An account of a proud Indian Muslim who occupied the highest offices
Mani Shankar Aiyar | 24 Feb, 2021
The ‘sit-up-and-take-note’ moment comes at p.189 of this autobiography. Soon after Ansari’s election as Vice-President of India, the Chief Ministers begin paying courtesy congratulatory calls on him, as is the standard practice. Among the earliest to do so is Narendra Modi, CM of Gujarat. Ansari asks him whether he might pose the chief minister a question he would have liked to have asked in his previous capacity as Chairman of the National Minorities Commission. Modi graciously consents. Ansari then asks why he allowed the post-Godhra happenings to take place in 2002. Modi responds that “people look at only one aspect of the matter” but no one paid any attention to the “good work he has initiated, particularly for the education of Muslim girls.” At which, Ansari suggests this should be publicised and Modi replies “that does not suit me politically”!
So, do good by stealth and evil blatantly, gets established as the new political morality.
As the holder of a constitutional office, Hamid Ansari drew on his vast reading to skate around the thin ice of his position by citing others to drive home the point he was making. In fact, scanning the footnotes in this volume is an education in itself. The authors he cites run to hundreds ranging from constitutional authorities like B.N. Rau and Granville Austin to historians of West Asia like Allal al-Fassi, Barclay Raunkiær and Anthony H. Cordesman to poets new and old like Nimah Ismail Nawwab, Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi, and the renowned Persian verse-master, Hafiz, to scholars such as Richard Hrair Dekmejian and Wilfried Buchta to Persian and Urdu literary luminaries and Arab theologists. Ansari spent the books allowance that Foreign Service probationers receive on buying all three volumes of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Leon Trotsky! There appears to be no end to Ansari’s life-long quest for knowledge in every sphere of human existence in an astonishing variety of languages. What is also remarkable is the wealth of his sources ranging from daily newspapers to authoritative articles in learned journals through slim pamphlets to thick tomes, and a ready ability to grab the quotable quote.
Significantly, the chapter on his education is entitled ‘Cultivation of the Mind’. His was cultivated at Aligarh Muslim University by the likes of Mohammad Habib, who taught the history of political thought, an interest initially sparked in young Hamid, when he was in a science course, by Harold Laski’s An Introduction to Politics and A Grammar of Politics, polished by readings of ‘Plato, Aristotle, Marsilius of Padua, Thomas Hobbes, Machiavelli, John Locke, Rousseau, T.H. Greene’ and George Sabine. As Professor Mohammad Habib was left-leaning, Karl Marx and even the Thoughts of Mao Tse Tung were part of the curriculum. He was introduced to the history and politics of West Asia, a subject on which he became the Foreign Service’s foremost expert, by Muhammad Hashim Kidwai, who ‘gave me a character certificate that was embarrassingly generous’. Inevitably, he came top of the class with a ‘first class first in honours’, and accordingly received the Sir William Maris award, followed by similar academic distinction in his MA. But he was no rat burrowing away in the University’s Lytton Library. He made hordes of life-long friends and kept wicket for the University cricket team. An early indication of his destiny to preside over the Rajya Sabha was his gradual transition from behind the wickets to umpiring. He also met his friend, Yadullah Kazmi’s sister, Salma— who, as he puts it, was ‘assertive and very much the mistress in her own turf. I had no idea then that she would resurface later in my life!’
Ansari intended to have a career in academia and appeared for the competitive administrative services exams with no enthusiasm, and principally at his father’s behest. In consequence, he was placed relatively low in the list and came into the IFS ‘by happy accident’ because someone higher up declined the offer of the IFS in favour of the IAS. He spent most of the next 38 years in ‘Registan’ (the desert), as I once heard him putting it colourfully.
He began in Baghdad where he eyewitnessed the Ba’ath revolution of 8 February 1963 that initially brought President Abdul Salam Arif to power after toppling Brig. Gen. Abd al-Karim Qasim, who had, on 14 July 1958, dethroned the Hashemite dynasty, which was cobbled together by the British in the post-World War-I era, after betraying the promises of freedom conveyed to the Arabs to get them to revolt against the Turkish Empire. Arif quickly gave way to the pro-Nasser al-Bakr/Saddam Hussain faction which went on to rule the roost for the next four decades. Ansari saw that by walking about a kilometre through the scene that had been subjected to bombardment from the air. ‘I was glared at on the way by a tank commander,’ who, happily, was not trigger happy and so Ansari survived.
