"What are you doing?" I asked Anwar.
"What do you mean?" he said.
"Abe ye Jamia me ye rally karne ki kya zaroorat hai? Kyon?" I said. (What is the need for organising a rally in Jamia Milia Islamia?) "You don't understand. This sends very wrong signal, please for God's sake don't do this."
Anwar lost his cool and shouted back. "What do you mean?" He said providing legal aid was a fundamental right, how could I object to that.
"Look no sane person can object to that but these are not times to expect sanity from any one when nobody knows where bomb will explode and if we all will return home safe," I said.
The argument went on and on and it got heated to a point that I thought maybe I would lose a friend. Anwar and I were together in JNU in late 80s and since then we have been like family. We have had very strong and sometimes very diverse views but arguments and debate between us have never threatened to undermine our time-tested relationship.
During the argument I realised that we were not mentioning the real reason for both of us getting irritated. I probably wanted to say that there is something wrong with Muslims, you always explode bombs and he probably wanted to say that the state apparatus and media is dominated by the Hindus, who always think Muslims are terrorists and they should be taught a lesson, and that is why innocent Muslims are always targeted in the name of terrorism.
This was strange, as we both have a history of fighting all kinds of fanaticism and fundamentalism together. We both have been very vocal and explicit in our attack on these forces. So what was this? It was beyond my comprehension. I got an answer this morning when I read an article by senior journalist and legendry editor M J Akbar.
He said very subtly what Anwar wanted to say but could not. Let me clarify I have always had great respect for M J, and still do. He is one of the most modern and understanding editors India has produced. But today while reading his piece in TOI I had a feeling that there is lot of similarity in his written words and Shah Imam Bukhari's verbal outburst?
I was really at loss. I was looking for answers. Is there anything wrong with my thought process? Have I changed? Am I the same person who had opposed Hindu communalism and their anti-Muslim ideology? Why am I doubting the credentials of my dear friend Anwar and learned scholar like M J?
During my thought I was reminded of noted poet and film writer Javed Akhtar, who during a TV debate rebuked one of my very competent anchors Sandeep Choudhary, that his question is communal in nature. I don't exactly remember the question but it was related to Muslims and their identity. Then I wrote a strong piece in a Hindi magazine and raised the question why Arif Mohammad Khan had to lose a battle to Sayed Shahabuddin in late 80s and early 90s? Why does it happen that V P Singh asks Arif Mohammad Khan not to visit Allahabad from where he was contesting Lok Sabha election in 1988, but Shahabuddin was welcome?
Surprisingly I got strong support from Javed Akhtar's one-time good friend Salim Khan. He wrote a piece in Dainik Bhaskar quoting me and my article and very carefully agreeing with some of my arguments. I have no problem in admitting that for some time I have been thinking that time has come when the Muslim as a community need to introspect and analyse and try to ask themselves - has something gone wrong somewhere? Why is it that from Nairoi to Dar-a-salaam, from Indonesia to Sudan, from Madrid to Manhattan, from Kabul to Kashmir, from Chechnya to China their identity is being perceived as somebody who explodes bombs? I know what risk I am running by writing these lines. I know a few will immediately jump up and will say, "look wasn't I was saying Ashutosh practises communalism in the garb of secularism? Now his true message is out." But I don't care.
The bigger question is does the community care why one of the most gifted minds of the 20th century Salman Rushdie can't breathe in fresh air and Tasleema Nasreen can't live in peace even under one of the most secular regimes this country has seen? Why do Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav have to rationalise the lifting of ban on SIMI? Why does it happen that when Maulana Madni of Deoband organises an anti-terrorism rally at Ramleela Maidan and openly condemns terrorism, Urdu press is out to tear him apart?
One can raise the question that fanatics are in every religion. I do agree but there is a difference. If there is a strong fanatic Hindu voice, there is an equal or may be more forceful anti-fanatic and liberal voice. Christianity has long back lost a critical battle that religion is good only in the private sphere, it has no business to get into political domain. There is nobody in Hinduism and in Christianity called Abul Ala Maududi who claims that Islam is a revolutionary doctrine and system that overthrows governments.
It is this so-called radical Islam or political Islam which is creating problems for their own community and society at large. But irony is there is no VOCAL forceful anti-radical Islam or anti political-Islam voice, neither in India nor outside. Majority of sane and liberal voice is keeping quiet, or if not so, then not making enough noise to be heard by its own community.
Fareed Zakaria writes in his latest book Post American World, "Muslim World is also modernising, though more slowly than the rest, and there are those who try to become leaders in rebellion against it. Reactionaries in the world of Islam are more numerous and extreme than those in other cultures - that world does have its dysfunctions. But they remain a tiny minority of the world's billion-plus Muslims."
I agree that people like Maududi are a tiny minority otherwise I would not have friends like Anwar and Sazid and Arfin etc but unfortunately they let these tiny minority to rule the rest. It is the silence of the overwhelming majority which is a worrying factor and now this silence has started developing into a very complicated complex. It is the result of this complex that a police encounter in Jamia Nagar becomes a rallying point for the Muslim intelligentsia to assert their Muslim identity. My question is why an encounter is construed as an attack on Muslim community? Police encounter is nothing new, be it real, fake or staged. It happens every day. Why when somebody called Atif Ameen is killed it becomes an issue why not when Keval Nandu is killed there is rally in Jamia and at Jantar Mantar?
Do I need to tell M J Akbar that police do shoot themselves to make a fake encounter look real? Rajbeer, Daya Nayak and Pradeep Sharma did not become hero by doing real shootings they became hero by killing captive ones. Mohan Chandra Sharma was also no saint. But why M J needs to indicate that M C Sharma might be a victim of a "friendly fire" when encounter happens in Jamia Nagar? My question is - Is he reacting as Muslim or as a responsible citizen of this country? And the same question is to my dear friend Anwar too?
It is not my assumption but firm belief that both the gentlemen are not reacting like citizens. And their words have lot of resonance in what common Muslim is saying on the streets of Jamia Nagar and also in Sarai Meer, Azamgarh. Probably there it is more clearly articulated. It is openly said that in the name of countering terrorism, innocent Muslims are butchered. Earlier this resonance was not there. The line is blurring.
Does it mean that in Indian context, liberal space within Muslims is shrinking? My answer is a big NO. Then why such reactions? I call it little-boy-syndrome - a boy who is repeatedly being accused of something which he has not done, then out of sheer frustration he develops a kind of stubbornness and readily admits, "Yes I did that. What will you do?"
Since Taliban took over Afghanistan and emergence of al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, the identity of a liberal Muslim is seriously under threat. They are constantly being watched. Their name evokes a very demeaning stare, be it New York or New Delhi. They all know they are not part of this madness; they don't approve either the bomb mentality or the conspiracy theories that Hindu, Jews, Christians or India, Israel, America are out to finish Islam. But what can they do? They are helpless. And out of this helplessness is born the involuntary reaction which is more of a reflex in nature, raising question on an encounter which would have been praised otherwise.
Anwar, my dear, as a very fine mind you need to get out of this little-boy-syndrome because if you become prisoner of this siege mentality of Maududi and Sayed Qutb and Osama and Jawahiri there is no future for a religion which always teaches peace and forgiveness. Time has come to make sane majority voice powerful and loud enough to frighten tiny minority. And if it does not happen then you, M J and I too will be villains of history and forces like Hindu fundamentalists will be ruling this country.