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Brave Mind, Fearless Conscience-Keeper

By Mohammad Sajjad
December 17, 2018 11:32 IST
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Mohammad Sajjad profiles Professor Riazur Rahman Sherwani, 94, versatile mind, intrepid intellectual.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

India must have vernacular public intellectuals who can and should 'grasp the popular as the most efficacious language and mode of resistance,' said Grant Farred, adding, 'Vernacularity signals the discursive turning away from the accepted, dominant intellectual modality and vocabulary and the adoption of a new positioning and idiomatic language'.

In recent decades, majoritarian right wing reaction emerging across many countries has partly to do with the communalisation of vernacular spaces. Jenny White's Islamist Mobilization in Turkey (2002) demonstrated the majoritarian shift of Turkey through vernacular spaces during the 1980-1990, paving the way for Recep Taiyip Erdogan's rise to power.

About Uttar Pradesh in India, Zoya Hasan's Quest for Power (1997) demonstrated how certain Hindi dailies peddled majoritarianism in the late 1980s.

What about the case of Urdu language? Well, faced with multiple problems, most Urdu news periodicals are preoccupied rather with theology, inṭra-Muslim sub-sectarian debates, and creative literature-literary criticism.


This makes it important for us to know about Professor Riazur Rahman Sherwani of Aligaṛh, an academic who, in his late 90s, has been constantly writing in Urdu newspapers since 1949.

Not many Urdu intellectuals could possibly be as frank and harsh against Muslim conservatism and communalism in independent India as Professor Sherwani (born 1924). He is an intellectual whose recognition as one has been woefully inadequate despite the acknowledgement of his scholarship and teaching among the Urdu intelligentsia.

Most of his writings, including his autobiography (Dhoop Chhaon) and a compilation of his columns/rejoinders and essays, published in various Urdu news periodicals during 1949-2015 (Masael o Mabahis), have come out this year.

His relentless interventions on almost every issue concerning India and Indians underscore the necessity and relevance of his ideas in our woeful times.

In his autobiography, Professor Sherwani has chosen to speak only about his student days, spanning 1941-1949, besides an introductory chapter on his aristocratic Afghan ancestry.

His palatial house in Aligaṛh offered hospitality to stalwarts such as Gandhiji, Nehru, Jinnah, Azad, Rafi Kidwai, Liaqat Ali Khan, etc.

Maulana Azad's 'letters' from Ahmednagar prison (compiled as Ghubar-e-Khatir) are addressed to Habibur Rahman Khan Sherwani (1867-1950), Procfessor Riazur Rahman's grandfather.

A frank narrative of these eight formative years of his life testify to the evolution of his worldview informed by wide studies and deep insights and observations about the events happening close around him, mostly political.

By his own admission, he has always been taking a keen interest in politics, though without formally joining any party. It has been amply clear to him, he underlines, that there is absolutely no conflict between religion (mazhab) and nation (watan), only if both the categories have well-defined boundary limits.

The universal and spiritual content of religion, he insists, equips politics with ethics. According to him, this is what secularism is, and that freedom is the birthright of every human.

Both these considerations make him arrive at a conclusion that inter-faith harmony -- Muttahidah Qaumiyat (united or composite nationalism) -- is a sine qua non for pluralistic nations to march forward.

He has a keen memory of the details of India's Partition to which he was vehemently opposed. He justifies the creation of Bangladesh and believes that Kashmir's better future is linked preferably with India, even though, he adds, India has not been fair and judicious with Kashmiris.

His publications against communal hatred and for the secular democracy of India abhor the homogeneity espoused by reactionaries of all hues.

His columns articulating the problems of India's Muslims display a strong optimism that India's secular democracy offers enough scope to ameliorate all these problems. He is as sharp against majoritarian communalism as against minority communalism.

His column (December 1973) criticising the Congress and Communists for aligning with the Muslim League in Kerala in the early decades of Independence is a sharp and brave one.

The collection of his columns deserves to be rendered into English, Nagri, and other Indian vernacular languages.