There appears to be no end to Hamid Ansari’s life-long quest for knowledge in every sphere of human existence in an astonishing variety of languages. What is also remarkable is the wealth of his sources ranging from daily newspapers to authoritative articles in learned journals through slim pamphlets to thick tomes, and a ready ability to grab the quotable quote
Having braved the Ba’ath revolutionaries, it was something of a cakewalk to approach Dr. Asadullah Kazmi, head of the UNESCO mission in Baghdad, to seek the hand of his daughter, Salma. Ansari had been ‘bewitched’ by her ‘cigarette-smoking and sherry-sipping in fairly conservative surroundings’ but, while ‘fancy’ soon turned to ‘obsession’, his own ‘diffidence’ combined with her being apparently ‘disinterested’, had kept matters simmering instead of being driven to a conclusion. They got permission to spend their ‘blissful’ honeymoon in the Kurdish mountains in the vicinity of Salahuddin. This was much envied by the diplomatic corps. An ‘elderly’ Soviet official enquired whether he could not be given similar permission only to be told that he too could go ‘for similar purposes’!
The Ansaris next moved to Rabat, the capital of Morocco, where, apart from being introduced to the Arabic of the Maghreb, they discovered the charms of Fez and Casablanca, were educated in the role of the Berbers in the history of the region and saw their first child born. The posting was brief and over soon. Jeddah followed soon after.
In Jeddah, Ansari earned his spurs by making arrangements for Indian Muslim pilgrims to the annual ‘hajj’. He was eventually to supervise nine such pilgrimages, which, he has consistently held, is a religious duty only ‘for those who can afford the journey’, citing verse 3:97 of the Qur’an, and has, therefore been opposed, in principle, to the Hajj subsidy extended to Indian pilgrims by the Government of India. He was also involved in ‘difficulties of political reporting’ from a station where ‘much depended on a discerning study of the local media and the occasional cartoon that conveyed a message to the initiated’, backed by ‘chance remarks’ that had to be ‘noted’ and contacts cultivated on an ‘individual basis’.
He returned to New Delhi in October 1969; I had returned a few months earlier and we established a friendship that has lasted a lifetime. I found him both deeply informed and full of wit and humour, gracious in his manners and unfailing in his courtesies, always ready for a laugh or a serious discussion, our common interest being in Palestine and our common commitment being to a secular India. I must confess, however, to not having discerned the extraordinarily distinguished future that lay in front of him. To me, he was always just a good friend. I hope this does not detract from my being an objective reviewer of his autobiography. Our friendship was then reinforced by a joint posting to Brussels, where Ambassador K.B. Lall, ‘a patrician of the old school’ who was ‘a hard taskmaster but unstinting in his praise of work he considered worthwhile’, made, it would seem, a less lasting impression on Ansari than on me. We lived together through the horror of the start of the Emergency (which he does not mention but is marked by my memory of his calling me over to watch the ticker tape on the telex machine in his room as it rattled out the arrest of virtually every Opposition politician in the country). I openly mourned the death of democracy. Ansari was, typically, more restrained in his oral observations.
From Brussels, Ansari moved to Abu Dhabi as Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, via a quick diversion to Jeddah, and after false alarms of Kuwait and Iran having been signalled to him by Headquarters. I followed to Baghdad and so we remained in close touch. When he met the governor of Al Ain, who was also chairman of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Ambassador Ansari remarked as they sat down to dinner that ‘our country was thirsty. This puzzled him and he said the monsoon brings enough water. I clarified that our ‘thirst’ was for crude oil; he responded handsomely and resolved our problem’. As deft an act of professional diplomacy as any I have heard. As for the growing army of the Indian diaspora, regarding which there had been some adverse observation arising from the Iraqi press, Sheikh Rashid, the ruler of Dubai, told Ambassador Ansari: “Tell your government that Rashid al-Makhtoum does not retire for the night till he is satisfied that his gate is guarded by an Indian”.
