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



On Thu, Jan 28, 2010 at 12:12 PM, Kaneez Fathima wrote:

Dear Mujtabaji,


Your Article on Am i Indian first or Muslim first? is a wonderful article, and very clearly you have given examples and explained.
I liked the way you have addressed the issue, which is an issue not only for you, but for all the muslim citizens of India, right from the day we got independence and probably before that.

On other side i and my colleague have written an article in similar way on Indian Constitution, fundamental rights etc.
Iam forwarding a link to it.
Please go through it.

With Regards
Kaneez Fathima


From: Abdul Desai"


Thanks and it is very thought provocative write-up.

I don’t know much about Australians or Australian Indians or Australian Muslims, but like to talk about Indians who are naturalized American citizens and some are living in USA since early sixties and still alive and active for India and Indian causes.
American identifies them, South Asian Indian Americans (Indian American or American Indians are confusing because they are already here, for centuries and centuries, way before white people.)
They call themselves Indians or Desi. They have gazillion associations name after or before India or Indian, their relegion, their states, their cities and towns, their cast and ethnic group, etc, etc. And they have Independent Day Parade on 15th August, in every major city of USA. Oh, always, Indian dance party on the eve of Independent Day.
What else! Yes, 40% association made by Guajaratis and connected to Gujarati people of India, only, including some Muslim associations for Gujaratis, such as Gujarati Muslim Association of America, Muslim Patel Association of America, Muslim Vohra Association, Muslim Dowoodi Vohra Association, etc.
When you tell Gujaratis, Hindu or Muslims that there is a Gujarat in Pakistan, too, they give you bad look.
I love to say that I’m American Muslim and always do, but they are saying that I’m Indian or Desi, Some are saying that I'm Indian Muslim and ask to get in their association and other are saying that I’m Gujarati Muslim and trying to get in their association.
I didn't born in Gujarat, but Ahmedabad, Bombay State and my mother tongue is Urdu. When I was born, there was no Gujarat.
Here is mind-boggling. Hyderabadis calling me Gujarati, instead Ahmedabadi. When I call them Andhra Pradeshi, instead Hyderabadi, they get really pissed. Pretty soon, they will be Telangani.
I hope that I didn’t confuse you, here.

Abdulghani Desai


From: "viswanathan ammasaiyappan"

Dear Mr. Mujtaba,

It is really reasonable article many Indian Muslims are facing because of politics. Congrats for your article. Mean time please don’t mention Mr. Shah Ruk Khan' name. In my opinion he is not at all Indian Muslim. He is just a business man minting money in all possible way may be one among he will tell he is Indian Muslim.




From: Anit Arora"

Hi Syed,

How are you doing?

I really want to appreciate your work for writing such an interesting article.

My name is Anit Arora and I am a graduate student in International Business major in Southeast Missouri State University in United States. I have been asked to give a presentation on Hinduism and culture of India by one of my professors. Since I was surfing the internet to collect information on Hinduism, I got hold of your article.

I think that India is not only a country of Hindus but all the religions of the world. The way India shows its pluralism and secularism makes our country unique in the whole world. I came to US last year and started my MBA in a business school in Cape Girardeau which is a small city in Missouri state. I never cared about my religion (Hinduism) in India because we were never taught about any difference among other religions (though there are some quarters and political parties which have a motive of creating religious differences) in India. But after coming to this part of US I realized that creating differences and people telling that their religion is superior is the primary job of some of the people.

I am from Delhi and have been brought up with my lots of Muslim friends. Since I am an International Business major I have been staying with students from other countries to learn more about their country and culture and most of them are Muslims. But one thing that I have realized after staying with those people is that Muslims from India are unique and they show to the world the pluralism and diversification in the society.

Coming back to your question: Am I Indian First or Muslim First? It is really easy to answer this question who is from India. I can't say about other Muslims that I have met from other countries.


Vispi said...

My take on this is that we are human beings first and our consciousness is what defines us and in that we are universally one. All man-made labels are an illusion which help us to function in the humdrum of our daily illusory false existence.


Congratulation for your article.

I read your article and finally decided to congratulate you with full of zeal for your wonderful contribution on the event of republic day.... In your article you articulated very well of the Muslim stand from the independence movement to APJ kalam and shahrukh khan...etc....I am syed mohammad raghib, and student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi doing M.Phil in West Asian Studies, school of international studies.

with regard...
syed mohammad raghib
Mob No.09958870985