A Muslim soldier

Print edition : November 23, 2018

Lt Gen. Zameer Uddin Shah with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2016. He was then the Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. Photo: PTI

The test of a Sarkari Mussalman is the selling of the soul. The author is not a Sarkari Mussalman, but ambition drives him to hover precariously on the periphery of being one.

THE author’s broad shoulders suffer under the weight of two unwelcome visitors that rest on each of them. He does nothing to banish them. He nurses them. One is a strange obsession about being a Muslim. The other is a massive ego of ridiculous proportions. This is a pity because he deserves respect for his accomplishments and abilities despite pronounced failings.

Who is a Sarkari Muslim, pray? Chandra Shekhar once said: “The tendency in this country seems to be that if any member of the minority community pleads for his own religion he is taken for a communalist but if that is done by any person belonging to the majority community, it is assumed to be the thing to do” (The Telegraph, November 10, 1989).

The Sarkari Muslim seeks cover by lauding the government’s policies, abusing Muslims and attacking Pakistan. Kashmir was made a touchstone of Muslims’ loyalty. In the 1960s, the Muslims of riot-torn Sambalpur held a meeting—not to ask for police protection but to send a resolution to the United Nations Security Council in support of India’s claims on Kashmir.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) brought out more than one brochure on “Muslim Voices” on Kashmir. A notorious Muslim contemporary of the author revels in this. The writer avers: “Readers would certainly be intrigued by the title of The Sarkari Mussalman. The term defines a Muslim who is pro-establishment supporting the government of the day and the environment. For him, the bitter truth is secondary over discretion to the point of sycophancy. Instead of challenging the stereotypes about his community, this ‘courtier’ positions himself as the voice of reason among the majority elite. He defines his religion in a way that is acceptable to the establishment and projects himself as a modern nationalist by being submissive, or worse, by actively pandering to bigotry against his co-religionists. The media uses him to reinforce ridiculous stereotypes about Muslims and, in return, he earns brownie points, and sometimes lucre, on the lecture circuit and publishing contracts.” Part of this definition applies to our author himself. He is eager to please the establishment.

“On the other side of the spectrum, the ‘Sarkari Mussalman’ is also a derogatory sobriquet/title given by the Muslim community to denigrate their better-placed co-religionists, usually in government service, when the latter do not pander to their demands, which are sometimes unfair and unjustified. The term implies that the ‘Sarkari Mussalman’ has sold his soul to the government for ‘40 pieces of silver’ and cannot, in any way, be relied upon by his community (usually to shower unwarranted favours).” This is nonsense. The community, though downtrodden, has no such opinion of its Shahs.

He adds: “I have, unfortunately, come across some Muslims who shun others of their religion in order to be considered ‘secular’. A Muslim government servant has to walk a tight rope between loyalty to his job and expectations of his community. Many swing to the opposite extreme and practise discrimination against their co-religionists to prove their secular credentials. ...

“I always felt that Muslims in India needed opportunities for education like the one I had received. I never had to prove my loyalty or secular credentials by being ‘holier than the Pope’. I was fortunate never to have experienced any anti-Muslim bias in the Army; in fact I always experienced affirmative action. Post-retirement, however, I found the social media awash with articles with venomous, communal undertones. What surprised me most were social media posts by some retired colleagues from the Armed Forces joining the bandwagon of divisiveness. Had they been closet Muslim-haters all along?” He ought to have sensed that, surely.

“The Hindi cinema has taken the cue and started depicting all terrorists, gangsters, smugglers and wife-beaters with beards and bearing names like ‘Abdul’ or ‘Karim’. I define a terrorist as one who terrorises other members of the community. I have battled terrorists and rogues of all religions and communities in North East India, Punjab and Gujarat. Anyway, the negative depiction of only one community has dangerous ramifications since Hindi cinema is a profound opinion builder and conditioner of human minds. In the early 1950s, the Hindi cinema vamps were always ‘Mary’ or ‘Lucy’ and bootleggers and smugglers were always ‘John’ or ‘David’.”