On the completion of his term, Ansari was appointed Chief of Protocol, a task he performed with such aplomb that, after his remarkable performance at the NAM summit in March 1983, he was awarded the Padma Shri and started his dizzy climb to the top of the pole. While Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was highly appreciative of the tact he displayed in smoothing ruffled feathers, which is on the daily menu of any CoP, his biggest headache was to organise the care and security of the hordes of VIP visitors who came to her funeral in the midst of the Sikh carnage that had overtaken the city. Not only had one of his deputies, a Sikh lady, to be rescued from the rampaging mob, he also had to find replacements for the numerous Sikh drivers of the buses that had to be hired for the transport of our distinguished guests. Indeed, ‘one foreign dignitary and two of our senior people were actually transported in a police patrol car’ to the funeral.
That over, he found himself posted as High Commissioner to Canberra, Australia, a post where, as his departing predecessor ruefully noted, ‘there is not much content, let alone liveliness in Indo-Australian relations.’ That radically changed with the advent of two leaders in Australia and India—Bob Hawke and Rajiv Gandhi—who took to each other with decided warmth, their common target being Margaret Thatcher’s very reactionary stand on apartheid in South Africa. I accompanied Rajiv on his visit to Australia in October 1986, which was marked by a storm raised by a senior Australian aboriginal civil servant, Charlie Perkins, over Rajiv having used the expression ‘backward’ in relation to the affirmative action being undertaken by India in favour of a historically disadvantaged section of our population. Perkins took offense at this ‘racist’ expression and I had my work cut out drafting an explanatory letter from RG to Perkins as we flew to New Zealand explaining the background (India being the only country in the world where the label ‘backward’ is considered a badge of privilege!). Ansari too had his work cut out pacifying Perkins and extending an invitation to him to visit India as a special personal guest of the Prime Minister, an invitation that was not accepted. Happily, however, the storm died out. Ansari does not mention the contretemps.
In April 1989, Ansari was moved to Kabul. ‘Representing India in Afghanistan’, he writes, ‘necessitated an awareness of recent happenings as well as ancient history.’ Accordingly, he boned up on his next assignment reading everything he could lay his hands on in libraries and antique bookshops from Vartan Gregorian’s classic, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan to Rosanne Klass’s Afghanistan: The Great Game Revisited, passing through Dilip Kumar Ghosh’s England and Afghanistan and G.P. Tripathi’s Indo-Afghan Relations, 1882-1907. For an able diplomat, self-education never ceases. He was rewarded for his assiduous studies by almost being blown up in a bomb explosion on 6 March 1990 at his Kabul residence that left a 6-feet deep crater in his garden and ‘blew away the first floor of the house and the chair in which I had been sitting’—just ten minutes after he had left, ‘by happy accident’, for his office in the chancery.
I found Ansari both deeply informed and full of wit and humour, gracious in his manners and unfailing in his courtesies, always ready for a laugh or a serious discussion, our common interest being in Palestine and our common commitment being to a secular India
Earlier, UN personnel had suggested that ‘shatter-proof film be put on glass panes of windows to guard against rocket or bomb explosions in the vicinity’. Delhi delayed responding, so Ansari resorted to a cricketing metaphor to cable: ‘If I have to field at forward short-leg, I need protective gear.’ The cable ‘found its way, unscreened, to PM Rajiv Gandhi’s table’. While being reprimanded by some humourless, faceless bureaucrat ‘to use standard vocabulary’, the shatter-proof film was duly dispatched. Otherwise, the reckoning might have been sterner.
He got on well with the Afghan President, Mohammad Najibullah, who asked if Lata Mangeshkar and Amitabh Bachchan might be tapped to canvass for him if elections were held. When Afghan security officials at New Delhi airport were arrested in a scuffle after they spotted a rival of Najibullah’s attempting clandestinely to board a flight to Kabul, Najibullah encountered Ambassador Ansari at a presidential palace reception and remarked in chaste Urdu, ‘Do you know that if I were not here, the flag of Pakistan would be flying over this building?’ The impasse was fortunately resolved before long.
Of Najibullah’s failure to more meaningfully associate his ministers with his regime, Ansari asked one of his minsters about the powers he exercised. Next day, the minister sent him a poem by Abdu Rahman ‘Shafqi’ of Bokhara which in translation reads:
‘From the gate to the roof of the house is to be mine,
From the roof to the sky is to be yours.’
