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Book Review: Saeed Naqvi’s ‘Being the Other: The Muslim in India’

By Safia Begum

Title: Being the Other: The Muslim in India
Author: Saeed Naqvi
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2016

“Turfatar yeh hai, ki apna bhi
na jaana, aur yun hee
Apna, apna kehke humko
sabse beygaana kiya”

(The Irony is that you never considered me your own;
You only claimed me, until I was a stranger to everybody.)

Saeed Naqvi is a highly acclaimed journalist, social commentator, and interviewer. He has interviewed numerous national and international dignitaries of political importance and has traveled widely. It gave him an opportunity to experience and observe Indian political scenario very closely. He has also seen the downfall of Muslim gentry, the promises the New India made after the partition and the conditions of Indian Muslims under different political regimes. He is the product of a composite culture. Before Being the Other: Muslims in India, Naqvi has penned two other works – Reflections of an Indian Muslim (1993) and The Last Brahmin Prime Minister (1996).The book under review gives you his personal glimpses of the situations he has seen, stories he has heard, and some of the important moments of Indian political history he has covered as a journalist.

His latest book, Being the Other: Muslims in India, has nine chapters apart from a brief introduction and an epilogue. Chapter one, “Growing up in Awadh”, is a reminiscence of Awadh’s lost culture. It is explained through the author’s family history and their cultural practices. The Second chapter, “The Mangoes of Mustafabad”, takes us to the historical times of Wajid Ali Shah, the last ruler of Awadh, who was exiled by the colonial masters. He lived thirty-one years in exile in Kolkata and quietly departed from the world. The composite culture that he created died with him and he is forgotten as someone who, as if, never existed. His writings narrate the stories of that culture and of his exile. He used to write under the pseudonym, Akhtar. The author quotes a few lines Shah composed before he went into exile:

“Andoh o alam ka dilpe gehra hoga,
Ai bazm ajeeb haal tera hoga
Ek shama kya, bujh jaayenge ghar ghar ke chiraagh,
Chupp jaayega Akhtar to andhera hoga”

(A deep sadness encircles the heart,
Stillness engulfs this gathering,
Darkness descends when, Akhtar,
The most shining star is eclipsed.)

This sounds like a real prophecy about Muslims. A year after Wajid Ali Shah’s exile, the Sepoy Mutiny (1857) occurred. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who came to India as a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee on India, was critical about Wajid Ali Shah’s exile. He blamed his government for mishandling the situation and the Mutiny. The author points out that for the British it was a ‘Mutiny’, an Uprising, whereas Disraeli alone saw it as a ‘national uprising’. The difference in the usage of the word, ‘Mutiny’, points to the unity that people from different communities felt during that time. Further, the author writes that Muslims in India had to face four blows: (1) the 1857 Uprising (2) the suppression of the Uprising by the British (3) Partition of India (4) finally, the abolition of zamindari. To survive according to the changing situations, the Naqvis decided to accept the ‘Angreziat’ – westernization. The chapter is also about preserving and cherishing a tradition and culture that still remains unexplored. The glory of the time and that of the ruler is lost somewhere in the pages of history, written by the English, or suppressed by rising Hindu nationalism.

Chapter three, “Partition’s Long Shadow”, moves from post-partition personal narratives to pre-partition conflicting policies by the British, the tragic events that led to the partition, that is, the dialogues between the leaders, and the post-partition traumatic incidents, where the role of Sardar Patel, Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Maulana Azad are discussed in detail. Patel was very strong and firm in his decision to partition India. The author quotes Lord Archibald on Patel, “[Patel] is entirely communal and has no sense of compromise or generosity towards Muslims…” Michael Brecher writes, “…Patel was staunch Hindu by upbringing…He never really trusted Muslims and supported the extremist Hindu Mahasabha…” Thus, the chapter once again negates the general perception that Jinnah is to be blamed for the partition of India. On the other side, it also takes us to the common man’s understanding or coming to terms with the partition of India. His book an account of the people who never travelled outside their country and the way they were transported to the other side of the border. All these narratives are strung together from Naqvi’s memories of his relatives, who now live on the other side of the border.

In 1981, Naqvi went on an assignment to cover a mass conversion in one of the villages of Meenakshipuram, near Tamilnadu. For his objective coverage of the mass conversion, Naqvi drew huge negative criticism from his editor and colleagues. Chapter four, “The Lessons of Meenakshipuram”, takes the reader to past conversion debates, since this was not the first time that conversions took place in India. The discussion on conversion drew huge criticism in the first decade of India’s independence, too. In 1950, Home Minister, Kailash Katju, gave a statement during a debate in Lok Sabha on Christian missionaries: “If missionaries come to India only for evangelical work, then I commend to them the thought that they stop coming here.” This statement created a huge uproar and was criticised by the missionaries. Nehru asked Maulana Azad to handle the situation. Maulana wrote a letter to Cardinal Valerian Gracias, Indian Cardinal of Roman Catholic Church, who served as an Archbishop of Bombay, explaining the acceptable way of conversion and then brought up the matter of such group conversions. Maulana pointed out that such conversions could not be called religious conversions but mass conversions because they were the outcome of a social and common cause. The author then talks about Hindu anxiety regarding conversion as it is a Sanatan dharma. Later, the author discusses about the syncretic nature of Indian culture and its Muslims. He points to the facts that many Indian Muslims are part of temples and play a significant role in maintaining them. In his opinion, one must strongly celebrate the syncretic culture of the country in the face of events such as Meenakshipuram and ‘ghar-wapsi’ (religious conversion) programmes.

