there is a lesson for us as he recaps, “Nationalism has also been viewed as ‘a deeply divisive force if it is not tempered by the spirit of tolerance and compromise or the humanitarian universalism of a non-political religion. Its stress on national sovereignty and cultural distinctiveness hardly helps to promote cooperation among people at the very same time when for technological and economic reasons they grow more and more interdependent.” In another lecture discussing “Sacred and Secular” Ansari advocates, “A truly modern approach should be eschew both and go beyond mere tolerance and religio-philosophical notions to positive acceptance and accommodation on the basis of equal citizenship in actual practice.”

Replug: In defense of Hansda Sowvendra Sekhar, a young adivasi writer from Jharkhand

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The Hindu Literary Prize 16 shortlist was announced yesterday in Bangalore. Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar ‘s “The Adivasi Will Not Dance” is one of the books listed for the Prize along-with four others. Here is an article I wrote few months back when he was under attack.

One seldom observes writers emulate the life and ideas of their characters or protagonists, especially if these happen to be rebellious by nature or at least involve taking a position of dissidence on crucial matters. Doing so could increase the chance of being branded an‘activist’, which in recent times has become a provocative and charged tag, and that in turn might stifle one’s literary career. Since authoring is a moonlighting profession rather than a financially viable one for most, dissidence might also put the primary source of livelihood in jeopardy, especially if the writer happens to hold down a government job. Let’s add another cog in this wheel: imagine a writer, with a government job, who is also relatively marginalized and belongs to a community that has been a victim of historical injustices.

That, in a nutshell, is Hansda Sowvendra Sekhar, a young Adivasi writer from the small town of Pakur, in the Santhal Pargana region of Jharkhand. A medical doctor by training and practice, he works as a medical officer with the government of Jharkhand. Sowvendra (for that’s how he loves to be called) rose to prominence two years ago when his debut novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize and the Crossword Book Award.In 2015, he won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar and published a collection of short stories, titled The Adivasi Will Not Dance. He is currently working on his second novel, which is due next year. tawnd

On May 14, 2016,Sowvendra wrote an edit page article for The Indian Express, criticising the government of Jharkhand for its new domicile policy. Last week, the Jharkhand government issued him a show cause notice, along the lines of Public Servant Conduct Rules.Now the officials are waiting for a response from the writer before further action can be taken. However, Sowvendra says he is yet to receive any such notice.

The new domicile policy was introduced on April 7, 2016, and states that those who have been living in the state and have acquired immovable assets in the last 30 years would be considered local residents of the state. Sowvendra sees it as an anti-Adivasi move because he believes it will further sideline Adivasis while outsiders (non-Adivasi) will take over the state.

To read full article click on this link : http://www.newslaundry.com/2016/06/24/can-a-government-officer-criticise-the-government/

Cow Vigilantes’ Attacks: The Privileged Must Rise in Rage

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The gau rakshak dals are on a rampage. There is hardly a single week without news of vandalism, rape, killing and looting by these so-called protectors of gau mata and proponents of ultra-nationalism. While most of the victims of these crimes have been Muslims, the Dalits and Tribals have not been spared either. Some attacks which have gained public attention, the killing of Akhlaq in Dadari (UP) last year, Majloom Ansari and Imtiyaz Khan in Latehar (Jharkhand) in March and, most recently, Ayyub last week in Gujarat. There are cases of alleged rape as well (like the one in Mewat, Haryana). These attacks are not just limited to the states of Haryana and Gujarat, but are also being carried out in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Himachal, and even parts of the north east. The most unfortunate part has been that despite wide reporting of these cases, these attacks continue to take place.

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While all this is going on, there are well-meaning people who have been suggesting and asking Muslims to come out and protest against these attacks and killings against them. I am partially in agreement with them – Muslims must protest, but that alone will not solve the problem. I believe that as long as the majority remains silent, things are unlikely to change in the long run. Dalits have been protesting against similar atrocities against them, resulting in massive uprisings in Una and elsewhere, but that has hardly deterred gau rakshaks from continuing their crimes against the Dalits.