Such verses pepper the account of his days in Kabul and Iran, to where he was shifted after India-Iran relations ‘hit rock bottom’ in 1990. At his farewell call, Najibullah gave him an autographed photograph, saying, ‘I am a Pushtun; I do not trust the Iranian.’
TEHRAN WAS just about the most demanding job for an Indian Ambassador at the time, principally because of the ‘situation’ in Kashmir and ‘the rights of the people of Kashmir’. Ansari handled the delicate assignment with finesse, citing Jawaharlal Nehru on India and Iran at his presentation of credentials to President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as ‘twins separated in childhood but reunited as grown-ups through a tune familiar to them as children’. That did not stop the Iranians from criticising India but did lead to a senior Iranian official telling the Indian ambassador, “A situation in your country has pained us. We do not have a remedy; (but) we know you have it. We urge you to use it, get rid of the pain and you shall not hear about it from us.” Wise words that still reverberate.
‘Step by step,’Ansari writes, ‘the bilateral relationship between Iran and India, vacillating between convergence and drift, tended to revert to its diversity that was based on the mutuality of interests,’ best expressed in a verse from the 17th century Persian poet, Ali-Quli Salim, who wrote that there is no perfection in Persia, for ‘henna does not develop colour until it comes to India’! But then the destruction of the Babri Masjid happened. The Iranians were mollified only when, on instructions from Delhi, Ambassador Ansari told the Foreign Minister ‘the mosque shall be rebuilt’ and the Foreign Minister responded, “That is satisfactory; I shall convey it to the leadership.” Of course, P.V. Narasimha Rao failed to keep his promise. The Iranians must have wondered, ‘Who is more devious? We or the Indians?’
A few weeks later, Ansari was transferred to New York as our Permanent Representative to the UN, a post generally held in the IFS to be second only to that of Foreign Secretary. But New York was no bed of roses. Pakistan was determined to internationalise the Kashmir issue and the Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar’s speech at the UN was ‘acerbic and had to be responded to in kind.’Throwing off his usual polite restraint, Ansari thundered, “All the waters of the East River (that flows along the UN building) cannot wash off the stains of falsehood, prejudice and perversion” that characterised Sattar’s intervention. The dispute went on in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Human Rights Council in Geneva. When a Pakistani diplomat told Ansari privately that India must accept that ‘the face of Kashmir is turned towards Pakistan than India’, Ansari responded that ‘the Kashmiris’ faces are turned towards themselves’. No assessment has proved to be more searching.
Within two years, the Ansaris were back in ‘Registan’ on an assignment in Riyadh that stretched beyond his official retirement to all of five eventful years. ‘A fresh start was sought to be made’ when Manmohan Singh, as Finance Minister, visited Saudi Arabia and was the proximate cause of the Ansaris moving from New York to Riyadh. It was Ambassador Ansari’s job to nurture that ‘fresh start’. He did so with notable success, including making Saudi Arabia the principal source of our oil supplies; looking after the growing community of Indian expatriates, the largest and best-behaved in the Kingdom, of whom the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince al-Turki, said: “It is one community about which unlike some others I have no worries”; and monitoring the Saudi transition to modernity.
He returned to India for good at the end of the previous millennium and launched a post-retirement career in researching, writing and speaking on West Asian affairs that attracted scholarly attention. Nobody knew it at the time, but his public life was only just beginning and would unfold over the next two decades, first as Vice-Chancellor of his alma mater, AMU, then as chairman of the National Minorities Commission, with short stints at the Centre for West Asian and African Studies, JNU; the Observer Research Foundation; and the Academy of Third World Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia. He also served on the National Security Advisory Board and undertook miscellaneous assignments with Pugwash and the Asia-Middle East Dialogue in Singapore; was named a member of the India-UK Round Table; and participated in an India-European Union seminar. And as Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, I asked him to chair the Advisory Group on Oil Diplomacy and Energy Security that I had set up. Moreover, he called on Prime Minster Vajpayee with a team of eminent, concerned citizens in the wake of the deplorable Godhra incident and the vicious pogrom that followed, besides chairing one of the five Working Groups on J&K established by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dealing with ‘confidence-building across segments of society’.
