Obituary: Indian Muslims lose its most dedicated Muslim

31st Mar 2017
Obituary: Indian Muslims lose its most dedicated Muslim

One of the most vocal Indian Muslim leaders, Syed Shahabuddin, breathed his last in New Delhi on March 4.

Born in Ranchi, Bihar, on November 4, 1935, as a student Shahabuddin had been a Gold Medallist throughout, was a powerful debater and a student leader. He was also known for his courage, honesty, steadfastness and non-compromising stand on principles.

Before joining Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and being appointed as a Vice Consul in New York, he briefly lectured in Physics at Patna University.

Such were his organisational and leadership skills that during his student days he led a demonstration of 20,000 students during the visit of the then Prime Minister, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, against police’s excesses against students in an earlier incident. Only nine months later, after joining IFS, when he had his first encounter with the Prime Minister he affectionately reminded him, “So you are that naughty boy from Bihar.”

Shahabuddin played leading role in having Salman Rushdi’s Satanic Verses banned in India, protection of Muslim Personal (Shari’ah) Law and opposing the occupation and eventually the demolition by Hindu extremists of 16th century Babri Mosque.

Indian’s Vice President, Hamid Ansari, attended Shahabuddin’s funeral prayer and burial, called his death a “personal loss”, addressed a condolence meeting, attended by a number of senior politicians, ministers and other dignitaries in Delhi, former Prime Minister, Dr Manmonhan Singh. “Even those who did not agree with him, admired his powerful multifaceted intellect … Shahabuddin Saheb is no more amongst us but his life and work will live forever. Those of us who were privileged to come in contact with him come would always remember his fragrant personality,” said Ansari.

My own memories of and about Syed Shahabuddin span more than three decades and are varied in many ways that I cherish greatly.

The first ever article penned by Shahabuddin Saheb that I had read was in New Delhi published as a rejoinder to K R Malkani, Editor of RSS’s mouthpiece Organiser. Malkani’s piece was titled, “Hindus and Muslims: A Question of Different Wave Lengths” and Shahabuddin Saheb’s response was headlined as “Come out of your shell Mr. Malkani”. After this I became a great fan of his writings and never missed any article written by him and when he launched his Muslim India I became its regular reader.

In those days it was so rare to see a small letter by a Muslim in an English language daily or a periodical let alone an article portraying the true picture on the ground. News about Muslims in English publications was rare and few of the Muslims who wrote in English were extremely apologetic. No Muslim politician could dare raise his voice from the platform of a secular party against the injustices being meted out to the community and government’s discriminatory policies against them.

This was the period when by playing film Barsat ki Raat’s song, Mujhe to mil gaya bahana teri deed ka at the end of Ramadan and by showing on Doordarshan the scene of Eid congregation at Delhi’s Jama Masjid or one or two Muslim families from old Delhi eating Eid Siwaian, all the demands and conditions of secularism were deemed complete. In such an environment Shahabuddin’s leadership and his fearless speeches in Parliament and public platform changed the culture and gave the Muslim community, specially the youth, a new hope.

My first meeting with him was very brief in 1981, when we, the residents of Nasrullah Hostel of Aligarh Muslim University’s (AMU) VM Hall, wanted to invite him as the chief guest at our annual hostel dinner. He had come to attend the meeting of AMU Court. I sent in a handwritten slip to him with the poem a few minutes before the meeting was due to start and within no time he came out to see us. I requested him to be our chief guest at the annual hostel function to which he readily agreed and said, “Drop a postcard to me and I will reply immediately.”

The next time I met him was a year later at his residence in Delhi. I had reached early before the appointed time and he was not at home. Perhaps, it was his daughter who opened the door and asked me to wait in the drawing room. Only five minutes later Shahabuddin Saheb arrived himself driving his old Fiat. This was a brief meeting.

The third time I met him was in London when I interviewed him for Impact International, perhaps in 1989, at the residence of his brother-in-law, late Dr Majeed Saheb, a known orthopaedist.

After the interview, I travelled with him from Finchley to Central London where a press conference had been arranged for him. During the journey, I noticed him close his eyes and reciting Kalimah in whisper. I have a feeling that this was his habit and a routine to remember the Almighty like this in his free moments but I doubt anyone except his family members would have ever seen him in this mood.

His writings and speeches speak for his courage and commitment to the community but the speech delivered by him in the Parliament in the wake of the infamous Moradabad Riots in 1980 and the article in Sunday, then edited by M J Akbar, are in particular a glaring example of his fearlessness and love for his people.

It is said that hard times are the real tests of someone’s real mettle. What could be a tough time for him than the death in mysterious circumstances of his only son, a scientist, in the US? But even after this tragedy he continued his mission for the community as before.

Having served as a diplomat and ambassador and as a parliamentarian for three terms he had seen the real faces of all those wearing secular masks. An interview with Urdu Sahara tells it all how he felt and how he wanted the Indian Muslims to adapt and evolve a new election strategy.

After being nominated as a Janata Dal MP in the Rajya Sabha he articulated Muslims’ grievances, asked questions and kept an open eye on all the ills pestering Indian Muslims. Undeterred by the hostility of the media as well as his own party he kept on speaking and writing on Muslim issues and paid the price by never being able to return to the Parliament. In this respect (being in a secular party and still articulating Muslims’ issues), except Maulana Hifzur Rehman Saheb, he had no match in post-independent India. It was him who, in the 80s assembled Muslim MPs, from all the parties, and met the then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, to highlight the problems being faced by Muslims in India. I still remember an editorial in the Times of India headed, “Playing with fire” in which Shahabuddin Saheb was viciously vilified.

This is an irony that be it Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar or Syed Shahabuddin, the community has not spared any of its leaders from accusations and insinuations. (Sadly, Maulana and Syed Saheb both wrote extensively and published volumes of articles that would probably be equal to several books but none of them got the time to write even one single book). I recall how, many in the community accused him of collecting crores of rupees for Muslim India. In the 80s some even spread the rumour that he was an RSS agent serving their agenda and that for this very purpose he was brought into politics by Atal Bihar Vajpayee. Some went as far as saying that out of their love for him some RSS activists had even hung his photographs in their houses.

Incidentally, the story was written as a satire in a gossip column by a young Muslim journalist in the Telegraph. The column didn’t have a byline. The journalist in question himself confided to me that he was the source of the story. But since it served the agenda of some who saw Shahabuddin as a threat to their interests circulated the nonsense as gospel truth. A friend who is no more told me even a far more bizarre and ridiculous story mentioning his source someone high in the Congress with dodgy record. May Allah bless him, he later refused to believe the absurdity that I do not want even to mention here.

Some intellectuals in the community accuse Shahabuddin Saheb of creating what they call Hindu backlash through his participation in the Babri Mosque movement and the infamous Shahbano case controversy etc. The fact is that this is an over simplification of the issues and is not different from the tendency of blaming squarely Muslim League and Muslim politicians for the partition while ignoring the game Hindutva elements had started playing much before 1947. One wonders if these intellectuals had ever bothered to study the philosophy of RSS and its list that it wants “liberated” including virtually every historical mosque in India like the Aurangzeb Mosque in Banaras, and the ‘Idgah Mosque in Mathura (the birth land of Krishna) etc. Do they realise the consequences if there was no protest?

It is worth narrating an interesting story that I have quoted in an article on Shahabuddin Saheb before and shared with me by Dr Hilal Ahmed, Assistant Professor, Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), when he was doing his PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London.

He had written a well-researched paper, based on Shahabuddin Saheb’s editorials published in Muslim India. When he showed it to his supervisor, a leading expert on Indian politics the gentleman remarked that so far his impression of Shahabuddin Saheb was based on media reports and that was the first time he had actually read his writings. “From this he comes as a brilliant political thinker”, the expert told my friend.

This paper “An Introduction to the Political ideas of Syed Shahabuddin” has been included in a book Syed Shahabuddin, Outstanding Voice of Muslim India, compiled by Mushtaque Madni.

The fact is that had Shahabuddin Saheb compromised on his stand and principles he would have spent the last few years of his life in luxury and great comfort. But this is what medical doctor turned writer and activist Dr Javed Jamil quotes him as saying, “Do you think Dr Jamil, I have lots of money. In my house, meat is cooked only twice a week, not because we don’t relish it but because we can’t afford it. And you see the (old) Fiat car outside my office. I am not even in a position to send it to the garage.”

I close this obituary with the quotes India’s former Minister of External Affairs, Salman Khurshid, made during the launch of the aforementioned book in 2003, “Some narrow-minded people say he raised the issue of Babri Masjid and Personal Law for petty politics. This is wrong. The fact is that we could not take full benefit of him as much as we should have.” Then he turned to Shahabuddin and continued, “You speak strongly and clearly. If someone who did not know that you were a diplomat, would never sense it from your personality. You have ruled over the hearts of many men and women. We got in you a leader, an icon, a role model.”

May Allah forgive the shortcomings of this brave soldier of the community and shower His mercy on him.

M Ghazali Khan, Journalist


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