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The Rediff Interview/Syed Shahabuddin

July 19, 2003

Diplomat-turned-politician Syed Shahabuddin is one of the hardliners in the All India Muslim Personal Law Board's 41-member working committee.

Born in 1935 in Ranchi, Shahabuddin resigned from the Indian Foreign Service to plunge into politics. The former Lok Sabha member from Kishinganj in Bihar was in the forefront of Muslim mobilisation during the Shah Bano case and was one of the most vocal Muslim leaders during the Babri Masjid campaign. Since then, closely linked with the legal and political battle to win the Babri Masjid case, he hopes the masjid will be rebuilt on the land where it once stood.

Shahabuddin heads the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, one of the Muslim groups in the AIMPLB. He is a member of the Muslim Law Board's Babri Masjid Committee. A lawyer, he spends most of his time compiling Muslim India, a monthly, and writing press releases, newsletters and bulletins for Mushawarat in his congested office in south Delhi's Muslim dominated Okhla neighbourhood.

He spoke to Ehtasham Khan on the Kanchi Shankaracharya's offer to mediate on the Ayodhya controversy and other issues.

What went wrong in the negotiations with the Shankaracharya?

Firstly, there was no negotiation. At no stage was there any negotiation across the table between the Shankaracharya and the Muslim Personal Law Board. What we had was just two letters, dated June 16 and July 1.

The July 1 letter almost cancelled the proposal of June 16 and the entire approach was on one point -- donate the land for the sake of national good, for the sake of the community and for peace and amity which had an element of threat. That you donate or else… This was such backtracking and such a reversal that the Board felt flabbergasted.

There were some people in the Board who were quite prepared to further discuss the June 16 proposal because he (the Shankaracharya) had made a similar proposal in March 2002. Although this year's June 16 proposal was less than what he (the Shankaracharya) had offered last year, some people still felt that maybe through some negotiations we might be able to get something more solid and concrete.

But when they saw the July 1 letter, there was absolute unanimity within the Board that this letter left no room for any further discussion.

So when you say what went wrong, it was really the Shankaracharya turning back on his original proposal of June 16. I am telling you very frankly that even the June 16 proposal deserved to be rejected in the same manner as last year('s proposal was).

Your strong views opposing talks with the Shankaracharya has been called a roadblock in the process.

I have not expressed any view that is different from the Board. I have been saying since 1986 -- and which the two Babri Masjid Committees and all leading Muslim organisations have been saying since 1992 -- that the site of the Babri mosque is not negotiable. If I repeat that statement, how do I become a hawk?

What about an out-of-court settlement? Is there any solution to the problem?

I have never opposed an out-of-court settlement. It is not contradictory to the judicial process. You can have the case going on and there could always be discussions between the parties. If they reach a possible settlement then they can go to the court and say your lordship we have come to this decision, kindly stop the proceedings and accept our settlement. The court may or may not accept the plea. But the out-of-court settlement has to be endorsed by the court.

Secondly, an out-of court settlement has to be placed before the court by the parties to the case. Shahabuddin or the Shankaracharya are not party to the case. Even the Muslim Personal Law Board is not party to the case. Similarly, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is not a party to the case.

An out-of-court settlement between the RSS and AIMPLB does not give them the authority. It only provides a way that if there is any consensus they can go to court. These organisations have certain limits.

I had long discussions with my friends in the VHP. But negotiation is a different matter. Negotiation is always between authorised parties. Nobody is coming to the core issue. The core issue in the entire case is the site of the mosque. The target has always been the site. First they (the Hindu groups) tried to give a price for that. Then they demolished the mosque thinking that Muslims would be discouraged and give away the site.

But the theological theory is that the structure is not the masjid. The site is the masjid. The structure can be built and rebuilt. Even the holiest of holy Kabah has been built several times. So Muslims are today fighting for the retention or restoration of the site of the Babri Masjid.

If the parties engaged in the talks are not authorised, who should come forward for talks?

They are not authorised in the judicial sense. But they are surely competent. The AIMPLB has been authorised by all Muslim organisations to pursue the legal case and to negotiate with the government. On the other side, the authority is only the government.

In January 2001 after the Kumbh Mela, we declared that the Board shall not negotiate with those who demolished the Babri Masjid. We stand by that.

How do you see the role of the present government in solving the Ayodhya dispute?

We know the intention of the government. The present government is with the VHP. We know it. Yet, the government is a government. And in any democratic system, you need to talk to the government.

Apart from a court's verdict, what is the solution to the problem according to you?

We are always prepared to talk to the government subject to two conditions. Firstly, they (the Hindu groups) say mandir wahin banayenge (we will only construct the temple at the Babri site). And we say sab kuch de denge masjid ki zameen nahin denge (we can give everything but not the masjid site). The clash is right there.

So, if the government has a formula or suggestion to deal with this core question of the site, let them come out with it.

Secondly, for the talks to succeed, the social atmosphere should be conducive. So they (the government) must clamp down these loudmouths who go on inciting hatred against Muslims. Without that, there can be no talks.