Out of all this hectic post-retirement work, Ansari emerged as a public intellectual of considerable renown. His academic papers, newspaper and magazine articles, and many lectures, ranged from West Asian, Iranian, Palestinian, and Afghan issues to matters nearer home regarding the condition of our minorities, the state of our constitution-based democracy and the pressures on secularism. Some of Ansari’s key observations, reflections and suggestions will be dealt with later in this account. The point to note here is that he won such recognition for erudition, balanced judgement and a firm anchoring in public morality, that seven years after he left the Foreign Service for a quiet return to his first love, academia, he found himself the choice of a cross-section of political parties for the high constitutional post of Vice-President of India and, hence, chairman of the Rajya Sabha.
I must confess to sharing the apprehension expressed by several fellow-MPs who wondered how such a cultivated, modest, gentlemanly personality could preside over a House that had deteriorated into destructive disruption, but Ansari astonished us all by taking chaos and abuse in his stride. He kept his cool, was accommodating to a fault, but decisive when it came to the crunch. And inevitably became the butt of much criticism, even derision, at the hands of the Opposition and a large swathe of the media.
Yet, he was to preside over 33 sessions of the Rajya Sabha, covering a period of ten tumultuous years that witnessed ‘two general elections and one change of government’. He tried, then gave up the attempt, to base his chairmanship on the unanimously adopted 1997 ‘Agenda for India’ resolution on the 50th anniversary of Independence when he found the Leader of the Opposition (Arun Jaitley) justifying ‘Parliamentary obstructionism’ as a tactic to prevent an issue from being ‘talked out’, while his counterpart in the Lok Sabha held that ‘not allowing Parliament to function is also a form of democracy’! Chairman Ansari’s attempt to impress on the House that it was necessary to assess ‘the impact of disruptive behaviour on public opinion’ made no impact on opinion in the House. (Here, I fear, he was wrong. The ‘public’ were so forgiving of, or even enthused by, the abandonment of all decorum that they rewarded the disrupters with victory in 2014 and an even bigger victory in 2019. Westminster traditions have remained a foreign transplant that have not taken root in our Parliamentary soil!)
In his customary end-of-session address, his acute observation that the 226th session “is likely to be remembered for the work that was not done” fell on deaf ears, as did his observation at a meeting of Rajya Sabha party leaders in April 2013:
“We have to correct our individual and collective behaviour. We have to learn to play by the rules that we have made for ourselves and restore decorum and dignity to the House.”
My most vivid memory of that period (when I too was a Member of the House) was of two TRS members who so endlessly disrupted proceedings that they were eventually rewarded by the state of Andhra Pradesh being split to create Telangana! So much for ‘individual and collective behaviour’, ‘decorum and dignity’.
When a Pakistani diplomat told Ansari privately that India must accept that ‘the face of Kashmir is turned towards Pakistan than India’, Ansari responded that ‘the Kashmiris’ faces are turned towards themselves’. No assessment has proved to be more searching
Chairman Ansari recognised this and sought various legal ways of redressing matters that no one else seemed much concerned about correcting. He brought up Article 118(1) of the Constitution, which lays on the House the responsibility of safeguarding, amending or deleting the rules that it had itself made. There were no takers. He tried to bring Zero Hour forward but while this was accepted, the consequent attempt to schedule Question Hour in the late afternoon met with resistance—because most members preferred a siesta after lunch to returning to Parliament for the afternoon discussions. He regretted the absence of members from sessions of the House little knowing that members signed the register in the lobby to collect their generous per diem allowance, then disappeared.
Ansari confesses that his attempt to name and shame those who entered the Well came as a cropper because whatever happened later, disruptors secured the satisfaction of ‘drawing attention to his/her grievance, and live TV coverage greatly assisted the impulse’. (I myself found that live TV coverage of my moving menacingly towards a Member who had accused me of being a ‘Pakistani agent’ received a thunderous ovation in my constituency because they thought my physically assaulting the man had been censored! This, alas, is how opinion in India reacts).
