Rajiv Gandhi was still alive. The RSS mobilization on the Ayodhya issue was peaking. I was in JNU, studying international politics. The campus was untouched by religious polarization because student politics was dominated by the students' wings of left parties. The Students' Federation of India (SFI) was the leading force. JNU was a very open and liberal campus. Gender equality was a big thing and violence was anathema. The National Students' Union of India (NSUI) and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and their vices had no presence at all. These organizations existed only on paper; to be affiliated with them was to be labelled lumpen and retrograde. I had come from Allahabad University, where student politics was all about caste and community mobilization. To be a student leader, one had to be either a Brahmin or a Thakur, the two dominant castes in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Other middle and lower castes had very little hope for success. There were a few other radical organizations, but their presence was marginal. So when I entered JNU, I found myself in a wonderland. I will freely admit that we were living in an ideal world, a utopia. Our interactions with the outside world were always a little uncomfortable. So even at the peak of the communal mobilization in India, we were not affected and the campus was not divided along Hindu–Muslim lines. Though the Ayodhya issue was at the forefront of campus discussions and debates, our opinions were not divided – we believed that the Ayodhya mobilization was an attack on the secular fabric of the country.
I had started freelancing for Saptahik Hindustan, the weekly Hindi magazine of the Hindustan Times Group. The Communist Party of India (CPI) had called for a rally at Ayodhya to protest communal mobilization. Rajeshwar Rao was the general secretary of the party. I had many friends who were members of AISF (All India Students' Federation, the student wing of the CPI). They were going to Ayodhya by train. I tagged along. Naushad was also with me. He belonged to Faizabad, a few kilometres from Ayodhya. It was at this time that the shila poojan ceremony was to take place at Ramjanmabhumi at the behest of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The train was full of kar sewaks; the ambience outside the campus was charged with an alien energy. Those young kar sewaks were very aggressive and my friend SN Prasad and I, in the best JNU tradition, were trying to engage them in a discussion. But a contrary viewpoint was not welcome; for them, the only truth was that Lord Ram had been born there and Babar, the Mughal emperor, had demolished the temple to build a mosque and it was their religious duty to see a temple rebuilt at Ram's birthplace. I could sense that a discussion could be dangerous but, I would invariably get drawn in and many a time almost got beaten up. Naushad kept quiet through the whole thing. We heard some of the worst anti-Muslim slogans and they were so bad that I dare not repeat them now. I later learnt that in those days such slogans were quite common; I certainly never saw any VHP or BJP leader asking the crowd not to raise them.
Naushad, a member of the AISF, was full of enthusiasm and energy when he had got onto the train but, as the train inched closer to Ayodhya, I could see his body shrinking and face dropping. But we were also quite a few in number, so he felt safe enough to go. We got off the train at Ayodhya. From there, we had to walk. I said I would join the rally later as I wanted to visit the place where the shila poojan had been done. I was surprised and happy when Naushad volunteered to join me. Once we started walking, I could feel that Naushad had realized his mistake and wanted to wriggle out. He told me that he was not feeling well and would like to go back. I did not insist. I was not very comfortable either; with every step the situation was getting more and more tense. When I finally reached the spot, the ceremony had already been wrapped up and there was no one there, except for an old man from Indore. He had come all the way for Ram Lalla's darshan. I asked 'Baba, Kaisa lag raha?' He looked at me and tears started rolling down his cheeks. I could not understand. He just said, 'Aaj agar Rajiv Gandhi aa jate to amar ho jate' (If Rajiv Gandhi had come today, he would have become immortal). He was a simple soul, an innocent man with no malice. He had been told that Bhagwan had no roof over his head as his place had been demolished long ago and the time had come to construct a temple for him. I had no words. I walked back quietly.
It is not true that Muslims as a whole boycotted the movement. A section of the community did not take part in the agitation.
I was very young but had a fire in my belly. This visit had changed my perception of politics and of the communalism vs secularism debate. The old man was not communal, he had no political agenda like the VHP and the BJP leaders, or like the kar sevaks in the train who were motivated and trained supporters of the Sangh Parivar. A state can tackle political leadership and their army of followers, but no army can handle innocent souls like that old man who was genuinely concerned about Ram, and he was not alone. There were millions of them. Neither did I forget Naushad's face when he said he was not feeling well and wanted to go back. It was brave of him to even have come all the way to Ayodhya in that surcharged atmosphere. But even such a braveheart had lost courage and could not walk to the shila poojan sthal.
Both were innocent and both were suffering. They were victims of circumstances. The old man was crying and Naushad was scared. Since then, I have often wondered what kind of society we had made where a Hindu feels his God is homeless and a Muslim feels unsafe. As a student then and as a hard-core professional now, this has not been a communalism vs secularism question. Both are politics, both are vote banks. It is an existential question. No society can live without its gods, without its religion. The history of the Soviet Union is witness to the fact that even seventy years of living with no religion, under a strict communist regime, gods did not disappear from the hearts of the Russian people. It was, in fact, the most potent unifying factor. The left-liberal brigade of Indian intellectuals and historians should redefine their understanding of secularism to incorporate religion. Secularism has to accommodate that old man.
Hindutva militants should also realize that there are millions of Naushads who want to understand Hinduism, who want to communicate with their Hindu brethren, but are scared because of the atmosphere created by communal elements. He fears for his life. He fears for his existence. He fears for his identity. The Sangh Parivar needs to understand that its brand of politics will not survive because it does not accommodate the millions of Naushads who are as innocent as that old man.
Even after all these years, that incident keeps coming back to me. So, on 20 August, when the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, made a statement that Anna's stir was anti-Islam and Muslims should not participate in it, I was worried again. The Shahi Imam said, 'Islam does not condone the worship of the nation or land. It does not even condone worship of the mother who nurtures a child in her womb' (Times of India, 22 August 2011). Bukhari further said, 'How can Muslims then join his stir with a war cry that is against the basic tenets of Islam. I have advised them to stay away.' Syed Bukhari is not known for his secular credentials so his statement alarmed me. The process of communalizing had begun and this issue ultimately, people like Naushad and that old man would be the worst sufferers.
From the very first day, Anna's agitation was accused of harbouring Hindu communal elements and of being sponsored by the RSS. If you remember the first day of Anna's agitation at Jantar Mantar, three objections secularists had raised; first, the presence of two senior RSS leaders on stage; second, the Mother India as goddess in the backdrop, which was said to be the classic picture used by the RSS in its functions and ceremonies to train and motivate its cadres; and third, the raising of slogans like Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Vande Mataram. Arundhati Roy, the writer and civil rights activist, indirectly raised the question of the use of Vande Mataram and the picture of Bharat Mata in the movement and then reached the conclusion that Anna's movement was dangerous. When she was asked by Sagarika Ghose in an interview on CNN-IBN if the Anna movement was an RSS-sponsored Hindu rightist movement, Arundhati did not give a straight answer. She said, 'I am not saying that, but the symbols used in the agitation are interesting.' She elaborated, 'Vande Matram was first used in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's novel in 1882 and went on to become a slogan during Bengal's partition; and in 1937, Rabindranath Tagore said that its use as a national song was not correct as it was divisive and had a long communal history.' Arundhati did not stop here. She said, 'You first used a picture of Bharat Mata and then a picture of Gandhi. You had people who were openly members of a Manuvadi agitation. So you had a cocktail of dangerous things and it would have been more dangerous if it had not ended the way it did' (Nai Duniya, 2 September 2011).
