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The Rediff Election Interview/Syed Shahabuddin
April 07, 2004
Supreme Court advocate and chief of the All India Majlis-e-Mushawarat [Muslim Advisory Council] Syed Shahabuddin set some tongues wagging when, on April 4, he joined the Congress, a party he had often criticised in the past. The former Lok Sabha member and ex-member of the Indian Foreign Service, who has been vociferously advocating the reconstruction of the Babri Masjid [destroyed in 1992 by Hindu zealots], explains to Chief Correpondent Tara Shankar Sahay why he joined the Congress.
Why have you joined the Congress now when earlier you were its strident critic?
I left the Janata Dal to form the Samata Party with George Fernandes [in the early 1990s]. But when, in 1995, he aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party, we parted ways. Later, for the 1996 election, the Election Commission decided that Fernandes' faction with more members of Parliament was the real Samata Party. So we decided to dissolve our group and since then I was without a party for the last seven years.
I decided to join the Congress primarily because I think the Indian political situation has reached a point of crystallisation. Now, you have two clearly marked tendencies -- one led by the Congress and the other by the BJP. I personally believe that the road the BJP has taken will lead India towards fascism. Not only towards majoritarian (sic) democracy, which has been their objective all along, but pure, unadulterated fascism where there is scope for genocide, there is place for (religious) demolition, and for changing the entire character of the country… shall we say, muting the very idea of India.
I said to myself that the Congress has taken a re-birth under Sonia Gandhi and she is trying to heal the wounds and re-unite the divided country and provide it with a new and modern leadership. Therefore, it is time for every responsible citizen to come out of his reclusiveness and join the party.
You met Sonia Gandhi. What did she tell you?
I have been in touch with her for the last five years. I have been writing to her and she has been very kindly replying to me. I have been inflicting sometimes unwanted advice on her, she takes it in good grace, sometimes she acts on its, sometimes she ignores it. It is not that she doesn't know me. When I met her I expressed my feeling that we were on the same ideological wavelength. She said she knew all about me and welcomed me in the party.
Was there any talk of your contesting the general election?
She wanted to know whether I was prepared to contest a seat. I told her that there are two reasons why I don't wish to. One, I would like to work intensively for the party in the coming election and I don't want to confine myself to a particular locale. Besides, having been out of politics for almost seven years, I would have to put in a lot of effort in a particular constituency.
Secondly, I felt that somehow it does not quite agree with my scruples that I join a party and immediately pitch in for a ticket. Maybe a time will come when she orders me and I enter the political arena.
Why have Muslims started joining a party like the BJP?
I think your impression is wrong. Muslims haven't joined that party in any numbers. One swallow does not make a summer. Arif Mohammed Khan doesn't represent the entire Muslim community. Beyond that, even these religious crowds that are sometimes mentioned, they are the old flock. You have [All India Muslim Personal Law Board S Q R leader] Iliyas, you have the likes of the Diwan [head priest] of Ajmer, Karim Mian Mohammed Mazari… they have all been part of the BJP flock. So I do not see any queue of Muslims joining the BJP, I do not see any substantial number of Muslims voters voting for it. One convention addressed by [Prime Minister] Atal Bihari Vajpayee and a few nice words to Muslims cannot change their negative perception about the BJP.
What about the himmayatis (supporters) of Vajpayee in Lucknow who are canvassing for him?
The Himmayati Committee was formed here in Delhi and not in Lucknow. And who is the head of the committee? Has anybody heard the name of Mr Ifteqar Ahmed? He is a schoolteacher from Aligarh. So all this merely is part of the electoral game that parties play. And I don't think it is going to create any impression. Muslims may not have become richer during the last 50 years but they have become richer by their experience. They understand all the politics around it.
Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid, has just abused you and the Congress while underscoring that the BJP is no more untouchable.
(Laughs) I don't care about what he says because, firstly, I don't regard him as competent to pass judgements. Secondly, I regard him as a dishonest broker who says one thing in public and adopts a totally different stand in private. I wrote an article six months back in which I predicted that Ahmed Bukhari is trying to support the BJP, which comes very naturally to him because he has to play on the Muslim sentiment of disillusionment with the secular parties.
He [Bukhari] asks why Muslims should vote for these [Congress and other non-BJP] parties. His aim is that Muslims should withdraw from the arena of electoral politics so that the benefit goes to the BJP and none else. He is playing the BJP's game. So I am not surprised that he is attacking me more than ever before.
What is your perception of Mulayam Singh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party? Would you say he has deviated from the secular path?