The one measure taken by the Chairman that secured applause from the BJP-led Opposition was his decision to not allow legislation to be put to the vote in the midst of a ‘din’. But when the BJP came to power, PM Modi actually visited Chairman Ansari in his chambers to complain that his government’s legislative agenda was being delayed because the chair was sticking to the stand it had earlier taken to enthusiastic approval from the very party that had welcomed the ruling of ‘no vote in a din’ when in Opposition but was now demanding that Bills be passed, din or no din. This is what has caused the impasse in the Farm Bills when not even a clearly sounded demand for division was not entertained by Ansari’s successor.
Another major disruption Ansari faced was over the Lokpal and Lokayukt Bills, which came up for voting on the last day of the last session of the year in 2011. The RJD was determined to not allow the vote. So, with the tacit approval of their ruling coalition allies, their MPs even rolled on the floor, let alone entering the Well of the House to stall the passage of the Bills. The Finance Minter, Pranab Mukherjee, had categorically told the Chairman that the settled practice was for Government to decide the date of commencement and date of closure of House sittings, with neither the House nor the chair having any voice in the matter. This was legally correct even if morally suspect. So, at midnight on the dot, Ansari called for the national anthem to be played and adjourned the House sine die. He came in for a lot of flak for playing by the rules but was eventually lauded when the Bills were passed in a subsequent session.
‘The Vice-Presidency,’ observes Ansari, ‘offers a formidable pulpit’ to expatiate on pressing national issues, covering ‘polity, governance, rule of law, security, human rights, religious harmony and secularism, minority issues, culture and gender issues’ besides foreign policy. This he did in over 500 public lectures over his ten years in office. He was, however, constrained by the proprieties of holding a constitutional position. So, he resorted to the device, available only to a person of his erudition, to put in the mouths of other thinkers the thoughts and reflections that were, in fact, his own. Notwithstanding this, some of his remarks landed him in public controversies and finally resulted in PM Narendra Modi criticising “your ideology” in his farewell address in the Rajya Sabha when Ansari’s decade in the chair ended. Modi was, however, right in suggesting that the end of constitutional office would enable Ansari to cast off the shackles and voice his opinions in less constrained and more assertive terms. Hence the 50 pages or so (pp.269-317) of summaries of his key set speeches while functioning as Vice-President and a similar number of pages (pp. 318-342) of his post-VP period serve as a kind of rising crescendo to his deliberations on, among numerous other issues, the place of the Muslim in contemporary India, the challenges with which the community is faced and the way forward, as well as the manner in which these challenges have changed between his seven years in office under the Congress-led UPA (2007-2014) and the last seven years, in and out of office, under the BJP-led NDA (2014-2021), a study in contrasts.
In his Jamia Millia Islamia convocation address (2015), the Vice-President built his remarks around the theme enunciated by Abid Hussain’s famous aphorism:
Insaan-e-kamil, sachcha Musalman, pucca Hindustani
(a complete human being, true Muslim and confirmed Indian)
Ansari urged that while that “settled the core of Indianness of Indian Muslims”, it was essential for Muslims to “balance the imperatives of identity” with “the ability to conduct a dialogue with fellow-citizens in a secular society” and to cope with the “ever-changing patterns of life through the Islamic concepts of Ijtihad (independent judgement on a legal or theological question based on Islamic rules of interpretation) and Maslaha (requirements of the current situation)”.
With this as his theme, he underlined that while what he delicately called ‘the events of August 1947’ had cast ‘a shadow of physical and psychological insecurity on Indian Muslims’, burdening them ‘unfairly’ with ‘the political events and compromises that resulted in the Partition’, there had been some ‘painful’ but ‘gradual recovery’ from that trauma. Yet, ‘much more needs to be done’. And, in this context, he raised the conclusions of the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee report which ‘demonstrated that on most socio-economic indicators, they (the Muslims) were on the margins of structures of political, economic and social relevance and their average condition was comparable to or even worse than the country’s acknowledged historically most backward communities, the SCs ad STs’. Therefore, the ‘pre-requisite’ for Sabka saath sabka vikas was ‘affirmative action to ensure a common starting point and an ability in all to walk at the required pace’. Reciprocally, he asked his own community to go beyond ‘looking at questions of identity and dignity in a defensive mode and explore how both can be furthered in a changing world’. This required sustained ‘struggle’ to actualise ‘in full measure their legal and constitutional rights’ and to do so ‘without being isolated from the wider community’, and adaptation to the ‘thinking and practice of a fast-changing world.’
