Even if it were a slip of the tongue, let’s not forget that a man’s tongue often slips in a direction where a man’s mind has gone already. But when the uncultured politician who is India’s Culture Minister said that India’s late president Abdul Kalam was a great nationalist “despite being Muslim”, I’m pretty sure that he uttered his words entirely as he intended them.
These were the thoughts of a man who can’t quite bring himself to believe that Muslims can be proper Indians. This isn’t exactly the formal view of his party, the BJP, but it is certainly the view of the RSS and the VHP, which are the ruling party’s suppliers of ideological fuel.
For the education of the Culture Minister, and for no other reason, I’ve put together a list of men and women who’ve served India with great distinction, despite being Muslim. I have no intention of playing into the minister’s hands; so the purpose of this column isn’t to rebut his position on Muslim Indians, but to offer the minister some bedtime reading alongside his much-thumbed copy of the Hanuman Chalisa.
Despite being Muslim, Havildar Abdul Hamid laid down his life in Khemkaran, in the war against Pakistan in 1965. He blew up seven Patton tanks and won the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest gallantry award.
Despite being Muslim, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi captained a fledgling Indian cricket team to notable success, inculcating Indianness into a parochial band of players from different parts of the country. His was the first truly “Indian” cricket team.
Despite being Muslim, Ismat Chughtai was one of the great literary and feminist figures of modern India.
Despite being Muslim, Maulana Azad, India’s first education minister, set up the Sahitya Akademi, the Lalit Kala Akademi, and the Sangeet Natak Akademi to promote Indian culture at home and abroad.
Despite being Muslim, Salim Ali was India’s greatest ornithologist, without whom our understanding of Indian birds would still be inadequate.
Despite being Muslim, Zahoor Qasim, a marine biologist, led India’s first expedition to Antarctica, and oversaw seven others.
Despite being Muslim, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sang Hindu bhajans, and sang them with breathtaking devotion.
Despite being Muslim, the Khans — Bismillah, Ali Akbar and Vilayat — dedicated their lives to the service of Indian classical music, ragas, culture and musical spirituality.
Despite being Muslim, Brigadier Mohammad Usman, the Lion of Nowshera, was the highest-ranking Indian officer to be killed in the 1947-48 war with Pakistan.
Despite being Muslim, Allah Rakha and his son Zakir Hussain are synonymous with the tabla, north India’s beloved percussion.
Despite being Muslim, the brothers Yusuf and Irfan Pathan helped India register a heart-stopping win in the inaugural T20 cricket World Cup in Johannesburg in 2007.
Despite being Muslim, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Nargis, Naushad, Mohammad Rafi, Ajit, Zeenat Aman, Naseeruddin Shah, Amjad Khan, Shabana Azmi, Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Irrfan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui… I’m trying not to say Katrina Kaif… all enriched Hindi cinema beyond measure. (Oh, and did I mention Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Hasrat Jaipuri, Shakeel Badayuni and Jan Nisar Akhtar?)
Despite being Muslim, MF Husain painted Hindu divinities — not all of them naked; and S H Raza has explored Hindu cosmology and Tantra in his art.
Despite being Muslim, thousands of nameless and faceless weavers have kept alive the Banarasi sari.
Despite being Muslim, Aslam Sher Khan helped India secure the 1975 Hockey World Cup — to date, India’s only win — with a goal against Malaysia in the semis. In the final, he held Pakistan’s forwards at bay with a blemishless defensive performance.
Despite being Muslim, Azim Premji is a pillar of the modern Indian economy.
I’ll stop here, in the hope that I’ve given India’s Culture Minister enough to chew on. Despite his Hindutva, I hope he’ll have the good sense to concede that he’s been a national embarrassment.
Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. @tunkuv