The situation of India’s Muslims as a senior journalist from that community sees it. BY SHUJAAT BUKHARI
Azadi’s Daughter: Journey of a Liberal Muslim is a brilliant personal account by the erudite journalist Seema Mustafa of the present-day condition of an Indian Muslim. She, of course, looks at the issue from a particular frame, having been born into a privileged family of powerful people who had access to education. While the book cannot be seen as a testament to how Muslims in India have lived in the last 65 years, it surely will help open up a scholarly debate about their so-called leaders, who, the author thinks, have not represented them. It also exposes the dangers faced by secularism in India and a threat that has been looming large over the country’s largest minority, which in fact is the third biggest population of Muslims in the world. This 199-page book can be seen as a liberal Muslim’s view of how secularism has failed the Muslim.
Seema Mustafa weaves a beautiful story of her upbringing in a liberal nationalist Muslim family into a political commentary. Referring to her early days, the author proudly talks about a rebellious instinct in her, which eventually made her a Muslim, not religiously but culturally. She perhaps inherited her sense of defiance from her grandmother, who was actively involved in the Quit India Movement, and mother, who did a master’s degree in Lucknow University and joined National Herald as a subeditor way back in the 1940s. This not only indicates the space and scope she had to be educated and enlightened but also shatters the myth that modernity among Muslims was a distant dream in India. Being progressive and secular was in her blood. She recounts the stories of how her grandmother Begum Anis Kidwai’s house in Delhi was home to a large number of Hindu and Muslim women from Uttar Pradesh who had shifted to Delhi for work. Begum Kidwai was then a Member of the Rajya Sabha. For women like Seema, communalism had no meaning. They had imbibed strong values of secularism and tolerance and their faith was in India as a country with a rich diversity, which ultimately was the secret of its unity.
In all the 13 chapters, the author has used her skills as a journalist to recount the events linked to Muslims in contemporary India and show how an average Muslim today feels insecure since he is tagged with one incident of terrorism or the other. However, she is more vocal in taking on the political leaders of Muslims in India, whom she blames for the backwardness of the community. She also talks about the injustice meted out to Muslim women. She is critical of the judgment in the Shah Bano case as she sees it as designed to please fundamentalists and as going against the rights of women.
Seema Mustafa talks in detail about the demolition of the Babri Masjid, which she sees as a turning point for Muslims in India. She mainly blames the Congress for opening up the issue of the Babri Masjid, which, she says, was used by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). According to her, the episode demonstrated the lack of will of secular parties in India which paved the way for communal politics. The Mumbai riots and the Gujarat pogrom are the main areas of focus of the book, and the author has tried to link these with the present unrest, uncertainty and insecurity among Muslims: “Yes, the Indian Muslims are fearful of violence of the kind that killed thousands in Gujarat; they are scared of mindless arrests by security forces that have destroyed lives and families; they are terrified of being pilloried and targeted.”
However, at the same time, she notes with pride: “But strangely enough the Indian Muslims still retain faith in the institution of democracy and believe that when it comes to vote their ballot is as free as any other.” This sense, she argues, has prevented the community from taking to terrorism, though Muslims are largely seen as terrorists. She recounts when as a journalist she was covering the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Dhaka, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan made a direct remark to her: “Seema, you should be very worried. Pakistani delegation was praising you.” She explains: “It took me some seconds to digest the import of what he was saying, and to realise that the top security official in the Manmohan Singh government had joined the basic element on the streets to make the usual linkage between Pakistan and the Indian Muslim.”
In a chapter on Kashmir, the author makes it clear that there is nothing in common between Kashmir and the rest of India. And the way in which New Delhi has dealt with the people in Kashmir has further alienated them. Seema Mustafa’s family has an old connection with Kashmir —her maternal grandfather’s brother Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, the well-known freedom fighter, was a friend of Sheikh Abdullah. She concludes about the fate of Kashmir: “Given the Kashmiri’s reluctance to identify with the teeming masses of India and the latter’s lack of interest in Kashmir given their own complicated problems, it is unlikely that the two will come together in any meaningful manner.”
Even as the disappointment over what has happened to the largest minority in India follows this commentary like a shadow, the author still sees a ray of hope. The book is indeed an eye-opener as it comes from a journalist who has worked for leading newspapers for over 30 years.