Then, at a convocation at the Indian Law Institute a few days later, he cited former American President John Adam’s “premonition of the propensity of democracies to ‘commit suicide’” and sought “a new consensus on the imperatives of entitlement and empowerment”. This must have sounded alarm bells in the ears of those of the ruling BJP circle who understood the acuteness of his somewhat elliptical comment.
More bluntly to those who would be running the country shortly, allegedly to achieve the goals of the ‘neglected’ Sardar Patel, he began his Sardar Patel Memorial Lecture in 2012 by citing Sardar Patel, as recorded by his principal adviser, V.P. Menon, that ‘real integration has to take place in the minds of the people’. This, in turn, required, as the political scientist, Rasheeduddin Khan, had observed, ‘a congruence of diversities leading to a unity in which both the varieties and similarities are maintained.’ Even if this hint was heard by the ones to whom it was addressed, it was clearly not heeded by those whose alternative idea of India is focused on uniformity, and not diversity, leading to the unity of India.
In the very month that new challenges to the community manifested themselves with the astounding electoral victory of the BJP (May 2014), Vice-President Ansari, addressed the AMU’s annual convocation, citing, as was his wont, the poet Allama Iqbal, the historian Paul Kennedy and the sociologist Will Kymlika, and said:
“The Muslims of India, in their self-perception, prioritize their problems (as): physical security, education and employment. Each is within the ambit of affirmative action.”
Yet, it is precisely such affirmative action that those imminently coming to power had been denigrating for decades as ‘appeasement’. Ansari’s constitutional position was too delicately poised to overtly say so. Instead, after having pointed to the need for State action, he attempted to alert his student audience to their duties as the intellectual leaders of their community:
“The deadweight of tradition, poverty and communal politics has resulted in Muslim women facing handicaps relating to literacy, economic power and autonomy…The net result is a pattern of structural disempowerment. Yet, social customs are neither sacred nor immutable…practical correctives can be introduced without transgression of values.”
Ansari astonished us all by taking chaos and abuse in his stride. He kept his cool, was accommodating to a fault, but decisive when it came to the crunch. And inevitably became the butt of much criticism, even derision, at the hands of the Opposition and a large swathe of the media
As regards the imperative of the ‘assertion of identity within the framework of diversity’, he urged that this endeavour be grounded in ours being a ‘plural society, a secular polity and a state structure that is democratic and based on the Rule of Law. Plurality is thus an existential reality’ and the students must contribute to this ‘on-going national priority’ not by ‘segregation, seclusion or self-imposed isolation,’ which would be ‘un-civic’, but by going beyond ‘tolerance of the other’ and moving towards ‘those who may be different’. And, for its part, the State must ‘promote equal treatment’. It is only thus, said Ansari, for once quoting himself, that “if stars are to be plucked, they (the students) must develop the power to fly” and “raqs karna hai to phir paaon ki zanjir na dekh” (if you would be free, look not at the fetters on your feet). The audience rose as one to applaud.
I do not know whether anyone has put it better after Jawaharlal Nehru in his AMU address in January 1948 when he was invited by the students of AMU, that had been a hotbed of the campaign for Pakistan,
“as free citizens of free India to play your role in the building up of this great country and to share in common with others the triumphs and setbacks alike that may come our way. The present with all its unhappiness and misery will pass. It is the future that counts…and it is that future that belongs to you.” (Quoted at p.140)
At Jammu in April 2016, two years after the nation had experienced the new regime, Ansari, addressed the convocation bearing in mind this remark by ‘a scholar (Christophe Jaffrelot) of Indian secularism’:
“religion is most threatening to liberal democracy when it informs national identity or permeates everyday life.”
Therefore, the Vice-President, entering the last year of his term, observed that as ‘secularism and composite culture (are) two sides of the same coin’, the State would best serve the Constitution by maintaining ‘equidistance and minimum involvement’ in matters of faith. The BJP was not so inclined but lacking the requisite majority restrained itself till that majority was delivered three years later.
