Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Indian Republic at 60- Am I Indian First or Muslim First?

Indian Republic at 60- Am I Indian First or Muslim First?
Syed Ali Mujtaba

On the 60th anniversary of Indian Republic someone asked me a question; are you a Indian first or a Muslim first? The first thing I did was to thank him for asking this. Answer to this is sought by many "prominent" Indian Muslims and I am indeed honored to inadvertently sneak into this category. The latest ones in the list before me were APJ Abdul Kalam and Sharukh Khan!

I know it’s a very philosophical question 'who am I'? However, without going any further, let me try to handle this. It’s like seeking answer to; are you child of your father first or your mother first? The answer is both. I am born in India and I am an Indian and it’s a geographical term. I am born in Islamic faith and so I am a Muslim, and it’s a religious term. I am an "Indian Muslim" is the short answer. Now let me elaborate my point.

Khan Abdul Wali Khan, the Pukhtoon leader was asked similar question; are you Pukhtun first or Muslim first? He replied; “I have been a Pukhtun for six thousand years, a Muslim for thirteen hundred years, and a Pakistani for twenty-five years. I am the one who is contained with all of these features."

Now let me take you back to the history of this question that reverberated in the entire debate during the run up of India’s Independence and Partition. Many Indian Muslims were asked to clarify their position. They took pains to explain that religious and national identity is like two wheels of a cycle and both are essential for a ride. Multiple identities are inevitable and the individual, the society, and the polity have to adjust to such realities.

As per my knowledge this question was first asked to Maulana Mohmmmad Ali, one of the siblings of "Ali brothers" fame, who spearheaded the Khilfat movement in 1920 and credited to have imported Gandhiji to India from South Africa. Later, on when he fell out of the Congress, he was asked the same question; are you Indian first or Muslim first? What a sad commentary on one of the illustrious sons of India.

After independence this debate was suppose to have settled down with the creation of Pakistan and Bharat, that’s India. However, this has not. It continues to be tossed up to embarrass ordinary Indian Muslims and to create unnecessary tension in the society.

This question continues to be one of the smartest arrows in the quiver of the RSS establishment. They equate religion with national identity and by that token being a Hindu alone is an Indian and the people adhering to other religious faith are not second class Indian citizens and should not enjoy equal rights as those of the Hindu brethren.

My take on this is, for thinking people, nation is a political temporal realm and religion is spiritual realm. In a democracy there is no problem with it. In religiously governed dictatorship of many forms, such as the bigoted wing of Hindutva, Islamists and similar trends in other religions the religion and state is one and the same. Of course in that state no one of a differing view is tolerated.

For thinking people, nation is a political temporal realm and religion is spiritual realm. In a democracy there is no problem with it. In religiously governed dictatorship of many forms, such as the bigoted wing of Hindutva, Islamists and similar trends in other religions, the religion and state is one and the same. Of course in that state no one of a differing view is tolerated.

My take on this is to retort back; are you a Hindu first, or a Brahmin first, or an Indian first? If you move to Australial will you be a Hindu first, a Brahmin first, an Indian first or an Australian first?” How does a Hindu and an Indian reconcile to one’s religious and national identity if he or she is not living in the geographical boundary of India?

Religion is very personal thing to an individual. I am a Muslim and so also my other country men. They are Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Zorashtrians, and many others in our plural society. I owe loyalty to my country India and its constitution and yet I practice my religion very freely and without prejudice to others' views or faiths.

If we look at India's canvass, Hinduism welcomed all religions with equal zeal when they knocked our shores and because of its openness, one finds a beautiful spread in terms of art, culture, architecture and music. The southern shores of India welcomed Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with open arms. We have a first synagogue, first church and first mosque in Kerala, a synthesis that is difficult to see in any other country. India therefore stands tall among the communities of nations where pluralism has come to stay. Even the most evolved societies of Europe are still grappling with the plural values.

I have always maintained, we could discuss any thing particularly religion with open mind and with sobering affect. But when we mix other agenda, a conflicting situation arises.

Look at the passion that India- Pakistan cricket matches generated some time back. It was an unfortunate Muslim who had the audacity to clap when Pakistanis scored, and a quick label was fixed on him that he was anti India and a Pakistani. At the same time when a Indian who is settled abroad backs India in sports certainly, the people of those countries do not even pause or think this as an aberration to their citizenship or loyalty.

