Friday, January 31, 2014

Tyabjis - early members of new Indian middle class

CinnamonTeal Publishing
When we think of the Tyabji family, there are only few names that would strike most of us. It would primarily be Badruddin Tyabji and for those more informed perhaps Abbas Tyabji and other members of the extended family like writer Atiya Fyzee, ornithologist Salim Ali and jurist A A A Fyzee. Badruddin and his elder brother Camruddin's career in the legal field shifted the focus from the family's involvement in commerce and trade to professional service and scholarship. Within a period of a century and more after the death of Badruddin’s father and family patriarch Bhoymeaah Tyabji, there were some remarkable men and women who emerged from the Tyabji clan.

Salima Tyabji's book ‘The Changing World of a Bombay Muslim Community’ introduces some of the lesser known Tyabjis. Drawn largely on the family papers, journals and correspondence the book 'initially arose from my (author's) curiosity about how I, brought up as a Muslim, could have the freedom, intellectual and otherwise, that was popularly supposed to be denied to Muslims, women in particular.' I read for the first time about Rahat and Safia, wife and daughter of Badruddin Tyabji. As the Tyabjis married among themselves, no matter how many books or articles you read it is not difficult to get confused.

Salima Tyabji's book provides a glimpse to the unique persona of the Tyabji family. Belonging to the Sulaimani Bohra sect, the Tyabjis in the late nineteenth century had the prestige and popularity largely due to the achievements and standing of Badruddin and Camruddin to provide leadership to the Muslims of Bombay. Unlike the other wealthy and powerful families belonging to the trading and merchant communities, the Tyabjis had a good mix of members who were professionals as well as involved in business. The first Muslim Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer who did exceptionally well in the examination was Mohsin, son of Badruddin Tyabji.  

The most remarkable story that comes out from the book is that of the couple Safia and Jabir. Safia was married to Jabir Ali the eldest brother of Salim Ali. The author has translated the diary entries of Safia from Urdu to English and in doing so has brought to light a very emotional and, uncharacteristically candid saga of intimacy, struggle and love. It is just wonderful to go through those pages that detail how the Cambridge graduate grappled with looking after his family while spending time in jail due to his affiliation with Congress. Jabir was a close friend of Jal Naoroji the grandson of Dadabhai Naoroji and settled in Chembur which was far from the city.

In what ways were the Tyabjis different from a North Indian Muslim family of similar standing? Except few, most of the Tyabjis married among themselves and stayed away from the wealthy, landholding families of North India or of similar character in Deccan and Western India. Rahat Tyabji as the book notes "had strong views about not having her children marrying into Nawabi families, but wanted people of good solid bourgeois stock". This had a bearing on how the different branches of the Tyabjis responded to subsequent events in the country. The Fyzee sisters had fashioned themselves closely with the Urdu-speaking North Indian elites though it is equally interesting to know that the Fyzee sisters had learnt Marathi. Atiya Fyzee who later established a school in Bombay would constantly find faults in the teaching of Urdu in Bombay’s municipal schools.

This led to a cold relationship with Khadija Shuffi Tyabji who perhaps was the most active woman politician among the Tyabjis, which Atiya aspired but never managed to emulate. I wish the book had more information about Khadija Tyabji for she was a long running member of the Bombay Municipal Corporation and the Assembly and was very active on the city’s social and political front. It seems Atiya collaborated closely with Maulana Shaukat Ali though in all fairness I must say that Nazli did collect funds for the Congress as well and was influenced by Gandhi.

Khadija was widowed at an early age and her son had settled in Hyderabad where he managed few mills while she remained in Bombay. Khadija was also associated with the Haj Committee in the 1930s and did much for the education of women. Just like Khadija, Dilshad Begum the daughter of Camruddin Tyabji remains forgotten. Dilshad was married into the Murshidabad royal family. She was active on the restricted and exclusive social scene and her early death in 1925 shocked her friends in Bombay and Bangalore where her daughter shifted with her husband. The Sandhurst-educated Iskander Mirza who went on to become President of Pakistan was her son.   

