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Delhi Talks: Nationalism reduced to hatred against minorities, lower castes, neighbouring country, says activist Syeda Saiyidain Hameed

Editor's Note:  This is the fifth in a 10-part series of interviews with well-known residents of Delhi on issues that they believe define the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Read other articles of the series here


It was a phone call that gave Syeda Saiyidain Hameed a new role and perhaps a new meaning to the cause she had relentlessly fought for: to get justice for Muslim women.

As a crusader, she had helped set up the Muslim Women’s Forum at the turn of the Millennium: it was imperative to give women a voice in matters that governed their life. She interacted with the fundamentalists on issues of polygamy, triple talaq and inheritance.

 Delhi Talks: Nationalism reduced to hatred against minorities, lower castes, neighbouring country, says activist Syeda Saiyidain Hameed

Activist Syeda Saiyidain Hameed. Image courtesy Payasam/WikimediaCommons

But little did she know that one day she would go beyond and break the shackles and walk into what was purely the domain of men.

When Naish Hasan, a friend, called her and told Syeda about her forthcoming marriage, she did not know what was coming next. It was a strange request: Naish wanted Syeda to perform her nikah, marriage. Flummoxed, Syeda did not know what to say: the idea was great and the step an inch closer to what she had strived for, for many years. Like her, Naish, too, was an activist. Therefore her request that a woman should act qazi and solemnise her marriage was not one for fun but to take forward the entire movement of bettering a lot of Muslim women. Irrespective, her acting qazi and actually performing a nikah was too much for her to digest in the first instance. But once it sank in, Syeda was both excited and apprehensive. After all her own nikah and many before and after hers were performed by men, though she was dead sure that were she to perform Naish’s, it certainly would not be the first in the Islamic world. Of course, there is no historical evidence one way or the other.

What had always troubled Syeda was the 'nikahnaama' (marriage certificate) which was often to quote Hameed “a 'kora kagaz,' (blank paper) in terms of the blandness of its content”. The one question that stared at her face was why the conditions of marriage and divorce were not specified?

Against this backdrop, Naish’s offer was a windfall. It not only gave Syeda an opportunity to tread an unchartered territory but also helped her move in the direction of drafting a pro-women nikahnaama.

But before that Syeda decided to read up the 'Qur'an' for injunctions pertaining to marriage and anything inimical to a woman performing the ceremony. When she found nothing she said yes to conducting Naish’s nikah. With that not only did she hit headlines but created history. Syeda was then Member of Planning Commission.

Vocal in flagging friendship with Pakistan, India’s errant neighbour, Syeda has been in the forefront chartering a path of peace even as guns blaze on the India-Pakistan frontier. She is among those peaceniks who goes to the Wagah border every year at midnight of 14/15 August to light candles and a carry a message of love from the people of India to the people of Pakistan.

“I grew up on the lines of the poet Allama Iqbal," says Syeda.

Sarey jahan se achha Hindostan hamara.

Hum bulbulein hain iski ye gulsitan hamara

Mazhab nahin sikhata apas mein bair rakhna

Hindi hain hum watan hai Hindostan hamara

The title of this poem was Hindustani Bachchon ka Quomi Geet. It was my favourite prayer song where we children of all faiths sang it beautifully along with prayer songs like 'Mere Prabhuvar meri tujhse ye Prarthna hai' and 'Ram naam ras pae le manva'. No one thought in terms of "Hindu gaana" "Muslim gaaana", songs of Hindus or Muslims.

“My family did suffer in the aftermath of partition yet I always saw my country India as a haven for people of all religions, castes, classes, ethnicities. Those were a child's musings in a family which was an ardent believer in the paradigm for India given by Gandhi and Nehru. My grandmother sat before the radio all night listening to Gandhiji's funeral commentary and that night no one ate in our house.

“But today, and here I quote the poet William Butler Yeats: 'All all is changed'. I, too, am living in an India I cannot recognise any more."

Using a poetic analogy, Syeda says: “In my kind of India, I want to see a million flowers of different hues bloom. I want to see poorest of the poor live a life of dignity. I want to see women free to lead their lives the way they want to. I want to see malnutrition, violence, oppression, indecency expunged from my land. In the last five years, these have become the new normal and many of the values we were taught have bitten the dust. Nehruvian ideas have been thrown in delete files and relegated to forgotten history. Successive governments have made tall promises but most of them have remained unfulfilled."

Syeda comes out in clear support of the Congress while debunking the BJP: “In the two terms of the UPA, there were some people oriented schemes like MGNREGA, NRHM and ICDS. Landmark laws like Right to Education and Right to Information were enacted as a consequence of peoples struggle over several decades. During the BJP regime, announcements for people’s welfare schemes were made with great fanfare but nothing on the ground testifies to their success. Where is the money that had been promised in every account of every poor Indian? On the contrary, demonetisation has been a killer, both physically and emotionally.

“Is this what we voted for in 2014? Certainly not. Tall promises have bitten the dust I am sitting here watching the initial phases of the election showing a diminished voter turnout. What message are the people sending to the candidates? What faith are the people depositing in the powers that are vying to rule this country of 1.3 billion peoples whose future will reveal itself in a few weeks?"

Equally, her concern for Muslims is paramount and comes across clearly: “How can I ignore the 180 million Muslims who are waiting in line: those who have been denied justice? Those who are the poorest among poor; those who were tortured and lynched on suspicion of beef and beaten to death on suspicion of cow slaughter? The police is a mute witness to mob violence. It is reduced to a force that is completely and fully compromised. Dalits are beaten to a pulp either for a cow or for daring to aspire? It is the same story everywhere, day after day.

“Violence and failure are being hidden behind a rhetoric of false nationalism. The nationalism that (Mohandas Karamchand) Gandhi talked about, which (Jawaharlal) Nehru professed, about which Maulana Azad spoke time and again has been expunged from textbooks, en route being expunged from all memory.

“New nationalism has been reduced to hatred against geographical neighbours, against fellow countrymen who profess a different religion or have sinned by birth in a lower caste. Hatred against women who dare to come out and declare their personhood is palpable everywhere.

“This is not the India that I grew up in. Certainly and most definitely not. This is not the region which we called Sare Jahan Se Accha. This again is not the India about which the same poet-philosopher had said in 1936:

“Kuchh baat hai ki hasti mit-ti nahi hamari/ Barson raha hai dushman daur e jahan hamara”

“No this is not my kind of India…neither the one I grew up in nor the one I wish to live in."

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Updated Date: May 07, 2019 12:52:50 IST