Shazia Ilmi: The interpreter of 'communal' maladies

Last Updated: Fri, Apr 25, 2014 06:53 hrs

A man in a black overcoat and a cap, a walking stick in his hand, looks out of a black-and-white picture. By him are two boys, his sons, one of whom bears a striking resemblance to Aam Aadmi Party's Lok Sabha candidate from Ghaziabad, Shazia Ilmi.

The trio are Shazia's brothers and father, Maulana Ishaq Ilmi, a Deobandi scholar who in 1953 founded in Kanpur what is now believed to be the largest selling Urdu newspaper, Siyasat Jadid.

As the words (Siyasat means politics and Jadid refers to Muslim modernist reformer) indicate, the spirit of the newspaper is modern and reformist, like the man who started it. Knowing a bit about Maulana Ilmi can help understand his daughter and how far her politics has travelled.

Maulana Ilmi was perhaps the first Deobandi to send his children to an English-medium school, that too the illustrious Doon School in Dehradun. The building from where he brought out his newspaper was an extension of his house in the heavily congested area of Chamanganj in Kanpur, cut off from school buses and pizza delivery men.

In this predominantly Muslim area, the Siyasat Jadid office remains a shining example of secular India. The Muslim staff religiously takes a break for namaz and the Hindus come with tilak on their foreheads. In this one big family, no one is suspicious of the other. This is evident in Shazia's 2010 film, Post Box No. 418, Siyasat, Kanpur, created around her family paper to show the Urdu language's struggle for survival.

That is why it was startling to recently hear Shazia urging Muslims not to be "so secular" and to "become communal" for their own good. The video, in which she admits that what she is saying is "controversial but also necessary", has gone viral. While her party distanced itself from her comments, Shazia stood firm and said her statement was misconstrued. She also tweeted: "Communal is diff from communalism just like Hinduism is diff from Hindutva, Islam different from Islamism! Communal means 'of the community' (sic)."

Shazia is not new to controversy or politics. Her brother-in-law, Arif Mohammed Khan, was a Congress minister, who later changed parties, finally giving up active politics after joining the Bharatiya Janata Party. One of her brothers, Aijaz, recently joined the saffron party too. Her other sibling, Rashid, contested against her in the Delhi assembly elections, as he claimed, to "reveal the true face" of his sister. Both lost.

A former journalist and news anchor, Shazia is not only fighting her political rivals, but also waging a bitter- and often public - battle over property with her family. On her side is her brother Irshad, editor of Siyasat Jadid now for over 18 years. On the other side are her mother, Naushaba Ilmi (80), and brothers Arif and Aijaz. In 2011, things came to such a pass that Naushaba claimed a threat to her life and filed a police complaint against Shazia.

But Shazia, the anti-corruption crusader-turned-politician, AAP's urbane Muslim face, has fielded every allegation with counter allegations. Ever smiling, even when her eyes flash with anger, she has been a powerful spokesperson for AAP and is doing in Uttar Pradesh what Yogendra Yadav did in Haryana - consolidate the party.

In the party too, she fights all attempts to undermine her importance. That is why she adamantly refused to contest against Sonia Gandhi in Rae Bareli, knowing it meant certain defeat. Married to Sajib Malik, a half Gujarati-Muslim and half Tamil-Iyer investment banker, she was AAP's richest candidate in the Delhi elections with assets exceeding Rs 30 crore, a large chunk of it in the name of her husband. Shazia had once said, "You can fight facts. But you can't fight perception." She will certainly rue these words after her 'communal' remarks has coloured her perceptions.

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