The Tyabjis are one of the few and earliest families who gave their daughters a sense of independence and access to education. This explains the confidence and the multifaceted lives of the women discussed above. The Tyabjis, Hydaris, Fyzees, Futehallys, Habibs, Latifis are all related and the large number of outstanding men and women that they have given has few parallels. Polymath and brilliant ICS officer Sir Alma Latifi (father of Danial Latifi), scholar and keen sportsman A A A Fyzee (India’s ambassador to Egypt), ornithologists Salim Ali, Humayun Ali, Zafar Futehally, historian Irfan Habib, social activist Kamila Tyabji and other distinguished personalities all belong to the same clan. As the family expanded rapidly and different branches settled in various parts of India and world, a comprehensive biography of the Tyabjis is still to see the light of the day.

There was no uniformity of opinion amongst them neither did they consciously work towards it. But what was common was the drive to excel and make a difference to the society in whichever field they choose. As Moin Shakir and Theodore Wright have rightly observed: “It was perhaps the impact of Bombay and the compulsions of the trade that led Tyabjis to reject the increasingly dysfunctional feudal values of the North Indian and the Deccan nobilities but exemplified the commercial skills and adaptability of the Weberian prototype. In short they were the early members of the new Indian Middle class.”  

I came to know through Prof Nasir Tyabji that his sister Salima, the author of the book, passed away peacefully on December 20, 2013. I wish I had written to her more frequently. Salima was the daughter of Saif and Vazir Tyabji and granddaughter of Faiz and Salima Tyabji. Faiz Tyabji, a judge of the Bombay High Court, was the third son of Badruddin Tyabji. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Muslim Zion - Pakistan as a political idea

C Hurst & Co 
Farzana Shaikh’s Community and Consensus in Islam: Muslim representation in Colonial India,1860-1947, and Ayesha Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman offered two different narratives of the Muslim League’s and Jinnah’s politics. While Shaikh focussed on the religious dimension, Jalal argued that League’s politics had much more flexibility towards Hindus where Pakistan was used as a bargaining counter. 

Commenting on these two narratives, Gail Minault wrote: “In any case, drawing a line in the sand and lining up votaries on either side of that imaginary line does little to advance our collective search for historical understanding.”

Faisal Devji’s Muslim Zion – Pakistan as a political idea, is a refreshing addition to the study of politics of Muslim League and Jinnah’s personality as it traces the creation of Pakistan (just like Israel’s a year later) in an ‘ambiguously religious way of imagining nationality in an alien geography, without a necessary reference to shared blood…’ To borrow Minault’s observation it is free from the drawing of an imaginary line in the sand. As the name suggests, the book explores the common characteristic of international or non-national state between Zionism and Muslim nationalism in India, a departure from the dominant variables of examining the Muslim League and Jinnah with the British, Congress and the high politics of Partition. 

Early on in the introduction, Devji makes it clear that for him history is not to be ‘written as a police report or judicial decision’, instead his interest lies in the ‘forms of argumentation and lines of reasoning that both transcend and survive such intentionality to shape the prose of history’.  The book makes some complex and nuanced observations spread over six chapters.

Muslim League’s ambivalence towards history and geography

Devji contends that both Zionism and Muslim nationalism share more with each other than with their immediate neighbours.  This ambivalence towards history and refusal to be defined by geography, Devji writes “led them to conceive of a novel and remarkably abstract form of political unity premised upon a paradoxical rejection of the past.”  One can infer that it is perhaps this rejection and ambivalence that bases them on “national will the greater part of whose history lies outside their borders.”

Does this explain the rewriting of history textbooks in Pakistan which is in complete opposite to Jinnah’s disdain of India’s Muslim history. Devji sees a pattern in this disdain, as the whole Pakistan movement was based on tying it to the recent colonial history rather than tagging it to the past. 

What also made Jinnah uncomfortable was the realisation that Hindustan would be claimed by Congress as ‘preexisting India’, with Pakistan coming out as a secessionist.

Devji quotes Jinnah in a 1944 meeting with Gandhi: “Ours is a case of division and carving out two independent sovereign states by way of settlement between two major nations, Hindus and Muslims, and not of severance or secession from any existing union which is non-existent in India.”   

