Satyashodhak Revolutionary: Remembering Hamid Dalwai on his 88th birth anniversary

Suresh Khairnar
Dr. Suresh Khairnar

By Dr. Suresh Khairnar

New Delhi: How does one make sense of a still-nascent democracy that has been rapidly hijacked by majoritarian chauvinists, forcing its minorities into siege-like conditions; a situation where social, economic, and political predicaments continue to feed upon and strengthen each other in a noxious symbiosis, while those who struggle are at a loss on how to find their way out of this imbroglio? It is a crucial challenge of our times to understand how the RSS can be prevented from using problems within the Muslim community to vilify them and use these as means to push its toxic Hindutva agenda, while at the same time, encouraging the urgent need for societal reforms which is thwarted by external threats that minorities in India undeniably face today.

Life of Hamid Dalwai

The short-lived but immensely meaningful life of Hamid Dalwai might provide some clues to these questions, and it is only fitting to remember Hamid bhai on his 88th Birth anniversary and to ruminate about the man, his invaluable work, how he would have perceived today’s India, and what we might learn from his courageous efforts in the 1970s when the country was in the midst of a similar political upheaval. Hamid bhai spearheaded the cause of radical reforms within the Muslim community, specifically the arbitrary practice of teen-talaq, and the question of the communalization of the Urdu language, which sought to impose upon the Indian Muslim a monolithic and essentializing cultural identity. It is these very issues that have been hijacked by the RSS today to serve its virulent communal agenda. Hamid bhai had even argued for a uniform secular civil code at the time, which ironically, the RSS chief, MS Golwalkar had been staunchly opposed to.

Unfortunately, before he had had an opportunity to live out his life, Hamid Dalwai passed away due to kidney disease on 3rd May 1977. Yet, in a short lifespan of merely 45 years, he had dedicated nearly 25 years to promoting social reforms, even endangering his life on several occasions with little thought for his own well-being. Inspired by the work and ideals of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and the reforms carried out by Kemal Ataturk Pasha after assuming power in Turkey, Dalwai led the struggle for societal reforms within and outside India’s Muslim community. There have been very few reformers like him in the 1500-year long history of Islam.

Hamid Dalwai was born in a small village called Chiplun in Maharashtra’s Konkan region, which was also the birthplace of another stalwart social reformer, Vishnu Shastri Chiplunkar. At 14 years of age, Hamid joined the Rashtra Seva Dal, a nascent organization that had been formed only five years prior. In that impressionable age, he was exposed to the values of democratic socialism, secularism, scientific temper, and nationalism which would go on to guide him in his journey. While in the lifespan of an organization, it has several members, there are usually only a few who are truly able to pursue the path of their conviction and ideals, and Hamid was one of those few.

Political transformation of India

Hamid’s teenage years witnessed the political transformation of India from a colonized nation to an independent state, and the several struggles of nation-building that accompanied its political independence. The period, when Hamid was about 15 years old, also saw the horrific humanitarian crisis engendered by the partition, which had resulted from the ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British colonialists – of promoting the Muslim League on the one hand and the RSS on the other. The partition brought with it widespread bloodshed and displacement of millions of people, and also left a deep wedge between Hindus and the Muslims, leading to Gandhi’s martyrdom in its wake. I feel a shiver run down my spine when I imagine how tumultuous a period it might have been for the innocent and impressionable Hamid Dalwai. The communal pulls and pressures and deep-seated hatred had made it difficult for most Indians to continue to believe in the innate humanity and goodness of the ‘other’; perhaps Dalwai’s induction into the Rashtra Seva Dal helped him to continue to have faith in the ideals of secularism even in the face of the unprecedented barbarity that prevailed all around. It is important to remember that one’s worldviews and faith in being liberal, secular and anti-caste depends to a large extent on the prevailing milieu. Personally, I believe that even I might have been influenced by the RSS and even been its functionary, had I not encountered the Seva Dal when I was 13-14 years of age; my favorite school teacher who taught me Geography had been relentless in trying to persuade me to join the RSS.

