Growing up in a Sectarian City: Painful Memories of a Muslim Journalist

City on Fire: A Boyhood in Aligarh
Author: Zeyad Mansoor Khan
Publisher Harper Collins, India,
Pages 297. Hardback
Price: £19.99

Reviewed by M Ghazali Khan

India’s Hindutva (Hindu supremacist) Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has won a third term in office, albeit with a weakened position. As had become almost clear before the elections, his dream of is baar chaarso par (this time around more than 400 seats) in the 543-seat lower house of parliament (Lok Sabha), and changing the secular character of the constitution, as promised by his partymen to their constituents, was shattered even in a constituency like Ayodhya, the town that housed the historic Babri Mosque on whose site a so-called Rama Temple has been constructed. Modi projected the construction of the temple as one of the most shining examples of his accomplishments.

He started his campaign with the confidence of winning an absolute majority, but as polling day approached, he became increasingly desperate, visibly shaken by the intelligence reports he was receiving. The closer polling day got, the more desperate and agitated he became, leaving no stone unturned in trying to fully exploit his old and tested weapon of intensifying anti-Muslim hatred to garner Hindu votes. Fortunately, this time around, instead of 400 seats, his party could only muster 240 seats in parliament. To fulfil his dream of remaining India’s Prime Minister, he had to seek the help of two regional parties: the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)). How long this marriage of convenience will last remains to be seen.

Notwithstanding some of his speeches in which he has tried to project himself as a statesman who cares for every citizen in the country, during his two terms in office, Modi has come up as one of the most arrogant and uncouth Prime Ministers not only in India but the world over. During his previous two terms, he has changed the political spectrum to such an extent that even if his party members who died in the ‘80s were to come back, they would refuse to believe that this is the same India that they had left behind.

However, to be fair to Modi, he only irrigated and fertilised the crop prepared, discreetly though, by the Congress during its rule since 15 August 1947 and gradually taken over by the BJP, especially during the ‘90s.

City on Fire, by Zeyad Mansoor Khan, is a memoir in which he describes the hateful environment Muslims have had to endure in post-Babri Mosque demolition (6 December 1992) India. Although mainly based in Aligarh, and a bit in Delhi, this frank, outspoken, and gripping memoir should serve as an alert on what disillusionment, hopelessness, and continuous persecution of over two hundred million Muslims, especially the youths, can lead to.

Faced with Islamophobic taunts in the suffocating sectarian environment of Aligarh, Zeyad was attracted to Tablighi Jamaat, which gave him ‘a sense of camaraderie, community, and purpose’ (page 124).

Outside the mosque, the environment was too Islamophobic where ‘Hindus and Muslims disliked and distrusted each other with a passion that reminded one of blazing forest fires. “You, the descendant of Shah Jamal, why don’t you offer namaz [prayer] in Pakistan?” they called out from their shops as we went to Friday prayers. Even politicians in Aligarh have publicly asked Muslims to ‘go to Pakistan.’” (Page 13) He describes the life in Aligarh says he, ‘Riots were an inseparable part of our lives.’ (Page 14).

In school, students got along well with each other, yet they did not hesitate to exchange ‘religiously charged jokes at each other and threaten to raid each other’s homes during the next riots.’ (Page 138)

In such an atmosphere, by devoting more and more time to Tablighi Jamaat, says Zeyad, ‘I was the one escaping from the world, seeking sanctuary inside the mosque, a boy for whom nothing mattered except his religious identity. Anyone, including my own father, who disagreed, was a sinner and an obstacle to a larger goal. He is a selfish person who cares only for himself and not for the community. These are the Muslims who make us weak, I thought.’ (Page 128).

Despite his father’s strong disapproval, young Zeyad continued attending Tablighi Jamaat and started giving sermons. ‘The first time I stood up on the podium at the mosque, it gave me a feeling of power like never before. I could see people listening to me with respect in their eyes. In school, I was seen as a ruffian who was alienated for who he was, but here at the mosque, I was seen as a role model to be emulated.’ (Page 130).

Bear in mind that Tablighi Jamaat is an organisation in which there is no official membership. Any Muslim can join it without applying to anyone, and they can leave it anytime without notice. It is a peaceful organisation with a full focus on making Muslims spiritually strong by making them punctual in prayer and fasting. They only focus on improving the outcome of one’s deeds in the hereafter. Or, as the Tablighis themselves describe the organisation, they only talk about matters above the skies or under the earth, i.e., rewards or punishment in the grave and on the day of judgement.

Yet a young man was unable to hold back the anger building up in him. Zeyad was turning into a rebel, and to show his Muslimness, instead of saying good morning, he greeted the Christian headteacher of his Christian school by saying Assalamu Alaykum. The teacher, Father Dennis D’Souza, disciplined Zeyad by ‘holding my long brown hair with his other hand; he dragged me out of the queue. If I hadn’t been so terrified, I would have complimented him on his phenomenal strength. For the next five minutes, he kept slapping me as hard as he could until my face was red with the imprint of his fingers.’ But instead of disciplining and reforming the young lad, if this is what the fanatical headteacher wanted, it toughened Zeyad even more, to the extent that he defended Osama bin Laden in a class discussion. However, he was baited into doing so by his teacher. (Page 118).

While reading the book, from a bit of depression to smiles, one goes through various feelings, but any conscientious person would be particularly perturbed by the thought of what would have happened to this  young man—and what may happen to several disgruntled young men who are having to endure similar tests every day in India—if he had come into contact with a sinister group. Fortunately, India is still free from the curse of such groups.