Chapter five, “The Breaking of the Babri Masjid”, narrates in depth the role of political parties, the decisions taken before the demolition of the mosque, and what followed after it. This chapter also documents an interview the author conducted in 1990 with Bhaurao Deoras, one of the prominent ideologues of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Chapter six, “Unholy Riots”, discusses the riots the author has covered so far as a journalist – from the Gujarat riots of 1969 to the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013. In chapter seven, Naqvi writes about India’s Prime Ministers from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi. Based on his interaction with these Prime Ministers and on the basis of an analysis of their tenire, he is all praise for Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He writes:

Despite Vajpayee’s RSS lineage…I found him much less divisive than the Congress prime ministers like P.V. Narsimha Rao…The Congress is comparatively sympathetic to Muslims…Jawaharlal Nehru … was revered by the Muslims… Vajpayee belonged to a party which regarded Indian Muslims as [the] Other. But he recognized that if the country was to come together and move forward, the Muslims would have to be reassured and integrated into the idea of India and Bharat…

This observation provides a more nuanced account of Indian political parties and also shows that Muslims in India are dependent on the mercy of political parties. They are not considered as fellow citizens of the country to which they rightly belong.

Chapter eight, “The Making of the Kashmir Problem”, traces the Kashmir conflict, based on the reportage by Ian Stephens, the editor of The Statesman, from 1942-1951. During his stay in India, he covered major political turns, such as the years of Quit India Movement, End of World War II, Partition and the other tumultuous events in Independent, including the settlement of Kashmir. Chapter nine discusses the arrival of Muslims and Sufism in India as well as the beginning of the American war against Muslim countries and India’s stand on it. It also talks about how Indian media draws its sources from foreign television news channels and do not go for direct coverage. This western perspective is then fed into the minds of Indians.

The book ends with an epilogue in which the author explains how he first understood that he is the ‘other’ in India, when Vinod Mehta, his childhood friend, with whom he shared a great bond, asked him to write a column for his magazine from a Muslim perspective. Naqvi writes, “I glared at him. Et tu, Vinod?” The author does lament the loss of the past Awadh culture and asks why Muslim students are not encouraged to take a ‘Bharat Darshan’ to understand our collective heritage. The author opines that both Hindus and Muslims should come together to save this culture: “Of course, Indian Muslim should be freed from the clutches of their clericy just as Hindus need to turn away from communal politicians. Will any of this happen in my lifetime?”

The work is an outcome of contemporary volatile political situation that compels the author to reflect on the gradual othering of Muslims in India. In the introduction, the author defines what the term, ‘other’, means. He is very conscious of his position because he comes from a very privileged cultural background – the ‘other’ within the ‘Other’, who has inherited a composite culture. The work takes us back to a city and time, where the understanding of relations and culture was distinct and peaceful to a great extent.

The first three chapters swing between cultural history of Awadh and Naqvi’s family history and show how the Naqvi family is the product of that composite Awadhi culture. The family considered Nehru more as their own than Maulana Azad. These three chapters give the readers a sense of the lost culture. However, the chapters fail to provide continuity and a coherent strand of narration. Perhaps it is difficult to put all these issues into a single work that needs to be presented in a more detailed form. Possibly, it is also because the author wants to explain the political scenario in the cultural light. This might also be because the author has relied on his memory, which comes to us in a selective manner depending on what we choose to remember and forget. Nevertheless, these chapters are drawn to show the family history and its ties with the native culture. The point of focus here is to understand the situation marshal selective memory for the purpose of countering communal politics. This politics considers Muslims as outsiders but the author’s memory negates this perception by reminding what was going on inside a Muslim family’s household and how they understand the majoritarian community, which looks at them as outsiders.

The work gives the readers an understanding of the continuously changing political scenario. It demystifies the perception of people, specifically of the Muslims, towards political parties and highlights their unpredictable ways of functioning. The work showcases some significant moments of Indian history that have greatly affected Muslims in India. Being the Other also dismantles Indian Muslims’ long cherished belief that they are ‘othered’ only by the right-wing politicians. Naqvi’s narrative shows that this is not the case they were already ‘othered’ during the time of partition of India, along communal lines. Further, Naqvi writes, “When the reader has finished reading the book, I hope he or she will have gained a measure of understanding of what is being lost to communalism. Muslims are not the only ones who will lose, every Indian will.” For the loss of the composite culture, he doesn’t blame one community or political party. Rather, he tries to voice what one loses because of these rigid boundaries. For sure, it is a cry at the loss of a culture but, at the same time, a plea to walk towards harmony and celebrate the togetherness.

Being the Other: The Muslim in India is available on Amazon India and Flipkart.

Safia Begum 
is a PhD research scholar at the Centre for Folk Culture Studies, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad. She works on the Folklore of Muslim Communities. She is from Hyderabad.


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