Dr. Juzar Bandukwala teaches physics at the University of Baroda in Gujarat. A well-known and widely-respected social activist and journalist, he has been in the forefront of the struggle for justice to the victims of the recent state-sponsored violence directed against the Muslims of Gujarat. In this interview he speaks to Yoginder Sikand about his work and about the situation in Gujarat today.
Prof. Bandukwala along with Dr. Ram Puniyani is the winner of Indira Gandhi National Integration award for 2006.
YS: You have been involved for many years in social activism. How did it all begin?
JB: It all started when I was in the United States, way back in 1972, when I was there for my doctoral studies. One day, I happened to go to a church, where I met a nun who told me that I could do more for my own people if I returned to my own country rather than stay on in America. That conversation changed my entire life. I destroyed my green card, and, despite the strong protests of my wife, I decided to return to India, where I joined the physics department at the University of Baroda, where I still continue to teach.
After I got back I got involved with various initiatives for social reforms among the Muslims of Gujarat. Because of my views I was even ex-communicated from the Daudi Bohra community by the Syedna, the religious head of the sect to which my family belonged. That was a major trauma for me, but in a way it strengthened my resolve to work for social reforms. It also led me to question the sharp sectarian differences that many Muslim leaders have a vested interest in maintaining. These sectarian barriers no longer held any meaning for me. Because of this the general Muslim masses in Gujarat, Sunnis as well as Shias, accepted me as theirs, and as simply a Muslim and not as a member of a particular sect.
YS: Could you describe the sort of work have you been engaged in all these years?
JB: All these years I have been aiming at promoting liberal and progressive thought among the Muslims of Gujarat. This is indispensable in today’s world. For this, modern education is a must. This should go alongside with religious education, but I think we also must address the serious question of the reform of traditional madrasa education. I have been consistently writing about this. At the height of the Shah Bano controversy I wrote an article where I said that there is something seriously wrong with us if we are forcing a poor old woman to beg the courts for maintenance rights, for a measly 125 rupees a month. Instead of haranguing that old woman, I said, we must re-examine the ways in which we understand Islam. Predictably, I faced stiff opposition for this stance from conservative Muslims.
Likewise, in the wake of the ‘Satanic Verses’ controversy I wrote a piece where I said that the fatwa to kill Rushdie was completely un-Islamic. I said that I didn’t agree at all with Rushdie’s views, but insisted that the right way to oppose the book was by offering a counter-perspective, what we Muslims believe to be the correct perspective. Ideas should be fought only at the level of ideas. Burning books and condemning authors to death is simply not the civilised way to get your point across. No sooner was this article of mine out in the press than almost all the maulvis and pirs of Baroda got together to issue a fatwa declaring that I was an ‘enemy of Islam’ and that I was no longer a Muslim! They even went to the ridiculous extent of claiming that I was secretly engaged in turning girls into prostitutes, because I have been consistently arguing for modern education for Muslim girls. My simple reply to them was that by leaving our girls ignorant and illiterate they themselves were paving the way for what they accused me of being engaged in.
When this fatwa was issued against me I really panicked. Earlier, when I had clashed with the Syedna of the Daudi Bohras I had the entire Muslim community behind me to rely on. But this time I felt I had no one! But then I got help from the most unexpected quarter, from Haji Mastan. He used to follow my writings, and was familiar with my views. He had a sort of Robinhood streak in him, although he was a don. When he heard about the fatwa against me he sent me a message saying that he wanted to meet me. He came to Baroda, where he organised a public meeting. He was very popular among many Muslims then, so a large crowd attended the meeting. He took the fatwa and read out the names of all the maulvis who had signed it and, referring to me, said to the crowd, ‘Do you know who this man is? He is a professor. He knows about the world and is concerned about the Muslims and their future’. Then, referring to the maulvis, he said, ‘Don’t you dare touch the professor. If you do so, I won’t leave you’. That single statement of Haji Mastan had a lightening impact and silenced the mullahs. It also inspired me to carry on with my efforts at promoting social reforms among the Muslims. For this purpose, in 1994 we started the Baroda Welfare Society, whose main concern was to promote educational awareness among the Muslims of Gujarat.
YS: Besides working for reforms within the Muslim community you have also been struggling against Hindutva forces in Gujarat. Could you say something about your involvement in this regard?
JB: Hindutva forces have played havoc with Gujarat, and the recent genocidal attacks on Muslims are only the latest of a series of attacks that have been occurring in Gujarat in recent decades. In 1983, I along with some friends, began a series of satyagraha protests against the Hindutvawadis, and against police harassment and torture of Muslims. In 1990 we launched a similar protest movement against the misuse of the draconian TADA law, for which I was sent to jail under the National Security Act. In the recent state-sponsored genocidal attacks on Muslims in Gujarat, my colleagues and I have been consistently raising our voices in protest. But, to be honest, today Muslims in the state are so scared that few are willingly to openly speak out against Modi or the Hindutva groups. But we have to do so. We cannot afford to be cowed down and permanently crushed. We cannot live in permanent fear. We must try and come out of this. We need to keep up the struggle against both the Hindutvawadis as well as the obscurantists among the Muslim religious leadership. We need to work from a secular, not religious or communal, platform, and we must include secular Hindus as well in our work. This is what I’ve been trying to do as a member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. Our fight is not against Hinduism as a religion, but against Hindutva, which is a fascist ideology.