When Pakistan President Parvez Musharaff clapped and appreciated Indian Cricketers victory in Pakistan, no one raised any hue and cry. In fact he went a step further to quip that the Indian Captain MS Dhoni looked cute in his long hair. His comments did not made him pro Indian and anti – Pakistani but it did made a difference to mellow down the debate; Indian first or Muslim first?

So folks at the end, it’s all in our heads. how we look at the glass of water, whether it’s half empty or half full. The only way for a decent survival in a plural society like India is to steer the path of secularism and democracy and strive for peaceful coexistence.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at

Sunday, January 17, 2010

India: Living Islam Exhibition Drawing Large crowd

India: Living Islam Exhibition Drawing Large crowd
Syed Ali Mujtaba

Chennai: In order to create awareness and education about Islam, “Peace – Vision of Islam 2010,” a five day Islamic exhibition cum conference opened up here on January 13, 2010.

The event is a regular feature in the city from last several years and coincides with the harvest festival ‘Pongal,’ when there is long and extended holidays. People of all faiths flock to this event and over 4 lakh visitors so far have benefited from the previous events.

The event promises to provide an exciting window of knowledge to explore, discover and understand the true message of Islam. The exhibition showcases the rich culture and heritage of Islam. There are beautiful big charts that display the holy Quranic verses and Ahadees (sayings of Prophet Mohammed) with their translations in Urdu, Tamil and English. The volunteers explain the subjects of the displayed Quranic verses and Ahaadees in their proper perspective.

One exhibit said: "O people! Behold, we have created you from a male and a female and have made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware." [Qur'an 49:13]

The exhibition has specially designed stalls exclusively devoted to several aspects of Islam. Islamic Banks, Islamic book, Halal Food Products, Educational Islamic Audio-Video CDs, Health Products, Hajj and Umrah Organizers, Islamic Da’wah Centre, Garments: Hijab, Abaya, Caps, etc. are some of the exhibits at the venue.

Some other activities going on at the venue are: seminars, workshops, inter-faith dialogue, matrimonial services, distribution of Qur’an and Islamic literature etc.

Many schools and colleges have also setup stalls where inter-school and inter-college competitions, career guidance and counseling are being done. There are also food courts where food stalls sell different vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.

People from all walks of life were visiting the exhibition and showing keem interest in all the activities going on there. I asked one of the visitors what he felt about being there; "let’s consider this as a good experience,” he said.

Another reaction was, “This event offers a unique interactive opportunity to learn about Islam from the original sources” said Vasudevan, a bank employ visiting the exhibition with his family.

One of the important features of the event is the public lecture delivered by eminent Islamic speakers on various subjects. The lectures are held in English, Tamil, Urdu and Malayalam. Some of the eminent speakers this year are; Dr Zakir Naik, Abu Usaamah At Thahabi, Assim Al Hakkem, Saeed Rageah, Hussain Yee, Fariq Naik and others.

“Peace – Vision of Islam is a humble effort to spread the true message of Islam” says Syed Zakir Ahmed, the brain behind this concept, and owner of Zak Trade Fairs & Exhibitions Private Limited (

"Every one may agree that Islam is one of the most misunderstood religions in the world today. There exist deep rooted prejudices against this faith, but without going into the reasons for it, there is an urgent need to work towards changing this misplaced concept,” Zakir said.

“Many international Ulema have endorsed this concept and its being replicated in other cities like Bangalore, Calicut and Mumbai” he added.

'The Vision of Islam 2010’ even though this time is being organized at Injmbakam on East Coast Road, that’s bit far away from the city, it has been successful in attracting people interested in exploring the intricacies of divergent faith.

The event no doubt is a bold attempt to showcase what it stands for and the patronage from the people tells the story that the vision of secular and democratic India is still alive and kicking.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at

Indian Court: Freedom of Expression Cannot be taken for Granted

Indian Court: Freedom of Expression Cannot be taken for Granted
Syed Ali Mujtaba

The controversy about banning a book has been raging in India for long. Every time a controversial book is written the cacophony for and against the ban raises its ugly head.

The aggrieved party, complain of malicious writing that hurt their sentiments and demand ban of the book. At the same time, there are voices that raise the bogey of freedom of expression and demand the fundamental right to expression should not be curbed.

So far there is no clear direction on this issue and opinion remains divided. Sometime, politics steps into such controversy and a mountain is made out of such mole. In such a controversy, while those are in favor of ban hardly benefit anything except perhaps self esteem and the right to live with dignity, the allegation of ‘pandering to vote bank politics’ makes martyrs of those opposing the ban.

