By Firoz Bakht Ahmed*
Former Indian Foreign Service (IFS) diplomat, MP, editor, “Muslim India” and a trusted friend Syed Shahabuddin, who was suffering from prolonged illness, died at a hospital in Noida, NCR, on Saturday morning. He was 82.
To the author, Shahabuddin was an astute editor and a mentor when it came to writing for the problems facing the Indian Muslims in his fortnightly magazine, “Muslim India” in the 1990s. The author, who contributed regularly for the magazine edited by Shahabuddin, feels that no other document other than the “Milli Gazette” profiled the community’s issues as was done in “Muslim India”.
It was under Shahabuddin’s leadership in December 1986, Babri Masjid activists from Delhi, UP and the rest of the country held All India Babri Masjid Conference and formed a 10-member Babri Masjid Movement Coordination Committee (BMMCC), with him as its convener. The conference adopted the Declaration of Delhi and decided to call upon the Muslims not to associate themselves with the official celebration of the Republic Day, 1987, to hold a mass rally on Rajpath in Delhi in March 1987 and, if those two steps failed, to hold a mass Friday prayer in Babri Masjid in October 1987.
This woke up the political parties and the government. There was wide support for the Muslim demand for expeditious judicial settlement but the national press vitiated the atmosphere by accusing the Muslims of “boycotting” the Republic Day and planning a “March to Ayodhya.” The unprecedented rally in Delhi, with more than half a million people, made history.
Though a frontline leader of the Babri Masjid Movement Coordination Committee (BMMCC), he developed some sharp differences with the Shahi Imam, Syed Abdullah Bukhari and others on taking the movement from a path of sensible protest to that of acquiring communalist overtones. This was witnessed in the huge Boat Club lawns, India Gate protest where all the Indian leaders including Shahabuddin gathered on a stage.
Since negotiations were going on with the government, the proposed Friday prayer at Ayodhya was deferred by BMMCC. This divided it and five members, including Imam Abdullah Bukhari, Azam Khan and Zafaryab who Jilani resigned to form the All India Babri Masjid Movement Action Committee (AIBMAC) in October 1988. However, the two committees continued to cooperate, particularly on the legal front.
On 16 November 2012 Shahabuddin published an open letter to Narendra Modi regarding Muslim voters, amongst other things. As a matter of fact, he was also criticized for that. Shahabuddin founded the Insaf Party in 1989 (dissolved in 1990 and later revived). He is known for his strong belief in the federal structure of India and his desire to see more people participating at every level of governance. He has often called for persistent action against corruption, nepotism and inefficiency, for democracy within political parties and for equitable distribution of national income and resources in order to provide a life of minimum dignity for all people.
Shahabuddin edited the research monthly journal Muslim India between 1983 and 2002 and again from July 2006. He was a regular contributor to TV discussions relating to current affairs. He had written many for the Saudi Arabian newspaper, “Arab News”. He was known for a ban on “The Satanic Verses “– Salman Rushdie’s book that sparked angry protests.
According to Navaid Hamid, who is heading the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, the platform whose President was Shahabuddin earlier, few Indian leaders have been of the caliber and political acumen of Shahabuddin in the history of Indian Muslim leadership.
Shahabuddin, who is survived by his wife and four daughters, was buried at Panjpeeran cemetry in Nizamuddin with a large number of prominent Muslim figures in attendance.
Born in 1935 in Ranchi, now in Jharkhand, he joined the IFS in 1958 but took premature retirement in the 1970s to delve into politics.
As a diplomat, he lobbied for the creation of Bangladesh and rallied support in Latin America — where he was posted at that time — for Indian intervention in the affair.
Although considered to be in the good books of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, he was one of the few diplomats who were openly anti-Emergency.
Within eight months of relinquishing service, Shahabuddin was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1979 from Kishanganj in Bihar, a Muslim majority constituency that sent him to Lok Sabha multiple times but remained neglected by him as far as area development is considered.
Shahabuddin shot to further prominence during the Ramjanmabhoomi movement as he remained at the forefront of the movement from the Muslims’ side.
Although seen by many as a fundamentalist hawk thanks to his tough stance on Babri Masjid and Shah Bano issues, Shahabuddin was a practitioner of left of centre politics and proudly called himself a socialist.
Condolences poured from every quarter as the news of his demise spread.
Vice President Hamid Ansari, an IFS officer, and a family friend of Shahabuddin, condoled his death as a personal loss. In a message, Ansari said: “Syed Shahabuddin was a man of deep convictions, he pursued issues that were dear to him with great tenacity and determination. I am deeply saddened to learn of the demise of renowned political leader, scholar, diplomat and former Parliamentarian Shahabuddin.”
Afzal Amanullah, former IAS and diplomat, chairman, Prime Minister’s High Level Committee and the son-in-law of Shahabuddin stated that besides being a personal loss, Sued Shahabuddin’s loss was the entire community, India and the humanity’s loss owing to his message of interfaith community bonding.
Shahid Siddiqui, former MP and editor “Nai Duniya” Urdu weekly was of the view that Shahabuddin was an enlightened mind who wanted to take the community to dizzy political heights but was disappointed with the disjointed Muslim leadership around him.
Meem Afzal, the Congress spokesperson, stated that Shahabduudin was a man of committed ideals for the community and country and led setting an example.
Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy tweeted: “Sorrow at my dear friend Syed Shahabuddin’s death this morning. He sacrificed a flourishing IFS career to enter politics. Giant intellectual!”
Asaduddin Owaisi, leader AIMM, said that Shahabuddin’s death is great loss to nation and Muslim minorities in particular. He added that it will take many years to see a politician and intellectual like him.
Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed, President, Interfaith Harmony Foundation of India, said that Shahabuddin was a man of vision who wanted to lead the Muslims of India to a better future especially in the fields of economy, education and balanced politics.
*Grandnephew of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, social commentator