Contradictions that define modern India: Review of Saeed Naqvi’s ‘Being the Other: The Muslim in India’

All in all, Saeed Naqvi’s new book titled Being the Other: The Muslim in India is a great contribution to understanding the making of Modern India and how the political economy succeeded in creating a divide among Hindus and Muslims.

By Amir Ullah Khan

Being the OtherIt is such a coincidence that I got to read Saeed Naqvi’s new book titled Being the Other: The Muslim in India (Aleph, 2016) just as we were getting ready to submit our report to the Chief Minister of Telangana. I have been a member of a committee set up by the state government to look into socio-economic inequalities and deprivation among Muslims. The question that we were asked to address was whether reservations in educational institutions and government employment be extended to the Muslim community or not. The report is ready and am sure will be debated over the next few days.

Saeed Naqvi’s book too discusses the various factors our report looked into. It was fascinating to read his book with its amazing insight into what being Muslim in India means today. For someone who has watched the last 7 decades of independent India closely, and written prolifically on the same, Naqvi is a rare breed. This book, partly autobiographical, partly lyrical, journalistic and descriptive, is a vivid account of the journey of a community within a nation.What stands out through the book are contradictions. There is an ambiguity in almost everything the book discusses. For example, he bemoans the caste system among Muslims, but seems extremely proud of his Saiyed and Shia heritage.

To start with, does Naqvi believe communalism grew in the country because of Hindu nationalist parties like the BJP? Yes, of course, and so he says at various places. But then he holds the Congress responsible. The BJP only played its part. Rajiv Gandhi called for Ram Rajya. Narsimha Rao was Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Guru. Rao’s politics was complicated; he wanted to exert South Indian dominance over a Congress party that was losing relevance in the north. His competition was Thakur Arjun Singh and therefore the BJP led by Vajpayee was an ally.

Naqvi explains these contradictions that define modern India in his inimitable style. The book is replete with such revelations.

One story that he related had me absolutely spellbound. Naqvi is asked by Jayaprakash Narayan to escort Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan on his visit to India in 1969. The Frontier Gandhi is a formidable figure, widely respected and hugely admired. Naqvi tells us of his frailties and his vanities and how he gets used and how he is set up by both JP and Mrs Indira Gandhi for furthering their agendas. The entire tale is treat to read.

The book starts off with a nostalgic explanation of syncretic India. There is a melancholic lament that talks of those days when Naqvi’s Awadh defined a composite Hindu Muslim culture, steeped in poetry, history, shared neighborhoods, mixed idioms and an economic equilibrium that suggested grace and sophistication. However, the same Awadh goes on to become a gory battleground in a single lifetime, culminating in what Naqvi describes as the ultimate tragedy and treachery of the Babri Masjid’s demolition.

The book is indeed about contradictions. Was Nehru a truly secular leader? Why did he then buckle under pressure by various Hindu groups that asked for opening up the Babri mosque? Why did he relent on the cow slaughter issue? What about Gandhiji? Why was he opposed to VijaiLakshmi Pandit’s marriage to Syed Hussain, Nehru’s friend for years? Why did the Congress leadership agree to Sardar Patel’s view that India was not one but two nations? How did they then get Lord Mountbatten to come around to the view that a Partition was inevitable?

Naqvi breaks several myths as he goes along. Three decades after independence, he is called to interview Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who has just declared Emergency. The Iron lady, Naqvi finds, is petrified. She is unable to answer any question. Far from her reputation as a strong, determined leader, she comes across to him as tremendously confused and absolutely scared. When she returned to power she starts off on a Hindu agenda, where the Sikh was treated as the Other. Unfortunately for her, this proved to be her undoing. And tragically led to her death.

The contradictions continue. Rajiv Gandhi wins a landslide; the Congress fools itself into believing its anti Sikh strategy has worked. Rajiv Gandhi then took off on the most contradictory phase of politics India had seen. He first tried Muslim appeasement through the Shah Bano case and the ban on Salman Rushdie. He then goes the other direction and went to Ayodhya to launch his campaign to get the Hindu vote back. Naqvi blames Arun Nehru for this misadventure. The flip-flop does not help. Rajiv Gandhi loses his life tragically and India gets its first South Indian Prime Minister in Narasimha Rao.

The book’s most interesting chapter in where Naqvi describes the events that lead to the Babri masjid demolition. The first point he makes is that it was fait accompli and everyone knew that the mosque would be demolished.  The then Home Minister, the Prime Minister, the leader of opposition and soon to be Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee all seem to have known of the impending demolition and made statements suggesting the same. Interestingly, and Naqvi points this out to great effect that after the tragedy played out, the FIR that was lodged did not name the BJP – in a bizarre play, the police charged Balasaheb Thackeray for the demolition.

All in all, this is a great contribution to understanding the making of Modern India and how the political economy succeeded in creating a divide among Hindus and Muslims.

Saeed Naqvi writes so clearly and with such emotion. There is a deep sense of loss as also despondency. The rise of the Hindu right with its virulent opposition to the liberal tradition that defined India is not a new development. The seeds were sown much before the new government came to power in 2014. Narendra Modi, gau raksha (cow protection) and polarization has been the mainstream political agenda ever since Partition days.

amirA former Indian Civil Servant, Dr. Amir Ullah Khan has worked as Researcher for the Ministry of Finance, Government of India and the UNDP at Project LARGE (Legal Adjustments and Reforms for Globalising the Economy). He then was Academic Head at the Indian School of Finance and Management, after which he worked with Encyclopædia Britannica as Executive Director and Editor. He is Senior Policy Advisor to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.