Alternately, Hamid would perhaps have taken to theology, and trained to become a maulana as was his father’s desire, had the Rashtra Seva Dal not entered his life at the time that it did. In one of our several conversations, Hamid bhai himself shared these thoughts with me in the 1970s when he had invited me to Amravati. I remember with great fondness his warm and informal conversations, even as he was bed-ridden in Jaslok Hospital struggling against the disease that had inflicted his kidneys, and even the times that I met him at Sharad Pawar’s residence which he frequented. I have rarely come across a man with such an unparalleled zest for life and a light-heartedness even in the face of the most pressing circumstances.

Socialist activist

Hamid bhai served as a socialist activist in his early years and also worked as a journalist for the ‘Maratha’ newspaper run by Acharya Atre. In those years, he penned a novel titled ‘Indhan (fuel)’ which has been translated into English by Dilip Chitre. Later, he also published a collection of stories and both these works won awards and accolades. His literary instinct was later overtaken by the passion for contributing to social reforms. Perhaps he could no longer remain a bystander as he saw the several internal and external crises engulfing India’s Muslim community. While one political force was hell-bent on demonizing them, others thought no more of them than a captive vote-bank. Issues such as Muslim men marrying multiple women arbitrarily and then subjecting them to forced divorces were plaguing the community and Hamid bhai was so deeply bothered by this that at 34 years of age, he led a massive protest march of divorced women on 18 April 1966 – a brazen form of protest for his times.

With such an intense beginning of his activist life, in the Pune office of ‘Sadhna Saptahik’ weekly founded by Sane Guruji, Hamid Dalwai started his own organization that he named ‘Muslim SatyaShodhak Samaj’ after Jyotiba Phule’s Satya Shodhak Samaj. When orthodox religious clerics were only concerned with herding the community in the name of the Quran and Hadith, it was nothing short of a revolution for Hamid Dalwai to spearhead such radical reforms – he remains unrivaled even after 43 years of his death. The Shah Bano episode appeared on the scene nearly 20 years later, which became a watershed moment in the history of the decline of secularism in the country. That religious faith had trumped the law of the land, emboldened the Sangh Parivar and paved the path for it to make newer advances and stronger inroads into India’s social and political landscape.

RSS

The RSS has harboured a vile hatred for Muslims which has driven its socio-political agenda ever since its inception. However, India’s politics experienced a dosage of its noxious agenda in a substantive way with the formation of the Janata Party in 1977, which incidentally was the same year when Hamid bhai fell terminally ill. Since Mahatma Gandhi’s murder, RSS had found itself isolated in Indian politics, but 1977 marked the beginning of its legitimization in India’s political mainstream. During the emergency, I traveled across India with my political co-travelers, S M Joshi and Nana Saheb Goreji, to consult friends imprisoned in various jails. I shared my reservations with them in unambiguous terms: how could we have an alliance with a communal outfit like the Jan Sangh which did not subscribe to our core values of secularism and socialism, and when the party remained firmly wedded to capitalists, landlords and old Maharajas, and most objectionably when it brazenly supported Brahminism? Electoral seat-sharing was still thinkable, but being merged with the same party? I was reassured to know that George Fernandes, the national president of Indian Socialist Party, who was in Tihar jail at the time, and whom S M Joshi had met, was of the same opinion. However, S M Joshi told me that Jaiprakash ji had put a condition that he would not come for the election campaign until all opposition parties had merged. I participated in the formation of the Janata Party which had been formed under those uncomfortable conditions, at Pragati Maidan where I went accompanied by Acharya Kelkar. I have also been witness to the merger of the Socialist Party of India in a convention chaired by George Fernandes, who at that time was a hero to many like me. The turn proved to be historic for the RSS which enjoys a completely different political fate today, than ours.

