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


Zahira Syndrome 

A Mumbai social worker had arranged a sewing machine to be donated to a Muslim widow and her daughter by a foreign funded NGO. A small function was arranged for the ceremony of the handover of the gift to the ladies. For some reasons, while the function was arranged, the mother and daughter duo were nowhere to be found. Their reason for not turning up was, as they later explained, that they did present themselves, but as nobody had turned up at the appointed time — due probably to typical Indian tradition of not strictly adhering strictly to time schedules, the ladies just walked off. When they were later directed to the NGO’s offices, face to face with the main donors, they came out with a long list of demands that was never in the bureaucratically structured charitable agenda of the NGO. It was further a deep embarrassment to the social worker, who had initiated the whole process. The underlining problem was the lack of common understanding between the donors and donee as to what was the real urgent survival needs of the family and what the NGO was geared to offer as per its own agenda. 

A widely read Urdu writer Syed Basharat Shikooh has put this problem in a much wider mass setting. Mr. Shikooh, an old activist, who had started his young life as a boy scout with Muslim League in pre-partition era, wrote in his latest weekly column in Urdu Times, how Muslims of UP, who instead of appreciating Mulayam Singh Yadav’s role in 1987 Sangh Parivar attempt to storm Babri Masjid and the subsequent order of firing issued by Mulayam’s UP government, that resulted in the death of 22 Kar Sevaks on the one hand, though saved Babri Masjid for another day. If Muslims had read the writing on the wall, they would not have let BJP come to power subsequently, when Kalyan Singh at Lucknow and Congress at New Delhi, joined hands to see Kar Sevaks this time completing the job of completely demolishing Babri Masjid. According to Mr. Shikooh, Muslim leaders should have had the foresight to distinguish friends from foe and had not rejected Mulayam Singh for not meeting their other several demands, besides protection of Babri Masjid. But unfortunately, Muslim voters had much more expectation from Mulayam’s government than the preservation of Babri Masjid. They ditched him at the first opportunity and consequently suffered a historical debacle.

Mr. Shikooh, in his Urdu Times article, brought up the case of Bombay’s Abu Asim Azmi, the Bombay President of Samajwadi Party, who since the days of his own incarceration as TADA detenue for his Travel Agency having sold a ticket to an over the counter customer, who turned out to be someway connected with Bombay Bomb Blast. Abu Asim, approached Supreme Court and was finally cleared of all charges and freed from TADA detention. Since that about two or three years detention, he had vowed to help other scores of innocent TADA détenues, who did not had the resources to approach higher courts to seek justice and get their detention quashed. Liberal activists who were very active in the aftermath of Bombay riots, suggested him to join a political party to get better protection for his activist agenda. Thus he came into contact with Mulayam Singh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party and was made in charge of its Bombay unit. Since those early times, he had relentlessly raised his voices against all those political parties, who have been suspected of deliberately organising communal riots around Maharashtra targeting Muslims solely for political reasons. Abu Asim was the first man on the scene when police organised encounters of innocents; when police surrounded the whole village and beat up Muslims in each and every household, dragging completely innocents to jails on trumped up bogus charges. The political establishment was out to terrorise Muslim population, with the Bush-style preemptive action, so that the demoralised community may never have the courage to again oppose their arbitrary rule of the police state and organise another ‘bomb blast’ spree. All these years Abu Asim was the man on 24-hour call for the Muslim community and rushed to remotest corner of Maharashtra state to be present between the communalized police and the terrified Muslim community. This time around, he stood for an Assembly candidacy, in a Muslim majority area of Bhiwandi, which had earlier witnessed a most horrifying communal riot and which was suffering from deliberate government neglect of its bread and butter power-loom industry crippled by state levies and arbitrary rules. Abu Asim was under the impression that the Muslim voters will overwhelmingly appreciate his larger than life image as Muslim saviour, and would trust him to lead their cause. But Bhiwandi’s Muslim voters had different agenda. Abu Asim was defeated. 

Back in the days of Indira Gandhi’s emergency, I was in Kuwait and a student leader was introduced to me as having escaped from Indira Gandhi’s dragnet and landed in Kuwait. His plight was pitiable. I presented him with a hefty wade of currency notes. He kept that in his front breast pocket. Next, he requests me if I could help him speak to his brother in London, as he had not talked to him for a long time and he wanted to pass the news of his arrival in Kuwait, safe and sound. I dialed his brother’s number and put him in contact. I thought he would speak for three or six minutes, phone charges being very high those days. He kept on speaking for full one hour. During the long talk, he was emotional, hysterical, and kept crying intermittently. When he finally finished, he saw my flushed face. Instantly he reached his breast pocket, fished out the cash that I gave him, and offered to pay for the call. Though I was taken back, I could make out he had his priorities that I never understood. That call for him was more life saving than the survival expenses for the next part of his journey to London. 

Possibly, it is the same case with Zahira. When Teesta got Zahira’s case, and went to some length to see that justice is for the first time assured in a ‘communal riot’ prosecution through the intervention of the highest court of the land, she possibly had not bargained as to what were Zahira’s priorities. Zahira’s about face, attacking her benefactor is shocking to practically all well-meaning people of the nation. For one and half years, without the support system of her father and his lost business, Zahira was hoping for full rehabilitation from relief workers. A young, gullible and inexperienced person, she was prone to fall for misinformation, about the motives and funding limitation of Teesta’s NGO. Zahira and her mother were possibly not prepared to add further misery to their already shattered life through lengthy court appearances and were ready to fall prey to the machinations of the same people who had ruined their lives. 

The disconnect between the riot victims and well-intentioned relief workers, puts the onus on the latter to delve more deeply into the real needs of their constituency, which may or may not match hundred percent with their own prescription for the relief. Teesta and Abu Asim Azmi should magnanimously rise above the shock of their rebuff and should remain steadfast to their calling. This time around, they should venture forth with deeper understanding of human frailties, more planning and more comprehensive relief programming. The human spirit cannot be defeated with such testing ordeals. 

Ghulam Muhammed

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