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Mainstream, VOL LV No 15 New Delhi April 1, 2017

In Memory of my Friend Syed Shahabuddin

Sunday 2 April 2017, by Muchkund Dubey


Syed Shahbuddin’s demise on March 4, 2017 came as a great personal loss to me. My association with Shahab, as I affectionately called him, dates back to our year of matriculation from the Patna University in 1950. After that, he joined the Science College and myself the adjacent Patna College of the university. Both of us completed our post-graduate studies the same year in 1956, he with Physics and myself with Economics, from the Patna University. After taking our Master’s degree, both of us joined the Indian Foreign Service. Shahab fell behind by a year because he could not take the competitive exam in 1956 as he was not qualified to do so on account of being only 20 years old.

Mainly because of our participation in the agitation against the Patna police firing on students in August 1955, when Dinanath Pandey, a student of the sister B.N. College, was killed, both of us faced difficulties in getting police clearance for entering into the Service. I got my name cleared after having a meeting with the then Home Minister, Pandit Gobind Ballav Pant, facilitated by Shri Anugrah Narain Singh, the then Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar. Shahab faced much greater difficulties in getting the clearance because apart from participation in the student agitation, false allegations relating to his links with the Communist Party of India and frequent visits to Pakistan, were entered in the police report. Shahab found his own way of getting the police clearance which came after a personal intervention by the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The story going round those days was that Panditji recorded on Shahbuddin’s file that his student day activities were not politically motivated but “merely an expression of youthful exuberance“.

During our student life, we came really close to each other at the time of the Patna police firing. On the occasion of the supplementary exams in the university, a State Transport bus, which was carrying a few students to B.N. College for taking the exam, did not stop at the stand in front of the college and was driven direct to the last stop at the bus terminal. When the students in the bus protested against this, they were severely beaten up. Very soon the rumour spread like wildfire that one of the students had been beaten to death. This brought thousands of students in front of the B.N. College and they staged a mass agitation against the conduct of the bus driver. In an attempt to control the mob, the police resorted to firing killing the B.N. College student.

Shahab emerged as an undisputed leader of this agitation. Soon, was set up an Action Committee, of which I also was a member, and that gave a call for a judicial inquiry into the incident and obliged the State Government to set up a single-person Commission headed by a sitting judge of the Patna High Court, Justice Das. The Commission in its verdict pronounced that the police action “exceeded all the limits of justifiable firing”. But the matter did not end there. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru paid a visit to Patna at the peak of the agitation and, when on the spot, fully supported the stand taken by the State Govern-ment. Jayaprakash Narayan described the stand taken by Pandit Nehru as “a command performance”. Shahab and other leaders of the Action Committee took out a procession of 20,000 students from the university area to the airport to greet Jawaharlal Nehru with black flags and present their demands before him.

In the ensuing Assembly elections, the powerful Transport Minister of Bihar, Mahesh Prasad Singh, who was very close to the then Chief Minister, Shri Krishna Singh, and was groomed by the latter as his successor, was contesting from his home constituency of Muzaffarpur. As students regarded him culpable for the firing, they wanted to cross over to Muzaffarpur in large numbers and canvas against him and in favour of Mahamaya Prasad Singh, a socialist leader known for his honesty and integrity. A meeting was held in the lawns of the Science College to discuss whether the students should continue their agitation and extend it to the election campaign. I expressed the view that since the Judicial Inquiry Commission had given its verdict, the students should discontinue their movement and go back to their studies, but Shahab was in favour of continuing the agitation. With his powerful oratory in Urdu, he swayed the gathering towards his view. It was decided to continue the agitation. Patna University students in hundreds crossed over the Ganga to Muzaffarpur and campaigned against the Transport Minister. Eventually Mahamaya Prasad Singh was elected from the constituency.

The 1955 Patna firing incident can be regarded as a watershed in Bihar politics. It was perhaps for the first time that Bihar students defied Nehru’s position by an overwhelming majority. This was also for the first time that the judiciary gave a clear-cut verdict against the government in the case of a police firing on students in independent India, resulting in the death of a student. It will not be an exaggeration to suggest that this agitation marked the beginning of a change from Congress-led governments towards the formation of governments led by non-Congress coalitions in North India.

