I have personal recollections of Shri Syed Shahabuddin (SS) who passed away on 4 March 2017. As a curious M.Phil. student of International Studies on the JNU (New Delhi) campus, I had a few occasions to engage with him. The year was 1979; the Janata Party was basking in the glory of its victory in 1977; Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the foreign minister and had reportedly persuaded SS to give up his lucrative Foreign Service for politics.
1979 was also the year when the Soviet Union had occupied Afghanistan, the Shah of Iran was deposed and Ayatollah Khomeini installed. At a scholarly School of International Studies (SIS) seminar, I remember I had asked him questions following his presentation. Still a diplomat by temperament, SS wasn’t an unequivocal opponent of the Russian invasion, a stand not very different from that of Indira Gandhi. We wanted him to condemn the invasion. He did, however, make us aware at that time that the Communist foundations of the Soviet Union were sliding. A decade later, the Soviet empire disintegrated.
As products of anti-Emergency JP movement in Bihar having sympathies with the newly formed Janata Party, we were thrilled at the inclusion of SS into the ranks of the party. We had heard of the stories of a brilliant career of SS from his student days in Gaya to Patna University to his Foreign Service career. The young cadre of the Janata Party in Bihar was filled with the likes of Lalu Yadav and others who were inspirations to the lumpen elements among students.
Around the same time, once after conclusion of a seminar in central Delhi where SS was a panelist, I asked him to give me a short ride to a nearby bus stop from where I could have gotten into a bus to the JNU campus. He readily obliged. Decades later, I wonder how did I muster up courage to ask him for that favor. On the way, I recall introducing myself as a student originally from Darbhanga, Bihar. He shared with me how after the foreign service tenure much of his time was claimed by the Janata Party. He sounded very much like a social democrat in the mould of Gandhi, JP or Nehru, by no means like a partisan communal politician.
During his sojourn in active politics, SS became a Member of Parliament three times: First, a Rajya Sabha (Upper House) member from Bihar (1979-84) and then two terms as a Lok Sabha (Lower House) member from Kishanganj (1985-1989 and 1991-1996). In electoral politics, a politician is constrained to nurse a political constituency or a demographic base. The developing identification of SS with the Muslim politics was, therefore, natural. But the short-sightedness of political parties was also noticeable when an exceptional personality like SS was fielded from a “safe” Muslim-majority constituency of Kishanganj, thus projecting him as the leader of the Muslims. The realities of electoral politics didn’t let him break out of that image.
The political career of SS was marked by a series of events that not only defined the status of Muslims or Islam in the Indian society but also began to foretell the shape of Hindu-Muslim relations or the state of the Indian polity itself. Response to all such events by SS is a lesson in history and politics, makes up for a biography of a Foreign Office bureaucrat turned politician.
In 1988 Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was released and quickly banned in India because some Muslims considered the book offensive to their god or religion. Before the ban the book was not examined by any properly authorized or competent body. SS’s support to the ban put him on the side of the Rajiv’s Congress and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who had issued a fatwa calling for the author’s execution. As an ambassador of India, SS was in the unique position of explaining to the outside world about the tolerant, cultural-religious (or brutally self-critical) ethos of India.
Similarly, following the Shah Bano’s case (1985-86), SS could have educated the Muslim world it was in their interest the divorced wives and their kids received support from the irresponsible husbands till such time the children became major or self-dependent. He could have exposed the political opportunism of the Congress party which had watered down the judgment of the Supreme Court and restricted the entitlement of Muslim divorcee ladies to alimony (from their former husbands) for only 90 days after the divorce. Like many Hindu reformists, he could have made a strong case to his fellow Indian Muslims for updating and modernizing the Islamic laws.
During the unfortunate events leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, SS was a member of a broad coalition that must have tried to salvage the situation through mediation. However, by setting him up as the head of the Babri Action Committee, the hard liners tied his hands from finding or executing a mutually acceptable way out. A much talked about solution at that time was to yield the mosque to the Hindus in return for a firm legally sanctioned assurance that the status of other mosques/temples wouldn’t be changed. Sadly, that wasn’t to be.
As I take a distant look at the persona of SS, I’m sometimes struck by the contrasts he presented of himself. In the journal, Muslim India, he launched in 1983 and edited for 25 years, SS chastised Muslims for their backwardness, challenged them to help themselves. His obsession with the betterment of his constituents was always praiseworthy. However, at a TV program (as reported by a viewer), he insisted on Muslim women staying in burqa or hijab. The justification was derived from the Sharia law. [Incidentally, the rejoinder came in the same program from the Muslim women who questioned SS as to why he didn’t follow the same principle in his own family.]
Towards the end of his life, SS kept himself dedicated to philanthropic activities under the aegis of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, a “small forum of Muslim outfits.” At the same time, he faced the Deobandi clerics who reportedly riddled the organization with divisions. SS worked hard to maintain unity and purpose.
Syed Shahabuddin gave birth and modern education to his children -- his son, Pervez (deceased in 2005) becoming a professor of Engineering at Columbia University, New York and his daughter, Parveen, entering the public-political life -- that are worth emulating.
Working toward communal harmony, literacy and education of the disadvantaged will be a great tribute to the departed soul. Bihar needs more of Syed Shahabuddin.
Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). A former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA, he has taught politics and authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India, and Canada.
Dr. Prasad administers a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.