Mahmood the Atheist

Mahmood Farooqui is among the bloggers signed on to a new group blog project called Kafila, which I discovered via DesiPundit. (Other names on the roster include Shivam Vij, the omnipresent progressive blogger/journalist, and Nivedita Menon, a well-known, Delhi-based sociologist).

For his first post at Kafila, Farooqui reprints an essay he had recently published in Tehelka, on the uncomfortable position he finds himself in as a secular -- indeed, atheist -- Muslim intellectual in today's India. The place to start might be where he lays his cards on the table:

Let me explain my locus. I am an atheist, I follow none of the Islamic taboos, but I live in a locality in the capital that can only be called a ghetto. I lived here for five years, when I was a student, when I was very self-consciously opposed to the Indian Muslim stereotype. I had grown up on Chandamama and Nandan, Holi was my favourite festival, Karna my hero, Shiva the great God, Hinduism a highly tolerant religion and I had dreams of attaining martyrdom fighting Pakistan. I was studying history and detested medieval Muslim rulers; I would expatiate on the reasons why Islam had trouble with modernity; I admired Naipaul and Rushdie; supported Mushirul Hasan during the Satanic Verses controversy — a novel I deeply admire in spite of its undoubted blasphemies — and I detested many things about Indian Muslims, except, predictably, Urdu literature and Sufism. I was, in short, a model Hinduised-Indian-Muslim, who always put India before Islam. I was desperate to leave Okhla. (link)

Okhla is a predominantly Muslim suburb (slum?) in south Delhi; Mahmood Farooqui has written a little more about life there in this article.

Tellingly, Farooqui had trouble leaving Okhla for Delhi's posher (predominantly Hindu/Sikh) neighborhoods:

But I am now back in Okhla, arguing simultaneously for the legitimacy of difference and the fact of a universal human. Between the self-hatred of my youth and the current uneasiness with my earlier positions lies, possibly, a series of adult defeats — perhaps they have dulled my passions and my hatreds. However now I have, you could say, chosen to live here, after a series of eliminations — Defence Colony, Greater Kailash-I, Jangpura — on grounds of my being Muslim and/or not having a company lease. But, crucially, I came here because I was sickened by South Delhi and because I was incipiently aware of Okhla’s hospitableness. (link)

When he says "eliminations," he means he was denied a lease -- at least some of the time -- because of his Muslim name. What happens to Farooqui as he tries to leave Okhla is a reflection of the double-bind he faces as he tries to balance his social identiy and background with a self-critical attachment to the idea of modern India as a nation. He fits in uneasily in Okhla, surrounded by conservative Muslim neighbors. But mainstream society isn't very encouraging, and as a result the pull of his social loyalites remains alive:

More than this, however, my views, in conformity with the rest of the academic world, about the virtues of egalitarianism, liberty and a democratic welfare state are now far less uncomplicated than they were in my youth. I still search for vestiges of the narrative of liberty in Islamic pasts, I continue to valourise streams of pluralism in Muslim sultanates and extol those Indian Muslims of the past who were ecumenical and tolerant. I would still challenge descriptions of the medieval past that underline forced conversions or bemoan the second-class treatment of Hindus. If I do not have much truck with Islam, why then do I continue to search for narratives of tolerance in the Islamic past? Why do I smart when Vajpayee says that there is trouble and violence wherever Muslims live? Why is my attitude to Islam so defensive? (link)

In this essay (you should really read the whole thing), Farooqui doesn't really come upon any answers to the double-bind he faces, but it is a remarkably forthright and careful attempt to articulate the problem of minority belonging -- which isn't so different from minority belonging in other national contexts.

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More Mahmood Farooqui links:

Recent articles in Mid-Day

More articles in Mid-Day

Articles in Outlook

Amit Varma's post on a controversy regarding a possible instance of plagiarism in a book review Farooqui wrote.