That Jinnah was much of a constitutional player rather than operating in the religious realm is well known, but Devji’s extrapolation of and subtle use of Islamic and Muslim philosophy in the British colonial framework adds to our understanding of Jinnah’s and League’s politics and the subsequent creation of Pakistan. “Instead of being tied to a language of historical and territorial integrity nationality for Jinnah was a purely constitutional category, one crucial to the making of a social contract.” (page 105)

According to Devji, Jinnah’s opposition to Khilafat was not due to ‘generalized advocacy of secularism’, but rather due to its ‘appeal to Muslims as merely religious group.’ This was because it risked reducing Muslims merely as a religious group and thus relegating them to a minority in religious terms that could easily overshadow their distinct political place.   

Chaudhury Khaliquzzaman in his autobiography gives air to his disappointment to the fact that Maulana Azad avoided mentioning Khilafat, in which he himself played an active role, in his book. 
Was it because, as Devji notes that Gandhi was able to ‘seduce Muslims into a religious madness’ that Azad did not want to chronicle those days? 

Alliance with non-Congress groups Devji is not satisfied with the categorization of League’s leaders and members in terms of their attitude towards the British. Without naming Francis Robinson it is obvious that when he mentions the categorization of League leaders into the old and young party he is referring to his copiously referenced book Separatism Among Muslims.
“Because of the curious demographic configuration that Muslims possessed in colonial India, they were able to deploy two kinds of political strategies, one defined by the category of minority and the other by that of the nations.” (Page 184) It was this nature of Muslim politics that Devji argues made it possible for the League to link up with other minority groups. Why then was there no effective coming together of Jinnah and Ambedkar?

Taking through the possibility of Jinnah aligning with the non-brahmin and Dalit parties, Devji wonders whether it demonstrated ‘remnants’ of Jinnah’s ‘loyalty to India in some perverse way’ or his desire to be the ‘only one to destroy the country he had fought to kept united for so many years’. The part dealing with Muslim-Dalit politics makes for some fascinating reading.  Apart from being representatives of two major minority groups, Ambedkar and Jinnah also shared the common resolve to constitutional methods. Arguably much of the current Muslim-Dalit political dynamics in India can be traced to the nature of this relationship and parleys.

Muslim Zion brings forth the collaborative and competitive politics of Ambedkar and Jinnah, a much ignored aspect. The book thus effectively traces the creation of Pakistan by mapping Islam, Muslim, and minorityism packed with some fresh and original perspectives on Sir Syed Ahmed, Allama Iqbal, and Syed Ameer Ali among others.

Muslim Zion will also be of interest to those seeking to have some understanding of the Shia sub-sects. Devji suggests that the interest of prominent Shias in the politics of Muslim League had got to do with the fact that they wanted to protect themselves from both the Hindu as well as the Sunni majority. 

While Devji rightly points out the near absence of scholarship on the prominent trading and merchant groups of Bombay, it would have been great if he had elaborated more on the ‘long and unresolved struggle’ to control the League and its policies between North India’s Muslims and the merchants and landowners of the cities. 

Even as the book explores on the idea of Pakistan, the amazing parallels between a Muslim homeland and Jewish settlement seamlessly runs through the narrative making it eminently readable. Muslim Zion is a provocative and fascinating piece of scholarship with some very complex and tight observations and arguments.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Nehru, as portrayed by K A Abbas and A Harvani


Jawaharlal Nehru has been the subject of several studies and work undertaken by historians and political scientists. Being the longest serving Prime Minister of independent India, Nehru remains a much sought after figure to understand the dynamics of current India. His legacy has an important role to play in the way India has shaped up. A recurring framework of literature on Nehru has been to throw light on his association with the other Congress leaders, close and trusted friends, important political movements and his prime ministership.