On role as AMU VC

Now come to the core of his essay on this: “When I resigned from the Armed Forces Tribunal to join Aligarh Muslim University as Vice Chancellor, my well-wishers were astounded and inquired why I was creating trouble for myself. I have always felt it was a ‘calling’ and my decision was justified. Someone had to take the bull by the horns and restore the University to its former glory. As its Vice Chancellor, I had to deal with some entrenched alumni ‘parasites’, politicians of various hues and the hostile media ‘defending’ the reputation and interests of the institution of which I had been appointed guardian. “In May 2014, before the general elections, mediapersons asked me if I was apprehensive about Shri Narendra Modi becoming Prime Minister. I replied ‘Why should I be worried? Do you know the history of Thomas Becket?”

Much in the first paragraph applies to Shah himself. His desire to ingratiate himself is reflected in the puerile reference to Becket and so does his “Open Letter” to Modi. This from a man who served in Gujarat during the pogrom. The gasbag is very Sarkari. The test of a Sarkari Mussalman is the selling of the soul. Judged by this test, the author is certainly not a Sarkari Mussalman. He is honest. But ambition drives him precariously to hover on its periphery. Who was behind the Gujarat pogrom? It was a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and Bajrang Dal operation concluded under Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s nose. But to our author it was a “right-wing political organisation”, as if it was an ideological war between the Right and the Left in all the massive literature. None, but none, has ever used this expression. The author is not so innocent as not to know the difference. The expression is used repeatedly and deliberately, in pages 115 and 123. He is afraid to speak of Hindus and Muslims and uses the lingo of certain sections of the media. Why? You can guess. Women in older times never mentioned their husbands’ names.

“The partisan attitude of the police lay exposed when I observed that when minority-populated localities were surrounded by mobs, the police did not fire at the rioters laying siege, but into windows of surrounded homes of minorities, instead, ostensibly to ‘keep the two rioting communities apart’, as sheepishly explained to me. I did not hesitate to show disapproval at this contemptible and partisan attitude....

“Property of the minority community and individuals were being systematically targeted and large-scale migration was taking place. The major trouble spots were minority ghettos. Successive communal riots had forced the minority community [into] walled communes. The mixed localities had progressively shrunk, and exclusive ethnic ghettos, with a ‘siege’ mentality, had sprouted. ... Those who had lost everything were ‘ripe for plucking’ by anti-national elements. An unbridgeable communal divide had been created.”

Who fomented this divide but Narendra Modi, whom the author never criticises?

K.P.S. Gill is attacked twice in language which reflects the author’s clear animus against him.

Read this: “The police, as has always happened in communal riots all over the country, was blatantly partisan and abdicated its responsibility of dealing with majority community mobs to the Army. It was observed that, on several occasions, the police melted away when faced with majority community rioters, ostensibly on the excuse that they were called away to deal with another situation elsewhere.

“The higher police hierarchy was totally politicised and virtually divided along political lines. A large number of assertive officers were occupying non-consequential appointments. A further blow to police morale was inflicted by the reported reshuffle and large-scale transfers of police officers who had dealt firmly with rioters. There had been an erosion of authority of senior officers with undue importance being given to Station House Officers (Junior Commissioned Officer equivalent). These junior police officers had become a law unto themselves taking directions from ‘up’ instead of their chain of command.” Note, “political lines”, not communal lines. Is this honest? To which political parties did they belong? The AIADMK or the Forward Bloc? Of course he knows which—but is too Sarkari to name them.