An opportunity to give a lecture at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University in April 2017 gave Ansari the opportunity of delivering a corrective to the saffron view of mediaeval history. He described the Qutb Shahi regime as having “detached religion from statecraft and culture from territorial boundaries”, thereby “not differentiating between Hindus and Muslims”, with “equality of opportunity” for both “for practically all the offices of state”. Thus, the period of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah was “characterised by a spirit of camaraderie” between all religious communities. Ansari posed the question, obviously with the dispensation in New Delhi in mind: Can this “tradition of tolerance, coexistence, inclusiveness and cultural effervescence continue to signal its uniqueness and remain an example for the country?” New Delhi looked the other way.
Ansari’s last public lecture as Vice-President was at the National Law School University in Bengaluru. Arguably it was his best (particularly because the ruling powers did not think it so). Basing himself on the bed-rock principle that the Constitution considers “citizenship is the sole determinant of Indianness”, Ansari regretted that “while pluralism and secularism are sought to be diluted as the core principles of the polity, a third ‘ism’—nationalism—has been grafted in an exaggerated manifestation”. This “version of nationalism” places “cultural commitments” at its “core and promotes intolerance and arrogant patriotism”, resulting in a “fragile national ego” and “hyper-nationalism” that closes the mind and is a “manifestation of insecurity about one’s place in the world”. The “alternative to it is liberal nationalism”. Modi and his cohorts were not amused.
In his post-VP incarnation, Ansari seeks, in the words of Hafiz, the legendary Persian poet:
Dar einshab-e-siyahum gum gushta rah-e-maqsood
Azgosha-e-barun aa ai Kaukab-e-hidayat
(In this dark night I have lost the desired path
O star of guidance come forth and show me the way)
Absolved of the responsibilities of constitutional office, he frankly and fiercely, but always politely, gives tongue to his many concerns: “in the short space of four years,” he said in his Fakhruddin Ahmed memorial lecture (July 2020), “India has made a very long journey. It has travelled from its founding vision of civic nationalism to a new political imagery of cultural nationalism that seems embedded in the public domain”. He fears “a subversion of core values is now underway” and we are on a path of “populism” as “a strategy to obtain and retain power… thriving on conspiracy, criminalisation of all opposition, playing up external threats” and assisted by “authoritarianism, nationalism and majoritarianism”.
He approvingly quotes A.G. Noorani as saying Hindutva “seeks to subjugate and homogenise the ethnic pluralities by establishing the cultural hegemony of an imagined cultural mainstream”, and Mujibur Rahman’s view that this is ‘premised on a strategy of denigration seeking to submerge our polity’s democratic values of diversity and inclusiveness in an alternative paradigm of exclusion and homogenisation.’ In the foreword he provides for Neera Chandhoke’s study, Rethinking Pluralism, Secularism and Tolerance, Ansari says Chandhoke makes ‘the essential point that secularism is not a stand-alone concept and is intrinsically linked to democracy since a secular deficit in a plural society results in a denial of democratic rights to equality and equal share in its benefits.’
In August 2018, delivering the Prem Bhatia memorial lecture, Ansari made the point that “religion is not politics, religiosity is not religion, and global order is premised on global interests”. Earlier, in March, at the Australian National University, he had underlined the fact that “Indian Islam has been remarkable for its identification with India, without ceasing to be Islamic.” That is why there have been so few Indian jihadis. That could change if discrimination is perceived as the leitmotif of India’s policy towards its 200-million strong minorities, a population larger than a handful of the UN membership. This the saffron brigade does not seem to understand as it caters relentlessly to its Hindutva vote-bank and stokes their prejudices, not comprehending, in Ansari’s words, that “Indian culture is not to be conceived as a static phenomenon tracing its identity to a single unchanging source; instead, it is dynamic and interrogates critically and creatively all that is new.”
That is the lasting message left by this highly informed, well-thought out and beautifully written account of nine decades as a proud Indian Muslim who has done India proud and of whom all right-minded Indians would be proud. This is the inspiring story of the journey undertaken by a ten-year old internally displaced Indian boy who took refuge in Rafi Ahmed Kidwai’s home at 6, King Edward’s Road in 1947 to re-enter the renamed 6, Maulana Azad Road home exactly 60 years later as the Vice-President of India. Read on.