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Monday, March 07, 2011

Arjun Singh: Stood by Indian Muslims, Spoke for Them

Senior Congress leader and former Union minister Chief Minister Arjun Singh's death has been mourned by Indian Muslims who considered him a secular politician who was sensitive towards the minorities.

There are bound to be stronger opinions, both in favour and against, when one analyses a personality like him. Arjun Singh who received more brickbats than bouquets in the last decade of his political life, was a politician with certain convictions.

Even though he never needed Muslim vote [yes I am stressing on this aspect which is not generally mentioned] for his victory, he ensured that Muslims got a better deal from the government and administration. And there are numerous instances in his six decade long political career.

Amongst Singh's biggest achievements was the fact that he single-handedly ensured the establishment of Maulana Azad National Urdu University. Initially, he wanted it at Bhopal but due to lack of appropriate Urdu medium infrastructure (and schools), he agreed to later shift it to Hyderabad.

It is a known fact that had he not taken a firm decision and actively pursued the cause, the establishment of Urdu university would have remained a dream. In later years he was vilified for his 'secular' beliefs, commitment towards backward sections and the reservations in IIMs, but Singh played an important role as HRD minister.

It was under him that the Ministry of Human Resources Development acquired such importance. He will be remembered for detoxification of the text books after the earlier BJP-led regime was accused of saffronising the education.

Whenever there was an attempt to dilute the minority character of AMU or similar other institutions, he intervened. Singh raised his voice against RSS' ideology and was ever ready to take up the cause of minorities.

'Secularism' was turning into a hated word in the 1990s and he was targeted in Hindi media for supporting SAHMAT or similar liberal and progressive groups. Even at the cost of turning a villain, Singh never shed his secular values.

The biggest jolt was his loss in Lok Sabha election from Hoshangabad when the BJP had communalised the election campaign. In those days, there was tremendous negative propaganda against him like the slogans, 'Arjun Singh kahin,  ______ ki bahin' that harped on his association with leftist groups of artists.

The Taraqqi Urdu Bureau was turned into National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL) just because he felt Urdu hadn't got its due under the three language formula and there was more rhetoric than reality in government measures regarding Urdu.

To mention just an incident. In the 2005 Vadodara riot, it was only after Muslim delegations met Singh that he raised the issue in cabinet and forced the ever-reluctant and indecisive Shivraj Patil to communicate to warn the Gujarat government that Army was being deployed, which stopped the rioting. He raised such issues in parliament and in cabinet despite the presence of numerous Muslim leaders who always kept mum.

During his rule Madhya Pradesh remained riot free. Not many would know or care to remember that till 80s, Iqbal's name was not taken at public functions in India despite having written the Tarana-e-Hind, 'Sare Jahaan se achcha', Arjun Singh announced the biggest award in the field of Urdu literature from Madhya Pradesh, known as Iqbal Samman apart from construction of Minar-e-Iqbal or Iqbal's Minaret.

Despite right-wing protests, the name of Bhopal University was changed to Barkatullah University at his instance. Maulana Barkatullah, a revolutionary freedom fighter of the Gaddar Party, hailed from Bhopal and was prime minister of the first government of India in exile during British era.

After independence, which Indian university was named after a Muslim personality in the first fifty years or so! Was there no Muslim freedom fighter or great figure produced by the community? This was an anomaly and Singh rectified it despite strong opposition.

Perhaps, his hard stand on the issue of Babri Masjid, was driven by his ambition to acquire the centre stage in the post-Rajiv Gandhi era when Muslims were disenchanted with PV Narasimharao-led Congress but the truth is that he always stood against right-wing forces.

Many people accuse him for a variety of reasons but the fact is that he spoke for Muslims and did a lot for Muslims, what Muslim leaders could never do. And he hardly needed their vote, which was in any case going to Congress in Madhya Pradesh.

In undivided Madhya Pradesh till 80s that included Chhattisgarh, Muslim population was barely 5%. In Vindhya region, where he hailed from, the Muslim vote is hardly 2%.

