Nai Duniya owner-editor SHAHID SIDDIQUI’s controversial interview with Gujarat Chief Minister NARENDRA MODI was the first Modi had granted the media in several years. The 78-minute interview, which cost Siddiqui his membership of the Samajwadi Party the very next day, speaks volumes about Modi’s politics. Talking about the Gujarat carnage of 2002, for example, a remorseless Modi points out that he has been exonerated by the court, and in fact it is he who is owed a public apology.
IN MY FORTY years as a journalist, I have interviewed numerous politicians—from Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat to Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee. Some were people I liked and many were politicians I disliked intensely. My father Abdul Waheed Siddiqui, who founded and edited Nai Duniya, our Urdu language publication (first a daily newspaper and since 1973 a weekly), was jailed by Indira Gandhi four times during the Emergency. Yet I sought an interview with her after the Emergency was over, and printed her first post-Emergency interview. A broad section of the Indian population, especially Muslims, had developed a certain hatred for Mrs Gandhi at the time, but my father instructed me that a journalist neither loves nor hates anyone and I went ahead. That interview with Mrs Gandhi aroused intense passions in the country.
Several years later, in 1985, I was in London and interviewed the Sikh separatist, Jagjit Singh Chauhan. Nothing happened. In 1986, I had an argument with Arun Nehru, the then all-powerful Interior Minister, over the Congress party’s Kashmir policies. They dug up the excuse of my year-old interview with Chauhan, and I was arrested and imprisoned under the notorious TADA [Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act]. Yet the Delhi High Court released me, describing the interview as public service.
India was in turmoil in December 1992 after the Babri Masjid was destroyed on 6 December by the Sangh Parivar and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao looked away. I had joined politics by then and continued my work as Editor of Nai Duniya. I was a member of the Congress party and my own Prime Minister had allowed the mosque to be razed. Despite being in the party, I wrote scathing articles criticising Narasimha Rao’s conduct in the context of Babri Masjid. Rao tried several means to rub me off the face of the earth. “You are a member of the Congress and your paper supports Mulayam Singh and attacks my government,” Prime Minister Rao told me. “I am a member of the Congress party, Nai Duniya is not,” I replied and resigned from the Congress.
Many moons later, in 2008, I joined the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) after having been in the Samajwadi Party for eight years. I was against the India-US nuclear deal. Not because of some vague anti-Americanism that is attributed to Muslims but because I believed there are better options for India’s energy security. The Samajwadi Party decided to support the nuclear deal, and Amar Singh, then an influential leader of the party, told me he was reaching out to Imam Bukhari and other Muslim clerics because they felt they needed Muslim support. I argued against it and Amar Singh shouted at me, “We don’t need Muslims like you, we need daadhiwale (the beards).” I resigned after our argument went sour.
In a moment of crisis, I ended up joining the BSP, which I believe was a grave mistake. Mayawati was dictatorial. She offered me a Rajya Sabha seat on the condition that Nai Duniya would be a mouthpiece for her and her party. I refused and maintained the independence of my paper and left her party.
Last week I interviewed Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat. The idea came up during a conversation with a pro-Modi Muslim businessman from Gujarat, Zafar Sareshwala, whom I met with Mahesh Bhatt and Saleem Khan at Esha Deol’s wedding in Bombay. Zafar argued that I keep criticising Modi in my paper and on TV channels but have never attempted to speak to him. I said I would be happy to interview him and ask him all the questions I have wanted to ask for years. A few days later, Modi’s secretary called me and gave me an appointment. I understood clearly that Modi wants to reach out to the Muslim community and is planning an image makeover, and that those calculations were the reason for granting me an interview.
But it was also an opportunity for me as the editor of an Urdu newspaper to ask him questions that millions of Indians, Hindus and Muslims, have about Modi. When I asked Modi about his blood-stained record of 2002, he showed no remorse, tried to avoid the realities and gave answers that I consider lies. Answers, which, as I see them, reveal something about the man and his ideas. I asked him whether he wanted to turn India into a Hindu Rashtra and he never said ‘no’. He evaded the question by talking about his dream of a strong India. We need to read both the silences and evasions, not just the answers on tape. Modi might escape the courts of law, but he won’t get bail in the court of history. When I raised the question of reservation for the poor Muslims of India in government jobs and educational institutions, Modi again showed his true colours, dismissing the idea as “very dangerous”.
In my build-up to speaking more directly about the question of reservation for Muslims, I used the analogy of a family where one child is weak and, therefore, a laggard. “Shouldn’t the family give some special attention to the child who is left behind for a variety of reasons?” I asked. Modi’s response is revealing. He understood it as a reference to Muslims and while I had referred to a “weak child”, he turned the reference into a “mentally sick child”. The phrase he used in his reply was, “Maan lijiye ek zehni taur pe kamzor bachcha hai.” That reveals how Modi views Muslims; it doesn’t promote him. Anyone who reads the text of my interview carefully or listens to the audio clip can hear those words.
The harsh truth is that rarely do people behind communal riots in India get convicted, whether it is people responsible for the carnage in Bhagalpur, Hashimpura, Bombay or Gujarat. I have no regrets about interviewing Modi, though as a result I have been thrown out of the Samajwadi Party. I am glad to be out. It is unfortunate that political parties continue to use the weapon of fear and prey on the insecurity of Muslims in this country to get them to vote for them. The Congress did this for decades and the Samajwadi Party is doing the same. Within months of its government [coming to power] in Uttar Pradesh, there have been a dozen riots in the state. If the Samajwadi Party cares about its Muslim voters, all it needs to do is fulfil its electoral promises and help Muslims become part of India’s growth and development.