Exclusive interview by Ather Farouqui
Syed Shahabuddin, a former member of the Indian Foreign Service, is one of the most articulate Muslim politicians of independent India. He bears a lot of responsibility for the Hindu backlash (which, in turn, has fanned Muslim fundamentalism, leading to militant postures in certain quarters) as a response to the Shah Bano case and the Babri Masjid movement. Syed Shahabuddin, whose organization of these two movements met with an unprecedented response from Muslims, finds himself isolated today. This certainly merits a serious study of contemporary Indian Muslim Politics. Syed Shahabuddin was till recently the President of the All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, which split into two factions sometime back. He now exercises control over the AIMMM faction, which he claims is the umbrella organization of all Muslim political parties and active groups. Despite this claim of support and popularity, he has failed to make it to Parliament for a good 12 years now. This situation is also a reflection and a sad commentary on contemporary Muslim politics.
Earlier, Syed Shahabuddin had a 20-year long stint in Parliament, getting elected from Kishanganj in Bihar, which is a Muslim-majority constituency, but remains extremely backward, pointing to lack of nurture by him. So, the backwardness of Muslims has been used by Shahabuddin only to reinforce his atavistic politics. After the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and his failure at the hustings, Syed Shahabuddin has raised innumerable controversies.
This freewheeling interview poses all those questions which were never asked of him earlier and should facilitate historians in the future in understanding the dynamics of society which help breed his kind of personalities.
January 1, 2011
Q. Generally, Muslim bureaucrats opt for pro-establishment political life and that too only after retirement. You chose anti-establishment politics (though you had joined the ruling Janata party in 1978 at the inception of your political career) after resigning from the Indian Foreign Service. Has there been any other instance of a Muslim civil servant in post-partition India resigning from the civil services to join politics? You were and remain to this day a difficult and rather unpredictable person. The latter perhaps because the Indian political establishment never seriously accepted Indian Muslim politicians or ever tried to understand them. It, the Congress party in other words, until 1977 always took Muslim politicians, particularly of north India, for granted and treated them as subservient. It is a well known fact that in order to win you over Ms Indira Gandhi offered you a Minstership, the Chairmanship of the National Commission for Minorities and the Vice Chancellorship of Aligarh Muslim University after your resignation from the Foreign Service to join politics. What made you decline the offer?
A. After the rule for premature retirement came into force in 1978, I was the first officer from the ranks of the IAS, IFS and IPS to take advantage of it so I am not only the first Muslim but also the first officer from those cadres to do so.
As far as the offer of AMU vice-chancellorship is concerned, Ms Indira Gandhi never spoke to me directly but she sent a very senior MP and two Bihari ministers and it was suggested to me that I accept the vice-chancellorship. I declined. At that time Mr Saiyid Hamid’s name was doing the rounds and I recall having met him on one occasion and telling him that I was not interested and wanted to stay in public life. My main reason was, as you have said, that I guessed Ms Gandhi was anxious to see the last of me in Delhi.
Q. Not only your political life but also your tenure as a member of the elite Indian Foreign Service was controversial. You were a Left-winger in your student days. I don’t know whether it is true or not that you were a member of the CPI but it is a fact that initially you were not allowed to join the IFS because of your association with the Left. An adverse police report alarmed the government. Eventually, you joined the cadre. People say that Jawaharlal Nehru intervened by making a recording on your file (and on the file of the late J.N. Dixit. He himself told me that Nehru had written on his file that the inclusion of a Left winger in civil services is the best way to appropriate him). Will you now please tell what was the real story or the part of story that you know?
A. It is true that there was a police report against me and that is why my letter of appointment to the IFS was delayed. I have no idea whether J.N. Dixit faced a similar difficulty.
There were ten vacant spots in the Foreign Service in 1958, nine were filled. Muchkund Dubey, who was my contemporary in the University, was a year senior to me in the Service since he became eligible for taking the exam a year before me, wrote to me, while I was teaching at Patna University, to tell me that nine probationers of 1958 batch had joined the training school and that, according to his information, one spot was being kept vacant for me. He asked me to find out what had gone wrong.
