Shabana Azmi is a remarkable woman: five times National Award winner, she has performed multiple roles in life and cinema. That someone from the increasingly vacuous world of Bollywood has emerged as a public activist-intellectual is itself rather creditable. She may well have been a prisoner of political correctness at times, but few will deny that she has chosen to venture where few others of her ilk would dare: then whether it be standing up for slum-dwellers’ rights, women’s rights or against communal politics, hers has been a powerful voice. Which is why when in a recent television interview on CNN-IBN, the actor said that the polity was unfair to Muslims and spoke of her personal experience in being denied a house in Mumbai because she was a Muslim, the response was instantaneous. Her critics described her as ‘irresponsible’, questioning her claims as inflammatory and designed to spread communal disharmony.
There is another Azmi, meanwhile, who has also been grabbing the headlines. Abu Asim Azmi has a rather different career graph to the actor. Accused in the 1993 Mumbai blasts, and charged with links to Dawood Ibrahim, he was later let off for want of evidence. Re-inventing himself as president of the Samajwadi Party in Maharashtra, he became a Rajya Sabha MP in 2002. As a self-styled spokesperson for the north Indian community in Mumbai, he was arrested along with Raj Thackeray a few months ago for promoting enmity between communities. A fortnight ago, Abu Azmi was back in the news when he vowed to fight for Abu Bashar, prime accused in the Ahmedabad blasts case, claiming that the SIMI activist was innocent.
Both the Azmis seem to be projecting the Muslim as ‘victim’, and yet their personal and political persuasions could not be more different. When Shabana Azmi spoke out, she appeared to be reflecting on a genuine liberal Indian Muslim predicament: how do you ensure the ‘mainstreaming’ of a community when there is active discrimination on a basic issue like housing? Abu Azmi, on the other hand, was engaging in a time-worn populist appeal: “Islam khatre mein hai,” was the message (Islam is in danger). Far from seeking ways to restore confidence within the minorities, his rhetoric was only designed to promote divisiveness by creating a distinct Muslim constituency based on fear and enmity towards the majority community.
Unfortunately, the distinctiveness in approach between the two Azmis hasn’t been sufficiently appreciated. When a Shabana Azmi is vilified for speaking out, it almost seems as if she stands guilty of having crossed a certain Lakshman rekha by publicly questioning the implementation of the constitutional guarantee of equality among citizens, irrespective of faith. As Ms Azmi put it eloquently in a signed article in Hindustan Times: “Would it not be fair to assume that implicit in this hue and cry is the desire to shut up the liberal voice and demand of Muslims who are successful to be good Uncle Toms? Have I ever been asked to apologise to men when I’ve talked about discrimination against women? Have I ever been asked to apologise to the rich because I’ve talked about the need to alleviate poverty?”
It is almost as if we are comfortable with the idea of having to deal with the Abu Azmis and the Shahi Imams as symbols of Muslim fundamentalism in our society. These are the shrill voices of Islam that confirm our worst stereotypes and prejudices of a community in crisis: for example, every time these gentlemen make an outrageous remark in a television debate, there is an “I told you so” smirk that sweeps through the studio audience. If a Praveen Togadia does not represent the voice of the silent majority, why should an Abu Azmi or a Shahi Imam represent the average Muslim citizen? Every time there is a terror blast and a Muslim is arrested, it is as if an entire community must accept the blame. Do we demand the same sense of collective guilt among Hindus every time the Bajrang Dal stands accused of murderous assaults?
That Hindu fundamentalists need the Muslim fanatic for survival is well established. What is less clear is why even a section of the so-called secular intelligentsia is unable to look beyond a certain stereotypical notion of the Indian Muslim. It is as if we are satisfied that India has established its secular credentials by having three Muslim presidents, the Khans who preside over the film world, and the Irfan Pathans and Zaheer Khans who do us proud on the cricket field.
Our definition of a liberal Muslim, it seems, is confined to those who publicly take on the fundamentalists within their community (do we make similar demands of the liberal Hindu?). Our definition of the successful Muslim is of someone who attains fame on a bigger stage without making a fuss of his minority identity. So long as an A.P.J. Abdul Kalam limits himself to a Vision 2020 that focuses on education and technology, he is a role model for all of us. Were he to raise questions on Hindu-Muslim relations, then he suddenly would become a ‘suspect’. Shah Rukh Khan as a happy-go-lucky film star is a national icon, but if Shah Rukh were to take a stand on a communal riot, he might lose his iconic status.
Which is why we need to value Shabana Azmi’s intervention as a brave attempt to force a public debate on realities that we choose to deliberately blind ourselves to. We cannot be cheerleaders of the actor when she challenges the Shahi Imam, but become her critics the moment she acknowledges her concerns on prickly Hindu-Muslim questions. Indeed, it is only when we raise discomfiting questions that perhaps we can hope to find some of the answers that still elude us on why our secular spirit has failed, on why there is a growing intolerance of the ‘other’, on why home-grown terror groups have emerged, or on why our minds and neighbourhoods are being ‘ghettoised’. The answers are complex, as perhaps are the solutions. But let’s at least make a start by distinguishing between a Shabana Azmi and a Abu Azmi: let’s consolidate one voice, weaken the other.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-chief, IBN network