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Kalam vs Memon: What do the burials say about Indian Muslims?


On July 30, 2015, two high profile burials took place, almost formalizing new stereotypes of Indian Muslims. A former president of India and the other, a convicted terrorist, were buried in graveyards as far removed as Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu and Mahim in Mumbai. The president was given a state burial. The “convict” received a popular burial, one befitting an iconic figure.

The old stereotypes showed Muslims as hubble-bubble smoking, paan chewing debauches, reciting Urdu poetry, surrounded by nautch girls. Or, they were “Qasais” or butchers who bathed only on Fridays, married several times and multiplied like rabbits. By now these images had begun to pall. New stereotypes were required for propagation.

President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam received a state funeral. The army, navy and air force saluted someone billed as India’s most popular head of state. The occasion was given further elevation by the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and important members of his cabinet.

His humble beginnings were in constant focus. This brilliant scientist came from a family of fishermen, self taught, deriving greatly from the Hindu ambience of Rameswaram. He read the Gita, studied the Vedas, played the Veena. He accepted Hindu culture without juxtaposing it against any of his own. He was the perfect example of what former BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi famously described as a “Mohammediya Hindu”.

An irony attended the two burials. Kalam’s funeral was stately, suitably somber, but lacking in spontaneity. A spontaneous, emotional crowd, about 15,000 strong, thronged Mumbai’s Bada Qabristan. This, despite TV channels blacking out the event – under official instruction. In the popularity stakes, Yakub Memon would win by many lengths. Does this imply that Indian Muslims stand four squares behind terrorists? A resounding no. They are with Memon because they do not have an iota of faith in the criminal justice system when it concerns Muslims. Sad, but true.

The establishment, on the other hand, was bringing out in bold relief the image of its most acceptable Indian Muslim distinct from the Saiyyid, Pathan, Sheikh, stereotypes.

Modi, in his very first speech in parliament in May 2014, blamed India’s backwardness on 1,200 years of “ghulami”, which means slavery or serfdom. In one sentence Modi had dismissed the entire Muslim period in India as “alien” and repressive. In Modi’s framework, Aurangzeb, for example, falls in the category of foreigners. Renaming of Aurangzeb Road to Abdul Kalam Road is in that sequence.

It would have been comforting to imagine that Nadeswaram player Sheikh Chinna Maulana Sahib, great Kathakali singer Kalamandalam Hyderali, music director Allah Rakha Rahman would, like Kalam, be acceptable to the likes of Modi. They were converts who retained “Hindu” culture. But this morning’s newspaper upsets even this thought.

Kerala’s powerful “Mathrubhumi” newspaper was persuaded by Hindutva groups to discontinue M.M. Basheer’s series on Ramayan. Abuses were heaped on the editor as well as Basheer. The argument was that a Muslim cannot understand Rama’s Godliness.

Let us, in the meanwhile, gauge the extraordinarily large crowd from Memon’s house in Mahim to the Bada Qabristan. Was it a ringing vote of no confidence in the Indian state’s communal partiality? The crowd had been requested by Memon’s family not to raise slogans. This request was heeded. Why did Muslims turn up in such large numbers for the burial, despite the government’s ‘gag order” on the media?

The BJP leader and governor of Tripura, Tathagata Roy. tweeted: “Intelligence agencies should keep a tab on all who attended Yakub Memon’s corpse. Many are potential terrorists.”

A more sensitive response appeared in writer Aakar Patel’s column in Outlook magazine. The crowds had not come to protest. “They had come to sympathise because they too were victims.” This is not part of the routine Muslim narrative of victimhood. This is specific to the sequence of events beginning with the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. These led to the Mumbai riots of January-February 1993 which provoked the Mumbai blasts of March 12, 1993.

It is official policy to deny linkages between the three incidents. But Justice B.N. Srikrishna in his Judicial Inquiry Commission into the Mumbai riots had concluded:

“One common link between the riots of December 1992 and January 1993 and the bomb blasts of 12 March 1993 are that the former have been a causative factor for the latter. There does appear to be a cause and effect relationship between the two riots and the serial bomb blasts.” Also, why did successive governments in Maharashtra not have the courage to name politicians the report heaps all the blame on?


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