It would also be unfair to suggest that Muslims have been totally silent on the issue. Last month saw a public meeting in Delhi organized by a Muslim group called Ittehad-e-Millat Council (IMC) demanding a “complete ban on beef exports from India”. It is another matter that the media chose to ignore this meeting completely.

One may choose to disagree on whether a ban on export is a genuine way-out. However, it is quite clear that the ban was demanded keeping in mind the continuous attacks on Muslims and Dalits in the name of protecting cows. In other words, it was a form of protest that was adopted by the organisers. The council in its memorandum, which was endorsed by representatives from Muslim and Dalit communities, noted

“We would like to express our apprehensions with respect to the atrocities, suppression and discrimination meted out to the Muslim minority, on the pretext of cow protection, beef eating, terrorism, national security, etc. Since the death of a man beaten to death after being accused of eating beef last September in Dadri, vigilante groups of cow protectors have flourished.”

It was also announced that if these demands were not met by the government, the protesters would take their agitation to the streets and Ramlila Grounds.

In my opinion, part of the reason for continued attacks is not just the political patronage that is enjoyed by these cow vigilantes groups, but also the strength that they draw from draconian laws and provisions enacted in the name of preventing cow slaughter and protecting and developing animal husbandry, especially cows. Legislations like the Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan (Cow Protection and Development) Bill 2015 passed by the Haryana Assembly on March 16, 2015 – it bans the slaughtering of cows and the sale of beef in the state, and also its import – are a case in point.  The amendments in the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act, 1976 are another good example. Fortunately, unlike in Haryana, a later ruling by the Mumbai High Court allowed for the consumption and import of beef to the state of Maharashtra.

These laws are often used as proxies to target those who eat beef or those involved in its trade. In fact, as we have seen in various cases, it hardly matters whether the meat belongs to a cow, buffalo, goat or chicken. The mere possession of meat can make someone suspicious and vulnerable—both in front of vigilante groups as well as state agencies. And by the time that it can be proved that it was not cow meat, an irreversible damage has already been done. This is in contradiction to the fact that, as pointed out by some specialists, “slaughter does not drive down animal numbers, but actually supports their reproduction, as is evident in the case of India’s buffaloes.” In fact, they “also have mounting evidence to show how slaughter bans actively depress cattle rearing.”

I would like to state that one can’t get rid of their responsibility by merely appealing to Muslims (and Dalits) to standup and fight back, especially when these attacks are carried out keeping in mind that it has the support of a majority of Indians. As long as public perception persists that beef eating is opposed by majority of India or “against Indian culture”, vigilante groups will continue unchallenged.

What we must remember is that the target might be Muslims and Dalits today but if this is allowed to continue, it won’t be far when no one will be there to defend our rights, the democracy and the constitution, which we often boast about. Preaching to victims is not going to help. The privileged must rise in rage. Otherwise, very soon, there will be nothing left to be proud of.

Though I do not deny the power of agency, I insist that in order to counter majoritarian violence, a majority of the people have to stand up and say enough is enough. It is imperative for the majority to disassociate from and denounce the practices carried out in their name. Let’s wake up, before it’s too late.

First published in NewsLaundry.com  

Book Review : Being The Other: The Muslim in India

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It is very rare to find close friends, relatives and longtime admirers question an author at whose book launch they have been specially invited, purely because book launches in our part of the world are considered to be sacred and questioning, akin to public shaming. This was certainly so at the book launch of Saeed Naqvi’s book titled “Being The Other: The Muslim in India”, when the author was heavily grilled by his friends and relatives, apart from his adversaries. And the list of those were ‘deeply disappointed’ by the author’s provocative positions taken in the book as well as the ‘pessimistic views’ on India’s future and the Muslims’ place in it include people who are no less ordinary. To name a few, these included veteran photographer, Raghu Rai, the author’s daughter and senior journalist, Saba Naqvi, former diplomat turned politician, Pavan K Verma and veteran journalist and author, Mark Tully. Verma and Tully were in conversation with the author at the launch.

