Interview: Hamid Ansari

Hamid Ansari, whose autobiography hits the stands in January, exhorts Muslims ‘to struggle for our rights’, ‘focus on education and business, and not respond to any provocation’

Print edition : February 26, 2021

Former Vice President Hamid Ansari. Photo: SHAHBAZ KHAN/PTI

Hamid Ansari and Narendra Modi, who was then Gujarat Chief Minister, in New Delhi on January 7, 2013. “I referred to the post-Godhra killings in his State in 2002 and asked him why he allowed it to happen. He replied that people look at only one thing; they do not look at the good things.” Photo: PTI

Interview with M. Hamid Ansari, former Vice President of India, on his latest book.

HIS father turned down Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s offer to migrate to Pakistan, expressing an inability to change his nationality. During Partition, young M. Hamid Ansari had taken shelter at the residence of Rafi Ahmed Kidwai in New Delhi along with hundreds of other displaced Muslim families. “Kidwai sahab’s kitchen used to feed people throughout the day. There was even a small mosque inside the premises,” he recalls.

By a happy accident of fate, Ansari was to return to the very same house some 60 years later, this time as its rightful resident as the Vice President of India. Such ironies of life occupy Ansari’s mind as he talks about his autobiography, By Many a Happy Accident: Recollections of a Life (published by Rupa & Co.; pages: 355; price: Rs.595).

The book provides many revelations. Ansari met Narendra Modi for the first time when he became Vice President and Modi, who was then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, paid him a visit. “After the usual polite exchanges, I said that I had questions in my mind that would have been asked had we met in my previous responsibility as Chairman of the National Commission for Minorities. I referred to post-Godhra killings in his State in 2002 and asked why he allowed it to happen.” Modi is said to have showed little remorse for the killings, insisting that he had done a lot of beneficial things for the Muslim community, such as education for Muslim girls, but the media did not talk about them. When Ansari suggested that he should publicise such positive actions, Modi replied: “That does not suit me politically.”

In an exclusive interaction with Frontline, Ansari talks about the role of fate in his life, his relations with Modi, and the way he avoided allowing Bills to be passed in the Rajya Sabha amidst a din. Would the new farm Bills have been passed if he were in the Chair? “I would not like to comment on the actions of the incumbent... but the Chair has the option of adjourning the House,” he said. Excerpts:

Autobiographies are largely seeped in nice nostalgia. You seem to be making a statement with yours.

Let me begin with a confession. Back in 2017, I had given an interview to Karan Thapar where I had denied any plan to do an autobiography. A little later, my children, two sons and a daughter, started a discussion: “If you do not write your autobiography, how do we know what all you have accomplished in your life.” Their argument was persuasive.

In the early pages of the book, you write about how you came to Maulana Azad Road in New Delhi. Can you recall what happened?

My father was a senior officer in the Ministry of Commerce, now called the Ministry of Finance. He was the Controller of Insurance. He was posted to Shimla in the summer of 1946. At the time of Partition, there were riots in Shimla. There were some Kashmir Muslim families, officers working with the government, and a few others. Virtually all families, except two, opted to go to Pakistan.

Your father was one of the two?

Yes. The other gentleman hailed from the Federal Public Service Commission. He was from Madras [now Chennai]. My father used to go to office every day. He used to wear achkan with a cap. So he was easily identifiable as a Muslim. Somebody once commented that he wore a Jinnah cap. His answer was, “the cap was there before Jinnah was born”. One day, my father came back from office early. He said to Ammi, “chalo, pack up things. We have to leave” [for Delhi].

Was there some discussion earlier in the family, some plans to move?

No planning. It was all of a sudden that we had to move. We initially moved to a hotel in Shimla for safety. My father booked a call to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in Delhi. Azad sahab knew nothing about the riots in Shimla, and promised to inform Jawaharlal Nehru at the meeting that day. Meanwhile, Shimla was not safe for us any more. And a decision was taken to shift to Yusufpur. For that, the first halt was Delhi. Abba stayed behind in Shimla for work. We had old family relations with the late Rafi Ahmed Kidwai. His house was on Maulana Azad Road. It became a small refugee camp. Many people were accommodated inside the house, some in tents outside. I think we spent eight or ten days in the house. My elder sister relates more instances of life there. She informed that Kidwai sahab’s kitchen served food throughout the day. And prayers were offered in the small mosque on the compound. When I became Vice President, I got it restored, and we even offered taraweeh prayers in Ramzan there.

Is the title of the book derived from this incident?