He hates the personality cult even while being deeply impressed by Gandhiji, Nehru, Maulana Azad, Jayaprakash Narayaṇ, and many more. His pen, however, spares none, the only exception being Gandhiji and Azad, in whom he hardly sees any fault.

His harshest criticism is reserved for Jinnah and Maulana Maududi (1903-1979). His earliest columns considered these two as the biggest of villains, and unambiguously assert that a lot of problems faced by Muslims of the subcontinent are because of Jinnah's communal separatism and Maududi's ideology of a theocratic State.

He frankly admits that till 1937 he had a little soft corner for the League even though he had doubts about its class base and ideological positions, particularly its lack of anti-colonial stance.

In 1939, when the League observed the Day of Deliverance following the resignation of Congress ministries in the provinces, his doubts about the League were confirmed and ever since he remained vehemently opposed to it.

As a student activist, he confronted the League sympathisers at AMU, who included his father who was also serving in a higher position in the university.

His understanding about the causes of Partition is: Jinnah and the League who asked for it were primarily responsible for the vivisection.

British imperialists played their own roles though the majoritarianism of the Hindu Mahasabha-RSS as also such tendencies within the lower ranks of the Congress, was no less significant a factor.

Sherwani records in his autobiography that at the AMU High School (Minto Circle), Syed Mohammed Tonki taught him history and it was he who nurtured anti-colonialism and patriotism in him through history classes. Tonki was emphatic about Hindu-Muslim unity to fight British colonialism.

Tonki's extraordinary and unforgettable mentoring of students, in drama and cricket, has been acknowledged by distinguished alumni such as the late actor Saeed Jaffery (1929-2015) in his memoirs, and by the late historian Mushirul Hasan as well in one of his columns in the Agra supplement of The Times of India.

Ironically, such a fierce opponent of India's Partition as Sherwani was pushed into Pakistan after Independence. This is very poignantly described as part of his life story.

In August 1947, while doing his MA at AMU, he was at Kasauli in a sanatorium for the treatment of his ailing sister.

When Partition occurred, he, his mother, younger brother, and the terminally ill sister, were forced out of the Kasauli sanatorium to Kalka, from where they were pushed into a Lahore-bound train. The fear and anxiety that enveloped the train is described more powerfully by Intizar Husain (1923-2016) in his memoir Chiraghon Ka Dhuan: Yadon ke Pachaas Baras (1999).

In Lahore, Sherwani's sister eventually died. While stuck in Lahore for several months, he completed his MA (Arabic) from the Oriental College, Lahore.

He then managed to come back to India after a lot of difficulty.

Sherwani minces no words in revealing that the theology classes at AMU didn't ever add to his knowledge.

On the Hindu Code Bill, his column (in 1955) was quite forthright; that the Indian State must interfere to legislate on all personal laws.

He, however, opposed the Uniform Civil Code. Instead, he suggested that the Indian government should ask each community to form select committees and their proposals for reforms should then be debated in Parliament for legislation.

He castigated Muslim conservatives on this count who altogether denied any State intervention to reform personal laws.

In May 1985, when Muslim conservatives and gender reactionaries stood up against Shah Bano going to the Supreme Court, he subjected them to scathing criticism. He condemned them for neither reforming the Shariat nor letting the hapless lady get justice from the judiciary.

Being an Arabic scholar, he argues that even the Quran does provide for maintenance to the divorced, helpless, old lady.

He also argued that even Islam in its spirit is actually against polygamy as it is against slavery. He always favoured a rational interpretation of the Quran informed by social realities.

He is extensively well read in English literature and particularly impressed with Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy.

Surprisingly, this collection (Masael o Mabahis) of his newspaper interventions, doesn't include his views on:

  • The imposition of Emergency in 1975 (whereas, he has good words for Jayaprakash Narayaṇ and his role in the Quit India Movement);
  • On parliamentary legislation against the Supreme Court verdict for Shah Bano in 1986 (though, as said earlier, he did write against Muslim conservatives when her case went to the Supreme Court in 1985); and
  • Almost nothing on caste among India's Muslims. These three omissions are striking. Or, maybe, his columns on these subjects could not be retrieved for publication in Masael o Mabahis.