The top man in Bihar police intelligence at that time was Mr S.P. Verma whom I knew because of my involvement in the Patna Firing Disturbance in 1955. So I requested him for an urgent meeting. I asked him what he had written against me. He laughed and said he couldn’t disclose that. But he assured me that the police report wouldn’t finally go against me. In India , there are many ways of finding out what a police report says and I managed to get hold of its text. What it said was that Shahabuddin had led the student agitation (in 1955), which was true but then added a blatant lie that I was a member of the Communist Party, which I was not. I was known to be a Leftist in my views and still am a socialist by conviction. Also I used to be a good debater in English, Urdu and Hindi, politically active in the campus, but I was not a member of any political party. But then the intelligence report went on to say that for the past one year I had been teaching in the university and had not come to any adverse notice. I suppose that was the saving grace which Mr Verma had hinted at. I had seen Jawaharlal Nehru during the disturbances, so I immediately wrote to him that I was a socialist by conviction but I had never been a member of any political party. I don’t know what action Nehru took or if he took any action at all but within a week or so I happened to meet General Shahnawaz Khan in the house of Justice Naqui Imam who was very fond of me, as he used to visit the university very often to preside over debates and distribute prizes. The General was then Deputy Railway Minister. He immediately offered to take me to Delhi in his special saloon. I declined and said I would reach there in a few days. When I reached Delhi and went to General saheb’s residence, I was told that he had gone to Chelmsford Club to play squash. I found him there and he gave me a lovely breakfast. He advised me to go and see Mr Humayun Kabir later in the day. Humayun Kabir asked me to state my case in black and white. I said that all I wanted was an opportunity to see Mr Nehru because he would recognize me. I got a call a day later saying that the file had already reached Nehru’s table and I should see Mr Chakravarty, then Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, later the Governor of Haryana. So the next day I went to see him. ‘The Prime Minister has ordered your appointment,’ he said, ‘but he has asked me to give you a talk on the responsibilities of the Civil Service.’ He then asked me a few questions about what had happened in 1955 and what I had told the Justice Das Commission of Inquiry. I told him that in protest against police firing on the students, I had organized a procession of 20,000 students from the university area to the airport to greet Jawaharlal Nehru with black flags. It was raining. So along with a few others, we saw Pandit Nehru at the Raj Bhawan. I still recall his words, ‘Goli chalana buri bat hai par jab goli chalti hai to kisi na kisi ko lag jati hai.’ He was referring to the killing of Panday, a student. Later that evening, some banners in Gandhi Maidan, planted by a Congress leader, obstructed Nehru. He lost his temper and threatened the students with punishment if they were found to be in the wrong.
A few days after I saw Mr Chakravarty and got my letter of appointment. I joined the IAS Training School at the Metcalf House in the Civil Lines Delhi in May 1958, about a month later than my batchmates. So while it is true that there was a police report against me, which delayed my appointment, it’s also correct that Nehru overruled it.
I learnt from Natwar Singh, who was then Under Secretary in charge of the IFS (personnel), that Nehru had written a few lines in his own hand on my file. Natwar Singh had copied and distributed it to a few friends. He also shared it with me: “I have known Shahabuddin during the Patna disturbances. His participation in the disturbances was not politically motivated. It was an expression of his youthful exuberance.” So Nehru had given me a clean chit.
Subsequently, nine months later, when I was about to embark on my first posting abroad, as a probationer back in Delhi after my district training, I was deputed to serve as Liaison Officer for the UN Secretary General, Mr Dag Hammarskjoeld, on his visit. I accompanied him everywhere including the official dinner at the PM’s House at Teen Murti, which is now Nehru Museum and Library. After the dinner when the guests were sipping coffee on the open terrace, I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around to face Nehru who said affectionately, ‘So you are that naughty boy from Bihar’.
I had no formal connection with any political party, but I was certainly a Leftist in my views. This explains why in my 15 years in Parliament, except on issues connected with Muslim Personal Law and the Babri Masjid, almost never I took a line different from the Left parties on the floor of the House. The same is true of my entire public life.
