Saturday, Sep 24, 2022

A different kind of secularist

Mujeeb Rizvi was a scholar-teacher who fought the pundits and the bigots

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Professor Mujeeb Rizvi, Communist Party, hindi poetry, hindu muslim, nationalist politics, pre-independence era, india news, nation news, new Mujeeb Rizvi (1934-2015)

The passing away of Professor Mujeeb Rizvi brings alive an old cliché that it is the passing of an era. His personal and intellectual biography represents the journey of a nation from its inception to its somewhat fraught maturity. Born and educated at Allahabad, the crucible of nationalist politics in the pre-independence era, he went on to study at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) before founding the Hindi department at Jamia Millia Islamia, where he remained the presiding head for nearly 30 years. His subject of study was medieval ‘Hindi’ poetry, a field dominated by pundits, literally and metaphorically. His disputations with punditry of all sorts, Hindu-Muslim, Urdu-Hindi, reflect an ethos and an era that seems quite incredible from the vantage point of our more bigoted times.

Born in the Chail region of Allahabad, which was famous for Syeds as well as police officers, he came to study at Allahabad in the 1940s, when independence and partition were around the corner. After finishing high school and intermediate there, he joined the famous university of the town a few years after independence. He was lucky enough to witness a university at the peak of its glory where the modern discipline of Indian history was being formed by pioneers such as Tarachand, Noorul Hasan and Satish Chandra.

It was while at university that he came under the influence and mentorship of the famous Gandhian, Pandit Sunderlal. He spent many years as his political and spiritual disciple. Rizvi joined Sunderlal’s peace mission to Telangana soon after the communist uprising of 1948, and a mission to China. Besides being a politician, Sunderlal was also a scholar. His two-volume tome, Bharat Mein Angrezi Raj, a blistering attack on British rule in India, had been banned by colonial authorities. He also wrote a succint polemic called How India Lost Her Freedom. The scholarship of these books is second to no historian of the period, but in addition they are informed by a moral indignation which parallels other anti-colonial polemicists like Frantz Fanon and C.L.R. James. Like Mahatma Gandhi and Sunderlal, all his life Rizvi struggled against the burden of ‘angreziyat without the angrez’ , which was to become the fate of independent India.

Sunderlal was against both Persianised Urdu and Sanskritised Hindi and argued in favor of a simpler Hindustani, a la Gandhi, but sadly Hindustani lost out to Hindi by one vote in the Constituent Assembly. Soon after, Rizvi had an encounter with Purshottam Das Tandon, the right-wing Congress leader of UP who taunted him as to why Muslims do not study Hindi. Smarting at the taunt and desirous of bringing his political and personal life closer, Rizvi then went on to study Hindi at the AMU. At that time the university was reeling under the impact of Partition. Widely seen as the crucible for Pakistan, the stigma against the university was strong. It had lost most of its teaching staff as well as a majority of its students after 1947. The Muslim students who remained were strongly pro Muslim League. In tow with the student wing of the Communist party, of which he was never a formal member, Rizvi and his friends fought bitter ideological wars, academically and politically, with right-wing elements of both communities. Afterwards, he joined Jamia in Delhi.

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Jamia Millia Islamia was a highly important experiment in nationalist education. Founded in 1920 at the peak of the Khilafat-Non Cooperation Movement, Jamia set itself up against the crony and separatist politics of Aligarh. Inspired by Gandhi and following his ideas on Basic Education, Jamia already had a sterling record as a secular and nationalist education centre by the time Rizvi joined. It demanded of its teachers more than educational instruction. It asked them to be role models of service, for the students as well as the community around. Jamia’s famous adult education program, with outreach extending to several villages in that corner of South Delhi, remains distinguished in the country. Teachers and students ate from the same mess, lived simply and practised ideas of education that extended beyond class room teaching. Its famous vice chancellors, Zakir Husain and Sheikh Mujeeb to name a few, and teachers, articulated an academic, emotional and theological space for the Nationalist Muslims, across the country, who badly needed this succor after the dark days of Partition.

For his PhD, Rizvi chose the apt theme of Jayasi’s Padmavat, a 16th century poetic epic, in a genre called sufi premakhyans. For nearly five centuries, sufis of North India had created epic poetic works which, while ostensibly replete with Hindu religious terminology and deeply influenced by Sanskrit erotic conventions, depicted the internal spiritual journey of a sufi. These poets extensively translated passages from the Quran and from Persian masters to create a language and a discourse without which the great Bhakti poets such as Tulsi or Kabir may not have existed. Some of these works were even recited from mosques in medieval India. Rizvi’s distinctive contributions to this field, including the wider world of Bhakti poetry, was to show their great debt to Persian, in vocabulary and in choice of themes. This is something that famous Indologists such as George Grierson as well as Hindi scholars, mostly Brahmins, who dominated this field of study had completely missed out leading to erroneous conclusions.

Rizvi was a dedicated teacher who preferred to spend time with his students rather than to produce research papers to advance his academic career. The list of people who benefited from his discourses cuts through many fields. Historians such as Shahid Amin, Muzaffar Alam and Aditya Behl, Hindi writers such as Asghar Wajahat and Abdul Bismillah are only a few names of the thousands who benefitted from his learning and affection. Through the nearly 50 years he spent in and around Jamia, he spent the longest fighting ‘the Mullahs’. One of his favorite statements was to wonder why “God only spoke in Arabic to the Mullahs”. And he did this from within the largely Muslim dominated landscape of Jamia, the university as well as the locality. Yet, Rizvi’s secularism was not hollow of religion. He found his secularism from deep within the practice of religion in this country, from figures such as the Gujarati saint Mahamati Prannath, who wanted to teach Aurangzeb the Quran!


Since the time off Gandhi, intellectuals in India have come in broadly two forms, desi and vilayati, English educated though they may all be. The desi ones know that all wisdom does not come from the West. Rizvi was a desiintellectual par excellence. Of all scholars and activists I have seen, perhaps thanks to his early training, I found Rizvi occuping the most unique position. He was a Gandhian as well as a leftist, a secularist as well as profoundly versed in religion, an agnostic who was truly spiritual and a sufi who put humour before seriousness. A scholar who put praxis before pedantry, a devotee without any sectarianism, he embodied a true sense of karuna. Not for him the humbug of seminars, publications, conferences and self promotion. He sat in his place, engaged with the world, in it yet not of it. He imparted affective, not bookish knowledge. He represented a generation of intellectuals, secular Muslim nationalists, who occupied the most precarious position in this nation, then and now, and, perhaps, because of it came to stand for the best and the most exemplary that modern India has to offer. We have lost an irreplaceable scholar of medieval India. But more than that we have lost a life and a man, of modern India, that we may soon not know how to mourn.

Baatein Hamari Yaad Rahein Ab Baatein Na Aisi Suniyega/ Parhte Kisi ko Suniyega to Der Talak Sar Dhuniyega (Remember our talk, for you will not hear it again/ You will hit your head for long when you hear it recited)

The writer, the son-in-law of Rizvi, is a Delhi-based dastango

First published on: 05-11-2020 at 12:27:07 am
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