This tribute to Syed Shahabuddin, the former Indian diplomat, member of parliament and easily the tallest Muslim leader of the final decades of the 20th century who passed away this Saturday, was written some five years ago, offering a rare peek into his extraordinary personality
DR JAVED JAMIL
I had been in close touch with Syed Shahabuddin sahab for about 35 years and I owe a lot to him for what I have done in my life. It was when the Supreme Court gave its verdict on Shah Bano case when I first came in his contact. I was then hardly 24 and had started my clinic in Saharanpur after doing medicine from King George’s Medical College, Lucknow.
When I read the verdict, I immediately called a meeting in Saharanpur and declared that a march would be taken against the Judgment in Saharanpur. Next Friday, a gathering of around 50,000 people marched from Jama Masjid and for the first time the Nazim and Ulema of Madrassa Mazahir Uloom, Shahr Qazi of Saharanpur and Pesh Imam of Shia Community took part in such a procession.
The news spread fast and the processions in other cities followed. As Shahbuddin Sahab was already the most vocal spokesman of Muslims, I wrote a letter to him, and that paved way for my long association with him.
He took in Shah Bano case an opportunity to unite Muslims. It became a historic movement. Then he featured in two of the events that had not only a huge national but also an international impact. He organized the Babri Masjid Movement in response to the Hindu militant groups campaign to target the 16th century mosque.
His famous letter to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for banning “The Satanic Verses” led to one of the biggest controversies of modern times that helped in the revival of Islamic spirit among Indian Muslims.
Shahabuddin wanted me to join politics and he even declared me President of its District Unit when he formed Insaf Party. But I refused to join politics. I remember when once he was stressing on me the need to join politics and I talked of my inability due to my young age, professional needs and financial constraints, he retorted, “Do you think Dr Jamil I have big money. In my house, meat is cooked only twice a week, not because we don’t relish but because we can’t afford it. And do you see the battered Fiat car outside my office. I am not in a position to send it to the garage.”
He was so eager to help that when Madrassa Mazahir Uloom controversy broke and I invited him to Saharanpur, the very next day he left Delhi to join me. Addressing the crowd at Madrasa he said “Look, Javed is a young man but I value him and I would do whatever he wants me to do in this case” I accompanied him to the office of DM Saharanpur and he lambasted the DM for his incompetence in a style that stunned me.
Last year when I met him, I told him, “Sir, I believe that you are one of the 5 greatest leaders of last three decades – greatest in the sense of creating biggest influence on Indian polity. I rate VP Singh as the number 1, Advani no. 2 (negative influence though), you no. 3, Mayawati/Kashi Ram no. 4 and Lalu Yadav no. 5.” He looked visibly amused.
But every great man has certain weaknesses. I describe Syed Shahabuddin as a champion of Muslims and not as an Islamic leader. He chose only a few fields for his political aggrandizement. His temperament was a big problem that distanced many of his supporters. He would not listen to anybody and would like everyone to follow him.
The amount of popularity he gained was unparalleled in the history of Independent India, as far as Muslim political leaders are concerned. But he could not sustain this popularity on account of his temperament. The decision to form Insaf Pary proved politically suicidal. The decision to fight election from Bangalore proved the ultimate disaster. Once beaten in elections, his detractors used the occasion to bury the politician Shahabuddin forever.
I have never seen a more intelligent politician than Shahabuddin, and more dedicated, devoted and selfless person. Last year, he invited me for lunch along with Mr Khurshid Malik of USA and I found in him still a spark that is missing in all current Muslim politicians. I believe he can still play a role in the revival of Muslim fortunes, but for this both Muslim intellectuals and Shahabuddin sahab himself have to change.
He is now considerably old but his attitude remains as uncompromising as ever. Muslim intellectuals on the other hand are looking for more agile, vibrant and dynamic leader who can see things in comprehensiveness. Shahabuddin sahab can however still be the elderly figure who can help a lot, though in his own limited ways.
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