Q. As an IFS officer, it is said that you won the confidence of the government, and were considered very close to Indira Gandhi. All kinds of stories were in circulation about you. One of them was that when the Islamic Development Bank, Jeddah, offered a grant (through the Government of India) for the educational uplift of Indian Muslims, you strongly opposed the idea. What were the reasons for your opposition, if the story is true?
A. I had already served in Saudi Arabia for three years (1963-66) before the question of financial assistance by the Islamic Development Bank, Jeddah, to Muslim organizations in India came up. Wherever I have served, I have always tried to develop at my own personal level good rapport with the people at the top who matter or who are concerned about India and interested in Indian foreign policy. In Saudi Arabia , one of them was Dr Ahmad Mohamad Ali, president of the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), I suggested to him that if the IDB wished to do something for Indian Muslims, the best approach would be to fund their education not just in India but also higher studies abroad on condition that they went back to India . When I returned to India, I spoke of this to some like-minded people. They approached Ms Gandhi informally. Her response was that if the IDB offered financial assistance to provide education to Muslims, she wouldn’t stand in the way. Whether the Indian government lived up fully to that commitment is another matter, as getting the FCRA (Foreign Contribution and Registration Act) clearance, which is basically an Intelligence Bureau clearance, is a Herculean task for Muslim organizations and institutions. Later, at an international conference in Mecca on Muslim Education, the assurance of Ms Indira Gandhi was conveyed to the officials of the IDB. The IDB for its own reasons wanted to route the assistance through organizations of its choice but with clearance from the Government of India. Apparently, there was and still is no problem between Government of India and the IDB. As the IDB also wanted to play safe, the people associated with the IDB programme were close to the Indian establishment.
Since then I have met Dr Ahmad Mohamad Ali and his officers several times on my visits to Jeddah and have asked them to increase the funds. I was told that they had set aside $50 million for India but had not been able to exhaust it. Most of the Muslim institutions do not know how to access the grant or how to obtain FCRA clearance from the Ministry of Home Affairs.
It is false to say that the IDB file was sent to me formally by the Government of India and that I was formally consulted before the decision was taken and opposed it.
Q. You were certainly part of the Government of India (which was then synonymous with Ms Indira Gandhi) programme for the establishment of East Bangladesh. Incidentally, you were in the Congress when during the campaign for UP Assembly elections in 2007, Rahul Gandhi openly stated in one of his public meetings that the Nehru family had very proudly bifurcated Pakistan. (You disassociated yourself from the Congress three years after the Assembly elections, not on this issue because the Congress found no use for) Anyway, when the subcontinent was repartitioned in 1971, you, as a career diplomat, campaigned for Government of India in Muslim countries (certainly using your Muslim name), which people felt was not in consonance with your official brief.
A. As far as Bangladesh is concerned, I certainly worked for its formation because I had long ago visualized like Azad that the magic of Pakistan would wear off in course of time. Among key reasons for the failure of the idea of Pakistan was its step-motherly treatment meted to the people of East Pakistan, still being dealt out to the people who migrated from Bangladesh and are living in miserable conditions in camps.
Later in my writings I have called 1971 a watershed for Muslim politics in India. After the establishment of Pakistan , for the first time after 1971, Indian Muslims realized that Pakistan offered them no hope, no future and itself had no future. Muslims of India were and are convinced that the fulfillment of their aspirations depends entirely upon their standing in their own country, India. That realization not only put Indian Muslims on the right track but also gave them the courage and determination to face their situation squarely, to stand up and assert themselves.
To my mind, therefore, the establishment of Bangladesh is an extremely important event for Indian Muslims, quite apart from the humanist consideration that people under a repressive government struggling for liberation deserve universal support. I believe that the creation of Bangladesh has given a boost to the emergence of Indian Muslims as a factor in Indian politics. Prior to 1971, Indian Muslims hardly spoke their mind; it was only after 1971 that they began to give voice to their grievances. So, to my way of political thinking, the revolution in Bangladesh had a major impact on the entire subcontinent and particularly on the mind of the Muslim community in India.
