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In death as in life Ehsaan Jafri symbolised India's battle with fascism

At the end of his lecture to a rightwing Hindu group that invites him religiously on every Independence Day as a symbolic Muslim guest, Maulana Waheeduddin Khan broke into tears. "I hope and pray to Almighty Allah that this country comes out from its fathomless difficulties. I hope and pray that the walls of hatred will come down and people will live in harmony with each other," said the aging man of God before handing over the microphone to Ashok Singhal, who we all know as the head of the rabid and essentially fascist Vishwa Hindu Parishad group.

Just before winding up, the Maulana had finished recounting for his scarcely interested audience the number of times the Holy Quran refers to Insaan and how many times to Annas. He tried to argue that from these references it was clear that Islam was all about human beings and about fellowship between people, Insaan and Annas."Utter nonsense," proclaimed Singhal without losing a moment, even before the Maulana had finished wiping his last tear. "I carry this piece of paper every day of the year. It contains verses from the Quran," Singhal thundered. Then he read something from a single sheet of paper on which paragraphs were typed in Hindi. "It says here clearly that a Muslim should kill a kafir when he sees one."

The heads nodded in approval at this "unmasking" of the true face of Islam. Maulana Waheedudin squirmed. The function over, he shook hands with Singhal and they went their different ways.Not many years ago, there was a poet, a Muslim poet, who was not too happy with Islam either. But he had a different way, and clearly a different motive for, putting across his point of view.

Sab tere siwa kafir, akhir iska matlab kya?

Sar phira de insaa'n ka aisa khabtey mazhab kya? (Everyone except you is an infidel, how stupid can you get? What is this obsession you have with religion, this silly fascination that seems to have gotten to your head?)Yas Yagana Changezi, the Urdu poet, was tormented and tortured by his predominantly Muslim, orthodox clerical Muslim, detractors for speaking his mind.

In the United States the University of North Carolina chose a book about Islam as summer reading for incoming freshmen this fall.The school's critics object that the book selected by UNC, Approaching the Quran: The Early Revelations by Michael A. Sells, is a sanitized view of the religion, leaving out those parts of the text that advocate slaying of infidels. The author, in fact, has explained that he purposely concentrated on older sections of the text that don't deal with violence.

This particular point of view is apparently supported by the Christian Science Monitor: "It's hard to imagine that student discussions won't delve into the contrast between what they've read and radical Islamists' call for jihad against perceived enemies of Islam. That's a useful discussion. Some students may recognize parallels in their own sacred texts - for example, grimmer sections of the Old Testament versus passages like the 23rd Psalm."Those who would keep students from gaining some insight into Islam have to take care they're not mirroring the intolerance they profess to abhor. Learning about another religion should be no threat to one's own. It should give a broader understanding of mankind's search for the divine," said the CSM recently.

At any rate, going by Singhal's argument that Islam preaches hatred of kafirs, an idea that is fast gaining ground in the West too, the mobs in Gujarat should have targeted the groups of Muslims who are supposed to be preaching hatred. But Singhal's men killed Ehsaan Jafri in Ahmedabad on Feb 28. Jafri was not calling for the murder of kafirs. He did not even subscribe to the idea of kafirs as distinct from other fellow humans.

They first beheaded him, then cut him into pieces and finally set his remains on fire. Some of Jafri's close relatives were similarly dealt with. It was ironical. All of us knew what was going on in Gujarat that day, at approximately the same time as the nation was riveted to the budget speech of Yashwant Sinha in parliament.

It was only after the speech was over, well past 12 midnight, when politicians decided that it was time they also looked at what was happening in Gujarat. When they subsequently met to discuss Gujarat, not a word on the 73-year-old Jafri's death came from the government or the speaker, a courtesy usually shown when fellow parliamentarians pass away.

Jafri was elected Congress MP from Ahmedabad when Indira Gandhi, his very own leader, was routed in the 1977 elections. Before that he was a communist trade unionist. He was also the secretary of the Progressive Writers' Association, an organization that still remains officially banned for whatever good reasons Nehru saw in his decision.

Jafri's book of verse is called Qandeel, (The Lamp.) Published in 1994, it is a collection of his poems from the time of his association with progressive writers. It carries a foreword by Majrooh Sultanpuri, himself a notable progressive poet.