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Hamid Bhai is not alive today to see how communal majoritarian politics has spread its tentacles over the past 43 years. Had he been alive, he would have been among the staunchest critics of Narendra Modi’s discriminatory Citizenship Act, and even other measures that Modi has forcibly pushed through under the pretext of ‘empowering’ India’s Muslims, especially Muslim women. Among other things, what exposes Modi’s façade, is the fact that in Gujarat, he presided over the genocide of innocent Muslims that saw violent mobs slitting open women’s wombs and raping them, which has been documented on video by Mrunal Gore and Suma Chitnis. It is sickening therefore, to watch the same Modi shedding tears for

Muslim women today. Even as Modi speaks of a Uniform Civil Code, I believe it is yet another ploy to threaten an already vulnerable and cornered Muslim community. I am certain that Hamid bhai would have understood and exposed this agenda and the numerous machinations that the Sangh Parivar has adopted over the past decades to further marginalize the community.

Hamid Dalwai is an especially important person to know, understand, and celebrate for not only was he a Muslim social reformer, but also one of the founders of the Indian Secular Society. My reading of the Society’s literature makes me believe that the Sangh agenda would have been opposed tooth and nail by its leaders like Hamid Dalwai, Narhar Kurundkar, and A B Shah. Never in the 73 years since India’s independence has the Muslim community experienced the kind of deep insecurity that it is confronted with today. This is an outcome of the RSS incessantly widening the wedge between communities through issues like the temple-mosque row, politics around the cow, Kashmir, Pakistan, and now, by threatening even the Muslim claim to Indian citizenship. Since Golwalkar, RSS has believed that Muslims can only live in India at the mercy of Hindus, else they must resign themselves to accepting the status of second-class citizens. All such hideous designs would have been courageously resisted by Hamid bhai were he alive today – having watched his work closely in Amravati, I can say so with complete conviction – Hamid bhai would have boldly spoken out against both, political Islam being propagated internationally as well as

Hindutva fascism, as he understood the dangers of both. Perhaps he would have been our leader in this struggle as he commanded respect among all communities.

In today’s age of unprecedented political turmoil, it is crucial that we revisit the legacy of leaders such as Hamid bhai both, for inspiration and to think of ways through which we can renew our resolve to continue our struggle to protect the founding ideals of this diverse and multi-faceted nation. Why did Hamid Dalwai name his organization Muslim Satya-shodhak Samaj? According to Sant Tukaram Maharaj’s

Abhang in Marathi – satya asatyashi man kele gwahi. Mahatma Gandhi called his autobiography an experiment with truth, and Jyotiba Phule named his group, Satya Shodhak Samaj a hundred years ago.

Hamid bhai, inspired by these legacies, chose a Marathi name for his organization given that he was born in Konkan where most people speak Konkani Marathi, and some can only speak the Konkani dialect. There is an adage in India that dialects change after every ten miles. So, while Kannada in the neighbouring state of Karnataka, Telugu in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil in Tamil Nadu, Malyalam in Kerala etc. are major languages, most states also have multiple dialects. Take for instance, Bihar which has Maithili, Angika and Bhopuri, or Jammu and Kashmir, which has Dogri, Mirpuri, and Kashmiri, or my own district of Dhulia which has the Ahirani dialect – personally, I cannot speak any language properly as I do not belong to a single place after all.

Language

This detailed aside on languages finds place in my remembrance of Hamid Dalwai, because he was always particular about emphasizing that Indian Muslims must speak and work in the language of the place where they were born. He would often say to Muslim friends and community members that even though they could choose to learn Urdu or Arabic for their knowledge or interest, he cautioned them against believing that these languages could ever become their own or replace those languages they had been born into. So, for a Muslim born in Maharashtra, his advice would be to embrace Marathi as their primary language; chasing Urdu, Arabic, or Persian he argued, would not help the community as Marathi would be more prudent for both, social and economic reasons. He was opposed to the Maulanas who prioritized religious education above other skills. In 1971, Pakistan, that was built on a religious slogan had to be further divided on linguistic basis as Urdu was not acceptable to the people in East Pakistan which then became Bangladesh. Hamid Dalwai never lost sight of this reality about languages and local cultures.

