What Seema Mustafa’s memoir, Azadi’s Daughter, tells you about Indian Muslims
There isn’t a venerable tradition of literature on Muslims in post-colonial India. Work such as the Handbook of Muslims in India by Rakesh Basant and Abusaleh Shariff, Muslims in India since 1947 by Yoginder Sikand and other publications inquiring into the multiple identities of India’s largest minority, the reasons for its ‘exclusion’ and the resulting narrative — the most recent being Saeed Naqvi’s Being The Other — are few and far between. Almost all attribute a lack of education — due to systemic deprivation by the government and lack of reforms from within — along with communal politics, weak leadership and the legacy of Partition as reasons for the fretful state of India’s Muslims.
The first thing that appealed to the reviewer about Azadi’s Daughter is that the author opted for a first-person voice. Seema Mustafa weaves her personal journey as a teenager and then a budding journalist and a failed politician with the events that would challenge India’s secular ethos in the decades to come. Mustafa offers a part intimate, part political view of episodes that contributed to shape India in which minorities and backward communities find themselves pushed to the margin.
Seema Mustafa belongs to the nationalist Kidwai family of Lucknow — one that raised its daughters as persons, not women. Her mother, Azadi, was a sub-editor with the National Herald newspaper; grandfather, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, was minister in the first cabinet; husband, Syed Mustafa, was an army officer who served abroad and held a high opinion of the British Army.
This is not the book if you are looking for data to substantiate the claims of systemic exclusion of Muslims or low social indicators among them. This is a work that puts into perspective the incidents of communal violence that are becoming increasingly common, specifically in Uttar Pradesh. It attempts to reason the present by looking into the past.
Nowhere does the author come across as treading the line of any political group, least of which the Congress party, that her family shares a history with. Mustafa notes that the party “continued its policy of patronage, hiring mullahs in every district and taking them on campaigns” during the 1991 general election to appease Muslims; remained ambiguous on the Shah Bano judgment by making two of its leaders, Arif Mohammad Khan and Z.R. Ansari give contradictory views; opened the locks of the Babri Masjid and tacitly supported the shilanyas (foundation stones for the Ram Mandir).
The chapter Politics: A Trial by Fire begins with the author’s tryst with politics. A major portion is devoted to what she learnt about the voting pattern of Muslims. It does not offer much if one is well-versed with the theme.
Mustafa gives a gripping, inside account of how women’s rights groups who were pushing for reforms from within — and were jubilant at the Shah Bano case — had to step back in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition. This was because the pulling down of the mosque meant that the “fight had become bigger and uglier”.
The demolition of the mosque was the first time that Muslims in independent India began questioning their leadership, including the authority of Shahi Imaam of the Jama Masjid, remarks the author. Those who wished to be propelled into politics riding on the Babri Masjid action committees vanished overnight.
To demonstrate how Indian Muslims had to pay for the 9/11 terror attack, Mustafa reproduces chunks from a fact-finding report she did in Hyderabad where young men were arrested for the Mecca Masjid blast. Change the name and locations, and one would find similar stories across the country.
To me, the most important contribution of Mustafa’s book is her inquiry into why the chances of an Indian Muslim being responsible for a Mecca Masjid blast and other terror activities are dim. Simply put, why aren’t Indian Muslims terrorists? Indian democracy, in spite of not being in the pink of health, has enough checks and balances that offer Indian Muslims a sense of belonging. Secondly, unlike Pakistan, India did not allow imperialist powers to take charge. The third reason is that the concerns of Muslims in India are same as that of rest of the people of this country.
The author maintains a deft tone throughout this slim memoir, which makes it an easy read.
Azadi’s Daughter, A Memoir: Being a Secular Muslim in India
By Seema Mustafa
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs 299