The name Hamid Dalwai sounds quite unfamiliar in the present context. Not much has been discussed about him, for almost 40 years after his death.
His name has also been included amongst 18 other stalwarts in Ramachandra Guha’s book “Makers of Modern India”. It includes people like Jyotirao Phule, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr Ambedkar. The list includes only two Muslims – Syed Ahmed Khan and Hamid Dalwai.
Guha had an interesting reason for including Dalwai over Maulana Azad. His rationale was, that while Azad was a great scholar and nationalist, his writings did not reflect the problems of the present.
Hamid Dalwai was born on September 29, 1932, on the same Konkan coast where Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Tilak first saw the light of day. There, the similarities end; whereas the other two were middle-class Brahmins, Dalwai was born in a working-class Muslim household. He got his secondary school education at Chiplun.
After his matriculation in 1951, he studied up to intermediate in Ismail Yusuf College and Ruparel College. His father had worked extensively in the field of education in the pre-independence era. During his teenage years, he joined the Rashtra Seva Dal, the only Muslim in his village to do so. Later on, in Mumbai, he became active in socialist politics.
He simultaneously started writing short stories in magazines like Mauj, Satyakatha and Vasudha. A collection of these stories was published under the title “Laat” by Sadhana Prakashan. Marathi author P.L.Deshpande remembered him in the following words- “When I say that I was a friend of Hamid, I feel it might amount to self-praise. He was so great. It is no exaggeration to say that meeting him was like embracing a great man because of the way he was fighting with injustice.”
From the time he came to Mumbai, Dalwai’s main interest, and perhaps obsession, was with changing the attitudes of Indian Muslims towards democracy and modernism. To this end, he left the Socialist Party and devoted himself full-time to social reform.
In 1970, he founded the Muslim Satyashodhak Samaj, the name echoing from the organization of Jyotirao Phule, established a century before. The reason for his sincere devotion to Muslim social welfare work was Dalwai’s poor family condition. The organization focused on the enhancement of the attempts to abolish, by law and in custom, the practice of Triple Talaq, whereby the husband could divorce his wife by uttering a single word three times. He also advocated a common civil code for all Indian citizens.
More broadly, he wished to erase communal markers and distinctions in public life, in pursuance of common citizenship for all Indians. He also worked for the Marathi language to be taken up by the Madrasas in Maharashtra.
In introducing a translation of Dalwai’s essay published in 1970, Dilip Chitre, a close friend of him linked him to a tradition of radical social reform inaugurated in Maharashtra by Phule and carried on by Ambedkar. Whereas his predecessors had campaigned against the caste system, Dalwai’s target was orthodox Islam.
In terms of religious affiliation, Dalwai can be linked to latter-day Syed Ahmed Khan. However, Dalwai hoped not merely to make Muslims abreast of Hindus regarding access to modern education, but to liberate them from the tyranny of faith altogether. The historian Faisal Devji has called Syed Ahmed an advocate of an ‘apologetic modernity,’ to which Dalwai was not. Dalwai’s task may have been harder than Syed Ahmed’s. Tragically, he lived a much shorter life.
His work “Muslim Politics in India” (1968) which he has dedicated to Jawaharlal Nehru, addresses a wide range of issues that the Indian Muslims were facing, right from the historical aspect of embracing Western education to the fatwa issued on Syed Ahmed Khan. Both Ahmed and Dalwai faced ‘fatwa,’ and became the major force for revolutionizing Islam.
Similarly, the issues regarding secularism are still fresh and will remain in the years to come. As Dalwai specifically said, Nehru was the last modern secularist India saw. In an interview to Chitre, Dalwai said, “If secular democratic ideals are to survive, all liberal forces in this country have to rally and work together on a non-party, non-political basis!” And lastly, he said “One cannot helplessly watch the game. The rules have to change.”
The Muslim leadership’s thought process which prevailed during his time doesn’t seem to have changed even today. Dalwai talked about extremist Muslim leaders, who virtually sought a parallel state for Muslims within India. If we look at the current situation, it is the reverse where certain extremists are demanding a ‘Hindu State’.
Apart from his thought process, the movement that he led under Muslim Satyashodhak Samaj changed the course of other social movements in Maharashtra. To propagate his discourse, he organized the ‘All India Forward-looking Muslim Conference’ at New Delhi, Maharashtra Rajya Muslim Mahila Parishad at Pune, Muslim Samajik Parishad at Mumbai, and several others.
Through such endeavours, he managed to reach out to all the sections of the society, took into consideration their views and never gave up despite heavy criticism.
Also, a huge controversy emerged after his death as he wanted to be cremated rather than be buried, as per his will. Since the beginning, those Muslims who had criticized him as a kafir (non-believer) to labelling him as an agent of the Hindu Mahasabha, exploited this moment to sully his image even further.
We must realise the fact that in a democracy, every individual has a right to make his own choices and the aspect of religion is secondary. Unfortunately, today’s Muslims have no imprint of Dalwai, and many leaders don’t even consider him as a Muslim!
At a time when Islam has become the focal point of politics and debate, it is imperative that we need to reconsider and rediscover Dalwai’s thoughts again.
I will end with his words – “A Muslim is judged not by how he behaves in the mosque, but rather when he is outside”.
Note: An earlier version of the post incorrectly stated that there are 22 persons listed in the book “Makers of Modern India”. The error is regretted.