Another interesting development in the university which brought both Shahab and myself to active student politics was our successful agitation for setting up a students union of the university and our election to the steering committee formed to draft the constitution of the union. Both of us were elected to the steering committee by a comfortable majority and were elected as Secretaries of the committee. I got elected from the platform of the Youth Socialist League, the student wing of the JP Socialist Party, and Shahab from the All India Students Federation, the student wing of the Communist Party of India. Shahab, according to his published account, never became a member of the Communist Party of India; he only used their platform to contest the election. This was not uncommon in those days because student wings of major political parties looked for bright students to lead them and made their platform available for that purpose. During the period before India’s independence and several years after independence, most of the prominent student leaders were also very bright students.

The Indian Foreign Service is full of talents. Shahab was among the exceptionally talented of this lot. He was the topper in the matriculation examination at the Patna University in 1950 when it incorporated schools from the entire State of Bihar and Nepal. He was also the university topper in the Intermediate Science (IS) exam. It was in the thick of the students agitation in 1956 when he took his M.Sc Physics exam. In spite of this, he topped that examination with record marks in the university. The story goes that since because of his involvement in students politics, he was ignoring his physics practical work, his professor used to lock him from outside in the college science laboratory so that he could spend at least some time for the practicals. He passed his M.A. (First Part) Law exam with the first position in the university in the same year as he did his M.Sc. (Physics). Subsequently he took M.A. (Second Part) law exam and stood first in that also. He was extraordinarily gifted with skills in languages. He was a brilliant debater and public speaker in both English and Urdu and had superb drafting skills in these languages. He was deeply grounded in Islamic theology and was very widely read in Urdu poetry. In fact, he introduced me to some of the very talented Urdu poets from Bihar about whom I knew very little. He stood second in the entire country in the batch which passed the all India competitive exam in 1958, wherein he secured 350 out of 400 marks in the interview. He was, thus, one of the most talented Indians of that generation.

It was, therefore, not surprising that he was not satisfied with what he was doing in the Indian Foreign Service. He wanted to fly out to wider horizons and explore larger spaces for the deployment of his genius. It is this impulse that led him to politics, not the patronage or persuasion of a political leader of high stature nor out of frustration in the Foreign Service. I had seen his resignation letter from the Indian Foreign Service before it was widely circulated. One of the sentences in the letter read: “While I still have fire left in my soul and strength in my shoulders, I would like to do something for the country and its people which can be done best by joining the public life.” Atal Behari Vajpayee, of course, helped him in his political career by persuading the Janata Dal leaders to nominate him against the Rajya Sabha post from Bihar that fell vacant a few months after his resignation. But there is no doubt that when Shahab left the Foreign Service, he had no offers in his pocket nor any promised for the near future. He was, therefore, obliged to enter the legal profession from the Patna High Court Bar, and here his degree in Law came in very handy. Within weeks, he established a practice which brought him enough remuneration to be able to lead his spartan life with his family in Patna.

I have reasons to believe that if before his resignation Shahab would have been offered a really important ambassadorial assignment which would have brought his full talent into play, such as the post of a Head of Mission in a neighbouring country, he might have decided to stay on in the Service. This, however, did not happen because our Service does not go strictly by merit in taking a decision on postings as Heads of Mission. Other factors such as seniority, the general perception about the officer’s overall conduct, attitude, belief and temperament also comes into play.

Shahab built a solid reputation as a competent, hard working and talented officer during the 20 years of his tenure in the Indian Foreign Service. It was in recognition of this that when the government decided to open a new mission in Venezuela, Shahab was entrusted with this responsibility in the capacity of Charge d’Affaires, as he was still not senior enough at that time to become an ambassador. As our Charge d’Affaires in Venezuela, Shahab did a remarkable job in that country and adjoining countries of Latin America for garnering support in favour of the creation of Bangladesh. Thrice he got resolutions in support of the formation of Bangladesh passed by the Venezuelan Parliament. He got the support of the Catholic Church there for this cause. His work for the cause of Bangladesh was appreciated in writing by the Ministry of External Affairs. When he was leaving Venezuela in 1972, the only English newspaper there, The Daily Journal, wrote an editorial terming him as a “one-man General Staff for Bangladesh” and “Honorary Ambassador for Bangladesh”.