In his polite but unambiguous words, he complains against the majoritarian prejudices of Purushottam Das Tandon (1882-1962), Sampurṇanand (1891-1969), and those Muslims who had once wished to join the Bhartiya Jan Sangh.

His articulation is candid, lucid and frank. He argued (in 1966) that there are two kinds of forces, one communal (among both Muslims and Hindus) and the other secular.

Negotiation between the two is uncalled for. One has to be clear about one's options.

He, however, keeps adding that the ruling Congress is not the sole monopoliser of secularism in the Indian Republic.

He says that India can be strengthened by all non-communal forces -- the Congress, Socialists, Left forces, in competitive and complementary ways.

He urged Muslims to further the ideologies of any of these forces, and sternly warned against forming any Muslim exclusive political party.

He was particularly associated with two Urdu newspapers in Aligaṛh, Naya Hindustan (launched on August 15, 1948), and Jamhoor (launched on January 26, 1950). These ran roughly up to the late 1950s. Their objective was to wrest the common Muslims out of the clutches of the conservatives and to shun their isolation syndrome.

He contributed his columns, rejoinders, letters to editors, in almost every important Urdu newspaper of Delhi, UP, and in Paṭna, which he subscribed to and has preserved all files in his residence.

His understanding about communal violence was that these were always motivated by the politics of polarisation and that its recurrence had to do with the failure of the criminal justice system. In this regard, at least once, he is unsparing even about Nehru in the case of the Jabalpur riots of 1961.

He has neatly categorised sections for his columns on communalisation of society and polity, and on communal violence.

His columns and travelogues of the early 1950s, castigate the failing state of Pakistan which according to him had its genesis in exclusionary nationalism.

It won't be an exaggeration to argue that his columns are necessary reading for any researcher working on India's Muslims since Independence.

He wrote around 30 obituaries. These include people of all ideological shades: Acharya Narendra Dev (1889-1956; a Gandhian socialist); K G Mashruwala (editor of Gandhiji's weekly Harijan), Syama Prasad Mookerjee (1901-1953; the Hindu Mahasabha leader), Gandhiji, Maulana Azad (Azad's passing was greatest of all tragedies, according to him), Nehru, Rafi Kidwai (1894-1954), Asaf Ali (1888-1953), among others.

Sherwani detested Jinnah's unpalatable words of condolence over Gandhiji's assassination, and he voiced it in Lahore, in the midst of Jinnah's fans.  Even in his death, and a tragic one at that, Jinnah had identified Gandhiji as only a Hindu leader.

In Sherwani's list of obituaries, some conspicuous omissions are Ram Manohar Lohia (1910-1967) and the Arabic scholar Ali Miyaṅ Nadvi (1914-1999). They do not seem to have drawn his attention at all.

Despite a versatile intellect and brave interventions on every contentious issue, this intrepid writer has not been identified as a public intellectual even within AMU. This is quite intriguing. Had it anything to do with his personality trait of preferring isolation?

Or is it a reflection on AMU campus society in particular and north Indian Muslim society in general that he has not been raised to the status of a public intellectual?

Why this indifference to Sherwani on the part of the Urdu literati/intelligentsia?

His son Madihur Rahman Sherwani (Suhaib), formerly a teacher of English literature and a CPI whole-timer, seems to suggest that Professor Sherwani is essentially a self-effacing man. Some of his contemporaries and colleagues make similar suggestions about his personality.

Another pressing question that crops up here is: Why have academicians been failing in mentoring and training students who could emerge as progressive interventionists in academic as well as popular (journalistic) domains towards strengthening India's pluralistic traditions of politics and social harmony?

Professor Sherwani, who in his late 90s, has hearing and visual problems, but has not given up on studies and is always surrounded with books.

May he live longer, healthier and happier.

And most important of all, liberal progressive academia must pay attention to writing and mentoring vernacular columnists.

That will ensure greater hopes for a better India.

Professor Mohammad Sajjad, who is at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, is the author of Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours and Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur since 1857.

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Mohammad Sajjad