Saeed Naqvi’s narrative: trapped in a sectarian perspective

Book: Being The Other

Author: Saeed Naqvi

Publisher: Aleph Book Company, New Delhi

Pages: 239 h/b

Price: 599

ISBN: 978-93-84067-22-9


Imteyaz Alam


Saeed Naqvi’s Being the other: The Muslim in India” is a partial memoir and partly his account of unfolding events in modern India which he witnessed from close quarters as a journalist. The shilanyas ceremony of 1989 at Ayodhya, the writer says, acted as a catalyst for writing the book which gestated for six decades.

The book is also an elegy to the syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture of Lucknow and its surrounding which was cultural capital of erstwhile Awadh.  The noted journalist grieves in the introduction, “Rather, it’s a chronicle of my growing disillusionment, disappointment, with the direction in which the country is heading”.

The lucid language is a joy for a reader. The style is gripping. But the veteran joiurnalist has failed to shed his biases. Only three chapters into the book and one encounters the writer’s elitist, sectarian prejudices. The writer quotes Akbar Elahabadi’s couplet:

Council mein bahut Syyed

Masjid mein faqat Jumman

(The viceroy council is full of Syyeds, but the mosques are packed only with Jummans.)

Jumman, the the lowly weaver occupying leadership in mosques is at odds with Ashraf, the liberal, persianised and broadminded Muslims. Interestingly, Jumman who is an eye sore for connoisseur of Awadh culture appears to be a symbol of the commoner in Adam Gondvi’s famous lines.

Tumhari mez chaandi ki, tumhaare jaam sone ke

Yahaan Jumman ke ghar mein aaj bhi phooti rakaabi hai

(Your table is of silver, your goblet is of gold, but poor Jumman still has to eat from a broken plate.)

Instead of celebrating the development of people at lower rung of hierarchy, the elite Muslims untiringly lampoon the lower caste Muslims.

This book also rakes up the old wound of Ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal. The book suggests that Muslim society remained divided by hierarchy. Naqvi claims that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the founder of MAO College (present-day Aligarh Muslim University) was quite firm that MAO College was for Ashraf Muslims alone.  The experts on Aligarh movement, however, claim that MAO was for all people irrespective of caste, creed and gender. The first graduate of MAO was, incidentally, Ishwari Prasad, a Hindu.

Both Sunnis and Shias respect Hazrat Ali. But the senior journalist labels anyone a Shia who eulogises Hazrat Ali (R.A.), the most revered personality in the Shia sect of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) religion. According to Naqvi, Ghalib was technically a Shia who declared himself a “slave of Ali”. Ghalib, however, was a free bird whose religious attitude is reflected in his poems. Look at this couplet of Ghalib which shows what he thinks of paradise:

Humko ma’loom hai jannat ki haqeeqat lekin

Dil ke bahlaane ko Ghalib ye khayal achha hai

(I know the reality of paradise, O’ Ghalib; but to keep the heart happy, this idea is good.)

Naqvi also claims that Josh Malihabadi was born a Sunni but converted to Shi’ism later. That Josh started off with the Progressive Writers Movement and later disassociated from it is a known fact, but that he changed his religious belief is a revelation. The torch-bearer of Progressive Writers Movement India, and later on founder of the Communist Party of Pakistan, Sajjad Zaheer, is called “Syed Sajjad Zaheer”. The allusion is obvious.  All sufis and believers in moderate form of Islam were influenced by Iranians. In fact, Shia Islam, as per Naqvi, came from Iran. Culture came from Iran and Islamism from Arabia, Naqvi writes.. Jamiat Ulema-e Hind, Tableeghi Jamaat, Ahle Hadith, are all Sunni and so are militant organizations, he asserts.

Sketching the life of Muslims in and around Lucknow and singling it out as the only centre of Indo-Islamic culture is faulty. There were several other cultural centres flourishing around the time but the writer ignores them. The book claims to be about Muslims in India, but glimpses of other Indian centres of culture are missing.

The book has not been divided into parts per se, but readers may find clear demarcation. The first part includes three chapters which are pure memoir and the second part includes his observations on events that impacted the Muslims life in India.

The edifice of the book has been built upon the substructure of the introduction, which is author’s memoir and explains the motive behind writing this book, “growing up in Awadh”, the cultural centre of Shia Muslims in India, and “the mangoes of Mustafabad” gives glimpses of the culture and tradition left behind by the last ruler of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, who was a patron of composite culture.

The exile of the nawab from Luknow to Matia Bruj in Bengal was more traumatic than that of Bahadur Shah Zafar writes Naqvi. The lines of Syed Wajid Ali Shah, who used Akhtar (sun) as nom de plume, are poignant, describing Akhtar’s exile as sunset:

Andoh alam ka dilpe gehra hoga

Ai bazm ajeeb haal tera hoga

Ek shama kya, bujh jayenge ghar ghar ke chiragh

Chhup jayega Akhtar to andhera hoga

(A deep sorrow would encircle your heart

Stillness would engulf this gathering

Not one, but all lamps would be extinguished / Darkness would descend with sunset.)

This chapter also provides some understanding of the decline of culture of Awadh and its people. The langra aam, “the mangoes of Mustafabad” symbolises the quintessence of Awadh.

The famous couplet of Allama Iqbal which he wrote on receiving langras from Allahabad sent by Akbar Allahabadi depicts the bond between two flourishing Muslim centres of Lahore and Allahabad:

Asar hai teri aijaz-e masihaee ka ae Akbar

Allahbad se langra chale Lahore tak pahunche

(Akbar, this is the miracle of your healing powers, langra (the lame) travelled from Allahabad and reached Lahore.)

The chapter, “partition’s long shadow” takes us down the memory lane where the destiny of the nation state was decided. Readers interested in partition history may find some revelation and new perspective.

“The lessons of Meenakshipuram” depicts religious conversion and its impact in the later years. The veteran journalist suggests that the only way to put an end to the conflict over conversion and counter-conversion is celebrating syncretic culture of India.

The breaking of the Babri Masjid has a detailed account of the event which changed the communal picture of modern India. The writer’s sharp observations and professional acumen are at best in dealing with this event. It shows how BJP and Congress are “equally” responsible for this act of mob vandalism which left a permanent scar on the nation’s psyche. One party committed the crime directly and the other remained a spectator.

“Unholy riots” reminds of reader the curse of the two communities clashing on trivial issue. All major riots have been dealt with, some in detail others as passing reference. The writer surprisingly escapes the Bombay riots of 1992-1993.

In“A procession of Prime Ministers” though the writer analyses all Prime Ministers since 1947, the one on Indira Gandhi is the most interesting.

In“The making of the Kashmir Problem” the writer has tried to put forth a neutral analysis. The chapter “Global Error: The war on Terror” analyses how this scourge is furthering the othering of Muslims in India.

India, Pakistan and Bangladesh must accept this bitter truth that they separated because they couldn’t live together. The three entities must come out of negativity. The disciplining of TV channels is another recommendation from the veteran journalist. The mischief from Pakistan must be stopped and India should not let Pakistan exploit the faultlines in the country.

Indian Muslims need to be freed from clerics and Hindus from communal politicians. But the writer has misgivings about these happenings. He, however, reposes hope in young politicians.

Being the other: The Muslim in India fails to take into account the larger perspective rising above elitist and sectarian mindset. The book could delve into the economic marginalisation of Muslims in India which the book is surprisingly silent about. It deals with some major events which shaped the life of Muslims in India. It could have captured so much more, but the author instead chose to reduce it to a personal memoir.

The reviewer is a civil servant with the Union Railway Ministry