How a journalist’s journey to being a secular Muslim in India began at home and in school

Seema Mustafa reveals her first encounters with the need for secularism.

It was the History period for Class IV in the Convent of Jesus and Mary in New Delhi. The topic was the history of Islam. Not a particularly interested student at the best of times, I was delighted to find that I knew something that perhaps others did not and so jumped up to narrate a story about Abraham – except that I had confused him for Prophet Mohammad.

So, according to my version, Mohammad was against idol worship, and spent a great deal of time trying to convince idol worshippers to stop the practice. One day when the elders all left for work, he cut off the limbs of the idols and left an axe near the largest idol.

When the men returned they were shocked and shouted, “Who has done this?”

“Ask him, he is carrying the axe,” replied the Prophet (according to my version of the story), pointing to the largest idol with the axe.

“He does not speak,” said the elders.

‘Then why do you worship him?” asked the Prophet. Needless to say the story was full of inaccuracies, the biggest being that it was Abraham and not Mohammad in the factual version. But I sat down, quite happy with myself and not quite understanding the silence in the room. It was broken when a girl I considered to be a close friend, stood up and shouted, “Well, I wish they had cut off Prophet Mohammad’s nose!”

This, I must confess, all happened during a brief “being a good Muslim” period I was going through – I later became a “righteous Christian”, collecting pictures of Jesus Christ with the same fervour for at least a couple of years. But at the time I was shocked, and controlled my tears with difficulty. I could not wait to get home, and ran to my mother sobbing. I narrated the story, sure that she would understand and commiserate.

She listened quietly and when my tears subsided said, “You know that everyone has their own way of praying and believing in god. The Muslims say their namaz, the Christians go to church and pray, Hindus worship idols as the image of god. Don’t you think when you narrated this story, your friend and others in the class thought you were attacking their way of worship?” She left it at that.

I went back and apologised to my friend and we remained friends all through school. This was my first lesson in secularism and one that has stayed with me all my life.

My eldest brother Kamal, now an investment banker in the United States, remembers how he wanted to get out of going to church in La Martiniere College where he was a young student, so he could have the precious free time all hostel students crave. Mass was mandatory for all students, unless the parents sent a letter requesting otherwise. He approached my mother with a considered “good Muslim” argument that he was sure would work. Instead, he was told, “They are giving you respect by inviting you to church, you give them the respect of going.” And that was the end of the argument.

I changed from being a devout Muslim at the age of eight years to being a devout Christian. I envied the Christian girls at the Covent of Jesus and Mary who went in their maroon berets for mass every morning, I used every opportunity I could find to go to the Sacred Heart Cathedral next to our school. I would convince my parents to take me to Connaught Place to collect the comic books on Jesus Christ that were given free in those days by evangelists from the West.

I got high marks in Moral Science every year, and low percentages in the other subjects. This never became an issue in the family, just a source of amusement with the occasional remark, such as “Why can’t you get the same marks in Mathematics that you get in Moral Science?” We learnt pretty early on that tolerance was the key that saved the religious from becoming fundamentalist.

Secularism inside our home was a way of life.

We were never taught to discriminate, or more importantly, to differentiate on the basis of gender or religion. As children we were quite oblivious to the language of communalism, seeing ourselves as no different from the others. The thought that a Muslim name might evoke a hostile reaction was furthest from our minds, as we lived an elite life without any understanding of those who felt the discrimination every single day.

My grandmother, Begum Anis Kidwai, known as Anis Apa to all, including her own children, had overcome a deep tragedy – the murder of her husband Shafi Ahmed Kidwai – by plunging into the fight for freedom with Gandhi. She was a walking symbol of true secularism. She taught us through her own example how to separate religion from politics, and how to ensure that the discipline of religion should not be allowed to intrude into human relations.

She prayed five times a day, she kept the month-long fast, but she did this quietly without making a song and dance about it. I remember that one day we were travelling together by train to Alwar, where my father was then posted. The compartment was the old-fashioned bogey with berths for just four passengers.

At the appointed time, Anis Apa took out her prayer mat and quietly said her namaz. I looked at the other passengers in the compartment for reactions, but given the fact that she had not stepped on their toes, they, too, ensured her the privacy she sought for those few minutes.

Anis Apa was a Rajya Sabha member for twelve years. Her residence at 16 Windsor Place was host to her colleagues and home to attractive young Muslim and non-Muslim working women. Her closest friends, Mridula Sarabai and Subhadhra Joshi, were in and out of the house. The three had shared long days and nights together during the violence of Partition, trying to organiz=se relief and rehabilitation for the victims. Mridulaji would march in with her short hair and white-bordered sari, and while some adults were wary of her blunt ways, we as children sensed her affection and deep love for Anis Apa, and loved her for it.

Incidentally, it was these same three women who showed the courage to meet then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the Emergency and protest against the behaviour of her son, Sanjay Gandhi, who had suppressed democratic rights and launched the terrible family-planning drive that was making villagers in Uttar Pradesh flee in fear of their lives. They were hopeful they would be heard when they went there. They returned quietly. I remember Apa sitting quietly in her room and when I asked her what had happened she said in wonderment, “She (Indira) asked us to go and meet Sanjay Gandhi!”

“And did you?”

“No,” was the quiet response. Her faith in the party she had fought with and for was clearly shattered.

Every now and again, bitten by a qualm of conscience, Anis Apa tried to teach her grandchildren the godly ways, but her sense of humour never deserted her. One day she managed to get hold of me and insisted I should learn to say the namaz. Patiently she went through the prayers, as I mumbled along, and when we had almost reached the end of what was indeed a major effort on her part, she realised that I was chewing gum. It is forbidden to eat or drink while praying. Instead of losing her temper, she dissolved into laughter, and I ran away, happy to be free.

Excerpted with permission from Azadi’s Daughter: Being a Secular Muslim in India, A Memoir, Seema Mustafa.

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