I have had an opportunity to visit Pakistan twice. On my second travel, I entered through the AtariWagha border and traversing Punjab, Singh and then Balochistan, I traveled up to Zahedan in Iran by road. I saw first-hand the reality of the supposed respect that Urdu enjoyed in Pakistan – just 50 kms from Amritsar, communities speak Punjabi in Pakistan, and further on, Sindhi becomes the main language in Sakkar, Atak, Sindh, and Hyderabad right up to Karachi – beyond these regions, people speak Baloch. The intense internal strife over languages within Pakistan, could put the India-Pakistan rivalry to shame and expose the hollowness of the Pakistani state’s decision in 1973 to impose Urdu on disparate communities of the country. Still, both the pan-Islamists and the RSS cling to monolithic imaginations about Muslims. This pluralist discourse was central to the thought and work of the 45-year-old Hamid Dalwai when I first met him.

Pan-Islamist orthodoxies

The Indian subcontinent is today marked by pan-Islamist orthodoxies, especially of the Salafist and Wahabist kind, which have been pushed by vested interests often funded by the US, Britain, France and other Western countries whose real intention is to control the flow of oil and dominate the region’s geopolitics. Over the past 40 years, they have deployed the rhetoric of the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ to raise spectres of Boko Haram, Al Qaida and now, the ISIS. If Hamid Dalwai were alive today, he would be among leading figures denouncing this nexus, along with prominent names like Mahmood Madani, Nom Chomsky, Edward Said, and Samir Amin.

Therefore, the path that Hamid bhai showed us in 1977 remains especially relevant since the

1990s, when India was hijacked by the hydra-shaped Sangh Parivar, and when vulnerable sections like minorities, Dalits and women are proving to be its worst victims. As the Muslim Satyashodhak Samaj has entered its 5th decade, we all must think seriously about these challenges.

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It was due to his articulate opposition to the clergy that Hamid bhai invited upon himself repeated attacks by Islamists. But Hamid Dalwai must be remembered for his unflinching conviction and courage with which he kept traveling across all parts of India until he was diagnosed with serious damage to his kidney when he was just 43 years old. Although his kidney was replaced and he traveled to an international conference with Jaiprakash Narayan, his body did not adapt to the replaced kidney and he eventually succumbed.

I remember with great affection the last few days of Hamid bhai’s life when I would visit him at Jaslok Hospital. Under both his eyes, his skin was swollen like water bags. Mehrunnisa ji, his wife, was attending to him and despite his serious condition, he never complained about his deteriorating health. Even as his life ebbed away, he kept his well-wishers enthralled with the many interesting anecdotes from

his life and the endless supply of jokes. On one such visit, after seeing his condition, I knew that his end was near; within roughly a week of my last visit, I read the news of his demise in the newspapers – the eminent social activist and thinker, Hamid Dalwai had taken his leave.

The valuable work that he undertook in the 45 years of his life has been carried forward by his followers. As a mark of my deep affection and respect for Hamid bhai, after I had assumed the role of the National President of the Rashtra Seva Dal in April 2017, I offered free working space to run the office of the Muslim Satyashodhak Samaj in our headquarters in Pune. I personally regard the Muslim Satyashodhak Samaj as a key constituent of the Rashtra Seva Dal – we are together in the struggle for freeing India of the shackles of caste and religious discrimination, without seeking recourse to electoral politics. Those whose sole agenda is to seek votes are bound by the compulsion of keeping everyone happy and in a bid to do this, they indulge in acts that are unimaginable for us. Those who love to see themselves as harbingers of progressive change in India must take forward Hamid bhai’s legacy and refuse to bow before both, Muslim and Hindu parochialisms. In the 50th year of MSS’ foundation, fighting communalism in all its hues has acquired an urgency for our society. If we proclaim secularism, we must oppose both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism. If we do not denounce Muslim communalism, we have no moral right to speak against fundamentalists of Hindu or other religions.

Objecting to Hamid Dalwai’s reformist work, the orthodox Mullahs of his time abused him, and there were also physical attacks on Hamid bhai. However, unlike the murders of Gandhi, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, Prof. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh by Hindutva fanatics, the Muslim fanatics did not kill Hamid no matter how savage they are painted by the RSS. In the RSS shakhas, the swayamsevaks are served a barbaric image of Islam to produce murderous cadres and foot-soldiers like Nathuram, Pragya Singh, Aseemanand, Kalsungra, Babu Bajrangi, and Colonel Purohit, and militant outfits like Shriram Sene, Bajrang Dal, Abhinav Bharat, and Sanatan Sanstha have been created for such purposes.

