Syed Shahabuddin. First, a self-awoved “Leftist in my views”, then a competent foreign service officer, editor of Muslim India, member of the Janata Party, Babri Masjid Action Committee, Congress, Majlis-e-Mushawarat, and finally, writer and ideologue. In the end, Shahabuddin would be remembered, whether with Chandrashekhar or the Congress in later years, as a leader of Muslims in post-Independence India, one with a difference. He appeared as mainstream, but he dedicated himself to a cause most Muslims, once gaining acceptance in elite India, never found worth espousing.
He was an IFS officer, an English-speaking, robustly argumentative Indian, but one, who, through his espousal of the almost parochial “Muslim” aspect of India, tried to bring a different modernity to the problems of its largest minority. In each avatar in public life, Shahabuddin lived life “to the lees”, as Alfred Tennyson wrote of Ulysses. His wanderings through several political positions earned him critics, who wondered why the bright ex-IFS officer became one of the fiercest critics of the Indian state’s treatment of its minorities.
Shahabuddin gained prominence as a young IFS candidate from Bihar nearly being struck off for security reasons: He had led 20,000 students to greet Pandit Nehru with black flags when the PM was visiting Patna. The intelligence back-check cited him as a potential trouble-maker. But, as Natwar Singh later told Shahabuddin, Nehru himself had written on the file that he’d known Shahabuddin during the Patna disturbances and his actions were “not politically motivated. They were an expression of youthful exuberance.” Deputed to serve as a liason officer to Dag Haamarskjold, six months after his induction into the service, he was tapped by Nehru on the shoulder at a party and asked if he was “that naughty boy from Bihar”.
But the “naughty boy from Bihar” had knottier plans than being a mere officer. Determined to make a mark, ambitious about being prominent in politics, he wanted to enter Parliament, but first practice law in Patna. Life had other plans; Shahabuddin was able to make it to Parliament within months of quitting the service. The Janata Party was in power and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the foreign minister, folklore went, urged him to quit the service. But Shahabuddin always denied this and said that Vajpayee was not very pleased at letting him go as an officer, calling him “thrice” to ensure he took back his resignation. The Emergency, Shahabuddin said, simply served to catalyse his conversion to playing a lead role in politics.
His principle introduction here was his emergence as a “Muslim” leader, with his role in the Babri Masjid and Shah Bano matters. Shahabuddin’s biting articulation of what he saw as the “Muslim” issue electrified the already volatile atmosphere. His counter to Hindutva, made in a firm “Muslim” paradigm, made it a clash of sorts. In his helping counterpose a “Muslim” view to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s, during the famous P.V. Narasimha Rao’s track-two talks over the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi issue, his critics felt he gave currency to a faultline which should never have been. Critics say it helped fuel the idea of the clash of civilisations, damaging a Constitutional argument, which may have proved more useful.
Shahabuddin did not see it like that. Through three terms in Parliament from 1979, his assertion was that he was linking Muslims to national mainline politics. Charges of how he may have helped sharpen divisions, setting up Indian Muslims to “lose”, were met robustly by him: “My purpose has always been the legitimate grievances, aspirations and interests of the Muslim community projected before the nation, articulated effectively not in an excessive manner but within the framework of the Constitution.”
His efforts to get The Satanic Verses banned received much international attention and furthered many divides, handing the Hindu right a powerful stick, some argued. It is an interesting question about whether leaders who highlight community interests need to bring them up as those pertaining to the group, or does a plural democracy like India need a broader articulation of those queries that ensure deprived groups sense a commonality of purpose, and can draw meaningful solutions. There are several views on whether Shahabuddin furthered or hurt the Muslim cause — and whether this should have been articulated as the Muslim cause at all.
He ruffled feathers, that too, at a time when there was more said between the lines than explicitly. He looked for spades, and upon finding them, called them that. email@example.com