By Kaleem Kawaja
I met Syed Shahabuddin in 1987 in Washington DC and since then I became close to him in his various activities and met him every time I visited India or he visited US, which was frequent. In the devious and very difficult Indian politics, he led the struggle for justice for the deprived people and the Indian Muslims with much dedication and sincerity. Today on the first anniversary of his death we remember him fondly and pay tribute to him as one of the great leaders of Indians and Indian Muslims.
While studying in Patna University, Syed Shahabuddin started an agitation for the formation of a students union in his university. The movement was successful and he was elected to the committee of the union to draft its constitution. Shahabuddin was elected as a candidate of the Communist Party of India’s youth wing All India Students Federation. But, according to his contemporary, former diplomat Muchkund Dubey, Shahabuddin was not a member of the Communist Party.
In 1955, a student of B.N. College, Patna, died after police fired on students who were protesting against a bus driver, leading to agitations and demonstrations. To protest against this matter, Shahabuddin founded an Action Committee which passed a resolution demanding an inquiry into the killing. To pacify the protesters, the then Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru visited Patna. In response, he led 20 thousand student protesters to the Patna Airport where they waved black flags. Due to this activity, he found it difficult to get clearance to join the Indian Foreign Service. However, he received clearance due to Nehru’s intervention and endorsement. Nehru wrote that his “participation in the disturbances was not politically motivated. It was an expression of his youthful exuberance.” He felt that the best way to honour Shahabuddin was by recruiting him to the Foreign Service.
Syed Shahabuddin served as a diplomat, an ambassador, and a politician. His first posting, under Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, was as Acting Consul-General in New York. He went on to serve in Rangoon, Burma, as Consul General in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and later as Ambassador to Venezuela and Algeria from 1969 to 1976. At the time of his premature voluntary retirement in 1978, Shahabuddin was the Joint Secretary in charge of Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific in the Ministry of External Affairs, under External Affairs Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee.
In 1978, Shahabuddin left the Indian Foreign Service through a voluntary retirement to join politics. The then Morarji Desai-led central government refused to give him a monthly pension of one thousand rupees as he did not complete 20 years in the service. According to him, the then foreign minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee asked him thrice to reconsider his decision. In 1979, one of the Janata Party’s Member of Upper house of Parliament resigned and hence a seat became vacant. The party nominated him for the seat.
In 1985, Shahabuddin was elected to the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Indian parliament) as a candidate of the Janata Party. He lost the seat to M.J. Akbar of the Indian National Congress in 1989. In 1991, he was re-elected from the constituency, for which he took a helicopter from Patna to celebrate.
He was known for his strong belief in the federal structure of India and his desire to see more people participating at every level of governance. He often called for persistent action against corruption, nepotism, and inefficiency, for democracy within political parties and for equitable distribution of national income and resources in order to provide a life of minimum dignity for all people. In Parliament, he was well known for his contributions to debates not only on Muslim issues but also on areas ranging widely from External Affairs and Defence to Education and Health. Looking to build support for minority rights and Muslim issues, he founded the Insaf Party in 1989.
Throughout his political career, Syed Shahabuddin was involved with many Muslim institutions and organisations, including the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board and the Babari Masjid Action Committee. From 2004 to 2011, he was the President of All- India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, an umbrella organisation of eminent Muslim individuals and organisations, headquartered in New Delhi, India. He continued to guide the organisation until his death in 2017.
He created, edited, and published the monthly journal Muslim India between 1983 and 2006, as a source of reference and research on all matters of interest to Muslims in India. It was a unique publication in many respects.
[Kaleem Kawaja is Executive Director of Association of Indian Muslims of America, Washington DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]