|A modern day Prometheus
narrates his side of the story of valour and faith
minor role in major affairs.
Author: Tahir Mahmood.
Price: Rs 300 (foreign by airmail: US$15) Order.
Publishers: Pharos Media &
Publishing Pvt Ltd, D-84 Abul Fazal Enclave-I, Jamia Nagar New Delhi
Prof. Tahir Mahmood is one of the keenest legal
minds of our times. Alternately charming and acerbic -- charming in his
social graces and his penchant for poetry, and acerbic when it comes to
legal nitty gritty – Prof. Mahmood can be liked or disliked, but can in
no way be ignored.
That is why when this Delhi University don took over as the chairman of
the National Commission for Minorities in 1996, a lot of hope was raised
among the minority communities in the country, besides among people
working for human rights and civil liberties, media and academia.
Saiyid Hamid noted in his editorial in Nation and the World that the
commission had finally got a head who would not be contented to remain a
mere ceremonial figure. Saiyid Hamid’s was not a lone voice in the
minorities-run media. Thankfully, Prof. Mahmood more than fulfilled those
hopes (of course, within the severe legal limitations of the commission).
The late Ali Mian had also expressed similar hopes. Prof. Mahmood has
reproduced parts of some of the personal letters written to him at the
time and parts of the editorials and other mention in the media, which
includes national media, in the book under review.
Prof. Mahmood has suggested measures to overcome the legal ineffectiveness
of the commission. Instead of waiting for things to happen, he went on to
reorganize and streamline the working of the commission. That gave him an
activist profile, to the consternation of the civil service, which as
Prof. Mahmood rightly points out, has been specializing in thwarting work,
rather than facilitating it. Despite his best efforts and the perfect
legality of what he proposed as the chairman of this watchdog body of
citizens’ important rights, the burgeoning babudom saw to it that
whatever came from him was quietly shelved.
To give the professor his due, it was only during his tenure that most
people became really aware of the Commission’s existence. Before his
time even journalists on the commissions beat (like Public Service
Commission, Law Commission and Human Rights Commission etc.) were not
unduly bothered by what the Commission for Minorities was really up to. He
changed everything with his periodic press conferences, personal contacts
with the media as well as his Minorities India journal, brought out by the
commission, with his initiative and under his editorship. Of course, this
too was not liked greatly by some people in the bureaucracy.
Prof. Mahmood talks about this in detail, minus the episodes of
heart-burning in some quarters. He enlivens it with bits of Urdu poetry
(with translation for the non-Urdu folk). Without getting swayed by
admiration or discouraged by silent ill-will or apathy, he forged ahead
single-mindedly in pursuit of the cause of the minorities.
A stickler for detail, he saw to it that the national majority (the Hindu
community), which was in minority in areas like Kashmir and parts of the
North-East, was considered as a local minority, availing of the protection
guaranteed by Constitution to all minorities as such.
Prof. Mahmood disagrees sharply with Mr Bumble, who believed that ‘the
law is an ass’. To the professor, the law is not an ass at all, nor can
anyone, howsoever powerful, be allowed to make an ass of the law. However,
he had the unenviable experience of heading the Minorities Commission at a
time when the Centre was ruled by a BJP-led coalition. This was a time
when people specializing in making an ass out of the law were holding
ministerial positions. (The fun these people have at the cost of the law
can be seen from their depositions before the Liberhan Commission.)
That the NDA dispensation had no use for a man like this was quite clear.
The first thing that the next chairman did was to exonerate the Sangh from
the guilt and culpability of organized attacks on Christians. The
illustrious successor of Prof. Mahmood saw these attacks as random,
unplanned and unrelated to Hindutva hooliganism. Not surprisingly, his
report was promptly tabled in Parliament, while none of the Commission
under Prof. Mahmood was allowed such treatment.
Prof. Mahmood rightly observes that the commission can either be a lapdog
of the government of the day or the watchdog of the rights of the
underprivileged. In no case can it manage to be both. From the outset he
knew that he could not hope to curry favour with the government and remain
faithful to his constitutional obligations. He chose fidelity to the
He quotes from a letter from the eminent jurist Justice Krishna Iyer at
the time of his joining the commission: ‘The task is tough, the journey
is long, but the goal must be attained if our democracy is to remain. Your
office is a patriotic challenge of the fulfillment of the secular,
egalitarian promise of the Nation.’
God knows Prof. Mahmood manfully performed the tough task and undertook
the arduous journey. However, the Promethean effort was largely rendered
ineffective by a callous dispensation. The ‘egalitarian promise’ would
take more Tahir Mahmoods to be fulfilled. May his tribe increase. Amen! q