I would not like to pass a reckless judgment. All I would like to say is that Mulayam Singh Yadav is a very ambitious politician and he is playing for high stakes. Ambition is no sin in politics. He once missed becoming prime minister by a whisker and that ambition is still with him. What he is trying to do is keep aloof, maintain his identity, so that if a situation develops in which neither the cluster around the Congress nor the cluster around the BJP have the majority, then he has a chance to play a game.
I would say it is legitimate politics except in one sense and which is that today, in my opinion, the real issue is to revive the secular spirit in India. I count him as a secular force. And, therefore, as a secular person, his first priority should have been not to project himself or his party but consolidate the secular forces.
Why do you think the secular forces have been unable to unite into a cohesive unit to take on the BJP?
There are many historical reasons. For example, the Janata Party emerged out of ashes and then it disintegrated. It is often attributed to the socialist style in which they go into the finer points of ideology and go on dividing themselves. In my view, the other reason is that the Left as a whole has not been able to understand the intricate link between caste and religion and downplayed it. Even [Jawaharlal] Nehru made this mistake. You remember that before Independence, when [M A] Jinnah was rising, Nehru thought he could counter Jinnah's influence, which was appealing to the emotional sentiments of the Muslims to their fear of submergence, to their fear of assimilation. Nehru thought that once he had an economic programme, he could win over all resistance. Now you see that it does not help, not in a situation like ours where there is a splurge economy and every group tries to build up its identity in order to get its due from the common pool.
What is your thought on this issue?
My primary understanding of Indian politics is that since religion and caste cannot be wished away, you have to tame them, you have to rationalise them, and you have to assign them their due place, so that they don't ask for more. And then having settled for social stability, communal harmony, and caste peace, the total energy of the nation will be pooled for a greater cause of building a great India. But until these urges are satisfied, the cause of communal harmony is not being served.
Do you think the Ayodhya issue is still on the radar of the Vajpayee government?
The policy of this government is full of deception. On one hand it says, as it should, that it is committed to upholding the Constitution and the law of the land is supreme. Therefore, at least in theory, it is committed to accepting the final judicial verdict. But the top authorities in the government never warned their colleagues that they would only accept the judgment if it was in their favour. The government is keeping quiet on this count.
It is our duty that whatever be the final judicial verdict, we have to execute it without any hesitation, whether any party accepts it or not. But the government hasn't made this clear. It has always left the Ayodhya matter with an 'if' or a 'but.' And then there is this argument of Vajpayee that real social peace will dawn in the country only when there is an agreement. But settlement means give and take, it cannot be in unilateral terms. In the government's or the BJP's language, settlement means surrender. They are telling Muslims to give away, only negotiate about the modalities of surrender.
What is the position of Muslims on Ayodhya now?
We are prepared to come forward and respond if the government invites us for negotiations, but there are two conditions. First, the negotiations should be focused. The government knows the positions on both sides so it can work out in its own mind what a reasonable compromise can be and then negotiate separately with the two parties. And, second, if there is a meeting of mind, then negotiate with them together.
In five years, Prime Minister Vajpayee has not invited a single Muslim group of eminence. But every court has some courtiers, some hangers-on, and they always try to bring them together for a photo op to tell their own (Hindu) community members that negotiations are being carried on. The government is trying to work on a very small and insignificant group of Muslims who are known as dalals (agents). This is not acceptable to our community members.
What is your opinion about Indo-Pak optimism on enhancing people-to-people contact and cricket diplomacy between the two neighbours?
Any sensible person, whether Indian or Pakistani, wishing to have a peaceful neighbourhood, believes that in peace alone lies the destiny of the subcontinental neighbours. If we have missed the bus of regionalism, while the rest of the world has got organised, South Asia has remained a diffused, inchoate body will little influence in world affairs. If South Asia can achieve its destiny and become one of the poles of the multipolar world, India and Pakistan have to come together ands have good neighbourly relations.
But the problem is, is our country convincing. For two years the government refused to talk, built up confrontation for a whole year, and suddenly under American pressure you wilt. My fear is that all this current Indo-Pak engagement is part of an electoral game. I wish it doesn't happen, but I every fear it might happen: that soon after the elections, the ebb will come and that will be a very unfortunate thing.
What do you have to say to the members of your community?
That no community, no people, no individual lives in the past. He lives for the future. Democracy and secularism provide the best possible avenues for the redress of grievances and assertion of legitimate and constitutional rights. There is no other system. Therefore, your duty is strengthening secularism and democracy.
Design: Uday Kuckian