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Being Muslim in India

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay 

Salman Khurshid
Hay House

390 pages; Rs 699

Coming from a leader who shepherded the ministry of minority affairs during the years when several debates cropped up concerning the welfare of Muslims, including the Supreme Court judgment on the Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi dispute, the book under review had the potential of stirring a controversy or two. But it manages to avert that possibility even though it takes a firm stance on several contentious issues.

The book walks a tightrope by essentially reworking an older work. This has resulted in the author's decision to examine ghosts of the past, leaving the demons of today to, hopefully, be considered in time to come. That is perhaps why the two sections of the book, "Today" and "Yesterday", are of notably disparate length. "Today" takes up less than a quarter of the book, but "Yesterday" is voluminous. The problem with this approach is that the author unravels events more than a quarter of a century ago, but does not factor in developments on the same issue in the subsequent 25 years.

For instance, the chapter titled "Muslim Leadership in Perspective: Jaded Generals" is stuck in the 1980s' narrative woven by the likes of Syed Shahabuddin and Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait, on the one hand, and Muslim leaders owing allegiance to the Congress, led by the author's father Khurshed Alam Khan, among others. The plot of Muslim leadership has thickened in recent years with the emergence of a new class of leaders and a change in the economic structure of Muslim society.

To explain the Indian Muslim encounter with society, the author creates stereotypes. The common Muslim is named Shamsher who copes with the following: Sarkari Seth (endorser of the state), Maulvi Ghatara (representative of the "political" clergy), Sheru Khan (the muscleman), Jamura Akbar (the so-called secular or progressive wadis - no prizes for guessing after whom the name is fashioned, though the gentleman concerned has crossed the ideological divide!) and Gumchup Shah (one who stays away from all conflict). Such stereotypes may have been justifiable in the 1980s, but the Muslim community cannot be similarly straitjacketed today. A small section explaining how all these characters interact may have helped the reader understand the author's point.

The book is part-memoir, part-reportage and part-analysis. The memoirs are particularly poignant and underscore the cruelty of Partition. For instance, readers are drawn into the agonising world of India's first Muslim president, Zakir Husain, who faced the ignominy of rumours as vice-president that he was detained for being pro-Pakistan during the 1965 war. When he became president two years later, it became painfully evident that Partition dissected not just the subcontinent but individual families, too. As Husain was sworn in, the news was broadcast on the Islamabad station of Radio Pakistan. The newsreader was a nephew of the man being inducted as India's president. Naturally, his voice wavered as emotion overcame him before professionalism reasserted itself.

Division of families and mass transfers of population always leave bitter memories. This does not spare anyone, not even the well-heeled. For instance, Salman Khurshid's account of the Shervani family and the trajectories of twins Azhar and Zafar had the making of Bollywood films of the 1960s and the 1970s. Being born on August 15, 1947, they were the proverbial Midnight's Children. As infants, one was adopted by his maternal uncle who stayed back in India, but the biological mother and the other son became citizens of Pakistan because her husband was from Lahore. The two grew up separated by the most bitter of rivalries that intensified as more conflicts were discovered besides the one that originated in Kashmir. The two maintained close ties nonetheless and this obliged Muslims in India to "prove" their loyalty time and again.

The author makes a point that is particularly contentious in today's political climate. Mr Khurshid laments that although "no Muslim has so far played a significant role in relationship of war and peace between India and Pakistan", the innumerable Muslims have died in wars or in peace-time conflicts. Despite this, the author maintains that the book's title is an honest reflection of the sentiment of almost all Muslims in the country.

It is possible to agree with some of Mr Khurshid's contentions and disagree with others, but that would entail a polemical debate too long for this space. This is not, however, a book for someone searching for ready answers to complex predicaments, though it does offer some insight into a not-so-distant past that holds several keys to understanding the present.

On a personal note, the book made this reviewer confront memories of the first communal riot he reported on in Meerut in 1982. That riot is now buried in history and listed as an obscure entry in the list of communal riots in the 1980s, the decade that pitchforked the communal element into electoral politics. But the chapter on the Meerut riots offers several lessons for those trying to examine the roots of the current conflict over religious identity. The book makes a strong case for the majority of the country to feel concerned and care for religious minorities.

The reviewer is author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (Tranquebar, 2013)

First Published: Wed, February 11 2015. 21:25 IST