In this essay I have looked upon how Nehru is projected and portrayed by two individuals K A Abbas and Ansar Harvani in their books. The books under consideration are K A Abbas’s ‘I am not an island: An experiment in Autobiography’ and Ansar Harvani’s ‘From Gandhi to Gandhi: Private Faces of Public Figures’. K A Abbas, was a journalist who also directed movies. He was closely associated with Raj Kapoor and wrote a popular column in Blitz. Ansar Harvani was a Lok Sabha MP who also worked as a journalist. Both were good friends and studied together at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).  
Just like other national leaders, Nehru’s life is majorly discussed in terms of his broad outlook and vision. Individuals like Abbas and Harvani and their work helps throw light on the quirky details which goes a long way in putting up a human face to a prominent figure – in this case Nehru. The contrasting picture of Nehru that comes through these two books from good friends is symptomatic of the urge to trace the success and failures of modern India to Nehru. Abbas and Harvani cite issues and instances where two different Nehrus emerge.
It is necessary to discuss a bit more about Abbas and Harvani to understand their different approaches. Both were not front rank politicians or leaders but representative of the liberal-secular -socialist intellectuals belonging to the old and distinguished Muslim families of North India. They were neither rich enough nor desired to go abroad for studies like Syud Hossain, Asaf Ali, Sir Shah Sulaiman or members of the Suhrawardy, Kidwai, Tyabji or Hydari families. Both were journalists and consistently aligned with Congress, though it is important to add that Harvani was drawn towards Subhash Chandra Bose, Nehru’s bĂȘte noire.
Harvani was an accomplished speaker and a fine orator who could count upon AMU students and residents of Delhi’s Jama Masjid area among his captive audiences. He was twice elected to the Parliament and had several clashes with government agencies (particularly in Uttar Pradesh) in his role as a journalist for Blitz. Majaz Lucknowi, the famous poet was his brother and lyricist and Javed Akhtar is his nephew. Abbas belonged to a family of educationists and litterateurs and counted Maulana Altaf Husain Hali as his forefather. Syeda Hameed, member Planning Commission of India, whose father was Secretary in the Ministry of Education during the tenure of Maulana Azad as Education Minister is his niece. A film critic who ended up writing and directing movies, Abbas is also known as the man who gave Amitabh Bachchan his first break in Bollywood.
Abbas and Harvani both were active student activists. Harvani met Nehru before Abbas as a teenager at Lucknow, where he was living with his relatives. Abbas’s first meeting with Nehru was in a train when he was a student at AMU. Abbas was accompanied by three friends including Harvani when he met Nehru at Khurja railway station close to Aligarh.
Both, Abbas and Harvani, have written about their first meeting with Nehru. However, the manner in which they take forward the narrative is illustrative of the difference in feeling and attitude towards Nehru. It also stems from the fact that Abbas has written the book as events unfolded (mostly in a chronological order), while Harvani’s observations are coloured with Nehru’s decisions taken much later. He keeps going back and forth in time in his book.
For Abbas, “the very first time I saw Jawaharlal Nehru it was love at first sight.” The love at first sight was perhaps due to a mixture of youthful romanticism and lack of like-minded leaders at AMU. As Abbas himself notes “…had he (Nehru) not articulated what we had only vaguely felt?”
Harvani’s first encounter was in a different setting. Nehru was looking after the decorations and seating arrangement for the All Parties conference at Lucknow’s Kaiserbagh in 1928. According to Harvani he lent him a helping hand and ‘earned his appreciation’. “This was the beginning of our relationship which continued till his death.”
In 1929, during the Simon commission agitation Harvani again came in touch with Nehru. The administration arrested the Congress leaders and as Harvani was too young to be put to jail he was ‘taken to a forest 12 miles’ away from the city. He had to trek back alone. “This was my first taste of suffering under his leadership, which I did not question for long time. In real life, how and when did Harvani question Nehru is not clear, but in his book he has criticised Nehru for several decisions taken by him.