YS: Have you received any support from any Gujarati Hindu religious leaders for your efforts to promote communal harmony and bring justice to the victims of the violence in the state?
JB: One thing that has really hurt me is that no major Gujarati religious leader openly expressed sorrow for what happened, except perhaps for Morari Bapu. I think anyone’s claim to be religious, be he a Hindu or a Muslim, is completely meaningless if one lacks any sensitivity to the plight of innocent people. What is the use of talking about peace and harmony, like many people who claim to be religious leaders do, when at the time when you must protest against oppression you choose to keep silent? How can you explain the silence of the Jain munis of Gujarat, who refrain from killing insects but said nothing in public when babies in mothers’ stomachs were being ripped out? Many Gandhians in Gujarat also preferred to keep mum when Muslims were being butchered. If they had spoken out during the violence the lives of many innocent people could have been saved. You cannot be neutral and sit back and watch when people are being massacred before your eyes. But in Gujarat, indirectly and otherwise, many Hindu religious leaders actually encouraged the rioters. In some cases, Hindu religious leaders were involved in distributing trishuls to Hindus. Muslims in Gujarat feel despondent because so few Hindus have had the courage to speak out against the atrocities and killings. The Germans have apologised for the killings of the Jews, and Japan has asked for forgiveness for killing the Chinese, but I do not see many Gujarati Hindus remorseful for what has happened with the Muslims of the state. Instead many Gujarati Hindus would still insist that the Muslims ‘deserved’ it.
But here let me add that one has to see the issue in a wider perspective. What I have said about the majority of the Hindu leaders in Gujarat is also true for Muslim religious leaders elsewhere, for when non-Muslims are killed in Muslim majority countries, few Muslim maulvis protest against this brutality. How can people who kill innocents in the name of Islam be considered true Muslims, when the Qur’an itself says that to kill a single innocent human is like slaughtering the whole of humanity? The killing of innocents, no matter what their religion, should be treated as a human issue, not as a communal one.
YS: In the aftermath of the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, do you see any new sort of leadership emerging among the Muslims in the state?
JB: The violence, which was unprecedented in its brutality and scale, certainly has left a major scar in most Muslims’ minds. I think that as a result of the violence there is a growing realisation that Muslims have to depend on themselves to protect their lives and their interests, and this, in turn, means that they must give far greater attention to modern education and to social reforms, particularly women’s rights. I am not at all suggesting that they should give up their concern with their religion. After all, I am a believing Muslim myself. But my point is that we need to move away from this stultifying obsession with burkhas and beards, because what counts in Islam is piety, the actual state of your heart and mind. But in any case, I must say that now even some maulvis have started supporting our case for modern education.
But this change is as yet not very significant, and the Muslim religious establishment as a whole remains quite immune to the demands of modernity in several crucial respects. Take the case of south Gujarat, where there are almost two dozen massive madrasas, each similar to a university, producing hundreds of maulvis every year. There is not a single Muslim college in the area, however! This shows how modern education has been neglected by Muslim leaders. Where will all the maulvis that these madrasas are producing be absorbed? There are simply not enough jobs for all of them to be gainfully employed. We have been pleading for combining the madrasas with modern schools, but there is stiff opposition to this on the part of many maulvis.
I think that in Gujarat, in the rest of the country and internationally as well, a major issue that we must deal with is the inability of many Muslims to modernise and to adjust comfortably to a situation of religious pluralism. We must engage in deep introspection, and critique our own selves, find out and rectify our own faults, without ignoring, of course, various external factors.
YS: Dalits and Tribals were used by Hindutva forces on a major scale in the recent anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat. How do you look at the issue of Dalit-Muslim relations in Gujarat today?
JB: The Hindutvawadis want to turn Muslims into the new ‘Untouchables’, and for this they are using Dalits and Tribals, also victims of Hindutva oppression, against us. And this tactic has been adopted not only in Gujarat, but elsewhere too. The problem is that the elites among the Dalits desperately want to pass off as ‘Hindus’ and crave to be accepted by the ‘upper’ caste Hindus, which explains, in part, how and why they have been willing to be used to attack and kill Muslims on a massive scale. This is also reflected in the fact that now some Dalits even practice untouchability vis-à-vis Muslims, seeking, thereby, to pass off as ‘super-Brahmins’. But of course this cannot serve the interests of the Dalit masses in the long run, because they are victims of the caste system, which the Hindutvawadis want to preserve and reinforce. Elite Dalits want to deny their Dalit roots and pass off as ‘Hindus’, but because of this they cannot work for the interests of their own people.