When you talk of authorised talks, then it should be between the AIMPLB and the government, not with any private individual, howsoever eminent he or she is.

So why did you talk to the Shankaracharya?

Last year he was introduced to us and brought to us chaperoned by officials of the Prime Minister's Office. And it was said he was talking on behalf of the prime minister.

This year when he came to see Maulana Rabey Nadvi (president of the AIMPLB), believe me Nadvi stopped him in the middle of the sentence. As he (the Shankaracharya) uttered the word Ayodhya, he (Nadvi) said Shankaracharyaji, if you have any idea or proposal, please give it to us in writing. And that is how the June 16 letter came to us.

Again we thought it was in continuation of the last year's exercise. And you know the prime minister had spoken at the function marking the 50th anniversary of the enthronement of the Shankaracharya. Therefore we know how close he was to the government and that is why he (Nadvi) spoke to him (the Shankaracharya).

If the Shankaracharya's recent proposal, according to you, took the VHP's line, do you think the Prime Minister's Office is also thinking on similar lines?

Not just now. In March 2003 in the Supreme Court, what stand did the government take on the question of the VHP wanting the return of some of the land in Ayodhya? The Supreme Court rejected (the VHP's plea). But who pleaded on the VHP's behalf? It was the government.

Twice the court rejected the VHP's demand, and on both occasions, the government played the role of pleader and advocate of the VHP.

Who appointed Chinmayananda in government? What is his main claim to fame? He is a pillar of the VHP.

Why does the government meet Ashok Singhal and company all the time? He (the prime minister) doesn't meet any of us. I know him so well personally, but I have not met him even once in the last five years formally as prime minister.

We understand they (the government) want to show some success in getting the VHP what it wants, to buy their (VHP) support and to win elections. We know that. But in a democracy, whom do you talk to if you do not talk to the government?

Was the prime minister serious about solving the crisis or was it just a preparation for the coming elections?

He could be serious even about the coming elections (laughs). But it was definitely activated this year after a lapse of 15 months. Suddenly the Shankaracharya was again thrown into the arena.

When did the Shankaracharya come into the picture this time?

7th of June. When suddenly he came to inquire about the health of Maulana Nadvi. He was then asked to send a letter and we received the letter on the 20th of June. The next day we had a meeting.

How do you see the Ayodhya dispute?

The Archaeological Survey of India excavations so far has not shown any indication of a Hindu structure at the site. So now they (the Hindu groups) are saying 'We shall enact Gujarat all over the country or you give up.' Ten times the Shankaracharya in his letter uses the phrase 'communal amity and peace.' What does he mean? It's a threat. Exactly in the same way he said in his second letter that you [should] be mentally prepared to give up Kashi and Mathura.

What do you think about the Shankaracharya's role in the talks so far?

I have always said the Shankaracharya represents the RSS, and by implication the government. He is trying to achieve something for the government because their purpose was to prepare for the coming elections. They have clearly said that in the coming elections they will use Ayodhya as the key issue.

But you gave them an opportunity by talking to them.

It is such an important issue that even if you come with a proposal, I am prepared to talk to you. So where is the trap? They have fallen into the trap. They thought they will confuse secular public opinion and divide Muslims. They have failed in their attempt. They have showed their own future strategy. And they stand divided.

What happens if the court verdict goes against Muslims?

We will accept the court's decision even if it goes against us. But isn't it fair that the government should say we shall execute the verdict if it goes in favour of Muslims. But what has the prime minister said on this issue? He says it will be difficult in the social circumstances to execute the verdict if it goes against Hindus. If you cannot perform your constitutional duty then why are you prime minister? You resign and go away.

No democracy can survive without the rule of law. Both sides should say they will abide by the court verdict. But if a section of people do not believe in the rule of law and the country is going towards anarchy, then we will face it.

After the violence in Gujarat and the current communal tensions, how do you see the situation in the coming year?

Frankly, we have faced one Gujarat and we can face more Gujarats. That is not the problem. Allah is the protector. We cannot allow people to blackmail us. At the same time we do not overestimate the capacity of genocide. Gujarat brought them shame across the globe. The world will intervene if something happens again. Gujarat was a passing phase. The community has survived and will survive.

Muslims have so many problems. They are fed up with the temple-mosque row. So if an ordinary Muslim asks you to somehow settle the dispute, what will be your response?

I will say there is no question of a trade between dignity and bread. We want both. We are not just fighting for the Babri Masjid. We are fighting for the entire community. We are struggling for the community's rights on a wide front. We are fighting for our dignity and constitutional rights. We are fighting for economic and educational progress of the community and to have the legitimate share of the cake.

We want to survive as a community with religious identity and dignity. This is what the Babri Masjid question is all about.

Do you think Muslims should give up Ayodhya if Hindu groups drop their claim to Kashi and Mathura?

Impossible, how can you say that!

Why do you sound so harsh and uncompromising?

I am asking for the right to religion and I am ready to accept the court's verdict. I am saying please don't kill us. I want my constitutional rights. I am not asking for establishing an Islamic rule in India by the sword.


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