Muslim reformists

Two major Muslim reformists – Hamid Dalwai and Asghar Ali Engineer, both died due to their illnesses, unlike Prof. JS Bandukwala who faced a brutal attack during the Gujarat pogrom and his whole house was set on fire. Fortunately, his neighbours saved him and the family by sheltering them even as his house was burnt to ashes. On the 88th Birth anniversary of Hamid Bhai’s , being surrounded by a normalized aggressive Hindutva makes me think even more keenly of these nuances that we should not lose sight of. Gujarat 2002 inaugurated this naked and institutionalized cleansing of minorities, as it has been brought in open by journalists like Rana Ayyub, Siddharth Varadarajan, Manoj Mitta as well as conscientious officers such as R B Sreekumar and Justice Krishna Ayyar. General Padmanabhan of the Indian armed forces has said it on record that he deployed 3000 personnel under General Zahiruddin but the troop was not allowed to leave the Ahmedabad airport for three days by the state government headed by Modi. Mr. Shah has written about the episode in detail in his book ‘Sarkari Musalman’. Now the Nanavati Commission’s clean chit is being cited in favour of Modi. However, Nanavati was an old-time devoted sanghi whom I met five times with Adv. Mukul Sinha when the Gujarat proceedings were ongoing. In the first sitting itself, I could foresee the fate of the Commission and asked late Mukul ji why he was wasting his time. Mukul bhai responded that Narendra Modi would like the Commission to produce a clean-chit at the earliest as he harboured ambitions of becoming Prime Minister, and we are trying to at least delay it. As luck would have it later, Mukul bhai succumbed to cancer just two days before Modi became the PM. Similarly, Hamid Dalwai could not see the ascension of Hindtuva right-wing, otherwise he would have spoken vociferously against it.

In one of the meetings in Amravati where Hamid bhai spoke, there was not a single Muslim. Our meetings used to take place in Joshi Hall and after seeing the audience I whispered to Hamid Dalwai that all the sanghis of Amravati were present there. That day, he delivered quite an impressive speech on Hinduism and Hindtuva, which unsurprisingly disappointed the sanghis who had been thinking of using Hamid bhai’s genuine critique of the Muslim society for their own communal Islamophobic agenda. It is sad to see that since Hamid Bhai passed away, Indian politics has undergone a gradual virulent toxification which has reached its zenith in the present, making our responsibilities bigger than ever. We must ponder over the delicate issues concerning both majoritarian communalism and the fear psyche that has engulfed the minorities. While reforms in the community are essential, they can best be done only after the Muslims are made to feel safe and confident. Since the Bhagalpur riots of 1989, my own personal experience tells me that once you win their trust, it becomes easier for them to open up about these issues themselves. From the North-East to Kachchh, I have wandered across India to observe communal problems and violence for the past 30 years.

In this 50th year of the foundation of the Muslim Satyashodhak Samaj and on the occasion of Hamid bhai’s death anniversary, I feel both sad and inspired to take their legacies forward in the best way I can. At 67 years of age myself, with several diseases of the heart, sugar etc. and the angioplasty I underwent in 2018, I have continued to travel for the most part in the past ten years. At my stage, rather than feeling tired, surprisingly I feel the zest to do everything I can in the remaining years of my life – I draw inspiration and resolve from the invaluable work started by Hamid Dalwai, Narhar Kurundkar and A B Shah. How else can one pay one’s tribute to these luminaries? Their entire lives were dedicated to these struggles.

If Hamid bhai were alive today, he would have been 88 years old. But he lived only half that duration and still managed to do what others cannot achieve even in 100 years. The only way to pay our homage to him would be to continue his work in these turbulent times. As his comrade and co-traveler, I have often thought about Hamid Dalwai, and his death anniversary seems an important occasion to share my thoughts on this people’s leader; I apologize if my words or ideas end up hurting some friends.

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