Thus during the struggle for the formation of Bangladesh, i.e. the liberation of East Pakistan, I did whatever I possibly could, much beyond the call of duty. I was then serving in Venezuela as Charge d’ affaires. My work was appreciated and I got a letter from the Ministry of External Affairs saying that the four long-established embassies in Latin America had not done as much for the cause of liberation of Bangladesh as I had. I was alone but I worked day and night; I had learnt to speak Spanish fluently and had contacts with all sections of Venezuelan society. So much so that every time I happened to see Dr Rafrel Caldera, the President of the Republic, he would embrace me and address me as Ambassador, not as Charge d’ affaires. At the Conference of the International Parliamentary Union in Caracas, the President of the Republic gave a big reception. The Speaker of Parliament, Mr G.S. Dhillon, led the Indian delegation. I took him to the President’s House and he noticed how friendly I was with the President and everybody who mattered. When I was leaving I thanked the President and he responded in Spanish, ‘This is your house.’ This is a customary Spanish tradition, inherited from the Arabs. When I translated this for Mr Dhillon, he was amazed.
Let me give you the background of the Bangladesh story.
Ms Gandhi had gone to Venezuela in 1967, the first Indian Prime Minister to do so and promised to establish an Indian Embassy there. Prior to that there were only four Indian embassies in all of Latin America, Central and South America combined: In Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. Ms Gandhi had visited Peru as well and promised an embassy there. That is how the Embassy in Venezuela was established in 1969 and I was the first Indian diplomatic representative. I was not senior enough to be designated Ambassador. So I became Charge d’ affaires and a colleague, Margaret Alva’s brother Alan Nazareth, who was two years junior to me, was given charge of Peru. In 1971 I had a good time in Venezuela. Thrice I got resolutions in support of the formation of Bangladesh passed by Venezuelan Parliament, the National Congress. I got the Catholic Church to support the cause; I got labour organizations to support it. In 1972, when I was leaving Venezuela, the only English newspaper there, ‘The Daily Journal’, wrote an editorial, terming me a ‘one man General Staff for Bangladesh; and honorary Ambassador for Bangladesh’. During the crisis, the Government of India sent Shri Raj Bahadur, a Cabinet minister, to visit various countries of South America to seek their support before India intervened. I was deputed to accompany him. So I visited several countries along with him. He wrote me a long letter of appreciation.
I maintained good relations with Arab Ambassadors and kept track of developments in the Arab and Muslim world but I had nothing to do with the cause of Indian Muslims at that point of time. Your question whether I lobbied in Muslim countries against Pakistan needs to be rephrased. I did not visit any Muslim country. I did the best I could to promote our national interest as an Indian Foreign Service officer and to satisfy my conscience as an Indian Muslim.
Q. There are rumours that work for the Government of India during your IFS days was cloaked in secrecy. And during one such mission you received bullet injuries. What was the reality of those bullet injuries?
A. After the end of my term in Algeria (1972-75), which was my last foreign assignment in the Service and my only one as full ambassador, I came to India and joined the Ministry of External Affairs. This incident occurred in June 1975 when I had received my transfer order and was about to leave Algeria. I was out with my family for a picnic. I was driving my personal car. We were looking for a picnic spot. I passed a hillock with a gate. The gate was open. I entered and started to drive up. As I approached the top, I saw a house. I reversed my car but, before I could drive away, the security guards fired at my car and nearly hit my youngest daughter severely. My wife and I were also hit; my elder daughters were also injured in the back.
Let me clarify that I was not on a secret mission. Nor do I think it was a politically motivated attack. But the incident gave me an insight into the mind of a dictatorship and how it functioned. I was told that the Algerian authorities were keeping the former leader Ben Bella under house arrest and that he was being shifted from one safe house to another and on that day he was in that particular house and the security guards had orders to shoot anyone who approached the house. When I was being treated for my injuries at the Military Hospital, the General in charge of the region, a Member of the Revolutionary Council, came to see me, apologized profusely for the incident and went on to say that the imperialists were very mischievous and clever and often sent their commandos to wrest Ben Bella away. I told him that perhaps they also instructed their commandos to take their families with them when they went on such missions!
What surprised me more was that when I asked if it was a security area, why it had not been closed to traffic with a sign put up to prohibit entry, I was told that a sign would only serve to tell the whole world that it was a security area.