No, that is the story of my life. There have been so many happy accidents in my life. I did not want to enter the civil services. I was more keen on a career in academics. My father wanted me to follow in the footsteps of my brother who was already in the civil services. My father sent me to meet Prof. Muhammad Habib, an eminent historian [father of Prof Irfan Habib]. I told Prof. Habib I did not want to be in the civil services. Prof. Habib scolded me and said, “I am not asking you to join. You have taken so many exams in your life. Take one more. That’s all.” I took the exam half-heartedly and, surprisingly, I got selected though with a much lower rank. In my form, I had expressed a wish to be considered for foreign services, but my rank was not good enough. One day, I went to meet my brother in his office in the Ministry of Agriculture when a gentleman named Bishan Tandon called him and inquired if I had qualified for the civil services. When my brother said “yes”, Tandon said his rank was not good enough for foreign services, but a vacancy had arisen and now he could join the IFS! So, by a happy accident of fate, I ended up in the foreign services.

After training, I initially got no posting. I would often go to the Joint Secretary’s office in Delhi to inquire about my possible posting. One day, he got irritated and said, “Go anywhere you want. Go to Baghdad. Don’t disturb me.” I took it as an instruction and went to the Under Secretary to report.

In Baghdad, you got engaged to Salma?

Yes, I did. But I was a witness to revolution there. I was there when the revolution took place. I remember it was a Friday, and we went to the cantonment. There was a lot of activity there. A factory in the vicinity gave us shelter. The manager there offered safety, but no food.

Coming to the news around your book, it seems you spent only three years in public life, 2014 to 2017. Modi, including his speech on your last day in office, finds a frequent mention in the book.

Yes, the attention has been on that speech in which Modi talked of my ideological affiliation and referred to my postings in Arab or Muslim countries, completely ignoring my posting in Australia. I spent five years there. I was the Chief of Protocol during Indira Gandhi’s tenure. This was Modi’s speech in Parliament. On the last day in office, I sat in the Chair in the Rajya Sabha. The members, first the treasury, then the opposition came and said good things about my tenure. The Prime Minister was there. He too spoke. His speech was laced with sarcasm. He said, sobat ka zaroor asar hua hoga. Because of your company, you would have struggled due to your ideological affiliation. Now, you are free to pursue whatever you want. You have got rid of the dilemma. His disciples picked up the sentence and made hay. I responded with a couplet, Bhari bazm mein raaz ki baat keh di/ Bara be-adab hun, saza chahta hun [I have divulged in public what was hidden/ I am very insolent, chastisement I desire]. The same evening there was a function at Balayogi auditorium. The Prime Minister spoke there, too. He was completely different there. He was very laudatory, talked of my family, and Brigadier [Mohammad] Usman’s [Ansari’s cousin] sacrifice.

How did you react to the two speeches of the Prime Minister?

The media ignored the second speech while they splashed the first one.

But is it not true that you refer to Modi more frequently in your book than to leaders of the United Progressive Alliance?

Maybe. At least, the media seem to think so. What the media do not talk about much is the 2002 riots. I have written about that in the book. I met Atal Bihari Vajpayee as part of the team that called on him about the 2002 riots in Gujarat. I.K. Gujral had taken me along.

You have written about a meeting of the Editors Guild with Modi, at which he is said to have shown no signs of remorse.

Yes, absolutely. I have quoted B.G. Verghese in my book. [In April 2002, the Editors Guild of India, sent a fact-finding team to Gujarat. They also met the Chief Minister. One of its members was the late B.G. Verghese, who subsequently recorded his impression of the meeting: “When we met Narendra Modi, he had no explanation to offer and showed no contrition.”]

Modi claimed that he worked for the betterment of Muslims. How does one explain the irony?

In 2007, he came to meet me at Haryana Bhawan in New Delhi. Beyond the fact that he was Chief Minister of Gujarat I did not know him. I had never met him before. I referred to the post-Godhra killings in his State in 2002 and asked him why he allowed it to happen. He replied that people look at only one thing; they do not look at the good things. I asked him what were they? He said he had opened schools for Muslim girls. I asked why it had not been brought into public domain. He said,“It does not suit me politically.” After that, my relations continued to be cordial with him. Whenever I went to Gujarat, he would come to see me. There was no bitterness. Whatever may have been in his heart is another matter.

You talk of the decline of socialism and secularism in the country. Could you elaborate?

I have hinted at it in the book. For instance, there was a mention of a minorities programme in the 2014 manifesto [of the BJP], but it was absent in the 2019 Sankalp Patra. Nobody can deny that.

As for socialism, well, 10 per cent of Indians own 74 per cent of the wealth today.

When you talk of the fading away of secularism, is it gone for good or is it a passing phase?

