Excerpt: Saeed Naqvi's 'Being the Other — The Muslim in India'

Saeed Naqvi has served as a prominent journalist, television commenter, and interviewer since the 1970s, and has been published widely both in his native India and abroad. In his new book Being the Other: Muslims in India, Naqvi reflects on life as one of his country's 180 million Muslims — a population, he argues, that has gradually become "otherized."

Naqvi will appear at Asia Society in New York on Wednesday to discuss his new book — and the experiences that informed it — with Philip K. Oldenburg, a research scholar at Columbia University's South Asia Institute. In this excerpt from Being the Other, Naqvi describes how he first realized his Muslim identity would play a role in his work.

I cannot put a date to exactly when it happened, but gradually, over many years, people around me began to identify me as "Muslim." This was "new" and, I suppose, the beginning of a process which placed me with the "Other." Firaq Gorakhpuri has a wonderful couplet to describe the phenomenon: "It needed prescience but we were growing lonely in a crowded world." In 1990, the late Vinod Mehta, distinguished editor, author of Lucknow Boy, and a friend of at least 60 years beginning with school invited me to write a column for his magazine from a "Muslim perspective." I glared at him. Et tu, Vinod? We had grown up knowing each other’s families, enjoying the same food, books, movies, played sports on the same grounds, and waited on Saturdays with bated breath for the well-groomed ladies of Isabella Thoburn College to troop onto the pavements of Hazratganj. Our differences, if any, were about Jeeves and Blandings Castle — we would argue about which sequence of books was funnier. And now, as editor, Vinod was slotting me with the "Other." In a sense, I suppose he was following a trend because of the way things had worked out after Independence. If the country were to keep up the pretense of secularism, and equality, it needed the "Other," although those of us who "belonged" to this category seemed to be in short supply.

In 1972, D. P. Dhar, as head of Policy Planning for the Indo–Pak summit in Simla that year, called up the editor of The Statesman where I was working at the time and asked that I be assigned to the hill station because "we must have a bright, young Muslim journalist" in the Indian contingent. Pakistan President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was bringing scores and they would all be Muslim. And that is how I got the opportunity to interview Benazir Bhutto, the 19-year-old undergraduate from Oxford who had accompanied her father.

It was all splendid while the going was good. The thought never occurred to me then, as it does now — that there were larger implications to the way I lived my life and thrived in my chosen career. Jayaprakash Narayan, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Inder Gujral, Pran Chopra, Inder Malhotra, Kuldip Nayar and scores of others — all extended patronage to me and quite rejoiced in it. The environments in which these worthies operated had very few Muslims. After Partition, there was a dearth of enlightened Muslims. Secularism was still invoked even though it was a declining ideal, having been much profaned.

Another reality dawned on me. In a 50-year career no Muslim had ever helped me strategically and for a good reason: After Partition, Muslims seldom reached positions from which they could dispense favors. One or two who did were cautious, averse to helping members of their community. That would open them to the charge of nepotism or communal bias.

A country emerging from layers of feudalism had necessarily developed a system of networks. For a time, caste networks ruled. Everyone was affected. The poorest Brahmin in Mustafabad or Rae Bareli was secure so long as Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant was UP’s chief minister. That powerful network began to collapse as a huge churning overtook Indian society that will continue well into the 21st century. Groups and castes will find new levels. But given the current socio-economic condition of the Muslim, as spelled out by Sachar Committee, he is likely to be kept below the churning by his clerical leadership which strikes bargains with the political class and keeps the community mired in religion in enclaves distant from modernity.

And yet, it could have all been so different. In the course of the book I have investigated the major missteps that took place after Independence, and pointed out in some instances how matters could have been better handled. But only rarely did the political and personal will of our tallest leaders rise above electoral, sectarian considerations. And their personal ambitions. If enough people in power had decided to take a different path, things would have been radically different. Of that I am convinced, after decades of being an observer and citizen of the subcontinent.

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On the ground, people would have responded positively to the idea of coming together, even if strategic or other considerations had driven them apart. Let me illustrate this with an anecdote.

I was a staff reporter with The Statesman when the war to liberate Bangladesh broke out in 1971. The editor, Evan Charlton, advised against my covering the Bangladesh front because the militia there could mistake me for a Punjabi. That would be the end of me. So I was sent to Chhamb in the Western Sector where there was no likelihood of an ethnic mix-up. Before I set out in my army uniform, my great aunt, Naani Ammi, took me aside. She gave me two talismans or Imam Zamins before I set off for the war front — one for me and one for Major Akhtar of the Pakistan Army, a first cousin of mine who she thought I would meet during a break in the fighting. That is how hazy the project to divide the subcontinent was in many minds. Even today I find it difficult to control my tears when I remember Naani Ammi standing in the doorway with two talismans for her grandchildren — one an Indian and the other a Pakistani.

About the Author

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Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.