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The difficulty of being Mushirul Hasan

As talks of a second term for the Jamia Vice-Chancellor begins, the professor finds his methods and reputation under attack. Vir Sanghvi elaborates.

india Updated: Aug 26, 2009 21:44 IST
Vir Sanghvi

The first time most of us heard of Mushirul Hasan was in 1992. Asked whether he supported the ban on The Satanic Verses, Hasan said that while he found the book deeply offensive, he did not believe in banning books.

So, despite his own response to The Satanic Verses, he could not support the ban. To most of us, this might have seemed like the perfect liberal Muslim response. He had registered his own sense of outrage as a Muslim but had argued that the principle of freedom of speech was more important.

But a large section of the Muslim community took violent exception to his statements. Students at Jamia Millia Islamia University declared that he was a traitor to Islam. Politicians got in on the act. Mushir was assaulted. He received threatening phone calls. And Jamia said that it could not guarantee his safety.

So, for the next five years he sat at home, shunned by elements in his own community, largely ignored by liberals, and still the object of derision and hatred from fundamentalists.

Hasan had options. He could have recanted. He could have apologised. But he stubbornly refused to do either. I asked him last week, when we met for a light lunch, whether he had ever been tempted to take the easy way out. After all, what did it matter what he thought? The ban on The Satanic Verses had been in place for years before he made his statement and has remained ever since. Even the BJP government did not withdraw it. So did it really matter what a history professor at Jamia thought? Surely, it would have been easy enough to make some conciliatory noises and to get back to work?

He looked at me in astonishment. Recant? Apologise? But why? There were his views and he had always lived by them.

It would be tempting to see Mushirul Hasan as a poster boy for liberal Islam, as the sort of Muslim that the BJP loves, as a sort of Arif Mohammad Khan-like figure. But the reality is far more complex. Eventually, Hasan did resume his old life as The Satanic Verses controversy faded. For the last five years he has been Vice Chancellor of Jamia. And in that role, he has frequently been criticised by the BJP. He has been attacked for being too nice to Arjun Singh. He has been vilified for offering to pay the legal fees of those students involved in the Batla House encounter. And BJP spokesmen have painted him as a stooge of the fundamentalists, a man who believes in the ghettoisation of Muslims.

Now, as his term at Jamia ends and there is talk of a second term given the terrific job he’s done, some of his old fundamentalist enemies are back in action. Why is he opposing moves to turn Jamia into a minority institution? Why has he appointed so many Hindus? Why is a building named after his father? Why has he opened a college of dentistry? And even, why is Hasan, a Shia, in charge of an institution that should be run by Sunnis?

I told Hasan, as he picked at his Thai prawn curry, that I thought that his current situation captured some of the complexity of the position that liberal Muslims find themselves in these days. Many in their community regard them as not being Muslim enough. And others regard them as being too Muslim.

And Hasan is your classic old-style, liberal Muslim intellectual. His father, a noted historian (the proposal to name the building after him, by the way, predated Mushir’s term as Vice Chancellor and was part of the Jamia tradition of naming buildings after distinguished faculty members), was a card-carrying member of the Communist party.

Mushir was brought up in a largely secular environment, went up to Cambridge and researched Indian nationalism. His reading led him to the conclusion that the Two Nation theory had very little to do with the welfare of sub-continental Muslims, and much more to do with the belief of a Muslim elite that it would lose in influence to the Congress elite. As a consequence of his research, he moved away from his father’s politics and embraced the views of Nehru and Gandhi. He began to believe that the best hope for India lay in a secular polity with a strong bias towards the poor and disadvantaged. Unlike many others who had made the shift towards the Nehruvian consensus — and unlike the Communists, certainly — Mushir developed a strong liberal streak with a suspicion of arbitrary government action and a belief in personal freedom.

Of how many of us can it be said that almost everything that has happened in our lives stems directly from our beliefs? And yet, this is precisely what seems to have happened in Hasan’s case. The Satanic Verses controversy — perhaps the turning point in his life — was a result of his beliefs. So was his attitude to Jamia — which famously, had opposed the Two Nation theory in the 1940s — which he treated as an open institution not a communal ghetto. And so, I suppose, are the recent controversies that the BJP focuses on.

I asked him about the Batla House encounter. He says he really has no idea what happened. He wasn’t there and even later, when politicians visited the area, he refused to accompany them. But he will say that he is distressed by the conditions in the Batla House area. There are no milk booths, there is no Modern Bazaar; it is almost as though the institutions and facilities of the local government do not exist. He says that when Sheila Dikshit visited Jamia, he told her that the area was bound to be infested with criminals if the state regarded it as outside of its purview. To her credit, he says, Dikshit saw the point immediately and offered a healing touch.

What about the charge that he took an aggressive anti-police stand and hired lawyers for those students arrested in that case?

Nonsense, he says. Jamia has a fund that can be used to pay for students’ expenses in cases of crisis or emergency, for example, medical problems or legal hassles. What he said was that students could claim legal expenses from this fund just as they claim doctors’ fees. To allow students the funds required for legal representation is hardly the same as organising their defence or finding lawyers for them. It is a position that is entirely in keeping with his own belief in individual freedom versus the might of the state or the mob.

His critics argue that this is too black and white an explanation, that Mushir’s position was much greyer than he now makes it out to be. But he responds by saying that if he had come out openly against the police, and said that the encounter was false, he would have been a hero to the fundamentalists. So his position was actually reasonable and moderate.

Does Mushir find himself in a strange place, reviled by Islamic fundamentalists and Hindutva advocates alike?

He says it is not so simple. It is possible, he thinks, to overstate the influence of fundamentalists in his community. The trouble is that the political establishment listens too much to the extremists and too little to be moderates.

He gives the example of the Shah Bano case in the 1980s when Rajiv Gandhi was told that he had to listen to the fundamentalists because they were the ones who really represented India’s Muslims. In fact, he says, these fundamentalists have all faded and their influence has been shown to be illusory. Who cares about the Shahi Imam these days? Muslims have been seen beyond the fundamentalists and the extremists.

He reckons that politicians make a huge mistake by approaching the Muslim community through social and religious issues. In the end, he argues, Muslims want the same thing as all other Indians: jobs, security, prosperity, better living standards, low prices, access to health and sanitation etc.

He concedes that there was a danger of radicalisation when Muslims all over the world took extreme stands but argues that the threat has largely passed with the election of President Barack Obama who Muslims do not perceive as being hostile to Islam.

History, he suggests, is on the side of the liberal Muslims who opposed the Two Nation theory. Look at India’s progress since Independence. And look at Pakistan today.

What about the fundamentalists who oppose his continuance at Jamia, then? Well yes, he says, it is not in his case that the fundamentalists have vanished; only that they do not represent the vast majority of India’s Muslims. They make a lot of noise. They know how to get into the papers and how to manipulate the media. But they remain a tiny minority.

As we drank our coffees, I asked him the key question. Is he offering all these opinions because he thinks that fundamentalist opposition will cost him the second term at Jamia that he clearly deserves?

No, he responded at once. Vice Chancellors will come and go. But there’s been something disturbing about the sudden flurry of stories against him in the media of late. So many of them are without any foundation at all, and some are clearly libellous.

It’s not the job that’s really important. It’s his reputation.