See, their [ruling dispensation] phase is not over yet nor is it likely to be over soon. Then the speed at which things are progressing... well, we have to go through this phase. I recall here what I once said at the Mushawarrat address. There are a few things where there can be a justified demand of the government, others the people have to do on their own. So, as Muslims we have to struggle for our rights. The Muslim community can learn from the Jews abroad or the Sikh community at home. The Sikhs came to Delhi in a beleaguered state in 1947. But the community focussed on building schools and colleges besides providing free food for all through langars. Likewise, for 10 years, the Muslim community should focus entirely on education and business and not respond to any provocation.

It is fine to say that, but is the Muslim community in a position to do that? It is a community under siege.

They will have to do. There is no other way. The Sikhs were also under siege. Muslims should not demand or expect any doles like reservation. They have never had any reservation, but occasionally some crumbs were thrown their way. Forget that. Stand on your strength. Provide education to all, particularly the girls. I am not saying anything new. Instead of doing that, the community for years was concerned about the Haj subsidy. I came across an interesting revelation about the Haj subsidy. During the UPA regime, every year the Ministry of Transport would send its estimate for the subsidy to be given to Air India so that it could offer subsidy to Haj pilgrims.

In 2004, when Pranab Mukherjee was Finance Minister, he was asked to study this subsidy with his team. I was the Chairman of that committee. We investigated and discovered it was Air India’s game. Whatever losses they would incur from elsewhere, they would cover under the Haj subsidy.

When we talk of secularism disappearing from the public space today, do you think we should go back in time to the Congress regime when there was a lot of tokenism without any affirmative action?

The Congress has always had twin ideologies; Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideology was one, and that of many other members quite another. Why get embroiled in that talk?

I have to ask this question because in 2019, after winning the Lok Sabha elections, Modi had said nobody dared to use the word secularism in the election campaign. This was obviously about the Congress.

I did not know this, else I would have used it in the book. But these terms have lost their meaning. Leave them. Move on.

Given that for all practical purposes we are on the way to becoming a Hindu Rashtra, can we avoid the talk?

I don’t get that into that debate. I am a citizen of this country. That is all.

Are Muslims equal citizens of this country?

A citizen has to be equal. I enjoy the same rights as others, so do other Muslims.

But does the Muslim community enjoy equal protection of the law?

That one has to seek. It won't be granted sitting at home. It is true for all minorities, Dalits and everybody else.

How do you look at the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the subsequent Shaheen Bagh struggle?

The CAA was not a justified move. The government has always had that power; if any persecuted person seeks citizenship, it is granted. It was common for people from Sindh to come over from the Rajasthan side and seek citizenship. They were not denied. Why did the government need to make fresh laws for it?

The Shaheen Bagh protest was a marvellous campaign. It was remarkable. And if the pandemic had not struck, they would have continued with the protest.

Do you think the Shaheen Bagh women succeeded in getting the message across?

The rules for the implementation of the CAA have not yet been framed. No law is implemented without rules. There are many laws which remain on paper. Why the CAA rules have not been framed? Not just because of the Shaheen Bagh women, but the protests in Assam and happenings elsewhere in the world. If we have to be friends with the U.S., we have to listen to criticism of its Congress, too. Likewise, if we want to have good relations with the United Kingdom, we have to be prepared for criticism from that quarters. Same in the case of Amnesty International.

In the book, you talk of not allowing Bills to be passed during the din in the Rajya Sabha, which the government has now contested. Can you elaborate on your stand?

If you do not have the numbers or want to prevent a piece of legislation to be put to vote, you create noise. It is as simple as that. Every government has done that. My role as the Chairman [of the Rajya Sabha] was like that of a referee in a hockey match. I would watch the proceedings from close quarters, but I was not a player and would blow the whistle if a foul were committed. Or, I would adjourn the House and invite members of all parties to a cup of tea to find a way out. Often, I found that whatever was committed in the Chairman’s room in the morning was not implemented during the House proceedings.

How do you perceive the passage of the three farm Bills?

I would not like to comment on the actions of the incumbent. In my time, if there was a contentious Bill, and voting was done, I would, as the Chairman, conduct the proceedings myself as the Deputy Chairman is a member of the House. He has a vote, too.

If you had been in the Chair, the farm Bills would not have been passed considering that the government was not sure of the numbers?

Well, if the party does not have the numbers, adjourn the House. Simple. Maybe adjourn for an hour or a day. Talk to the parties concerned as dialogue helps in finding a solution.

Until a few years ago, one heard terms such as majority communalism and minority communalism. Is not majority communalism masquerading as nationalism today?

Absolutely true. Jawaharlal Nehru said: “You do not have to fear communism; you have to fear communalism.” It is obvious today. Simple majoritarianism can do a lot of harm. And it is doing.

Any takeaway for readers from the book?

After doing the book, I am a dervish now. I have to say nothing more. I finished the book in March 2020, but its publication got delayed because of the pandemic. It is up to the readers now.

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