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Syed Shahabuddin : The man who changed the culture of post independence Muslim Politics in India

Syed Shahabuddin

By M Ghazali Khan

Like millions of other Indian Muslims who knew, admired and loved Shahabuddin Saheb, I am deeply saddened at his death. His death is a great loss for the community, especially at a time when Muslims in India are at a crossroads and yearning for a leader who could guide them and bring them into the cohesion that is the need of the time.

Mourning this great loss my memories of and about Shahabuddin Saheb span more than three decades and are varied in many ways that I cherish greatly.

The first ever article penned by Shahabuddin Saheb that I had read was in New Delhi published as a rejoinder to K. R Malkani, editor of RSS’s mouthpiece Organiser. Malkani’s piece was titled, ‘Hindus and Muslims: A Question of Different Wave Lengths’ and Shahabuddin Saheb’s response was headlined as ‘Come out of your shell Mr. Malkani’. After this I became a great fan of his writings and never missed any article written by him and when he launched his Muslim India I became its regular reader.

In those days it was so rare to see a small letter by a Muslim in an English language daily or a periodical let alone an article portraying the true picture on the ground. News about Muslims in English publications was rare and few of the Muslims who wrote in English were extremely apologetic. No Muslim politician could dare raise his voice from the platform of a secular party against the injustices being meted out to the community and government’s discriminatory policies against them.

This was the period when by playing film Barsat ki Raat’s song, Mujhe to mil gaya bahana teri deed ka’ at the end of Ramazan and by showing on Doordarshan the scene of Eid congregation at Delhi’s Jama Masjid or one or two Muslim families from old Delhi eating Eid Siwaian all the demands and conditions of secularism were deemed complete. In such an environment  Shahabuddin Saheb’s leadership and his fearless speeches in parliament and public platform changed the culture and gave the community, specially the youths , a new hope.

My first meeting with him was very brief, in 1981, when we, the residents of Nasrullah Hostel of AMU’s V.M. Hall, wanted to invite him as the chief guest in our annual hostel dinner. He had come to attend the meeting of AMU Court. I sent in a handwritten slip to him with the peon a few minutes before the meeting was due to start and within no time he came out to see us. I requested him to be our chief guest at the annual hostel function to which he readily agreed and said, ‘Mujhe ek chitthi dal dena main fora jawab doonga.’

The next time I met him was a year later at his residence in Delhi. I had reached a bit earlier before the appointed time and he was not at home. Perhaps, it was his daughter who opened the door and asked me to wait in the drawing room. Only five minutes later Shahabuddin Saheb arrived himself driving his old Fiat. This was a brief meeting.

The third time I met him was in London when I interviewed him for Impact International, perhaps in 1989, at the residence of his brother-in-law, late Dr Majeed Saheb, a known orthopedist.

After the interview, I traveled with him from North London to Central London where a press conference had been arranged for him. During the journey, I noticed him close his eyes and reciting Kalima in whisper. I have a feeling that this was his habit and a routine to remember Almighty like this in his free moments but I doubt anyone except his family members would have ever seen him in this mood.

His writings and speeches speak for his courage and commitment to the community but the speech delivered by him in the Parliament in the wake of the infamous Moradabad Riots 1980 and the article in Sunday, then edited by M.J. Akbar, are in particular a glaring example of his fearlessness and love for his people.

It is said that hard times are the real tests of someone’s real mettle. What could be a tough time for him than the death in mysterious circumstances of his only son, a scientist, in US? But even after this tragedy he continued his mission for the community as before.

Having served as a diplomat and ambassador and as a parliamentarian for three terms he had seen the real faces of all those wearing secular masks. An interview with Urdu Sahara tells it all how he felt and how he wanted the Indian Muslims to adapt and evolve a new election strategy.