They were disappointed because Naqvi, through this book, makes us uncomfortable as he challenges our commonly held views and understanding about important issues like partition, secularism, communalism, riots, the making of the Kashmir problem, the Babri Masjid demolition, the rise of Hindutva, role of the congress party and its towering leaders including Jawahar Lal Nehru. saeednaqvibook

 

 

 

Being The Other: The Muslim in India

Saeed Naqvi, Aleph Book Company (2016)

Pages:  xv+239, Rs: 599

 

Take this for example. “The principal excuse given for partition is the two nation theory credited to Muslim League supremo Mohammad Ali Jinnah. However, what is not widely known is that…(it) was first articulated by colonial theorist James Mill…In fact, as senior Congress leader K M Munshi points out, ‘it was (Jinnah) who warned Gandhiji not to encourage the fanaticism of Muslim religious leaders,’ explains Naqvi. According to him more than anyone else, Nehru and (Sardar) Patel were responsible for the partition of the country. And to substantiate his claim, the author cites various communications and meetings between Mountbatten, Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Azad. Here it is imperative to note that Nehru was the hero of the author and his clan. In his own words, Nehru was “the undisputed leader of Muslims in India”.

According to the author, after partition, the Babri Masjid demolition was the biggest shock for Muslims in India. This was not just because a Mosque was demolished, but because it was a political statement declaring victory of Hindutva forces and the failure of secular polity. Naqvi rightly notes that, “The Babri Masjid demolition served as a shocking eye-opener for Indian Muslims. It destroyed whatever confidence the community had in the Indian political class and…Congress.” Moreover, after the demolition and subsequent riots, covert and overt dislike of Muslims in this country has become a lot more open and frequent. Discussing the rise of Hindutva, he notes that “the growth of the RSS in the north India was not without Congress support.”

Adding more insult to injury, Naqvi feels, the supposed war on terror brought another round of othering of Muslims in India. As he believes, “the global war on terror has become the newest platform on which to build Hindu nationalism.” In the post “9/11 war on terror, every fake encounter or atrocity committed by militant groups has been laid at the doorstep of the country’s Muslim community… It is not by accident that thousands of angry Indian Muslim men are routinely picked up on charges of being suspected jihadis,” he further notes. It is another story that most of them get acquitted from different courts as there has hardly been any case against them.

The book might come across as anti-Congress and Nehru-bashing, based on one’s selective reading of it. But here’s the spoiler-the book is hardly so and the devil lies in the details. It requires a cover to cover reading as it is equally critical of the BJP and other political parties. It ably demonstrates, using real life examples, how Muslims have been othered over the years and how the process is still continuing. It clearly showcases the institutionalised bias, impunity, indifference practiced by the system as well as the society at large.

In short, if I would have to introduce the book in one sentence, I would say that it is a firsthand account of a veteran journalist, who happens to be a Muslim and who tries to bring out his views of how Muslims were betrayed in India, and how he feels like an expatriate in his own country. And this is what makes the initial title (Exiled at Home: How India’s Muslims Were Betrayed) more appropriate, as it clearly captures the essence of the book rather accurately.

An edited version of this review first appeared in the Open Magazine.

Wishing you all a not so Happy Bakrid. Here’s Why

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It had been a custom every year, when I visited home for Bakrid, for my mother to pack the festival meat for my younger brother and friends in Delhi. Muslim and non-Muslim friends alike would wait expectantly for my meat-laden return and there would be opportunities for many a convivial gatherings in Delhi. Last year, however, I refused to carry the packets my mother had made for me – this one mutton chaamp, that one girail, dry, fried chicken, shaami kebabs and so on. However, I was reluctant to ferry these goodies from Supaul, a small town in Northern Bihar to Delhi – a train journey of nearly 1,300 kilometers. Who was to know when groups of men would turn up in my coach and demand to check my bags? Who would stop them? Who could possibly reason with them that the meat was not beef but mutton and chicken? The vision of Akhlaque rose before me and I ignored my mother’s insistent pleas.

