BEING THE OTHER...
by SAEED NAQVI
Saeed Naqvi was born in 1940, I in 1974. Naqvi went to Lucknow's La Martinire, I to an Urdu seminary in my 'unelectrified' village. After Partition, some of Naqvi's family moved to Karachi, mine didn't even make it across Bihar. In 1991, I moved to Delhi. I was a compulsive reader of newspapers, in part to improve my English. The columnists I read included Arvind Das, Dipankar Gupta, Girilal Jain, M.V. Kamath, Sham Lal, T.N. Madan, K.R. Malkani, T.K. Oommen and, yes, Saeed Naqvi.
It was a time of grisly mobilisation leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The masjid was mostly referred to as the "disputed structure". Ironically, it became a masjid only after its destruction. It was also a time that made it necessary for Naqvi to write his new book, Being the Other: The Muslim in India. The book has come about because of "an act of betrayal", because of the anger Naqvi felt. He dates his anger and helplessness to 1989 and the shilanyas in Ayodhya, the symbolic transporting of bricks from around the country to the site of a proposed new Ram temple. Rajiv Gandhi sent Buta Singh, his home minister, to participate. Naqvi feared then the mosque's destruction was afraid that "the whole charade of secularism...would come to be seen for what it was".
Being the other is Naqvi's tale of being a journalist, as much as it is his account of Muslim-and Indian-politics. It is a poignant story with a dash of critical doubt. It is not that the doubt didn't exist earlier, just that one tended to push doubts to the side, hoping instead that tomorrow would be better than yesterday. Generational, regional, class and other differences between Naqvi and the reviewer notwithstanding, this book, in some ways, is also the story for me and my generation to claim as our own. The prose is smooth. And Naqvi weaves the individual and collective, the personal and political, and the national and international together to craft an absorbing narrative.
Here is the nub of that narrative: pre-Partition north India with its 'composite culture' was a golden time. Naqvi grew up in a rich family but one having to face up to downward mobility. The Naqvis had known the Nehrus and were with the Congress. They considered Nehru a messiah. Independence arrived. For the Naqvis, though, there was "no celebration" for with Independence came Partition and loss. However, for "'Mishraji' or 'Guptaji'", Naqvi writes, Partition was "a happy outcome". Yet, the doxa, the received opinion, continues to propagate that Jinnah and the Muslims partitioned India. Chapter 3 confronts that doxa to argue how the Congress stalwarts favoured, even desired, Partition. Under scrutiny is not only Sardar Patel but also Nehru and Gandhi. Partition was "the gift the Congress gave to the Hindu Right, which?is today's Hindutva". Later, we hear Atal Bihari Vajpayee say: "Partition was good for Hindus because we now have fewer Muslims to manage."
The next chapter discusses the 1981 Meenakshipuram conversion controversy, which Naqvi covered as a reporter for The Indian Express. The controversy, of course, was over the conversions, in a village in Tamil Nadu, of some 800 Dalits to Islam because of systematic caste discrimination. Naqvi's article's objective, he believed caused Ramnath Goenka, the editor and owner, to chastise him for not condemning conversion.
Chapter 5 is the account of the Babri Masjid's demolition and the subsequent terror Muslims felt; many removed the nameplates on their houses. Naqvi shows how the 'battle' between the Congress and the RSS was more mock than real. The latter expanded with the active backing of the former and there was sympathy, for instance, between G.B. Pant, the first chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and 'Shri Guruji', M.S. Guru Golwalkar, the second RSS sarsanghchalak and writer of the movement's touchstone text Bunch of Thoughts. The 1989 shilanyas, Naqvi explains, was thus not about building a temple but about laying "the foundation of Hindu rashtra".
Why communal riots happen is the subject of the next chapter. They benefit electoral parties, Naqvi argues, including the Samajwadi Party. He documents the biased roles of the administration and police. Despite the apparent skulduggery of the authorities, it is riot victims to whom blame is apportioned as armed aggressors. This theory has its root in Sardar Patel's strategy recounted earlier as "ready-made evidence". Violence not fitting this theory is met with wilful blindness, as in "the pogrom in Hyderabad" and "the holocaust in Jammu". Naqvi is referring to the massacre of over 200,000 Muslims in Jammu in October 1947 with RSS's active role, which Patel, then deputy prime minister, blithely ignored.
In the epilogue, Naqvi returns to his theme of betrayal. Vinod Mehta, the former editor of Outlook, a close, long-time friend, invited Naqvi to write from a "Muslim perspective". Naqvi felt he was being 'othered'. Why did Mehta do this? He was unwittingly following "a trend because of the way things had worked out after Independence". Naqvi's solution to the othering is to return to "India's founding fathers".
This narrative is riddled with cracks. To begin with, it falls prey to our obsession with the present. The othering Naqvi movingly writes about is not a post-1947 phenomenon; it is traceable to the proto-nationalism of Rammohun Roy, who welcomed colonialism, describing the British as "father and protector". Roy split Indians, calling Hindus indigenous, and Muslims foreigners. Furthermore, the flow between the Congress and Hindutva-style leaders, as the historian Manu Bhagavan has shown, precedes Partition. In 1946, Gandhi himself welcomed K.M. Munshi back to the Congress despite his earlier militancy and deep ties with V.D. Savarkar, B.S. Moonje and others. Naqvi also ignores institutions and political thoughts to privilege personal ambitions and interests as explanatory variables.
In justification of the book's title, Edward Said's Orientalism is rightly cited. But Naqvi himself reproduces orientalist clichés. Descriptions of Muslims and Islam as "theocracy", "mired in religion" and "distant from modernity" are nothing but orientalist tropes to project the self as 'enlightened' and 'modern'. He rarely uses such charged descriptors when writing about Hindus.
Returning to Naqvi's point about returning to our founding fathers, it is a paradox compounded. Naqvi himself details how Nehru let Muslims down over the acceptance of Partition, and over the anti-Muslim pogroms in Hyderabad and Jammu. The genesis of the Babri Masjid controversy was in Nehru's time. Naqvi is also aghast at Gandhi's acceptance of Partition. He quotes Gandhi's letter urging the exclusion of Abul Kalam Azad from the cabinet and putting another Muslim in his place. Naqvi names it as "secular pretence". Which founding father, then, to return to?
Naqvi is mourning an imagined past and idealising our founding fathers. Interspersed with this is his nostalgia for the mangoes of Mustafabad where he grew up, and so a nostalgia for his past, which he conflates with the past of his country. In mourning, the object of loss is decipherable. In melancholia, Freud wrote, one does not know or cannot identify what exactly it is that is lost, let alone how to deal with it. Naqvi's book is more about melancholia than mourning, about a generalised loss he cannot quite put his finger on.
The only antidote to this melancholia is: 'being the Self: The Hindu in India'. Will it ever be written? I volunteer to read it with a glass of Mustafabad mango lassi on my desk.
The reviewer teaches at the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne