[Syed Shahabuddin with Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari during a program to commemorate Golden Jubilee of All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawerat in September 2015 (File photo)]
Syed Shahabuddin, one of the tallest leaders of Indian Muslims in post independent India, passed away in a hospital on Saturday.
From mid 1980s when he resigned as India's ambassador in Algeria and the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) to enter active politics, he always spoke out on the various causes and sufferings of his community - the Indian Muslims. Whether it was a Congress government or Janata party govt or BJP govt, whenever any wrong happened to any segment of Indian Muslims, he was forthright in demanding justice and equal rights and pledging loyalty to the multi-religious secular Indian nation.
Starting with Indira Gandhi several Indian prime ministers offered him a position in the cabinet of ministers. But he always declined saying that if he becomes a minister he will not be able to speak for the causes of the suffering masses of Indian Muslims. When the combined monolith of BJP and VHP launched a massive attack on the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in late 1980s and demolished it in 1992, Syed Shahabuddin was one among very few at the forefront to defend the helpless Muslims in various cities across India who were facing gory violence at the hands of the Hinduttava extremists.
Having been a highly educated Indian Foreign Service officer with an excellent command on English and Urdu languages, he was perhaps the only leader of Muslims in India with whom the government officers or emissaries of foreign countries could discuss the myriad issues of 180 million Indian Muslims. Shahabuddin not only brought on a common platform the ethnically diverse Indian Muslims who are divided by so many sects, regional influences and economic disparities, South Indian and North Indian Muslims, he created and fostered institutions for them that could serve them long term. He served for two terms in the Indian parliament speaking frequently on the need to strengthen the secular fabric and the millennium old culture of India.
Being a prolific writer and very well versed in diverse aspects of history, culture and civilization, Shahabuddin published the unique magazine, Muslim India for 25 years and operated the All India Muslim Majlis Mashawarat (AIMMM) as an apex body of the Indian Muslim community. for almost twenty years, and built its headquarters in Jamia Nagar, New Delhi. For more than thirty years Shahabuddin continuously wrote articles and gave speeches over a span of thirty plus years, on various aspects of Indian Muslims and India, demonstrating the glorious place of the Muslim minority in the Hindu majority India.
I first met Syed Shahabuddin in 1987 when he was visiting Washington DC for a conference. Subsequently I met him every couple of years whenever I visited India or he visited US. Everytime I met him and talked to him it was a gift for me as I learned so much wisdom from him on a variety of issues. The last time I met him was in January 2015 when I was visiting New Delhi. He looked a little frail and was frequently sniffing on a bottle of Oxygen to augment his troubled breathing. Yet he was very alert and sharp and once again gave me a lot of opinions and information on a range of topics.
Syed Shahabuddin, despite being a brilliant thinker, writer and speaker from the elite of the Indian society, always lived simply and humbly and represented the interests of the masses. Yet he abhored a politics based on emotions, petty interests, corrupt practices and exploitation. The tragedy of the politics of Indian Muslims since independence has been that they get misled by opportunistic and narrow-minded leaders of their community. These leaders either make irrational demands on the government or become the sycophants of the government or raise "Islam in danger" type emotional slogans.
Very few Muslim leaders are willing to understand the realities of today's Indian society and to work with the genuine secular leaders while themselves practicing secular polity. Due to the low education levels in the Muslim community, intellectual approaches to resolving the the issues of the community are not often appreciated.
I have no hesitation in saying that despite facing many problems and a very capable leader like Syed Shahabuddin being among them, most lower level Muslim leaders and the average Indian Muslims failed to utilize the abilities of Syed Shahabuddin. He could have accomplished far more for Indian Muslims, if they gave him the opportunity. When will Indian Muslims have another political leader like Syed Shahabuddin - a combination of a well educated intellectual and a politician - is very difficult to say. But the welfare of 180 million Indian Muslims demands that there be many more Shahabuddin type Muslim leaders in India.