After their meeting, Abbas wrote to Nehru asking for his photograph, for which he got a reply that he did not have any photograph that he could send and will give him when he gets one! Abbas had his own share of disappointment with Nehru, including one during the very first meeting. Abbas was dejected to see Nehru travelling in the first class compartment. It also dawned upon him that ‘he was not tall as he looked in his photographs’.  
While Abbas has given instances to show Nehru’s ‘quick flashes of temper’, Harvani has stressed upon Nehru’s ‘double standards’. Part of the explanation could lie in the fact that Harvani was more drawn towards politics while Abbas immersed himself in journalism and later films.
Abbas never stood for elections while Harvani was twice elected to the Parliament.  Harvani takes pride in his association with Subhash Chandra Bose, but Abbas has nothing to say about him. Though Abbas describes Nehru as the ‘second greatest man of my country’ his autobiography does not name who is the first. He remained consistent in his admiration and dedication to the ‘second greatest man’.
Both have taken forward Jawaharlal Nehru’s role as statesman, politician, and son of Motilal, India’s first prime minister and have also written about his friends and acquaintances.  Their books are quite illuminating in knowing what Nehru did in between addressing workers and chairing meetings. The instances chosen by them takes forward their feeling towards Nehru. Abbas was desperate for Nehru’s attention while Harvani was busy making a mark in the freedom struggle and politics.
In the early 1930s Abbas came to know about Nehru’s foreign trips. He wanted to accompany him as his secretary. Abbas was employed at Bombay Chronicle but he was desirous of travelling abroad with Nehru.
Nehru was good friends with Madame Menaka who was the wife of Colonel S S Sokhey, the eminent scientist. Menaka was a famous and sought after dancer and was performing at Bombay’s Capitol Theatre where Nehru was invited.
Abbas writes:   
“I had my press pass, and I manoeuvred to get my seat just behind the group with Panditji. Colonel (later general) Sokhey, the eminent scientist and the husband of Madame Menaka sat on Panditji's right and a young Parsi woman sat on his left.”
For Abbas it was not important to find out who the young Parsi woman was. All he wanted was to get an audience with Nehru and ask if he could accompany him to foreign trips as his ‘secretary’. It was perhaps the same Parsi woman who would qualify according to Harvani as one of the ‘host of socialite ladies who pretended to be social workers’ with whom Nehru ‘felt at home’.
The friction between Nehru and Sardar Patel is well known. Maulana Azad was much closer to Nehru than Patel. Harvani’s contextualising of Nehru’s relationship with Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad and clubbing them together in this regard is interesting:
“While he could not avoid the company of Patel and Azad in social life, he felt more at home with Sir Gopalaswami Iyengar, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, Sir Raghavan Pillai, Sardar Pannikar, Sir V T Krishnamachari…”
Did Nehru really not like the company of Patel and Azad? Abbas has also dwelt upon the differences between Nehru and Azad. He poignantly describes their personalities, outlook and way of life in the book. However, unlike Harvani, Abbas compares their childhood and education to highlight that they worked together to serve India.
Nehru became the Congress president in 1929 for its Lahore session. According to Harvani, Motilal Nehru had a role in his selection as the president. The British government had arrested several people under the ‘communist conspiracy’. Motilal was afraid that his son too would be arrested. Nehru had attended the anti-imperialist conference in Brussels and the home department was considering arresting him.
Motilal requested Gandhi to nominate Jawaharlal as the Congress president for the Lahore session. “They (British) could not declare the chief of the most representative Indian political organisation as Communist,” writes Harvani giving a window to Motilal’s thought process. Nehru who was seen as Gandhi’s chosen successor, was a ‘socialist’ in the mid-1920s who strengthened the left wing opposition within Congress. Harvani laments that Nehru’s ascendancy as the president for the Lahore session marked the beginning of ‘political rapprochement between the Mahatma and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’.
Abbas gives no such details of the high politics of the day. Unlike Harvani, Abbas didn’t undergo long term imprisonment and was much less of a political creature. He worked for the Bombay Chronicle for a very long time which had a cartoonist named Radha who had a one-column space. Nehru was a constant visitor to Bombay and usually stayed at his sister Betty’s (Krishna Hutheesing) flat. One day Radha, who according to Abbas, used to be shabbily dressed and was addicted to country liquor was struggling to get any personality for his column. He came to know that Nehru was in town and in the late evening reached his sister’s flat. Nehru was just finishing dinner and enquired the purpose of Radha’s visit.
