May 30, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/Shabana Azmi

'Pakistan only jeopardises India'

Shabana Azmi has many names -- actor, activist, parliamentarian, not to mention a couple of not-so-flattering ones that the imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid called her.

Recently, she got a new one -- Islamic fundamentalist. The term was used by Narain Kataria of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh in an email sent out to the Indian American community, accusing Azmi of having a soft corner for Islamists and the Taliban.

The email was sent out a few days before Azmi arrived in New York to take part in a reading of Shashi Tharoor's novel Riot. Azmi spoke to Tanmaya Kumar Nanda in New York during her visit:

What made you decide to come all the way for one evening of reading?

I felt the book keeps the same debate, deals with contrasting voices. In fact, the debate is not between Hindus and Muslims, but between liberal and fundamentalist positions. I felt it was very important to do this.

And you played the Hindu fundamentalist...

Yes, and I played him so as not to make him a caricature. There were certain real hurts, certain postures I took, certain completely unbelievable myths he had internalised, so I had to play him as a real person and not as a caricature.

And the reaction to that?

I was quite surprised, really, to find the audience so open to liberal opinion. And the fact that there was actually a counter-demonstration was so encouraging. I don't think even New York has ever seen something like this before. What's more, the question-and-answer session remained within the same debate. There was a lot of anger and disgust at what has happened in Gujarat.

How do you react to the hate mail that has been going around, calling you an Islamist and accusing you of Hindu-phobia?

[Laughs] That is completely baseless. In fact, it is so baseless, it has no sting in it. I have been called a terrorist, among other things. In fact, I am seen in India as being anti-Islamic by the Islamic fundamentalists. And I have been at the receiving end of their ire over my position on the Shah Bano case [when the Indian government rejected a Supreme Court ruling in an alimony case for a Muslim woman and maintained that the issue was to be decided as per Muslim law].

Imam Bukhari of the Jama Masjid has called me many names, and when I made that statement about airdropping him to Kandahar, it was BJP members who applauded me.

So how does it feel to be caught in that cleft?

It makes me more secure, actually. It enforces my secular credentials that fundamentalists of both sides are attacking me. Fundamentalists typically only strengthen each other, anyway.

Where do you stand in the political spectrum?

Nowhere. I am independent, I have been selected for the Rajya Sabha by the President of India as an individual. Not belonging to any political party actually helps me because I value my independent voice above everything else, I treasure it.

You were part of a team to Gujarat. What was your experience there like?

[Hands over a bunch of photographs of charred-beyond-humanity bodies, keeps talking] I was part of a four-member team -- along with Amar Singh, Sitaram Yechuri and Raj Babbar -- that visited Gujarat in March, after Defence Minister George Fernandes. But the chief minister refused to let us go to the affected areas, saying he could not guarantee our security because we were 'known faces'.

If the State cannot guarantee the security of members of Parliament and a politburo member of the Communist Party, what chance does the common man stand? And from my experience in the Mumbai riots, I know for a fact that victims need to see faces they can recognise, it reassures them.

What are the chances for communal peace in Gujarat after this?

We have to work towards healing and reconciliation. But nothing can happen until justice is done. People are afraid to go back to their homes, and no confidence can be rebuilt until justice is done. In riot after riot, the guilty have been getting away, sending out two signals to society.

If you commit one murder and are caught, you will likely be punished. But if you commit mass murder in this manner, you probably stand a better chance of getting away. That's the message that's going out right now. That's why it is extremely important for justice to be done as a major step towards reconciliation, and prevention of further ghettoisation. The law must be seen to be above everything else.

What is your focus for re-establishing peace?

At the moment, it is essential to be focused. Take the focus away from the Hindu-Muslim debate; instead focus on the liberal versus rabid fundamentalism. It's time for the silent majority to take a stand and say 'This is the Hinduism/Islam I want.' The Hinduism of Swami Vivekananda and Gandhiji, which was encompassing and understanding, the true Hinduism, not intolerant Hindutva.

Similarly, Muslims must say that they want the Islam of equality and brotherhood, not the Taliban version of it. Attack the fundamentalists, and deter politically vested interests.

But what can be done now?

Like I said, it's important to punish the guilty. And I include Godhra as well. In fact, it is time we stopped treating Godhra and Gujarat separately. I don't think any confidence-building measure has taken root in people's heart. They are afraid of going home, they are afraid of the relief camps being shut down. Also, there has to be a distinction made between relief and rehabilitation. The latter will take a long time.

Do you think the Modi government should go?

Well, the State failed completely, it failed to anticipate the violence, and it failed to contain it. Even now, FIRs have not been lodged, people have been forced to withdraw FIRs and names of individuals in many cases by the police.

Why do think this happened only in Gujarat?

It was the systematic campaign of hatred against minorities over a long period. Communalisation of textbooks, righteous prejudice, building up of deliberate misinformation, communalism being used as a political process, the creation of an 'us against them' theory, all these factors have to be taken into account.

But hats off to states like Uttar Pradesh, where the Hindus voted the BJP out simply because of its failure to perform, to govern, and not because of any dilution in Hindutva. Frankly, what the Congress did during the anti-Sikh riots is reprehensible, but it hasn't indulged in an ideology of hatred, like the Sangh Parivar has.

There has been some talk that the war scenario is being created to deflect attention from the Gujarat carnage.

That's a very callous thing to say. An army camp was attacked, women and children were murdered. It is chilling that this should happen. Earlier, Parliament was attacked. The Indian government has to take effective steps for cross-border terrorism from Pakistan to stop. India will not tolerate cross-border terrorism. I am afraid to create war-mongering, but a decision has to be taken since people have been murdered. Ideally, of course, war should never be an option.

How do you see communal rifts in the light of war talk, or even actual war? Do you think there might be an increase in communal violence?

In a situation like this, it is extremely important for the political leadership to speak to India's people. The message has to go out through all media that Indian Muslims are not equivalent to Pakistan. This should not be allowed to spill over. Pakistan only jeopardises India.

Do you see any end to such animosity between the two countries?

There needs to be more people-to-people dialogue and we should build on our common culture. We should make the subcontinent as a whole strong and important. Tension across borders is futile.

How does it feel to be a parliamentarian? And how do you see your growth graph?

I am quite proud of being in Parliament, I actually love it. And the fact that I am not with any party is even better, because I have to listen and think for myself. I have to do my own research for everything.

Growing up, I was so sick of politics -- it was in the house all the time -- I was proud of not reading the newspaper. But my father was confident that I would return to activism, that the prodigal daughter would come home. Even as an actor, one draws resources from life, you look around and ask 'why'. Also, the kind of films I did dealt with social issues. So that connection is there.

Your father Kaifi Azmi passed away recently. How do you remember him?

He was my greatest source of inspiration, he was literally an ideal. I am where I am because of him, because I was treated as an equal right from the beginning. It was not until I grew up that I realised that our home was an exception instead of the rule.

You have also done a lot of work with women's rights...

I basically work with women in the slums of Mumbai, and it's not just women, it's about women, children, health, sanitation. Even religious fundamentalism impacts women, with its notions of family izzat [honour]. Unfortunately, we lurch from crisis to crisis, instead of focusing on issues like health, education, pushing up the human development index, which is the yardstick of the health of a nation.

Health, particularly women's health, is on no one's political agenda. Even 54 years after Independence, [there are] more pregnancy-related deaths in India than in all of Europe. The worst part is that 70 per cent of those are preventable. If we were to count the number of women we lose every year in this manner, it would be the same as having 300 air crashes annually. And yet, this is an area that is completely neglected because these women are poor.

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