An unaddressed Uncle Tom syndrome

MOVIE actor Naseeruddin Shah was having a tame chat with an indulgent Delhi audience when one of his two elder brothers seated in the front row rattled him with a troubling question. Why were terrorists almost always shown as Muslims in Mumbai movies?

One such movie was a hit in which Naseer played a private vigilante who incognito helps police track a gang of bomb-exploding Muslims. I think the actor didn’t have an answer to his brother’s question, and he mumbled something about playing what the script demanded. This was last year or thereabouts, but way after the Samjhauta train blasts involving Hindutva activists.

Now, retired Lt Gen Zameer Uddin Shah who sprang the question on his unsuspecting movie star brother has expanded his inquiry into other challenges facing India’s 150 million Muslims. His book titled The Sarkari Mussulman was released this month. And the former army officer, who describes himself as an upright Indian Muslim, was instantly damned by a hostile media as anti-national. He was particularly hounded for sharing his horrific experiences in violence-wracked Gujarat. The army chief had personally deputed him to lead the troops to quell the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms under then chief minister Narendra Modi’s watch.

Much has been said about Shah’s Gujarat expedition where he led army columns to rein in Hindutva mobs amid flames of hatred and blood-thirst.

He noted that the local administration delayed by a fateful day the crucial arrangement of logistical support such as vehicles, a mandatory civilian escort, and local maps.

He noted that policemen were mostly bystanders as mobs surrounded and raided the homes of innocent men, women, and children with petrol bombs and swords. When the police did act, they fired at the windows of the victims’ homes, not at the mobs. This precise detail could certainly help reopen ghastly cases of mayhem and mass murder if and when the political tide turns from India’s slide into state-backed fanaticism. But Shah’s memoirs contain other offerings than the 10 pages on Gujarat in his 204-page memoirs.

There is the absorbing description of days and nights when he says, he camped in a Pakistani desert in 1971. The inhospitable terrain on the western front was infested with snakes and scorpions.

He once went for a one-to-one flag meeting between the two sides dressed as the driver of the concerned officer. A burly Pakistani colonel appeared from somewhere in the scorching heat under an umbrella carried by a personal aide. This spectacle would be unthinkable in the Indian army, according to Shah. Some of the details that went into the preparation for the war — or the lack of it — as also his gripping experiences in combating armed militancy in India’s northeast and Punjab are unusually candid.

In a famous battle on the western front, which was made into the Indian film Border, Shah notes that the role of a Muslim Indian officer in thwarting the Pakistani assault was airbrushed in the nationalist discourse. But this was no reflection on the army, which remains India’s assertively secular institution, according to the former lieutenant general.

There are unguarded contrary giveaways though. The commanding officer discussing the details of the battle plan exclaimed that this would teach the Muslims a lesson. He then noticed Shah’s presence and corrected himself: “I meant Pakistan.” Shah found some of his former colleagues involved in hateful comments towards his community on the social media, which left him wondering whether they had been closet communalists.

About the battle of Longewala, Shah admits to major shortcomings and gives credit where it is due. “Had it not been for our air force, our armor of obsolescent AMX13 tanks buttressed by a few Russian T-54 tanks would have been no match for the Pakistan armor.”

So where, according to him, did the other side go wrong? “The Pakistani plan was bold and audacious. They planned to outflank us and head for Jaisalmer, their objective. They, however, made the cardinal error, in execution, by allowing their armor to overshoot the infantry and not allocating enough air resources for their thrust to Longewala.”

The curious title of the book Sarkari Mussulman — (literally government Muslim) — translates as ‘Uncle Tom’ in the given context. In the American racial context, ‘Uncle Tom’ is a pejorative term for blacks that give up or hide their ethnic or gender outlooks, traits, and practices, in order to be accepted into the mainstream. There is a genesis and there is a usage for the epithet, which I believe needs to be understood to appreciate Shah’s point.

For close to a century since their 1857 rout at the hands of the British, the Muslim elite in the north withdrew into a sullen shell, rejecting western education with motifs they considered foreign and polluting to their culture. When Sir Syed Ahmed Khan tried to check the self-harming bias, he was called a stooge of the British. Shah carried Sir Syed’s mission forward when he became vice chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University after retiring from the army. He grudgingly recalls an insulting encounter with Modi’s education minister, a former TV actress.

Jinnah too used a description close to Sarkari Mussulman when he described Maulana Azad as a ‘show boy’ of the Congress. The situation worsened when Maulana Maududi declared before Pakistan’s Justice Munir Commission that Muslims in a non-Islamic state — implying India — could be “accorded the status of shudras and mlechhas”.

The sentiment resonated with many Indian Muslims ironically who agreed with Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami about shunning government jobs in a non-Islamic state. The stance suited the purposes of the secular Indian state, which had few jobs to farm out anyway. Economic expediency prompted by diverse ethnic and religious claimants to a perpetually shrinking pie has become a useful anchor for pervasive prejudice.

Finally, Shah sees Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen as among those that typically betrayed the community by promoting a stereotype of Muslims in order to become more agreeable to those they craved to court. From what one can glean from his book, Zameer Uddin Shah comes out looking untainted by the twin traits he disapproves of among Indian Muslims. The two seemingly opposite syndromes include a pervasive cultural sycophancy to climb the social and political ladder and a sullen sense of victimhood that confines the community to its religious ghettos, which are usually headed by a self-serving clergy that is all too often an undeclared adjunct of a cynical state.

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2018

Copy edited by Adam Rizvi

Jawed Naqvi

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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