Recently, in a landmark judgment, the Bombay High Court has tried to address such controversy, giving a direction for future cases of such nature. Notwithstanding, the High Court’s judgment is being challenged in the Supreme Court, the fact remains that the justice delivered upholds the plurality of Indian society and smacks of forbearance, tolerance, peaceful coexistence, the corner stones of Indian culture.

The center of controversy this time is a book written by a Supreme Court advocate and a former Air Force Officer, R V Bhasin entitled; 'Islam – A concept of Political World Invasion by Muslims.'

In this book Bhasin argues that the philosophy of Islam encourages terrorism, and does not tolerate those of different faith. There are several passages in the book including passages about Jihad, the Quran, Prophet Mohammed, Indian Muslims, and religious conversions that depicts Islam and Muslims in poor light and were found objectionable by the Muslims.

The book that was published in 2003 was banned in 2007 by the Maharastra government on the ground that it contained derogatory remarks about Islam and Prophet Mohammad and insulted sentiments of the Muslims in the country.
Bhasin, challenged the ban saying it violated his right to freedom of expression and contended that the book is an historical analysis that throws light on lesser known facets of Islam. He further said the book was published in 2003 but the ban was imposed in 2007 with its copies being confiscated after raiding his office in Mumbai.

A three member bench of the High Court judges comprising Justice Ranjana Desai, Justice Dhananjay Chandrachud, and Justice RS Mohite, after hearing the arguments upheld the ban of the book and wrote a landmark judgment that deserves to be reproduced in some detail.

The judgment begins with generalities and says; “In our constitutional set up, everything is open to criticism and religion is no exception to it. Every religion, whether it is Islam, Hinduism, Christianity or any other religion, can be criticized...

“While we have the right to criticize, the criticism has to be healthy and not malicious. It must not lead to creating ill-will and hatred between communities...”

“The freedom of expression granted by the Constitution should not be used to trigger senseless destruction of lives and property and breach of public order”…

While upholding the ban, the bench said; “If a book reeks of hatred for a community and stirs communal passions, it has to be determined if its circulation would be in public interest”...

Commenting on the book, 'Islam – A concept of Political World Invasion by Muslims' the court observed that authors criticism of Islam is done with deliberate and malicious intention to outrage religious feelings of the Muslims, particularly Indian Muslims and such criticism is not permissible even under the right of freedom of expression.

Bhasin in his book argues that philosophy of Islam encourages terrorism, and does not tolerate those of different faith. He quotes few Quranic verses to substantiate this point.

To this the court observed, in the case of religious scriptures, several interpretations are possible and therefore Quranic verses must be "correlated” and historical background must be kept in mind when interpreting them.

"Some of the Quranic verses are indeed strongly worded and appear to have been directed against idol worshippers but having read the commentaries we feel that perhaps it is possible to urge that they relate to an era when the Muslims were attacked by the Pagans..."

Bhasin has written that Prophet Mohammad had 11 wives, “married and otherwise”. To this the bench observed; “the lurid details allegedly of Prophet Mohammad’s life, the authenticity of which may be challenged by some, could have been avoided by the author. We feel that the attempt is to show Prophet Mohammad in poor light and thereby attempt is made to hurt the sentiments of the Muslims.”

The court found the author’s view that all Muslim youth are misguided and terrorists, objectionable. "It cannot be denied that misguided Muslim youth have indulged in acts of terrorism. But misguided youth are in every religion."

The court observed “India is an amazing mix of people coming from different social and cultural background. Indian Muslims are part of the mainstream of the nation’s life and are contributing to India’s development in all fields.

Upholding the ban, the bench observed; “the author by writing such book has insulted a large section of Indian Muslims. He has tried to create ill-will and hatred between communities and used this means to trigger senseless destruction of lives and property and breach of public order”…

Commenting on the judgment, Bhasin reportedly has said that he will challenge the order in the Supreme Court even though he feels happy to join the ranks of Salman Rushide and Taslima Nasreen.

Bhasin was earlier in news for filing a public interest litigation petition against United States in Indian court for cancellation of US visa to Gujarat Chief Minster Narendra Modi. The petition filed in Baroda purports to hold the United States accountable to the Government of India, State of Gujarat and Narendra Modi as he claimed damages to the tune of $201 million from the US government.

It would be interesting to wait and watch the Supreme Courts ruling on this issue as its only then this story will play itself out.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted t