July Issue 2013

By | Bookmark | Published 11 years ago

Seema-Mustafa-lAzadi’s Daughter is gender-transcendent. The title could have been Azadi’s Son and yet been apt and highly relevant. But the fact that the book is by an Indian Muslim woman certainly gives the theme, content and title of the work an exceptional pungency and power.

The author’s identity reinforces the female dimension. Born into a family with an enlightened cultural persona, Seema Mustafa inherited values of respect for women’s empowerment, for religious diversity and for new knowledge that have shaped her life and endeavours. As an intrepid journalist and columnist, a political campaigner and a former candidate for Parliament, a social activist, a Track 2 dialogue participant, an outspoken citizen and — after the dissolution of her marriage — a single parent to her children, she brings an admirable combination of pluralist views, an open mind and a rare self-confidence. She currently writes an engaging weekly column for the Express Tribune in Pakistan, apart from her association in India with a research centre and her other writings.

As the book takes the reader on the journey promised by the sub-title, the reason why the text is as much about sons as it is about daughters becomes starkly evident. Here is a bold delineation of the condition of Indian Muslims in all their commonality of a shared faith and in all their diversity of regions (from Kashmir to Uttar Pradesh to Hyderabad), in all the insularity of obscurantism and in all the betrayals by Indian Muslim leaders, in all the sufferings faced by Indian Muslim youth and in all the hopes still vested by Indian Muslims at large in the promise and potential of the secular Indian Constitution.

If chapter titles can be seen as the names of the wayside stations on the journey, the author has fine formulations. From chapter one to chapter 13, these are : The Pink Elephant in the Room; A Place in the Sun ; The Mosquito and the Bed Bug ; A Journalist and a Woman ; Trial by Political Fire ; Nothing in Common ; A Blow to Secular India ; Speak, Your Life is still Yours; The Flames of Two Towers ; Why Indian Muslims are not Terrorists ; The Night before a Dawn ; The Young Muslim, and The Morning After.

The narrative proceeds on several tracks : the personal, the social, the professional, the political. On all tracks, the author is always candid and blunt. She pulls no punches. Be it about the conduct of Muslim community leaders or those segments of the Muslim masses who support them or re-elect them despite their obvious flaws and failures, be it the Hindu extremists in RSS or BJP or in the Gujarat carnage, be it the brutal torture or callous treatment inflicted on suspects in Kashmir by India’s security forces, be it her perceptions about Pakistan’s role in bilateral relations or the Indian government’s own actions internally or externally, Seema Mustafa writes with a rare directness and courage. This is a patriot India should be proud of — a person so deeply committed to her country that even her religion does not hold her back from being harshly critical, only in order to be kind.

The first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book. Recalling how her mother enjoined her, when she was a little girl, to respect all religions, including idol-worshipping faiths, the author also credits her father, a multi-medal-winning Indian Army officer who served with distinction in World War II, for instilling in her a broad universalism. After her mother’s premature demise, her father nurtured her with a defiance of convention and ritual.

“Secularism inside our home was a way of life,” she writes. And the rest of the book reveals how this formative influence determined the myriad causes the author pursues in the media, in public affairs, in regional interactions and in her relationships with friends and citizens.

There are some passages in the book where, as a Pakistani, this reviewer is of the opinion that the author tends to see Pakistan’s relationship with religion in too preconceived and predictable a manner.
In the chapter ‘The Night before a Dawn,’ she repeats the generally-held but unfounded view that India was a single political entity prior to 1947 and refers to “…the religion-based division of India, into India and Pakistan,” whereas two entirely new nation-states, neither of which had existed in their respective new forms before 1947, came into existence in August that year. Thus, it was NOT one older state sub-divided into two.

It is also rightly said by some, including myself, that whereas India is a secular state with a deeply religious society, Pakistan is a religion-based state with a secular-minded people who are secular without realising that to be secular is also to be truly Muslim.

The tragedy is that in Pakistan the word “secular” has been translated into Urdu as “godlessness” or “atheism.” But that is another story. Let’s stay with the merits of the book !

Mustafa’s strong critique of Indian Muslim leaders comes through in comments such as the following from the concluding chapter. She writes : “…the Muslim leaders are not leaders, just followers of a system that brings them political dividends…they are there to divide the people, rarely to unite them… the Muslim youth seeking a way out into the liberal world thus have their task cut out for them. Even if they succeed in winning over their families, they come up against the Muslim leadership that does not allow them the opportunity to better themselves. Not a single Muslim MP of any political party has made it a mission to get the governments to implement the recommendations of various Commissions…” Yet she ends on an optimistic note: “ The morrow will not be bleak….a new age will dawn (for) minorities…(if various conditions are changed )…(because ) it is necessary for India to survive as a democracy, vibrant and flourishing.”

This is a slim book with thick content, light on the eyes but comfortably heavy for the mind, without being dense or daunting.

One hopes Azadi’s Daughter is widely distributed and read in Pakistan and overseas.