Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre: The fearless Muslim

Feb 26, 2017, 01:31 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre

Four decades after his death, Hamid Dalwai's essays on Muslim politics in India are being reprinted as one of the few texts that show how a secularist can address orthodoxy without worrying about political correctness

Hamid Dalwai (right) shares a light moment with Islamic scholar A A A Fyzee. Left below: Mehrunnisa Dalwai. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Hamid Dalwai (right) shares a light moment with Islamic scholar A A A Fyzee. Left below: Mehrunnisa Dalwai. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

Social reformer-writer and Samyutka Socialist Party activist Hamid Umar Dalwai (1932-1977) was clean-shaven on principle. He felt beards were community emblems for Muslims, much like the caste-markers flaunted by some Hindus in a 'secular' society. At one of his public rallies in Solapur, he shared his aversion for token Muslim beards and added, in jest, that if he were in power he would compel all Muslims to shave off their beards.

Dalwai's humour was not appreciated by the audience and a senior cleric retorted: "We had been told that our friend Hamid Dalwai was a learned man from Bombay, but we discovered that he was a self-championing barber." Dalwai roared with his trademark laughter as he narrated the instance to late poet-critic Dilip Chitre in an interview that became the epilogue (titled 'Angry Young Secularist') in an anthology of essays, Muslim Politics in India (1968), whose Marathi version (Bharatatil Muslim Rajkaran; Sadhana Prakashan) hit the stands recently, coinciding with Dalwai's 40th death anniversary year.

The essays complement Pune-based Sadhana Prakashan's revival of Dalwai's literary and political works, just as they form the backdrop for wife Mehrunnisa Dalwai's (89) memoir which etches a liberal, whose candid views on the Koran, Ulema and all matters Muslim put him and his family at risk. "I am happy that my husband's views are being revisited in an India where Muslims are either misunderstood or appeased. It is refreshing to listen to someone who spoke on all taboos without the fear of a backlash," she feels.

Hamid Dalwai seen at the forefront of the iconic 1966 march to Mantralaya which demanded secular laws for a secular country
Hamid Dalwai seen at the forefront of the iconic 1966 march to Mantralaya which demanded secular laws for a secular country

The first four essays in Bharatatil Muslim Rajkaran were penned immediately after Dalwai's iconic march of April 18, 1966, to the Mantralaya. In the memorandum presented to then Chief Minister Vasantrao Naik, Dalwai and seven Muslim women (Mehrunnisa included) had demanded a ban on polygamy and Triple Talaq along with the creation of a common civil code by abolishing personal laws based on scriptures. Dalwai's march is still remembered as a defining espousal of gender justice in Maharashtra's secular history, in which few (but firm) progressive Muslims attempted to revise a divisive social order. Separating religion from the obligations of citizenship of a modern state, they told the establishment not to encourage outdated norms in the name of minority politics.

Dalwai's essays first appeared in English, but it was more because of Dilip Chitre's diligent editing and translation skills that accurately captured his critique of Muslim attitudes. Chitre felt Dalwai's forthrightness set an example for those who either remained silent on Muslim issues or those who spoke with an agenda. "Dalwai's concern is with making people around him sane, sober, modern and democratic citizens. He is one of those few young Indians who are action-oriented in a selfless way," Chitre writes in the anthology which he put together by recalling his notations of Dalwai's key speeches.

Mehrunnisa Dalwai
Mehrunnisa Dalwai

Little did Chitre know that Dalwai would die untimely nine years later (at the age of 44) and Bharatatil Muslim Rajkaran would go down in history as an exceptionally razor-sharp assessment of why things are the way they are with Indian Muslims. Incidentally, Chitre translated most of Dalwai's literary works, including the 1965 novel Indhan (Fuel) which focused on the relationship between a Brahmin woman and a Muslim protagonist. Indhan sparked a clash between the orthodox Muslims and Hindus of Dalwai's own village, Mirjoli, Ratnagiri district. When Dalwai's writings were trying to underline the crazy notions of religious purity, his hometown displayed the failed integration of communities in the India of the sixties. It is also unfortunate that a crusader who gave a lifetime to transform the Muslim belief system (established the Muslim Satyashodhak Mandal-Muslim Truth Seeking Society, Pune, 1970; pioneered the All India Forward looking Muslims' Conference, New Delhi,1971) was termed a kafir by fanatics.

There is a reason why Muslim Politics in India (the 1972 second edition had four new essays) deals with unpalatable truths — it is because Dalwai references an eventful quarter century, starting from India's Independence and Partition (1947) to Pakistan's partition and formation of Bangladesh (1971). Placing India's national interests in prime focus, he wages a frontal attack on all forces not ready for true integration on a "non-party, non-political basis." Dalwai blames, not just the common Muslims, but also the intelligentsia for not giving up "its postulate of a parallel society," which he labels as the prime reason for tension after Independence. He feels Muslims started on a wrong note by keeping themselves away from British education because they believed that the British snatched away the Muslim empire from their predecessors. Resultantly, the Muslims (as compared to Hindus who were relatively ready for reform) became "religion-bound revivalists." The Muslim vanity of the Mughal past contributed to the formation of a separatist Muslim nationalism and the idea of Pakistan, argues Dalwai.

It is interesting to note that Hamid Dalwai's bluntness over Muslim appeasement (done by the Congress party and the communists), his post-mortem of Muslim factions and their unreasonable fatwas, comes in handy for several Hindu fundamentalists. Sadhana's editor-publisher, Vinod Shirsath, is aware of the volatility of the revived publication. "Dalwai was against all types of narrowness. He was too open in his examination of medieval Islamic practices, but felt it was time to discard all scriptures. Also he was equally cognizant of how his rationale could be misconstrued or selectively quoted out of context. But that didn't stop him from analysing. He wrote for a compassionate Indian reader, not a Hindu or a Muslim."

Hamid Dalwai hated Muslim stereotypes all his life. And even in death, he embraced a secular ideal by choosing to be cremated, and not buried as per Islamic rites. Daughter Ila Kambli says, "Baba never categorised himself as a Muslim; he didn't raise his daughters with any religious doctrine; and his wife was an equal partner in all initiatives. As I look back at the way he articulated Muslim prejudices, I feel his perspective was difficult to swallow at that time." We have to see if the times have changed!

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at

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