The Bangladesh Government approached me informally when they were recently preparing a list of Indians to be honoured by them for their contribution to the liberation of Bangladesh. While recommending Shahab’s name, vide my letter dated August 13, 2013, to the then Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, I profiled him as “one of the most prominent intellectual and political figures in the country and an outstanding voice of the Muslims in India”. The Bangladesh Government accepted my recommendation and conferred the Scroll of Honour on Shahab. Unfortunately, his health did not permit him to travel to Dhaka to receive the Scroll which was delivered to him at his residence in Delhi.

Shahab was our Ambassador in Algiers where he served the nation’s interest with great distinction. He joined the Ministry on his transfer from Algiers and in different positions he held there before his resignation, he left the imprint of his fairness, objectivity, independence of thinking and sheer brilliance.

 I am not going to dwell at any length upon Shahab’s political career. Most of it is well known and in the public domain. There is also a lot of controversy surrounding it. A number of questions have been raised. How did a firebrand Leftist decide to become the champion of religious orthodoxy? Why did Shahbuddin decide to concentrate on the welfare of the Muslim minority and not all the marginalised and disadvantaged sections of the Indian population? Could he not have served the Muslim cause better without identifying himself with what many regard as the obscurantist practices of Islam?

Many of us noticed a dramatic turn in Shahab’s objectives and pursuits in life a few years after his election to the Lok Sabha from the Kishanganj constituency. It was then that he decided to devote most of his time to rendering political, legal and humanitarian services to the Muslim community of India. In the beginning, we thought that Shahab was doing it mainly in order to nurture his constituency which was dominated by Muslim voters. But soon it became apparent that this was out of a deep belief and firmly rooted conviction. Without altogether giving up his wider interests, he decided to serve the nation mainly through his work for the welfare and empowerment of the Muslim community. There was nothing wrong about it. This is what is normally expected from a Muslim leader. What Shahab did for the Muslim community compli-mented his nationalism rather than contradicting it. If Muslim leaders of Shahab’s calibre and talent do not serve the Muslim community, who else will do it? There is ample evidence to show that Shahab was widely accepted as a natural leader of the community. Otherwise, a parachuter from the Indian Foreign Service would not have played the role that Shahab did in Muslim politics.

He was unanimously accepted as a leader in the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee, elected a Member of the Muslim Personal Law Board and served as the President of All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat. Muslims coming from different parts of India and residing in Delhi thronged in large numbers to his funeral and in the prayer meeting held in his honour thereafter.

Besides, the minority communities in India, particularly the Muslim community, have been neglected over such a long period and in such wanton and calculated ways that serving their cause as Shahab did is truly serving the nation. If even a handful of Hindu leaders would have devoted their life to serving the cause of the Muslims, India would not have come to the pass where it finds itself today and would in fact have been a different nation.

Did the Muslims really benefit from Shahab’s leadership? I cannot think of any Muslim leader recently who has rendered as great and varied services to the Muslim community as Shahab has done. He took up almost all their causes from their share in the Indian economy to the extent of their political participation, from education and health to problems relating to Haj, and pursued them by marshalling solid facts and arguments and taking advantage of every platform and opportunity that was available to him. The most remarkable testimony of this was the extensively researched, well-documented and brilliantly written and compiled magazine, Muslim India, that he brought out. The collected volumes of this magazine will remain, for years to come, the most important source of research on issues surrounding the Muslim community. I remember an occasion when he told me that he would like to be remembered as the Editor of Muslim India rather than as an ex-diplomat or ex-MP.

It should not go unmentioned that in spite of his single-minded devotion to the cause of the Muslim community, Shahab throughout his life remained alert to and actively engaged in different national and international issues. There are very few in the Indian Foreign Service who have as deep and wide a knowledge of developments in world politics and world order issues as Shahab had.

A former Foreign Secretary, Prof Muchkund Dubey is currently the President, Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

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