I decided that I did not want to risk being lynched by vigilantes, nor harassed by the police. However, when I broke this news to my friends through Facebook, informing them through a post that I would not be bringing meat because of the ‘Dadari effect’, many thought that I was plain joking.  Some even felt that I was getting paranoid unnecessarily because the Dadari incident was an exception and that it shouldn’t demoralize Muslims from their cultural and religious practices. But a few also felt that it was a necessary precaution on my part, going with the lines of “precaution is always better than cure”.

meatWhat I feared in October last year turned out to be a reality this year. Early on January 13, a Muslim couple was beaten up in Madhya Pradesh while travelling in a train over suspicion of carrying beef. According to the state police, the “couple was among passengers assaulted by at least seven members of the Gauraksha Samiti at Khirkiya railway station, in Harda district of Madhya Pradesh, when they objected to their luggage being searched on suspicion that they were carrying beef”.

So, bizarre as it sounds, the news of Biryani testing by the Haryana Police, did not surprise me. It was nothing but a visible legitimization by the Haryana state government to what was being practiced for long by vigilante groups, better known as Gau Rakshak Dals. It is a well-established fact that over the years, especially in states like Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, the State has nurtured the Gau Rakshaks in the name of protecting Gau Mata. A detailed report published in the latest issue of Caravan Magazine establishes this thoroughly.

In fact, the only real change has been that the state has now taken it upon itself to play the role of vigilante, thanks to draconian legislations like the Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan (Cow Protection and Development) Bill 2015 passed by the Haryana Assembly on March 16, 2015, which not only bans the slaughtering of cows and the sale of beef in the state but also its import.  The amendments in the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act, 1976 also require special mention here. Fortunately, unlike Haryana, later a ruling by Mumbai High Court allowed consumption and import of beef.

The fundamental problem with laws like these is that, they especially target those belonging to religious minority communities, Dalits and Adivasis. Naturally, these laws have also created a sense of fear amongst these communities, apart from rendering lakhs of people whose livelihood was/is dependent on it, jobless in some way or the other.

The recent report of two Muslim women being allegedly gang raped in Mewat (Haryana), and one claiming that the accused asked her if she had consumed beef hints at the extent to which vigilantes can go. Moreover, news about pervasive sense of terror and fear has taken hold of Muslims in Mewat area of Haryana, with a shadow looming over the Bakrid celebrations.

But Haryana is hardly an exception. It is no different in Gujarat, Jharkhand, Himachal as well – with even North East not spared. If you ask me if I would consider carrying meat this year, my answer would be a big no. The situation, instead of improving, has only worsened. It is ironic to note that those vulnerable are not protected and those committing crimes are given a free hand and state patronage. In short, the law is the problem more than anything because it criminalizes food habits and preferences of a large section of Indians.

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Hence, as long as arbitrary and archaic laws and provisions like these exist, there will be a reign of terror, killings, harassment and others forms of subjugation. Unless we get rid of these, no dramatic changes are going to take place. It’s a red herring to appeal to or even to chastise ‘bad gau rakshaks’. As long as the perpetrators are assured not only of political backing but also served through law, things are bound to get only worse.

By the way, let me wish you a not so Happy Bakrid ! Not so happy because what is Eid if I can’t feed my friends meat prepared by my mother. What is Eid if Kashmir is under curfew even on the day of Eid and bleeding continuously…What is Eid if many areas of Bangalore are under curfew…

May peace and justice prevail soon, Aameen !

An edited version of this article first appeared in The Quint.

Manufacturing Sedition: Amnesty Controversy and Beyond

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Let me start this article with the disclaimer that till 30th of June this year, I was working with Amnesty International India as a senior campaigner and hence am quite aware of Amnesty’s position on Kashmir, among other things. However, this has not been written in the capacity of someone who had previously worked with Amnesty or as their spokesperson, but as an activist who works on issues of human rights and as also someone who was present at the event held on 13th August at the United Theological College, Bangalore.