Unlike Samajwady Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, who belonged to a state with over 17% Muslims, Singh had no such need to rope Muslims in for victory.

Right-wing, particularly, BJP leaders are quick to label any person who takes a step for Muslims, as 'pseudo-secular' and claim that it is due to compulsions of vote bank politics. But Singh couldn't be accused of that. By early 90s, his eyes were set for the post of Prime Minister but for decades before that, he never needed to 'appease' Muslims.

Many leaders were termed pro-Muslim just for their lip service towards Muslims but Singh went ahead and took concrete steps. Thus it's not proper to accuse him of 'vote bank politics'. He had angered sections of upwardly mobile class when he introduced the OBC reservations but the truth was that the man had certain convictions and he stuck to them. The 'wily Thakur' was not infallible and he faltered on many occasions.

It is not that his handling of issues after gas disaster could be forgotten. His freebies, it is alleged, corrupted journalists. Another aspect is that journalists were so under-paid in those days that government accommodation on low rent came as a godsend.

Those who got corrupted or took to 'dalaali' would have done so anyhow. But when it comes to his contribution for Muslims, it is much more that the combined contribution of many self-styled Muslim leaders who pretend to be benefector of the qaum.

There were Tweets and comments on most websites, after his death, many of which suggested how much he was hated by the right-wing. There were angry messages that crossed all limits of decency. But the fact remains that Arjun Singh had a steel grip over administration.

Under him no bureaucrat could make moolah to the tune of crores [like the tainted IAS couple--Joshis did recently]. Of course, there are legendary tales known to everyone in MP, that when he was chief minister he needn't write a note-sheet, rather would pen an appointment order on the back of a cigarette packet's foil and it was obeyed.

The upwardly mobile class that includes upper class Hindus, Muslims, often have in general, the same contempt for slum-dwellers, domestic helps and even Dalits and Tribals. No wonder this class disliked him as he gave away 'pattas [land deeds or plots] to thousands of poor in Madhya Pradesh when he was Chief Minister, to build their shanties. Though he planned and established institutions of higher learning in Madhya Pradesh, it was his 'love for jhuggi-walas' that was mocked at.

If speaking for Muslims or taking on Saffron goons was 'pseudo secularism' or 'sickularism', the OBC reservation turned him into a hateful figure for this class. TV channels demonised him further. Whatever.

Arjun Singh died a sad man. It was he who had persuaded Sonia Gandhi to venture into active politics and his loyalty wasn't rewarded.

Muslims also forgot his contribution, especially towards Madarsas and Minority educational institutions.

One reason is that he didn't hail from Uttar Pradesh-Bihar that has a much higher Muslim concentration and is considered heart of Muslim politics. However, he was termed Mohsin-e-Millat by Muslim organisations. The Jamia Millia Islamia named department and road 'Shahrah-e-Arjun Singh' in his name.

It was not just because of the huge Rs 40 crore aid which he gave to the university when he was heading HRD ministry. When VC Mushirul Hasan was asked that why this step when there was opposition by section of Jamia teachers as Singh was against university's minority status, Hasan recalled Arjun Singh's immense contribution including establishment of over a dozen institutes on campus.

Meanwhile, the Congress had distanced itself from his agenda. And Arjun Singh's bitterness was evident in the years to follow. After differences with his son Ajay Singh 'Rahul', he tried to groom his daughter Veena Singh but she was denied the ticket by Congress. Now he was hurt. Singh had finished his autobiography and it is being awaited eagerly.

Of course, with him goes the era of tall Thakur leaders in Indian politics. Rajputs are no longer politically as strong after a Thakur implemented the Mandal Commission and the power of marginalised sections began translating into electoral success.

I never met him but I do recall the moments when he spoke for Muslims. Particularly, when no one did. Such things strike emotional chord. It was not just 'secular politics' but much more than that. To sum up, I must say that he stood by Muslims and took sincere steps towards the betterment of Indian Muslims.

You may or may not agree with me regarding my views in this obituary but I feel that notwithstanding political considerations, he had genuine concern for Indian Muslims. Read an earlier post on 'Decline of Rajput influence in Indian Politics'.