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It will be difficult to fill Hamid Ansari's shoes

By Aditi Phadnis
Last updated on: July 10, 2017 08:54 IST
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'It is to be fervently hoped that a person as rational and brilliant as Hamid Ansari will not be allowed to wilt and simply wither away,' says Aditi Phadnis.

Hamid Ansari


He has done his work quietly for 10 years, always speaking his mind, but never in a way that it causes controversy: Hamid Ansari will likely bow out as Vice-President of India and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha in August and India will be the poorer for it.

Caste and other factors prevented Ansari's elevation as the Opposition candidate for the President of India. Not that he had a chance of winning: The decks are stacked overwhelmingly in the government's favour.

Moreover, as chairman of the Minorities Commission during the Gujarat riots, Ansari had his own opinions about the way the Gujarat government under Narendra Modi had conducted itself. So there was never a chance of becoming a consensus candidate, either.

Although many had doubts about his ability to handle the Rajya Sabha when he was first named the Congress candidate for chairman, he conducted himself with aplomb: Speaking plainly but also employing diplomacy that he learnt as a practitioner.

He spent his working life in the Indian Foreign Service rising to become India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations and India's ambassador in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan -- all hot spots from India's point of view.

The years of the late 1990s was a period of great anxiety in India over the activities of the Organisation of Islamic Countries where India was routinely bashed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on Kashmir.

Ansari was the one who took an unpopular but accurate stand and forced a change in thinking.

He argued that Kashmir was just a camouflage for serious power rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for the leadership of the Islamic world.

He told New Delhi to ignore OIC and Saudi Arabia's rant over Kashmir and counselled independent Indo-Saudi ties in a strategic manner, keeping in its sights two issues: Remittances by Indians in Saudi Arabia from a country that has two of the holiest shrines for Muslims; and that Saudi Arabia was not just the US's most trusted strategic ally but also would continue to be the most significant petroleum producer in the years to come.

There was much to learn from a country that had several social security schemes financed by wealth funds independent of oil income.

With the Gulf States no longer central to the US, it is to India and China that these nations would look to in the future.

Ansari added a rider: If the Sunni Islamic world thought Saudi Arabia should be their unquestioned and unconditional leader, they should look at India.

In his address at the Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco in 2016, on 'Accommodating Diversity in a Globalising World: The Indian Experience', Ansari flagged some fallacies.

He said the terms 'Arab' and 'Islam' are used together or interchangeably. 'But are the two synonymous? Is all Arab thought Islamic or visa versa? Above all, can all Islamic thinking be attributed to Arabs?'

Not at all, he said, India is an example of plurality where acceptance of diversity is a work in progress but more advanced than elsewhere.

Against the background of sectarian attacks on Shias and other minorities in Pakistan, Egypt and other countries, this was a powerful and well-argued point.

On so-called Muslim issues, he told the community bluntly to stop relying on the government for handouts.

'The syndrome of victim-hood does not help and there are lessons to be learnt from the experience of other minorities,' he said in the Khuda Baksh Memorial Lecture in Patna.

At the golden jubilee of All India Majlis-E-Mushawarat, a deliberative body of Muslim organisations and institutions in 2015, Ansari voiced some home truths that attracted misplaced criticism from the Muslim community.

'It is evident that significant sections of the community remain trapped in a vicious circle and in a culturally defensive posture that hinders self-advancement.'

'Tradition is made sacrosanct but the rationale of tradition is all but forgotten.'

'Jadeediyat or modernity has become a tainted expression. Such a mindset constrains critical thinking necessary both for the affirmation of faith and for the wellbeing of the community.'

'The instrumentality of adaptation to change -- Ijtihad -- is frowned upon or glossed over.'

It is to be fervently hoped that a person as rational and brilliant as Hamid Ansari will not be allowed to wilt and simply wither away.

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Aditi Phadnis
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