Amnesty International India through its public statements has made it fairly clear that none of its employees shouted any slogan at any point, let alone raised any that were ‘anti-India’, or gave a call for Aazadi as alleged by ABVP. As someone who was present in the audience, I completely agree with their statement. This then brings us to the question that were no slogans like “Hum Kya Chahate Aazadi”, raised? No, I am not saying that either. There is no denying the fact that slogans were indeed raised, but it would be unfair to say that they were raised by only one ‘group’ (read Young Kashmiri—Muslims) as widely reported by media and claimed in the complaint.

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Members of ABVP protesting outside Amnesty office in Delhi (Pic Credit: HT)

In fact, the sloganeering was started by the very ‘group’ (Kashmiri Pundits and ABVP/Bajrang Dal activists) which was agitated with the idea of having such an event. From the beginning itself, they tried interrupting the event. And when MC Kash (Roushan Ilahi) started performing, they boycotted it and started shouting slogans like “Bharat Mata Ki Ja” and “Indian Army Zindabad” while leaving the hall. It was only towards the end of the event, when MC Kash’s performance was abruptly stopped due to pressure from Police, that slogans demanding Aazadi were raised. Earlier, there was some minor scuffle between the groups, which the Amnesty staff tried its best to end. But, and by no definition and at no point was anything that was even remotely seditious said, done or performed.

One can confidently say this because as per the Supreme Court of India, in the case of Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar 1962, the judgment clearly states that a speech would amount to sedition (Section 124 A of IPC) only if it involves an incitement to violence or public disorder. The court ruled that: “[C]riticism of public measures or comment on Government action, however strongly worded, would be within reasonable limits and would be consistent with the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.” And the complainant knows this very well but is not ready to accept it because that would disrupt their game plan of harassing individuals and groups they don’t like or who don’t toe the line with them or their opinions.

They also know that their case is hardly going to stand in the court of law, especially in the Supreme Court. It is a well-known fact that convictions for sedition are rare. A report published by Newslaundry early this year clearly shows how the law of sedition does not hold any value in reality. It notes that, “…[T]he apex court of this country has not convicted a single person under (the charge of sedition), over the last 10 years. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code that deals with sedition finds mention in 11 Supreme Court judgments between 2005 and 2015. None of these judgments, though, sentenced the accused on charges of sedition.” Hence, the complainants and their allies are mounting political pressure and using extra-judicial means like protesting outside Amnesty’s offices, resulting in the temporary shutdown of its offices in different parts of the country and the postponement of scheduled events in Mumbai and Delhi. In fact, this afternoon ABVP workers tried to storm Amnesty office In Bangalore with petrol bottles.

Research on law of sedition tells us, as is rightly argued in the latest report of Human Rights Watch that, it is “often used against dissenters, human rights activists, and those critical of the government.” And there is a long history to it, right from the very inception of the law. It was used against Mahatma Gandhi and B.G. Tilak during the colonial era and Binayak Sen, Arundhati Roy, Seema Azad and residents of Kudankulam (Tamil Nadu), to name a few in the recent past. Given its draconian nature, while pleading guilty Mahatma Gandhi had famously said in his deposition, “Section 124 A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law.”

But the issue here is not just limited to the charge of sedition but goes beyond that. In the wake of the recent controversy, as has been reported, “the Home Ministry has launched a probe into the funding of the non-governmental organisation for “possible” violation of foreign contribution rules.” This clearly indicates that, as often said in Hindi, sedition to bahana, hai asal mein kuchh aur nishana hai (Sedition is just a pretext, the real target is something else). In other words, by raising the bogey of sedition, anti-national slogans and foreign funding, the government and its political allies are trying to sabotage and attack the crucial human rights protection work that organisations like Amnesty are involved in.