The author notes an aspect which few care to note. “The Gujarat riots of 2002 were different from earlier riots. There were some striking dissimilarities: There were no attempts to convene peace committees. The inter-community chasm had become far too wide to allow this to happen. Earlier, riots were the handiwork of a handful of trouble-makers. This time rioting assumed the dimension of a mass activity, involving the middle-class citizens too. The self-deluding belief that riots were the handiwork of the lumpen elements and outsiders no longer rang true. The most disturbing factor was the participation of women provocateurs. Women of the majority community, taking a cue from Jammu and Kashmir and the NE [north-eastern] region, participated, for the first time, as instigators. The minority community too used women as ‘shields’ to discourage police incursions into minority pockets.” To this day people have not been rehabilitated. Shah’s hero, the Nero as the Supreme Court called him, closed down the camps as “baby manufacturing” units. He never criticises Modi. This betrays his outlook. This was not a riot. It was a pogrom blessed by people at the top. Hence Justice Khare’s reference to Nero. Our author ignores that because one part of him is Sarkari; authentically.

To repeat, he is honest. But he comes precariously close to the tribe by his pronounced desire to ingratiate himself with the powers that be. The language is odd. He refers to himself as “a person bearing a Muslim name”.

His record is not served by braggadocio which drips from every page, beginning with the very first. Referring to his none too illustrious record as Vice Chancellor, he claims that “during his tenure [the university] was propelled to the top post among Indian universities in international rankings”—at one remove projecting the author to the pinnacle of glory. The man is just full of himself.

One hopes that now in retirement his reading will go beyond Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Judging by his book one suspects that the author is also a reader of Readers’ Digest, the Bible of Higher Learning. The author might with advantage read the late Omar Khalidi’s book on Muslims in the Armed Forces.

On February 7, 1991, while the Gulf war was raging with fierce intensity, General Colin L. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—and the first black person to hold this position—was asked about the role of minorities in the U.S. Army when he testified before the House Armed Services Committee. The General lauded the opportunities afforded to minorities in the military but did not stop there. He said with candour: “I wish that there were other activities in our society and in our nation that were as open as the military is to upward mobility, to achievement, to allowing them in.” No society in the world can afford to be complacent about its record on reconciling the diverse interests of a pluralistic society. Acknowledgment of imperfection is proof of integrity and maturity. The U.S. Congress has enacted several laws to protect the rights of minorities.

On May 5, 1992, he reverted to the theme. The PTI report reads: “The recent racial riots in Los Angeles and other American cities show that despair still exists in the black American community and their inability to fully share the American dream, according to General Colin Powell, Joint Chief of Staff. A visibly shaken Gen. Powell, the first black American to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and whose troops are now maintaining order in Los Angeles, told students of a black university today that the problem ‘goes beyond Rodney King, beyond Los Angeles’.

“The biggest problem, Gen. Powell said, ‘is the despair that still exists in the black community over the inability of black Americans to fully share the American dream.’ ‘Our hearts are hurt because of violence,’ he said. ‘This should never have happened but it did. We see once again the long way we [black Americans] still have to go.’” Can you imagine a Muslim chief of any of the wings of our armed forces speaking in this strain and speaking without being subjected to denunciation? Nor did Powell talk or write of his record as a Sarkari American. Contrast this with the author’s reaction to the Gujarat pogrom, which was far worse. Powell never ended his speeches or articles with “God Bless America”. The author does that, ridiculously, with “Jai Hind”. He regrets that.

“The constant refrain among AMU students was an apprehension of discrimination. I explained that this trend was ingrained in human nature but I also explained that discrimination was largely against the lesser educated. The Dalits and Muslims were in this category and hence faced discrimination. I questioned why my family members, or myself, were never discriminated against. I rose slowly up the ladder to a three-star rank and retired as the Deputy Chief of Army Staff. I was entrusted with the modernisation of the Army and its budget running into thousands of crores of rupees. There was never an occasion when my presence was viewed with apprehension or mistrust.” Success did not blind Powell to the fate of the blacks. It did not blind our author either. Simply enlarged his ego. A brief tenure as Vice Chancellor does not make him an “educationist”. The man is utterly insensitive. Is his experience a typical one? Has he read the Sachar Report? Most unlikely.

Shah has achievements and faults. His pathetic book exaggerates the achievements and thus highlights the flaws. Written to evoke admiration, it arouses ridicule.

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