I had strayed into this area by mistake without any political purpose and the shooting created a furore in diplomatic circles and all Ambassadors felt that the Government of India should have lodged a strong protest, but my superiors in Delhi advised me to lie low. Because of this attitude of the Government of India, all sorts of rumours to the effect that I had deliberately gone into a security area began doing the rounds. I was indeed amazed and disappointed that the Government of India did not even lodge a protest.
Anyway, I had already completed my tenure of three years and I was on my way out, and soon left the country. Yes the Algerians had my car repaired and treated us at the military hospital where the then Foreign Minister Abdul Aziz Bruteflisca, now president, sent me a bouquet of flowers to wish me speedy recovery.
One more thing about my tenure in Algeria needs to be put on record. Jayaprakash Narayan had addressed a meeting at Ram Lila ground here in Delhi, on 25 June, 1975, before he was arrested. The Ministry sent out a circular to all diplomatic missions abroad directing them how to present this event to the countries of their accreditation. They were asked to tell them that JP had been put behind bars because at a public meeting he had tried to incite the army and police to rise against the Government. This was the public line taken by the Indira Gandhi Government. I make one claim; I must have been the only Indian ambassador in the world to question the Government line. I refused to brief the Algerian Government and I asked the Government for more details and the exact words JP used. I never got a reply.
Q. Your political life was a big surprise to everyone and you remained one of the most controversial Muslim leaders. You forced everybody (including religious organizations and political outfits) to follow you whenever you needed them in the same fashion as Mohammad Ali Jinnah did. You were not considered friendly with the establishment in your political life and you worked in Parliament for a good 20 years on your own terms. This is a difficult and damning thing to say but the fact is that nothing positive emerged publicly for the Muslim fraternity out of your politics. Perhaps this may be left for future historians to analyse. You led the Shah Bano and Babri mosque movements and articulated the Muslim position to suit your own agenda. I feel this was the main cause of Hindu backlash and led to a decisive rise in support for the majoritarian Hindu view. Could you please spell out what the agenda of your political career was and how successful it was in your own assessment?
A. My political mission was to bridge the gap between the Muslim community and national politics and bring them closer to each other. That is why one thing I can say with confidence is that not only when I was in the Parliament but even today, there is not a single issue of any consequence or concern to the nation and Muslim community which in one way or the other does not reach me and about which I don’t do something if I can. This I consider to be a great privilege. My purpose has always been that the legitimate grievances, aspirations and interests of the Muslim community be projected before the nation, articulated effectively, not in an excessive or extremist manner but within the framework of the Constitution. That has been my basic line. Of course, in addition, Parliament gave me an opportunity to present my views fearlessly on any matter, without seeking reward or apprehending criticism. I had reached Parliament within eight months of my leaving the service and was soon accepted as a spokesman of the community. This was enough. I had no ambition beyond that.
Once the political bug enters your system; it can never be flushed out. After University lectureship, I had joined the Indian Foreign Service and stayed in it for 20 years. Though I was always thinking of calling it a day, I made up my mind to formally enter public life only after the Emergency was imposed. On returning to Delhi and joining the ministry as joint secretary, I rang up Mr R.K. Trivedi, who had been Deputy Director of the IAS Training School in 1958 in my time and Special Secretary in the Home Ministry in 1975. I told him that I had decided to resign. Since he treated me like a son, he scolded me and told me not to be a fool and asked me what I hoped to achieve by it; already thousands were in prison and I would only add one more to the figure. How would it change the system? My family would be on the streets and who would support them? Then he revealed to me that he was working on a proposal for premature voluntary retirement on full pension once an officer had completed 20 years of service. Since I had already done more than 18 years, he asked me to be a little patient and carry on a little longer. At that time neither he nor I knew that the Emergency would end very soon. Subsequently, Ms Indira Gandhi rejected the proposal on the ground that many good officers would run away because of discontent in the Civil Services. During the Emergency, in the Ministry of External Affairs, there were three of us, Muchkund Dubey (who retired as Foreign Secretary), S.V. Purushottam and I, all from Bihar, all from Patna University, and all known to be anti-Emergency. But as permanent civil servants with good records, we could not be touched. Soon thereafter general elections were announced and Indira Gandhi lost. I then approached Mr Trivedi again to seek his guidance. He told me that since the original author of the proposal was Morarji Desai as Chairman of the Administrative Reforms Commission and he was now PM, he was going to resubmit the proposal. And he did. But it was some time before it was okayed, and it was okayed with a typical ‘cut’. The original idea was that on premature retirement after 20 years of unblemished service, an officer would get full pension. Morarji Desai modified it to five-year weightage for the years in service. So I didn’t even get the full pension, which in those days was only Rs 1,000 per month! Mine was the first case. So my file did the rounds. The first case always takes time. My colleague from the IAS who was handling this file in the Finance Ministry rang me up and asked me not to be in such a hurry and to continue for a few more months at least, as the government was considering an increase in the maximum pension from Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500. I told him that the Government had the authority to retain my services for two months longer after receiving my request for retirement and that I had requested them to reduce this period and release me on 14 November, 1978 Nehru’s birthday, and now I couldn’t go back to ask them to keep me for another three months, pension or no pension!