When Radha said that he wanted to capture him, Nehru ‘exploded’. He had to attend a meeting and had no time to spare. Radha started weeping and told Nehru: “You have had your dinner but if I don’t deliver your sketch by 10 o’clock I won’t be able to earn my dinner.”  When Nehru asked his sister to serve dinner to Radha, he requested that he would prefer Nehru gave him some time. “You will have both,” Nehru told him.
Harvani’s narrative has none of the ‘kindness’ and ‘charm’ of Nehru’s personality. The anecdotes, instances cited by him are viewed through a heavy political lens. According to him, Nehru who was highly critical of Bose and his Indian National Army (INA) did not want to lose any political mileage during the famous INA trial. “He organised a Defence Committee and himself appeared in a Barrister’s gown after almost twenty-five years to assist renounced (sic) lawyer Bhula Bhai Desai to defend them,” writes Harvani.
Abbas and Harvani both have used different instances to show Nehru the way they want to. As I have said before this had much to do with their own leanings and profession. Harvani has criticised Nehru for ‘nepotism’ and for favouring Kashmiri Pandits and his friends. Though Harvani was twice elected to Parliament, he never got a ministry.
Interestingly, Abbas himself has commented on Harvani’s political career: “Much lesser men became Ministers, he (Harvani) was never offered even a deputy ministership.”  
Does this explain the occurrence of following passage in Harvani’s book:
“It was unfortunate that he (Nehru) could not resist the temptation of nepotism.  Almost  all available Nehrus in particular and Kashmiri Pandits in general in Indian Civil Serices suddenly were found to have a flair for diplomacy and with the recommendation of his new found adviser of foreign affairs in external affairs Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai were absorbed in diplomatic services. In return Bajpai claimed that all of his three sons were born diplomats and recruited them in newly created Indian Foreign Service. ”
Both have charted a different course while throwing light on Nehru’s relation with some other prominent Muslim personalities. For example Abbas has written about Nehru’s friendship and cordial relations with S A Brelvi, while Harvani criticises Nehru for letting three cousins of R A Kidwai become diplomats overnight.   
Abbas mentions the passing away of Mehboob Khan, the famous film producer, of heart attack just a day after Nehru’s death. According to Abbas, it symbolised the important part played by Nehru in the protection of minorities and the insecurity that arose after his death. Nehru had personally ensured the safety of Abbas’s family members during the partition violence. He ensured they were put in a safe place in Delhi on Abbas’s request.
Harvani and Abbas both admired Nehru but had different sets of expectations from him. Harvani would have liked if Nehru had continued to lead the socialists within the Congress and not aligned himself with policies of Gandhi. He also didn’t like the fact that Nehru retained the services of people like ‘Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai and the ICS officers who had suppressed the Indian people’.
Harvani writes about Nehru’s ‘complete sartorial change’ from the humble dhoti-kurta and Nehru jacket to sherwani and ‘chust pyjama’ tailored by Mohammed Usman, whose clientele included princes and celebrities. Harvani  though notes that Nehru did not discard the Khadi and Gandhi cap. For Abbas the ‘sartorial change’ would not have been profound as Nehru retained the Gandhi cap.
The one common thing about Nehru that they have mentioned is a white horse that he rode – at two different places and 16 years apart. According to Harvani, it was a white horse upon which Nehru came to preside over the 1929 Lahore conference.  Abbas too has written about a white horse that Nehru rode during the crucial talks in Shimla in 1945. According to Abbas, this ‘created a problem for foot-borne journalists pursuing him for an interview’. The white horse here seems to represent two different line of thinking.
Nehru on a white horse in the 1929 of Lahore signifies the growing up of a prince breaking away from ‘socialist’ thinking. But as Abbas informs that ‘his (Abbas) friend Subhan of the National Herald also acquired a pony and went cantering after Nehru’, Nehru on white horse in the 1945 of Shimla appears a to-be crowned king and yet approachable.
May 27 was Nehru's 49th death anniversary