There are no Role Models
By M J Akbar
(Leader Article in TOI)
Bollywood is the clearest mirror of popular perceptions, reflecting part of the truth even as it shapes other parts. Truth, after all, is a set of fragments, some contradictory, some complementary. When and how did the Indian Muslim become an indelible part of the Bollywood underworld. The arc of decline from the misty world of Nawabs in Mere Mehboob to the sentimental glitz of goons in Maqbool is a trajectory of shifting role models among Muslim youth.
Villains change on screen as necessarily as they shift outside the cinema hall. The three stereotype villains of the Fifties all belonged to upper Hindu castes. There was the violent, exploitative Thakur, whether in a classic like the Dilip Kumar-Vyjanthimala Madhumati or a potboiler like the Dharmendra-Jayalalitha Izzat. The scheming Brahmin, Narada, was a constant of mythologicals. The Bania moneylender, epitomised in Mother India , was the worst, leering at women and extracting wealth out of famine. These were not single-dimensional images: there was also the noble, patriotic, generous Thakur syndrome, for instance. Perhaps the most powerful symbol of Sholay was the armless Thakur, turned impotent in the line of duty.
Eventually, happy-go-lucky vagrants destroyed the evil Gabbar Singh. By 1976 the saviour had become a variation of the emerging audience. As befits the new corporate age, crime became more professional and sophisticated, and space between smuggling, business and politics narrowed. Gradually, the Muslim became the primary face among the foot soldiers of the underworld. A role model must merge contemporary compulsions and aspirations. The model for young Muslims in the 1940s was obviously Jinnah. They were oblivious of the traumatic potential of partition, and were charred by the killing hot winds of 1947 and the Fifties.
Nehru, rather than Gandhi (who they had rejected), became the new model as he began, gently, to restore their self-confidence and nurture some degree of security. But the security was partial, and Nehru did little to reverse the marginalisation of Muslims from the economy. The Sixties were the decade of despair. Desperation discovered a strange role model: Haji Mastan.
In the disturbed, distraught and fragmented mind of Muslim youth of the Sixties, no one else seemed to be giving Muslims any jobs. Since they had no faith in the white economy, and the white economy seemed to have no faith in them, they turned to the black economy. Haji Mastan was so impressed by the support he seemed to get from the community that he even started a political party. It did not work because crime does not work. What was the alternative? The elite had disappeared on the auction blocks of Lucknow and Hyderabad (pace Mere Mehboob); the professional middle class of the north had migrated to Pakistan in large numbers. Muslims felt deeply betrayed by Congress politicians, with their litany of double standards. The anger sharpened during the politics of Babri masjid: the Congress was responsible for everything, from the opening of the locks in 1948 to laying the foundation stone of the temple in 1989 to indifference while the mosque was destroyed in 1992.
The BJP was the perceived enemy, of course, but the BJP could not be accused of betrayal, because it had never been trusted. In this vacuum, the hysterical mullah, or his counterpart, became the role model of the Seventies and Eighties. There is little point in naming the prominent among them, for they turned irrelevant as quickly as they ascended. The demolition of Babri in 1992, the riots that followed and the bomb blasts of Mumbai in 1993, were a historical watershed. You cannot be disillusioned if you do not entertain illusions, so there was no rise in bitterness against the Congress; but there was sudden disillusionment with the Muslim purveyors of rabid rhetoric. The role model split after Babri. The overwhelming sentiment is for a new Sir Sayyid Ahmad, founder of Aligarh Muslim University, who argued that salvation lay in both English and the English, the emblems of progress and success. This is not a revival of the politics of separation; Indian Muslims know that they are the chief victims of partition. This is a revival of the culture of modern education. I have argued at every public forum, and in my writing, that this thrust will not achieve its full potential until the girl child gets an equal place in the Indian Muslim's quest for modernity.
If gender bias is not eliminated, Indian Muslims cannot enter the 20th century, let alone the 21st. The good news is that girls are being educated in far greater numbers than ever before. But there was another role model lurking in a corner of the consciousness, born out of the belief that those who started riots against Muslims were stopped only because of the 1993 blasts. The anger of the victim justified terrorism. This is a minuscule section, but it exists and has merged its fantasies with the Osama bin Laden phenomenon. This is the wart that could poison the future. It will not be eliminated by arbitrary repression; but it can disappear with the assimilation of the community into economic growth and educational opportunity.
Fifteen years after the watershed moment of 1992, Indian Muslims have reached another crossroads. The overwhelming majority will travel the road towards progress out of nothing more complicated than common sense. But there is a regressive minority within this minority. It needs as never before the leadership of a modern Sir Sayyid. History has offered a role, but there is no one capable of being model.
(Appeared in Times of India, Mumbai - 30 May 2008 )