In this context, I must add one thing more. It is generally said that Atal Bihari Vajpayee encouraged me to resign with a view to bring me into politics and that he became my ‘sponsor’ in politics. This is a complete fabrication. As Foreign Minister, Vajpayeeji was very kind to me and I had easy access to him because, for one thing, I was known for my anti-Emergency stance. In fact, he called me three times to persuade me to withdraw my papers, first in office, then at the AIIMS where he was undergoing some treatment, and the third time at his house. When he called me for the third time, I took a ghazal of Parveen Shakir with me, which I had happened to read in some Urdu newspaper. This ghazal faithfully depicted my state of mind. I told Mr Vajpayee something that I hope he has not forgotten. Once again he very graciously asked me what had he done that I was leaving him. I told him that I was only following the plan of my life. I also told him that I already knew that he would never send me to the US or the USSR because I was too junior and then I added that he would not send me to Pakistan which would be a challenge for me for reasons that both of us knew: I meant my being a Muslim. He laughed at that. And I told him that to answer all his questions I had brought him some lines from a ghazal. He asked me to recite them. I did. He asked me to have the lines typed in Devnagari and send it to him. I still have a copy.
I sent a letter to my IFS colleagues on my premature retirement saying I did not know where the stream of life would take me. I planned to go back to Patna and practice Law. The day that my resignation was formally accepted, I left Delhi, because I knew that people would ask all sorts of questions and I would have to answer them. I planned to make my way up in politics through legal practice and some day enter Parliament. For me, entering parliament within eight months of my resignation was itself a great achievement. It gave me access and opportunity, which I utilized fully and effectively, in that, whenever I felt strongly about an issue, I said so, without mincing words and, without caring for what anyone felt about my stand or how it would affect my political career.
Anyway, Ms Indira Gandhi realized that I could become troublesome and offered me several posts including Vice-Chancellorship of the AMU to send me out in the political wilderness. Later, I was offered Chairmanship of the Minorities Commission after Justice R. A. Ansari’s death. I accepted neither. Once Nitish Kumar, now Chief Minister of Bihar, who used to sit beside me in Parliament, said: ‘There is no issue before the nation on which you do not have a considered view. I may or may not agree with you but you have at least applied your mind to all issues.’ But to me the most important thing was the Muslim question, of developing a linkage between the Muslim mind and national polity to secure them a national hearing and, reach mutual understanding and commitment on a due share for the community governance and in the fruits of development. That is slowly happening now. No one spoke of reservations for Muslim till I had in 1989, again in 1994 and 1998, in 2002, 2009 and 2010. This has become a movement and will bear fruit some day. This I consider to be my positive contribution. Some day we shall speak about what I did in the parliament. I had three terms as a member of Indian parliament and was one of the busiest and most articulate parliamentarians, not only on Muslim issues but on all national questions.
(The interviewer can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
Mr. Sahabuddin has an illustrious career as a parliamentarian, a seasoned diplomat and a vivid thinker. He should be one of the great personalities, a visionary, and a bold face of modern India if he could keep away from religious politics. There is no room for such sectarian approaches which he often takes to become a level playing leader or intellectual.