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Published in the 1-15 Aug 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

INTERVIEW: Prof. Violette Graff

'Indian Muslims are first-rate citizens': Graff

Prof. Violette Graff, edited a book ‘Lucknow: Memories of a City’ (OUP, India 1999) and was recently in the city of Nawabs where she fond herself assimilated into the folds of Nawabi era. Despite her age and double cataract she was not deterred from joining bare-feet a Moharram procession in Mehmoodabad, 80 kms from Lucknow. She is right now 79 but someone who-did-everything-early. She did her Post-Graduation in Political- Science at nineteen and married eight days later. Brought up four-children and is now happily called a flying grandmother!, owing to her penchant for traveling. She is a political scientist a product of the Institute of Political Science Foundation, which is undoubtedly, the best place in Paris as it brings out the preeminent administrative fibre ruling France. She proudly names Christophe Jeffrelot of The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics (Penguin India 1999) fame to be her successor. She is undoubtedly an authority on Indian political affairs in Paris today. Speaking fluent English and showering praises on India over Yogurt and Lucknawi Pulao, at a luncheon hosted by Raja of Mehmoodabad Amir Mohd. Sulieman Khan, she talked to Rizvi Syed Haider Abbas in Lucknow. 

First tell us something about yourself and your first brush with India?
I was born between two world wars and am from a very small French religious minority often called as Huguenot, a transitional term for Protestants. My community has led a tormented existence, has fought fiercely for its faith, for freedom of expression and, in modern times, for a strict separation between church and state. My first stint in India came when I landed in Calcutta along with my husband in 1958. This was a French mission of electrification of Indian railways between 1958–1964 and since then I have been to India for a no. of times during the last a quarter-of-a-century. 

What drove you to study politics in India?
Since I was a political science student, which I still am (laughed slightly), the interest was almost preordained. In West Bengal those days there was a communist movement taking shape and we were just not foreigners. We were, as if, an indispensable part of Indian railways and hence Indians. After 1964, I went back to Paris and started working on Indian politics. In 1970 I was stuck in Ahmedabad as I could see the army on the streets, refugees in mosque, in Shah Alam tomb…… and that was a great shock to me I realised what a riot could really mean. Ironically, it was the first centenary of Congress. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan known as Badshah Khan visited India. 

You have also had Lucknow high up on your agenda?
I came to Lucknow in 1974 and immediately fell in love with it. Lucknow had every thing to attract me, it’s enormous monuments, its cuisine, Avadh’s history, the role Lucknow played in the mutiny of 1857 made me get deeply involved in Lucknow. 

What made you understand Lucknow so well?
The Pakistani ambassador once called me in Paris to know how I could write so vividly on Lucknow. The reason is I am from a minority and also from a region called Alsace which is on the eastern border of France, at a time it was taken by Germany and then won back by France. Most of the families were divided and likewise Lucknow also has a whole set of divided families as countless sisters, daughters and brothers are married in Karachi and Lahore. I could first visit Lucknow during mid-term elections in 1974 when it was the center of national politics. UP has sent the maximum number of PMs but surprisingly no UP CM, except for CB Gupta, was born in Lucknow. I could not meet Abdul Jaleel Fareedi who established Muslim Majlis. He had died by then and I visited Mrs. Fareedi to share her grief and found her to be extremely warm. I went to Aligarh Muslim University on the invitation of Prof. A M Khusro and got interested in AMU. The most striking difference I could gather was that there was no Muslim problem in Calcutta and there were no communists in Lucknow.

How did you find Muslims today in Indian polity?
I am sorry the scenario is not very encouraging. I was horrified when I heard of the burning of the train at Godhra and the ensuing riots that followed in Gujarat. I can really say that Godhra does not correspond to the general behaviour of Muslims in India. I live in France but my heart is partly here.

Did you speak about this in France?
Yeah. I was interviewed by France Radio after the July-August 2003 blasts in Mumbai. I was asked if Muslims of India were turning to terrorism and my answer was a big NO. They still vote in the democratic domain and I believe that Godhra was not planned by any Muslim. The Millat (community) is extremely cautious and is keeping a low profile. In 1965 Abdul Hameed became the Indian hero in the war with Pakistan. The Indian military has 2% Muslims but 8% Muslims became Kargil martyrs in 1999. Indian Muslims are first-rate citizens and that is what I have always been saying. 

Can you elaborate on ‘the veil’ controversy in France?
For this one has to understand the whole landscape of French life. 
France was called the first daughter of the Church, and the French revolution was basically against monarchy. The revolution was also directed against Roman Catholic Church. After the Prussian war a new republic emerged and a fresh secularist regime was the outcome in 1905. In 1905 secularism became the bedrock of French government. A total separation of church and state was made and it was agreed that not a single penny would be given to help the church in any way. In those days we had no Muslims in France at all. Very few Jews, 95% were Catholics and Jews and Protestants made up 5%.

What led the Muslims to land up in France?
After the second world war Muslim migrants came in search of jobs and religion was not an issue.

But today Muslims have protested the banning of the veil ?
The first generation of Muslim girls were very happy and many attained various degrees. Today France has third generation Muslim girls amidst Muslim resurgence. There is also a growing chasm between French Muslims and French Jews. Muslim boys are facing unemployment and unemployment opens a door for anyone to be swayed by a good preacher or can even lead towards drug. I am sorry Muslim areas are turning into ghettos and many teenage Muslim girls are putting on Hijab (veil) and want to have an Islamic identity. In Delhi, girls are showing their breasts very immodestly and Hindu women show their bellies which shocks me beyond expression. 

Do you approve of Muslim girls putting on head scarves?
France is not a multicultural society, nor pluralistic, although certainly tolerant. There is no problem when Muslim girls wear their veil in markets or universities but only until primary and secondary levels. The law to stop students from wearing any religious symbol, in government schools, has been passed unanimously by the parliament because that would have compromised what France achieved in 1905

Sikhs too are protected by law?
There are just 100 Sikh boys in France. The teaching community has fully supported the law because discipline is very difficult in class rooms and students are becoming increasingly impolite.

What is the over-all Muslim position in France?
Muslims account for six millions out of a population of sixty millions in France. They are now demanding Friday prayer timings, they do not have their colleges perhaps because they don’t have money for it. Government does not sponsor private colleges and we do not allow foreign money to come inside France. In hospitals, there is a problem as midwives are women but gynecologists and anesthetists are males. Muslim men now protest at other men touching their wives. In France husbands are allowed in delivery rooms. 

If Muslims feel inhibited why can’t they have their own anesthetists?
In France very few people are turning to this profession because if any thing goes wrong, there is a likelihood of a law suit, something which has come to France from US. And, it also takes six to eight years for a full course. But, then Muslims should encourage their girls to opt for this course to avoid the situation.

Finally how do you place Protestants in France?
Roman Catholic Church was very strongly linked with monarchy in France. Since the 16th century Protestants were suppressed. We were not allowed to marry because the only marriage recognised was under Catholic Church. This made Protestants extremely secular in order to survive, the same way, Muslims in India; who have secularism as the only recourse for survival.«

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