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G. M. Banatwala: Indian Muslim leader

G. M. Banatwala: Indian Muslim leader



India’s Muslims, probably numbering around 120 million, are arguably the worst-led, most divided and certainly among the most desperate of the country’s minority groups. G. M. Banatwala was one of the few who could remotely be regarded as one of their national leaders, and he constantly found himself trapped in ideological and tactical conflicts that continue to leave the Islamic community disproportionately poor and politically weak.

The careful style of his rhetoric and speeches reflected the nervousness and insecurity of a community that has frequently been the target of riots instigated by Hindu extremists. His reluctance to use belligerent language sometimes disappointed Muslims who wanted somebody to shout aggressively on their behalf. He knew, better than they, that rabid rhetoric would give ammunition to Hindu fanatics anxious to heap more misery on an already downtrodden people.

The greatest single atrocity visited on Indian Muslims since independence in 1947 — itself an event that physically and ideologically divided the Islamic community — placed Banatwala and other Muslim leaders in a familiar dilemma. This was when extremist Hindus tore down the ancient Babri mosque in the holy Hindu city of Ayodhya in 1992, arguing that it occupied the site of an earlier Hindu temple.

Banatwala knew that Muslims were looking to him and others for firebrand leadership to express their outrage. But instead his tone was subdued for fear of playing into the hands of Hindu groups such as the RSS (Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the National Association of Self-helpers), one of whose supporters assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for “appeasing” Muslims. The RSS was one of the instigators of the Babri mosque demolition.

Banatwala similarly had to tiptoe through a controversy involving the national song, Vande Mataram, (“Bow to Thee, Mother”), regarded by many as anti-Muslim. Its core is essentially a hymn to Durga, the ten-armed Hindu goddess. Muslims were outraged when in 2006 Government ministers said all students should sing it on the 125th anniversary of its creation.

This was one of the few occasions when Banatwala’s language had an edge to it. Any attempt to force Muslims to sing Vande Mataram would, he said, be uncivilised “and will not be tolerated by Muslims”. He described the song as anti-Muslim and objectionable. But in a carefully worded statement he went on to soften the tone. He urged Muslim students not to attend classes on the 125th anniversary in case they were forced to sing the song, and said they should resist provocations, remain calm, and “stand up silently as a mark of respect” to those who chose to sing it. This was typical of the careful style Banatwala usually found it wise to adopt.

He did display a sharper side when he called for India to deport the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen who was allowed to take refuge in India after being hounded out of her own country for allegedly insulting Islam. “Ms Nasreen has asked her publishers to delete certain portions from her book that are offensive,” he said. “But the matter is not so simple.” This was, nevertheless, a far cry from Islamists in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who were calling for her killing.

Banatwala claimed constantly that Indian Muslims were made scapegoats for “every untoward incident in the country”. He found himself frequently trying to calm Hindi-Muslim tensions when there were bombing atrocities that could reasonably be attributed to Pakistani elements. He described one such attack as an “affront to humanity”, thereby dissociating Indian Muslims from it and helping to defuse anti-Muslim feelings.

Gulam Mohammed Mahmood Banatwala was born in Bombay in 1933. He was elected to the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) seven times with big majorities from a Kerala constituency, even though he spoke hardly a word of the local language, Malayalam. His election rallies had an unreal quality as he addressed thousands of people in rapid and eloquent English, leaving all but a few clueless as to what he had said. He had evolved into something of a political institution among Kerala Muslims and his re-election became little more than a formality.

Banatwala’s wife predeceased him. They had no children.

G. M. Banatwala, Muslim leader, was born on August 15, 1933. He died on June 25, 2008, aged 74


July 22, 2008