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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.


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.