Today, Amnesty might be the target but nor was it their first target nor will it end with Amnesty. There is a long list of human rights organisations and defenders across the country who have been targeted by government after government, political party after political party and state government after state government. In short, when it comes to the use of sedition, all seem united and in agreement. There is a close relationship between the use of the sedition law and the attack on the constitutional values and promises of India. They are directly proportional to each other and that’s the biggest problem.

Hence, if we want to get rid of the problem, the first and foremost thing that should be done is to strike down the section that deals with sedition from the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Because there is nothing that can be called the misuse of sedition law, as is often argued and perceived. There isn’t even one case that proves Sedition beyond reasonable doubt, or where the law was or can be used in a just manner. The law is inherently draconian and until we get away with it, the problem is going to persist in one way or the other. Notably, our erstwhile colonial masters (the British) which legislated it to muzzle dissent, have already stuck it down from its statute in 2009.

What then are we waiting for?

Book Review: Communal Violence, Forced Migration and the State: Gujarat since 2002

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Displacement and migration constitute what might be called a traumatic experience for many as they lead to uprooting one from one’s base. But if this happens due to some large scale violence, which has a communal and a caste overtone, it makes the situation worse. It doubly marginalises the victims.  Till recently, it was the violence in Muzzaffarnagar that had become such a distressing story. According to a conservative estimate, more than 41,000 Muslims were rendered homeless, with most of them never being able to return to their village and having to live the life of a destitute. Gujarat (2002) was another example of a communal violence which had led to the displacement of a large number of people, as more than 2 lakhs were displaced within the first two years itself. Those who had to flee their homes had to settle down in houses on rent in Muslim concentrated villages and towns.  As per a status report (2012) published by the Ahmedabad based NGO, Janvikas, 16,087 of them continue to live in 83 relief colonies built by faith based (Muslim/Islamic) organizations and NGOs.

The book under review deals with this subject up to some extent. Taking cue from the much talked about and equally criticised category of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) of the United Nations (introduced in 1998), the author examines violence in Gujarat since 2002. She argues that “displacement (in Gujarat) is not only symptomatic of the state being taken over by a majoritarian vision of the nation in which the minorities may be threatened, but that in our globalised times it entails a shift in the very idea of the state in terms of what can be rightly expected of it and the source of its legitimacy.” The author of the book currently teaches at the Department of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai, and according to her, this work of hers is a result of almost nine years of research that had begun with a thesis at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

Communal Violence, Forced Migration and the State

Book: Communal Violence, Forced Migration and the State: Gujarat since 2002

By Sanjeevini Badigar Lokhande

Cambridge University Press, Delhi, 2015, Hardbound

pp. XI+ 216, Price: Not Mentioned, ISBN-10: 1107065445

Apart from the introduction, the book is divided into five chapters. These reflect the meticulous research undertaken by the author of using ethnographic data, government documents, archival materials, NGOs and media reports, and shows how over the years, people who were displaced during the anti-Muslim Gujarat violence of 2002 have been to reduced to the status of subjects from once being citizens, and how it is now affecting their lives. Presenting a brief history of communal violence induced displacement, the author notes that it is not entirely without precedent in Gujarat. “The displacement of thousands of Muslims due to the violence in 1969, which the camps bore testimony to, also meant a loss of livelihood and even the means of livelihood for thousands as those who had been rendered homeless had lost all their possession that included their tools, instruments and other means of livelihood,” notes Lokhande. (p. 113)

She further notes that, “The examination of the governance of communal violence through state responses in the many instances of communal riots in Gujarat reveal that while the scale of relief offered in different categories of assistance for the victims of communal violence was increased howsoever variably, the categories of assistance remained the same, even in the case of latest relief package offered by the UPA in 2007.”