Ramchandra Guha takes a circuitous route to hint that the RSS is the mastermind of the Anna movement. Drawing a parallel with JP, he wrote, 'The materials of history thus suggest that the parallel between JP and Anna is less comforting than we suppose. The front organizations of Jan Sangh's successor, BJP, are now playing a much active role in India against Corruption' (Hindustan Times, 23 August 2011). In another article, he very smartly quoted Mukul Sharma, an environmental journalist, who he said found Anna's approach deeply brahmanical (The Telegraph, 10 September 2011). But other secularists were more forthright in their allegations. Film personality Mahesh Bhatt, social activist Shabnam Hashmi, academic Ram Puniyani and others held a press conference in Mumbai on 23 August 2011 and openly accused Team Anna of being fascist and the RSS of being the mobilizing force for Anna. 'The RSS and BJP are mobilizing people on the ground,' Hashmi alleged, adding that since the Gujarat chief minister was close to being prosecuted, 'the Sangh is trying to build a cult figure like Anna.' She also said, 'Anna is surrounded by people who are fascist to the core.' These allegations weren't new. Even before the Ramlila anshan, Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh had said quite openly that Baba Ramdev and Anna were masks of the RSS. He never proffered any proof and every time Anna was asked this question he had always denied it. So when RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat openly extended support to the Anna agitation on the eve of his indefinite fast on 15 August, the Congress and the secularists got another opportunity to rubbish the movement. It is in this context that, when Anna was asked about the RSS connection yet again, and it was suggested that it was for this reason that a section of the minority community was not part of the agitation, he lost his cool and said that those who ask such questions should be sent to a lunatic asylum. I was there when Anna and his team were facing questions from the press. It was the fifth day of his fast and he was sitting on the stage while Arvind and Prashant Bhushan were holding the presser. This question had been directed at them. Arvind was about to reply when Anna snatched the mike from Arvind and responded angrily.
I could understand his anger. Anna and his team believed that this was an attempt to malign the movement and was done at the behest of the Congress and the government. In the beginning they accepted the allegations as a part of politics, but Shahi Imam Bukhari's statement had come as a bolt from the blue. It was seen by the leaders of the agitation as an attempt to communalize the anti-corruption stir and to brand the whole movement as an upper-class, upper-caste agitation. It was also perceived as an attempt to confuse the right-minded liberal Hindus. Urgent remedial steps were taken to minimize the damage. So, by the afternoon of 20 August, there were Muslims on the dais and, from that day onwards, a few Muslims were lined up to break their Roza in full public glare. In my opinion, this symbolism looked like a cheap political gimmick. People can see through such a farce.
I have also been told that Arvind and Kiran Bedi visited Bukhari and tried to explain the nature of the movement but Bukhari was unmoved. This again, in my opinion, was uncalled for. Neither does Bukhari represent the entire Muslim community nor does he carry any credibility. There was a time when the word of the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid carried a lot of weight but, over a period of time, India's Muslims have come to see that the Imam had used them for his narrow interests. That Bukhari's statement did not carry weight was evident from the fact that he did not get enough support from other leaders of his community. In fact, Mufti Mukarram, Shahi Imam of Fatehpuri Masjid in Delhi, who subscribes to the Barelvi school of Sunni Islam, which is what the vast majority of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent adhere to, categorically rejected Bukhari's statement. He said that Islam had nothing to do with the Anna movement, which was for a noble cause, and he appealed to his brethren to join the movement (Eurasia Review, 23 September 2011).
The Muslim Personal Law Board also distanced itself from Bukhari's statement. The spokesperson of the Board, AQR Illyas said, 'I do not agree with Imam Bukhari. Chanting Vande Mataram is not an issue.' He said, 'In principle we agree with what Anna Hazare is campaigning for, but we are not for dictating terms to Parliament.' His colleague on the Board, Jafaryab Jilani, explained that the Board had decided to stay away from Anna's campaign due to its political overtones and that their organization believed that this issue did not come under its purview. The Deoband was also of the same opinion. Mohatamim of Darul Uloom Deoband, Mufti Abdul Qasim Nomani, clarified, 'Corruption is a serious issue and is a matter of concern for everyone but Deoband is a religious institution and does not get involved with political matters' (as reported by www.milligazette.com, dated 27 August 2011). For the two biggest institutions of the Muslim community, Anna's movement was not a communal issue.