After being nominated as a Janata Dal MP in the Rajya Sabha he articulated Muslims’ grievances, asked questions and kept an open eye on all the ills pestering Indian Muslims. Undeterred by the hostility of the media as well as his own party he kept on speaking and writing on Muslim issues and paid the price by never being able to return to the parliament. In this respect (being in a secular party and still articulating Muslims’ issues), except Maulana Hifzur Rehman Saheb, he has no match in post-independent India. It was him who, in the 80s assembled Muslim MPs, from all the parties, and met the then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi to highlight the problems being faced by Muslims in India. I still remember an editorial in the Times of India headed, ‘Playing with fire’ in which Shahabuddin Saheb was viciously vilified.

This is an irony that be it Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar or Syed Shahabuddin, the community has not spared any of its leaders from accusations and insinuations. (Sadly, Maulana and Syed Saheb both wrote extensively and published volumes of articles that would probably be equal to several books but none of them got the time to write even one single book). I recall how, many in the community accused him of collecting crores of rupees for Muslim India. In the 80s some even spread the rumour that he was an RSS agent serving their agenda and that for this very purpose he was brought into politics by Atal Bihar Vajpayee. Some went as far as saying that out of their love for him some RSS activists had even hung his photographs in their houses.

Incidentally, the story was written as a satire in a gossip column by a young Muslim journalist in the Telegraph. The column didn’t have a byline. The journalist in question himself confided to me that he was the source of the story. But since it served the agenda of some who saw Shahabuddin Saheb as a threat to their interests circulated the nonsense as gospel truth. A friend who is no more told me even a far more bizarre and ridiculous story mentioning his source someone high in the Congress with dodgy record. May Allah bless him, he later refused to believe the absurdity that I do not want even to mention here.

Some intellectuals in the community accuse Shahabuddin Saheb of creating what they call Hindu backlash through his participation in the Babri Mosque movement and the infamous Shahbano case controversy etc.  The fact is that this is an over simplification of the issues and is not different from the tendency of blaming squarely Muslim League and Muslim politicians for the partition while ignoring the game Hindutva elements had started playing much before 1947. One wonders if these intellectuals had ever bothered to study the philosophy of RSS and its list that it wants ‘liberated’ including virtually every historical mosque in India like the Aurangzeb Mosque in Banaras, and the ‘Idgah Mosque in Mathura (the birth land of Krishna!) etc. Do they realise the consequences of the consequences if there was no protest?

It is worth narrating an interesting story that I have quoted in an article  on Shahabuddi Saheb before and shared with me by  Dr Hilal Ahmed, Assistant Professor,  Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), when he was doing his PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London.

He had written a well-researched paper, based on Shahabuddin Saheb’s editorials published in Muslim India. When he showed it to his supervisor, a leading expert on Indian politics the gentleman remarked that so far his impression of Shahabuddin Saheb was based on media reports and that was the first time he had actually read his writings. ‘From this he comes as a brilliant political thinker’, the expert told my friend.

This paper ‘An Introduction to the Political ideas of Syed Shahabuddin’ has been included in a book ‘Syed Shahabuddin, Outstanding Voice of Muslim India’, compiled by Mushtaque Madni.

The fact is that had Shahabuddin Saheb compromised on his stand and principles he would have spent the last few years of his life in luxury and great comfort. But this is what Dr Javed Jamil Saheb quotes him as saying, ‘Do you think Dr Jamil, I have lots of money. In my house, meat is cooked only twice a week, not because we don’t relish it but because we can’t afford it. And you see the (old) Fiat car outside my office. I am not even in a position to send it to the garage.’

I close this obituary with the quotes of Salman Khurshid made during the launch of the aforementioned book in 2003, ‘Some narrow-minded people say he raised the issue of Babri Masjid and Personal Law for petty politics. This is wrong. The fact is that we could not take full benefit of him as much as we should have.’ He said. Then he turned to Shahabuddin Saheb and continued, ‘You speak strongly and clearly. If someone who did not know that you were a diplomat, would never sense it from your personality. You have ruled over the hearts of many men and women. We got in you a leader, an icon, a role model.’

May Allah forgive the shortcomings of this brave soldier of the community and shower His mercy on him.


This article was first published in Urdu Media Monitor

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