In the author’s opinion, “the state government scrupulously avoided the term displacement or IDPs, referring to it as migration which suggests that the movement was voluntary and under compulsion.” Hence, these victims are not entitled to the benefits suggested under the United Nation’s guides for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). “These illustrate,” notes Lokhande “the state’s absence in the complex problem of displacement where a large number of people did not want to return to what was once their home because it had become a place of vulnerability that was exposed during the violence and in some instances, a site where crimes had occurred that after the violence held the probability of legal action and led to continued tension in neighborhoods”. (p.128-12)

In the second last chapter of the book titled Reconstruction And Rights Though Self-Help, the author rightly concludes that, “From (the) account of reconstruction after the violence in 2002 it is not just the long term effects of displacement that are illustrated, but also that the phenomena of displacement is not a ‘one time set of events’ bounded in time and space but continue long after violence as those affected negotiate the uncertainties in their changed realities. In Gujarat these negotiations have included the assertion of their rights through recourse to litigation and self-help for security, housing and social rights as well as through different forms of settlements or compromise to avoid conflict. These shifts gleaned from ground analysis reflect changes in the larger political universe that further need to be unpacked.” (p. 157)

This book is important in its perspective on displacement and communal violence. However, while one appreciates the author’s attempts at taking up a relatively untouched theme, there has been an attempt at trying to touch and cover almost everything, which makes the book slightly monotonous and uninteresting. One also feels that it could have been better and substantial had the author tried limiting it, and rather focusing it on the core subject (of forced migration) as the book starts with promises of examining the issue of forced migration in detail but gets lost in detailing the different aspects of the violence of 2002.

For someone who has been following the issue for some time, it might appear to be a bit repetitive and offer nothing new except for the intense detailing of the different aspects of 2002. However the book will be an interesting read for those who are new to the subject and are looking for a guide on it.

First published in The Book Review Journal, August 2016.

 

Remembering Abba, my Friend, Father and Philosopher

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This Eid (7 July) would have been our first without Abba at home, or so I had thought. But I was wrong. Because Abba had left us suddenly for his heavenly abode just two days before Eid last year, a day before Alvida Juma on 16th of July. He was in his early 50s and his departure was sudden. It was so sudden that I have to yet completely acknowledge that he is no more. That he is not around us to take care of us, to support us or disagree with us yet still approve.

Abba was like any other father. Yet, he was so different that only he could have been that way. He was known to many people by different names. At home and among his close friends and relatives, he was called Bulla, for that was his nickname given to him by his mother and my Dadi. She liked Bulla machhli (fish) so much that she named her first boy after it. She died a year before Abba who was in Delhi at the time of her death, and by the time he was able to reach, she had been buried. I was in Bangalore and could not reach home either. At Abba’s death however, I was lucky enough to be a part of his namaz-e-Janaza and burial. I reached home just in time for it.

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On the day of Eid, my younger brother, Shahnawaz Alam praying at the grave of Abba.

By no means was Abba a famous man. He did not hold any public office, never stood in any election and was not even a member of any political party or socio-cultural group except the Tablighi Jamaat and perhaps a customary member of the Teachers Union—Sikshak Sangh. Yet he was a people’s person. He was an activist of his own kind. He was a selfless activist—an activist who was not defined and bound by any organization and funding. Meet anyone who would have met him once or twice and they’ll tell you how deep his commitment for Khidmat e Khalq (social service) was. It was so fierce that at times he would forget his familial and professional duties. I distinctly remember us ‘fighting’ with each other because of this. He would often ‘surrender’, accepting his mistake but wouldn’t ever forget to remind me of the following couplet of Khwaja Meer Dard :

“Dard-e-Dil Ke Waste Paida Kiya Insaan Ko/Warna Ataa’at Ke Liye Kam Na The, Kar-O-Bayaan”

And would also add, but ‘you are also doing the same by ignoring you career, health and family’. To which, I would say, haan, ye sab aapka hi asar hai (it is all because of your influence) and by that time my Amma would enter the picture saying, tum sab baap bete aik jaise hi ho! And we would all have a great laugh collectively.

What was the one thing that differentiated Abba from other fathers in general? He was not authoritative and feudal. We were not afraid of him. We could speak in front of him, talk to him and argue with him. In fact, we could say nasty things to him, which I must confess, I have done so several times, in rage or frustration. Yet he would never take it personally. He was full of forgiveness and compassion. I have seen him helping people who had always conspired against him and back stabbed him. But Abba, despite knowing all that, would behave as if nothing of that sort had ever occurred in his lifetime. He would often remind us that out of the 99 names of Allah, the two most used (in Quran) were: Rahman and Raheem (beneficent and merciful).

To us, he was a friend more than anything. He would always have consultations (Mashwira) with all, big-small, male-female, everyone in the house before deciding or doing anything. He was a great proponent of consent and consultation. “Mashware me barkat hota hai,” he would often remark. When I look back and try to think, I realise that this was how the basics of democratic process was inculcated my life.

No, Abba was not a scholar or a highly educated person. Due to his familial responsibility (he being the oldest son had to help his father, who was a small time businessman), he could not study beyond senior secondary regularly. However, he did complete his higher education from Bihar Maradsa Education Board. He could read and write in Urdu, Hindi and English. Hence, he had a basic yet important understanding of religious texts. He was essentially a Hindustani speaker, with a heavy use of local dialect.

Abba was a religious man. He prayed five times a day and wanted us to do so too. But he was not the kind who would believe in my way or the high way. However, he would keep reminding us of our religious duties and encourage us to take part in it. He loved feeding the poor and helping the needy through cash as well as kind. Abba firmly believed in life after death.  Hence, his deeds were for his God. He was hardly into the business of showoff and always encouraged us to help people in whatever ways and means we could, irrespective of how big or small.

To Abba, what always mattered was one’s Neeyat (intention) not the action. According to him, if the intention was only to show off, then one would only get that in return. However, if the intention was to help people in reality, then the popularity would come its own way as a byproduct of it. To explain this, he would give an example:  if you go to the meat shop to buy bones, then you you’ll only get bones. But if you buy meat, then you will get bones as well.

He was a well-travelled man too, from parts of North East and South India to almost the whole of North. And all this was possible because before becoming a government primary school teacher in 1995, he was into business. Some of the travels could also happen because my uncle was in the Army and Abba would once in a while go to places where the former was posted. In return, Abba would bring stories and lots of eatables from there. Much later, when I started travelling to different parts of India, he would always have readymade advice to give. Places to eat, stay and roam around.

I was always amazed with the way he trusted people, including me. He was always in favour of giving people an opportunity. It was only his trust that I could make something of my life that made him send me to Delhi for higher studies, despite the fact that I was a below the average student. I was the first in my entire paternal family (khandan) to be sent so far for padhai. Many thought that Abba’s sending me so far away for higher studies was akin to ghobar mein ghee dalna, or in other words, total wastage of one’s resources. I am not sure of how much I was able fulfill his dreams. However, whatever I am today is primarily because of his belief and trust in me. And I am happy to say that he had always had faith in me that no matter whatever I do, I will not cheat people or indulge in anti- human activities.

As far as earning money and fame are concerned he had always taught us: Rizq ka malik Allah hai…He would also say, wato izzo mantasha, wato zillo mantasha. He was a Kabir panthi in some sense. His philosophy about economy was:

“Sain itna dijiye jame kutumb samay, Mein bhi bhooka na rahoon Sadhu na bhukha jay”

Clichés apart, a proper detailing of Abba’s life and works would be a book length piece as he was not just my Abba but a friend and comrade of many. And I know that he will be always remembered by everyone he met and worked with, even briefly.

Today, Abba is no more with us and I have often felt like a yateem because his mere presence was everything. I miss him much quite often, especially during difficult times. Since I was earlier able to take things for granted, but I can’t anymore. Being the eldest in the family, it is almost difficult to step in his shoes.

Abba, you are not with us yet you are there. Your teachings and life will continue to inspire me. Hoping to meet you, once again.