After his schooling, Zeyad joins Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). But interestingly, in contrast to the image created by India’s ‘godi media’ of this great institution, instead of becoming a hardcore fundamentalist or a radical, he becomes a liberal. After his BA, he goes to another Muslim institution, Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), Delhi, with a similar historical background and similar image, and here his liberal thinking becomes even stronger.

After completing his master’s in mass communication, Zeyad joins Reuters and later Vice and goes to live in a Hindu-dominated area where he and his other Muslim friends find it difficult to find accommodation. They are accepted by a landlord because of the Hinduness of their co-tenant. If some Muslims ever told Zeyad of the possible dangers of living in a Hindu area, he would reply: ‘Delhi is beyond riots and communal tensions.’

But one day, as he leaves home to go to work, a neighbour greets him and asks his name. The moment the seemingly friendly neighbour finds out that Zeyad is a Muslim, ‘Suddenly, his smile disappeared, replaced by a frown, disgust reigning on his face.’ He asks, ‘Khan? Are you a Mohammedan?’ He goes on: ‘You have now lost all my respect. Everything else about you is fine except your name… You people create trouble wherever you go… We don’t want Muslims living here.’

This was not a one-off incident. He had more shocks in the offing. One day when he was at work, the son of his father’s eldest brother, who had migrated to Pakistan years ago, found him on Facebook and called him on the Messenger app. So, he went out to talk to him about their extended family. When he went back, his colleagues asked him which girl he had been talking to for so long. But upon being told that he was talking to his cousin in Pakistan, ‘The expression on their faces changed dramatically. “Pakistan?” they said cautiously. It was as if I had committed a crime.’ (Page 249). This experience of Zeyad reminds one of the experiences of celebrated Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder at the Illustrated Weekly of India during the Indo-Pak war in 1971.

The attitude of Indian journalists towards the Shaheen Bagh protest (December 15, 2019– March 24, 2020) and its coverage made him disillusioned with journalism, prompting him to quit his job and return to Aligarh to write this book. ‘Most Hindus, even the progressive ones, had a binary perception of Muslims.’ He writes, ‘One is a fundamentalist, patriarchal figure, donning a skullcap, eager to blow themselves up for Islam; the other is an exotic, modern individual, relishing biryanis and indulging in Urdu poetry. In Aligarh, I was the former while, in Delhi, I personified the latter. Subconsciously, I had also begun presenting myself as the latter, striving to earn acceptance from my liberal friends.’ (Page 250)

Zeyad devotes a full chapter to his time spent at AMU and also summarizes the history of this great institution. However, he would have better served his alma mater and many of his readers by providing more information about the participation of AMU alumni in the freedom struggle. “Its alumni include two vice-presidents of India, cabinet ministers, ten state chief ministers, dozens of top Muslim politicians, supreme court judges, journalists, writers, poets, actors, and historians.

It is the only Indian university whose alumni became heads of state in four countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Maldives,” he writes. However, while talking about AMU’s notable alumni, a few sentences about Hasrat Mohani, who published Urdu-e-Molla and was imprisoned for this crime in Aligarh, would have been a tribute to the sacrifices of a selfless poet and fighter whose contributions are hardly acknowledged and known to very few. The same is true about the Ali brothers. As an example of the impact of this great institution in the Indian subcontinent, he should also have mentioned that two of its alumni, Dr Zakir Hussain (1897-1969) and Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan (1907-1974), were Presidents of India and Pakistan in the same year, 1969.

The writer also briefly addresses corruption among some of the teachers at AMU and the exploitation of students by them, something shocking and unthinkable for many of its old students. With the passage of time, everything changes, and AMU can’t be an exception. However, it is also a fact that many of the ailments that this great institution is suffering from are the result of its losing all-India character due to the domination of students and staff from UP and Bihar.

The new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Naima Khatoon, would do a great service to her alma mater and the community by adopting admission policies similar to those implemented by Jamia Millia Islamia during Professor Mushirul Hasan’s tenure, following the restoration of Jamia’s minority character. AMU has seen many Vice-Chancellors come and go, but only those who served this institution with sincerity, commitment and missionary zeal are remembered with respect. Professor Khatoon would do herself and her alma mater a great favour by undoing the damage done by her predecessor. She has already made history by being appointed as the first woman Vice-Chancellor of AMU. Now, she must decide whether she wants to join the ranks of legends like Sir Ziauddin Ahmad, Badruddin Faiz Tyabji, and Dr Zakir Husain, remembered with respect and admiration even several years after their deaths, or be counted among those like Ali Yavar Jung and Dr Tariq Mansoor.

Zeyad provides a detailed account of Aligarh’s demography, the history of its various streets and lanes, and talks about its famous historic Jama Masjid. He would have done his readers a favour by mentioning that the Imam of Jama Masjid, Maulana Abdul Jalil, led a battalion of revolutionaries in the 1857 anti-British uprising and was martyred along with 75 of his soldiers, all of whom are buried inside the Jama Masjid.

Zeyad was in school when he decided, ‘I wanted to be a journalist—somebody who would change people’s perceptions of Muslims and write about people that nobody wrote about,’ says Zeyad (Page 134). There is no doubt that he has done it wonderfully. With the courage displayed recently in their books by educated Muslims like Zeyad Masroor Khan, Ziya Us Salam, Ghazala Wahab, and Hilal Ahmad, the perception of Muslims will also change, InshaAllah. Anyone who wants to know what is happening to Muslims in India must read this book.

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