Even in the virtual world, Bukhari's words did not go down well with Muslim readers. One Javed Saikia from Bangalore reacted on India TV's website below a report on Bukhari's statement, 'Another Jinnah is on the rise; they don't represent the Muslims of this country. Imam Sahib, please do not mix this noble cause with religion.' Sayeed Khan from Pune wrote, 'Bharata mata ki jai, Vande Mataram and supporting Anna Hazare.' Rehan from Delhi was furious, 'If you can't say anything positive about Annaji's Movement, keep your mouth shut, please don't do dirty politics.' Mohammad Firoze Qureshi from Mumbai just hated what was said, 'Bukhari sahib, apko kitne paise mile hain Anna sahib ke khilaf bolne ke?' (Mr Bukhari, how much have you been paid to speak against Anna)?
True, some Muslim leaders did express their apprehension that the RSS might be trying to hijack the agitation, but none of them said it was led by Hindu fundamentalists. Jafaryab Jilani said, 'There is an allegation that the movement is actually backed by the RSS from behind the curtain. The leaders of the anti-graft movement are yet to give evidence to prove that they are not motivated politically.' Now this is a fair point. And Team Anna should try to explain their position and say where they stand on the RSS. One of the senior leaders of the Jamaate-Ulema-e-Hind, who refused to be identified, said that in his personal capacity he supported the movement and felt that it was a golden opportunity for Muslims to fight along with their Hindu brothers and prove that on a question of national importance they think alike. But he did admit that allegations of an RSS link had created confusion in the minority community.
The editor of the Urdu weekly Nai Duniya, ex-member of Parliament, Shahid Siddiqi, also said that the alleged RSS link did force Muslims to think about the movement. He also added that Anna's alleged praise for Narendra Modi (which Team Anna later denied) also preyed on the minds of Muslims. Despite these apprehensions, a section of the Muslim community openly supported Anna. The India Ulema Council, the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaj, All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board and the All India Muslim Majlish-a-Mushawarat had no hesitation in supporting the anti-corruption campaign (Eurasia Review, 23 September 2011).
So it is not true that Muslims as a community boycotted the movement. One can only conclude that a section of Muslims did not take part in the Anna agitation. It is also true that there have been serious apprehensions in the community in view of the propaganda unleashed by vested interests that the RSS might be controlling the movement behind the scenes. But I would argue that an overwhelming majority of the community did not buy Bukhari's argument. This goes to prove the point that some secular intellectuals are still seeing the world with their old mindset. They need to change because Indian society today is changing very fast.
During my research, a few so-called Muslim intellectuals tried telling me that Muslims, being a minority community, have always struggled with the basic issues of identity and security. There is a very strong belief in the community that they have been left behind and, if they don't take the issue of education seriously and become a partner in the economic development of the country, they have no future. Given this background, Team Anna should have tried to answer their questions. As far as I could see, Team Anna never did try to integrate the minority community into its movement. They thought that corruption being an issue that affected everyone, irrespective of religion, the movement would get support from everyone; but they did not account for the complexities of Indian society. I remember that the leader of Jamaat-e-Ulemae-Hind, Mehmood Madni, was present on the stage on 30 January when the first rally took place at the Ramlila Maidan. But he was lost somewhere in the movement and was never seen again. If an effort had been made to integrate him into the movement and its leadership, it would have blunted the attack by people like Digvijaya Singh after Mohan Bhagwat's speech on Dussehra, when he said that the RSS cadre had worked for the success of the Anna movement. Arvind realized that this statement would be misunderstood, so he too made a statement. He said, 'The RSS should not try to take credit for the success of the movement. If they want to take credit, they should take credit for the Gujarat riots . . .' Bhagwat reacted to this and said that the RSS did not want to steal credit, but they were always against corruption and would always support any such movement (www.timesofindia.com, 11 October 2011). The matter should end here, but knowing our leaders, I am sure attempts will be made to communalize the movement further. That is where the real danger lies and that is why I am worried whenever I hear statements by Shahi Imam Bukhari, Digvijaya Singh and Mohan Bhagwat, because I know that ultimately the victims of such divisive politics will be Naushad and that old man from Indore.
(This excerpt is the first of a series we will be running from IBN7 Managing Editor Ashutosh's book titled 'Anna – 13 Days That Awakened India', recently published by Harper Collins Publishers India. The book is a serious attempt to deconstruct the Anna movement rather than focussing on Anna, the individual.)