‘Interview with private a TV channel was arranged by my publisher’
By: Abdul Bari Masoud
Former Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari’s memoir, ‘Many A Happy Accident’: Recollections of a Life”, has created a sort of political storm. Particularly his comment on the atmosphere of intolerance and the feeling of insecurity among Indian Muslims in the book has invited the wrath of rightwing forces.
In an oblique reference to India’s ruling party’s mentor RSS’s ideology, Ansari said consequences of the cultural hyper-nationalism is that “our commitment to the rule of law seems to be under serious threat.
Ansari, 84, is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer who served as the 12th Vice President of India from 2007 to 2017. He served as the Indian ambassador to Australia, Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. He also served as the Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations between 1993 and 1995. He was appointed the Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University from 2000 to 2002 and he was Chairman of the National Commission for Minorities from 2006 to 2007.
In an exclusive interview with Abdul Bari Masoud, he spoke at length on his memoir and other issues concerning the country and the community.
Question: After the change of guard at the Center, things are moving in a particular direction. How do you view the unfolding but disturbing situation?
Answer: It is a wider question. As society we are moving as every society moves. No society remains static. We are moving socially, economically and politically and on different fronts and in different fields. We have all the advantages of a diverse society and as long as we remember our diversity. But that is not happening. But hyper-nationalism had created the fault lines in our society more visible” and rendered the country more fragile.
Q: As a chairman of the Upper House of Parliament you had presided over the business of the house in a dignified manner. But you mention in your recently published memoir “Many A Happy Accident: Recollections of a Life” some “unhappy” incidents particularly the sudden arrival of PM Modi in your chamber?
A: See, I said from the first day that I visualize the role as that of a match referee in hockey. What does a referee do? He has given a rule book and a whistle. He observed the game closely but he is not a player that is an important thing. And as long as the game is being played according to the rules the referee has little to do. I saw the games in different periods and different days of sitting in the house but always as an observer who was a referee.
Q: But you wrote in the book, PM Modi said ‘You aren’t helping me’ and why are bills not being passed in the din? And Rajya Sabha TV was not favourable to the government?
A: People are making a fuss out of it. Prime ministers, ministers and members come and meet the chairman in his chamber. So far the PM’s meeting with the chairman is not unusual except it was on this occasion rather sudden without notice. Normally, the PM moves, there is a certain protocol. He had a point of view. I replied with my point of view and the matter ended there.
Q: You are also very much concerned about the deteriorating secular character of the country?
A: This is also known to everybody that Indian interpretation and understanding of secularism and Indian practices of secularism is unique. We are not a country like France where religion is totally separated from the State. Even in France separation is not total. It is a Catholic country and there are certain marks of identity in the Catholic Church, they never took it away, they were always there. E.g. the cardinal wears the dress of the cardinal and not a jacket and a tie.
However, we see here that the term secularism itself has almost disappeared from the government’s official vocabulary and replaced by a “politico-ideological effort… to superimpose with the primacy of a religious majority”.
Q: But you are saying secularism has almost disappeared from the government’s official vocabulary? This contention has enraged rightwing forces in the country?
A: See, it is a fact that the neutrality of the State has been diminishing. The State has to function under the ambit of the Constitution of India which is spelt out in the preamble. What does it say about political equality, economic equivalence and last but not the least fraternity. In other words, all Indian citizens are part of that brotherhood and their interaction with each other has to be within the framework of that brotherhood understanding. No citizen is above one another, all citizens are the same and all have the same rights and same duties.
On various occasions we as a society committed the folly of trying to seek special concessions. We used a term reservation which is a very deceptive term. It got used in a certain context. The right term is affirmative action which means if somebody is lagging behind whether in a classroom or in a social development and educational backwardness then you give him/her a helping hand. PM Modi said many years ago “sab ka saath sab ka vikas “ shortly after that I had gone to Shibli Academy Azamgarh and in my speech I said this is a very good thing but a prerequisite is that everybody is standing at the same starting point in the same line. If I am ten steps behind then I cannot compete equally. So that is all my understanding about it and nothing else.
It should be no concern of the government whether I pray every day or not. The consequences of the cultural hyper-nationalism is that “our commitment to the rule of law seems to be under serious threat.
Q: There is a general impression in the community that “sarkari Musalmaan” is shy of speaking their problems. What is your take on this?
A: It is not a question of me. We are all citizens; nobody is Sarkari and nobody Ghair sarkari. In the heat of debate the terms are coined without thinking about it. There is a shortage in dispensation of justice. Let us focus on justice, a few critical terms in the constitution. If justice is not being given then it is shortcoming. It is the right of citizens to seek justice and it is the duty of the State to provide justice including political justice, economic justice and social justice and all of them together. I said what I said. Please go back to the speech of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in the 1940 Congress session. What did he say “I am a part of this session and no critical decision is being taken without my participation”? What did he say in Jama Masjid in October 1947? All we have to do is to not let go of the thread of the constitution.
If you don’t talk about shortcomings, it’s your mistake. If I am witness to an accident and said there is no accident has taken place. If I am witness to inhuman treatment somewhere I said no, it did not take place so I profess my blindness. Therefore Sarkari musalmaan is not a term that I subscribe to. I spent 40yrs in the service of State and as an ambassador 25 yrs in Foreign Service. Does that mean I abandon my thinking capacity? NO!
Q: But India’s minorities, specifically Muslims, Dalit and weaker sections are feeling heat and the state of insecurity is deepening in them. What is the way out as you also had held the chairmanship of the National Minority Commission which is supposed to be a minority watchdog?
A: Insecurity is always there. Participate and demand what is legitimately yours. You cannot say I will not participate; it should be delivered in my cocoon. If the government is giving 100 rupees I have to share it.
Q: It is said you faced some hard times in the evening of your tenure as the chairman of the Upper House?
Ans: This is not correct. From the first day to the last day the functioning of the House of Rajya Sabha was smooth. There were good days and bad days but my channel of communications with members, and leaders of poitical parties whether sitting to my right or left always remain intact.
Q: What do you want to say about the PM’s remarks on the last day of your in office?
A: He has a perception. Okay, I don’t quarrel with it, but people do not remember PM made two speeches in Rajya Sabha and another in Balyogi auditorium again with MPs. So why, he had said it in that particular way, I don’t know but I stand by my position.
I have always been of that position while I was there and then after that I have made a number of speeches. You see the record there has been consistency. Two years back when I gave the Fakharudddin Memorial Lecture in Aiwan-e-Ghalib, see its text. I have not deviated from my point of view.
Q: There is also a perception in a section of the community that during an interview with a private TV channel, you did not withstand what you said in the book about the atmosphere of intolerance and the feeling of insecurity among Indian Muslims?
A: I did what was constitutionally correct. For me, I am not a political leader and I am not speaking from a political platform. As a Vice president I made speeches which have on record. See the speech I delivered at the All India Muslim Majlise Mushawrat Golden Jublee event, I said there are two problems two ways of addressing the problems. One, there are duties of the State. It is my right to demand, if I am insecure then I can demand to make myself feel more secure. If the government is distributing 100 rupees I demand out of my share. I don’t say give me all 100 rupees. There is a share for me and I demand it but there are duties on me as community education, empowerment and education of women. These are things on which Muslims as a minority had lagged behind and these are things Muslims should have done for themselves. Why should I expect the state to feed me. Why should I expect the state to help ladies in the community. Why did we not do it? I have certain capacities. What is the use of Auqafs, why didn’t we use them for the betterment of the community? Why the South has done better in this respect than the North. Go to Hyderabad, go to Karnataka, even Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh. There are good examples too in Maharashtra but beyond that backwardness in UP, Bihar, Bengal. Muslims have not done enough for them. It is very easy to say you did not do this and that but what you have done for yourself?
Q: What about the personalized question thrown at you by the channel’s reporter, “despite having many plum posts “bestowed upon” you but still you are harbouring grudge”?
Ans: See, my whole life, I did schooling and pursued my higher education and cracked the civil services exam. Whether it was given by the government. According to service rules, I was posted at various places including dangerous ones. I fought for the country at an international forum. Do these things come in a golden platter to me! This is rubbish, nonsense, idiot people talk like this. The interview with that TV channel was arranged by my publisher for the publicity of the book. I didn’t do it.
Q: You spent 25 year in diplomacy, how do you see the country’s image is being soiled at the international level?
A: The world has changed. This is bound to happen. You can’t say this is my cocoon nobody else should know about this. What has happened here within a minute is known all over the world. The people say good things; they can also say adverse things. After all, Delhi is not a close city. There are many foreign correspondents here who report from here.
Q: You spent a lot of time in the Middle East as an envoy, how do you see the tussle between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the region?
A: First, I don’t like the term Middle East. I always said this term was imposed by the West. The correct term which India adopted right in the beginning is West Asia. Geographically correct, just as we are in South Asia and China in East Asia. So far as Arab world and Iran is concerned, political disagreement is nothing new. There was a time when Iran and Saudi Arabia were cooperative. At the time of Shah Iran, there was close cooperation and both of them were cooperating with America. After the revolution in Iran things have changed. Even then Saudis and Iranians have cooperated. Iran hosted the OIC conference in Tehran and also Crown-Prince King Abdullah. Iranian leaders also visited Riyadh. They are vying for influence in the region. These are temporary things. Saudi Arabia has certain concerns while Iran has other concerns. Answer lies in sitting and talking. It is a region next door to each other.
Q: Many Arab nations are recognizing Israel, what’s your take?
Ans: Arab countries have taken certain positions and it was their political perception. You see, Israel as a country exists irrespective of how it came about. If it exists then taking note of its existence is not a great favor. But me recognition of existence is a recognition is a fact of life.
Q: Being a member of the community, what do you suggest for the betterment of the community?
A: Very simple answer, self empowerment. I give an example right here next door to us. Look at the way our Sikh fellow citizens have organized themselves. They have done in Delhi. Sikh residents of Delhi are mostly people who came as refugees after 1947. They lived in camps but overtime they have created for themselves certain facilities like schools, colleges and hospitals. They have a cohesive approach to life. If you go into a gurudwara at meal time you will be invited to join. They don’t ask whether you are this or that. Why? Because Sikhs are a cohesive community. Why can’t we do that?
I will give a much better example over a much longer period of time. The Jewish community in Europe for hundreds of years were persecuted in every single aspect of life. There were countries in Europe where they were not allowed to practice any profession other than agriculture. So what did they do? I mean apart from educating them, they started a new profession called money lending and they became famous for that. The point is you have to answer the challenges in terms of your own perception. But don’t say I will not face the challenge.
Q: What motivated you to pen down your memoirs?
Ans: My children insisted that I should write something about my life. Few of my friends pushed in that direction. One day I decided to write. Once you start you follow a certain discipline. I never kept a diary or notes. This is all my recollection and I have said that in the title of the book. I didn’t say its verbatim record.
Q: Could you share some juicy parts of the book?
Ans: There is nothing juicy about in it. I spelt out my approach in the first page in an Urdu couplet. Because the majority of people who come to talk to me about the book have read three pages or five pages, the book is much more. You have to read it.