The book was sent to me by Mohammad Hasan Jauhar, a leftist social worker, who said it was the last copy available with Jafri's widow. Jauhar is a banker by profession. He and his wife have called off their migration to New Zealand to help found an organization in Ahmedabad to tend to the victims of the pogrom. It is called Society for the Promotion of Rational Thinking. Its main purpose is to keep the influence of mullahs minimal in the relief operations, a tough call made tougher by the Hindu right's assault on the liberal face of India - Muslim, Christian, Hindu Sikh doesn't matter.

Thanks to the book I am able to put a face to the name that has been haunting so many of us. Jafri appears to be in his mid-50s in the picture. A dark jacket and a tie, worn around a crumpled collar, intense eyes, a full but graying crop of hair, neatly combed with a side parting and a clean-shaven face. He could pass for a cousin of Kundan Lal Sehgal.

As the poems would tell you, Jafri was no narrow-minded religious bigot. From what we gather he was a communist romantic and, therefore, an atheist. His house was burnt down twice during communal violence in Gujarat. In the violence of 1969 he spent some time in refugee camps.

Singhal's bigoted notion of Islam and Waheeduddin Khan's romantic idea of a Muslim have little to do with Jafri's reality, as they do indeed with a majority of Muslims both in India and abroad. Yes, at times Jafri could be accused of maudlin nationalism, the kind, for example, that Arundhati Roy would reject.

Here's one example from Jafri's nationalist personality, which only heightens the irony of his lynching:Geeton Se Teri Zulfon Ko Meera Ne Sanwara Gautam Ne Sada Di Tujhe Nanak Ne PukaraKhusro Ne Kai Rangon Se Daaman Ko Nikhara Har Dil Mein Muhabbat Ki Ukhuwat Ki Lagan Hai Ye Mera Watan Mera Watan Mera Watan Hai. 

Jafri was an anti-nuclear peace campaigner too. In this poem he commands a young man to join the battle against a conspiracy being hatched to make a bomb. If this poem was published in 1994, and there is no date given to suggest it could be older, then Jafri was acutely aware of an issue that had not yet engaged the attention of many a latter-day peacenik.

Aye Nau Jawan
Kya Khabar Hai Tujhey
Tu To Befikr Apney Hathon Mein
Phoolon Ka Ghuncha Liye
Pur Amn Sadak Par Gaatey Huey
Gungunatey Huey
Apni Shaffaf Kanchan Si Ankhon Mein
Aaneywaley Haseen Lamohon Ki Jhalak
Basaaye Huey
Kharama Kharama
Shaadman Chala Ja Raha Hai
Shaadman Chala Ja Raha Hai
Ghar Par Tere
Nigahein Sadak Par Bichchaye Huey
Muntazir Hai Koi
Tere Liye
Aur Khush O Khurram
Tanomand Beta Tera
Apni Maa Key Zanoo Par Kasmasaye Huey
Chamakti Hui Apni Aankhon Mein
Neeley Aakash Ke
Saarey Tarey Basaye Huey
Aur Apni Masoom Hasti Ki
Dilkash Khushbuein
Fiza Mein Rachaye Huey
Chahchaha Raha Hoga - Papa Papa
Aur Tu Soch Raha Hoga Ki Tu
Yekayak Pahonch Kar
Apni Mehabooba Ki Zulfo'n Mein
Saja Dega Phoolon Ka Ghuncha
Aur Apney Lakhtey Jigar Ko
Apni Baaho'n Mein Bhar Lega Tu
Magar Kya Khabar Hai Tujhey Ai Nau Jawaan
Kaisi Saazish Ho Rahi Hai
Tere Peechchey
Apni Is Haseen Duniya Ko
Jahaan Hum Sab Ke Ghar Hain
Jin Gharon Mein
Hamari Mehboobanein Apney Bachcho'n Ko Liye
Ghar Ki Dahleezon Par Sar Lagaye Huey
Khwabon Ki Duniyaen
Sajaaye Bhaithee Hain
Aur Hamari Munatzir Hain
Pal Bhar Mein Sab Khatm Ho Jayega
Kaisi Saazish Ho Rahi Hai
Aitam Bum Banaye Ja Rahey Hain
Abhi Waqt Hai
Waqt Baqi Hai Kuchch Karney Ke Liye
Apney Khwabon Se Bahar Nikal
Aur Qabl Iskey Ki Atum Bum Girein
Gharon Par Hamarey
Hoshiyar Ho Jaao
Abhi Waqt Baqi Hai
Ghar Bachaney Ke Liye.

Jawed Naqvi
(Dawn, 27-8-02)

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