Updated: May 31, 2010 21:14 IST

No holding him back

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Javed Akhtar: Outspoken
Javed Akhtar: Outspoken

Poet, lyricist and activist Javed Akhtar refuses to back down despite receiving death threats for his criticism of the recent fatwa that women should not work with men.

Clearly, it takes more than a death threat to unsettle the redoubtable Javed Akhtar. In his airy, lived-in study in Mumbai, the poet-lyricist-activist refuses to pull his punches as he talks of the recent Darul Uloom Deoband fatwa that decreed it is ‘haram' for a family to accept a woman's earnings and that women should not work in proximity with men. His outspoken criticism of the fatwa resulted in much castigation by the hardliners (a situation he's used to) and death threats (a situation that he's getting used to). Akhtar, never one to hold back his political views, bashes on regardless. Excerpts from an interview:

Obviously you're not scared of the death threats. But you must be a disturbed man.

Yes, in this case, the Muslim clergy is harming the very people whom it claims to lead. It has to understand that lakhs of couples are working hard to survive, to give their children two square meals and some education. The kind of demands they make of their community are absurd. Unfortunately, you can't ignore them because silence is often misconstrued as approval and acceptance. Also, may I ask, are women the only protectors of culture, tradition and religion? Going by this argument men, too, should stop working in places where they have to interact with strange women.

Absurd as this fatwa is, what kind of impact, in your assessment, do such diktats have?

There is a certain section which, when challenged, starts to show its solidarity towards the clergy. Even though they do not follow all such diktats in their private lives — and that's for sure — they will not take any public criticism of the clerics. Now, the clergy is either going to stop women working or make working couples feel guilty. So they are, to some extent, putting a spoke in the wheel, as well as creating a distorted image of the community.

But the wheel is turning, however much they try to stop it. And people are becoming more rational and sensible. So I'm hopeful.

People like Pramod Muthalik in the rabid Hindu fringe, who are trying to curtail women's empowerment, have certainly come a cropper.

But you have to accept that in the Hindu community, the voice of dissent has always been very strong, right from the time of Raja Rammohan Roy.

Do you think not enough Muslim voices have been raised in this matter?

We certainly need as many voices as possible. Teesta Setalvad, who is supposed to be the ‘messiah of the minorities', journalists Javed Anand and Sajid Rashid, and groups like the Imam Council of India and Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan have come out publicly in my support and I appreciate their courage. I know there are crores of Muslims who agree with me, though they may not admit it publicly. I hope they will, in time, articulate their opinions too.

The political response to this issue as well as, say, to the khap killings has been rather muted and wary. Now that you are on the inside as a member of the Rajya Sabha, how do you see this response?

(Smiles) I would exaggerate if I claimed to be on the inside. I have attended Parliament for just 10 days. Let's just say I'm inside the Parliament building for now. But as an observer and a student of politics, I have to say that Indian politicians — across all parties — seem to have a very low opinion of two groups: Muslims and Hindus. As I see it, they believe that the average Indian is a bigot.

Let me explain. If they are not taking any action against certain panchayat elders, it is not because they're afraid of them. Just as they are not afraid of Pramod Muthalik or the Shahi Imam as individuals. But they believe that if they take action against the fundamentalists of a community, the entire community will get upset. Which means that they think the average member of that community is a bigot. In fact, the average citizen is intimidated by the bigots precisely because the powers-that-be don't act against them. It is a vicious cycle and someone has to break it.

There is much talk about falling levels of decorum in Parliament. What has your experience been like?

To be honest, I'm still a little overawed. But yes, the criticism is true to some degree. I have witnessed chaos and mayhem, which I found quite unnecessary. However, one can also see a glorious democracy at work, where anyone can stand up and criticise anyone. And between one incident of mayhem and another, there are some very good debates and speeches; incisive and knowledgeable exchanges of ideas and points of view. That is not reported by the media, though. Only the absurd is highlighted and that is what creates a certain image of Parliament. It is exactly what happens with communities — the absurd gets mileage but the sensible doesn't.

Any particular orator who comes to mind?

Setting aside ideology and whether I agree with their point of view or not, I have enjoyed the speeches of Brinda Karat of the CPM, Arun Jaitley of the BJP and N.K. Singh of the JDU. The other day, Ghulam Nabi Azad was on his feet to talk about the MCI controversy, and made such a good speech that everyone, including those who had attacked him, clapped. It wasn't reported, of course.

Back in Mumbai, at the dinner table, how much of the conversation is about films, how much about politics, and how much just regular domestic talk?

In all honesty, Shabana is a much more serious person than me. I have many serious discussions and try to do some serious thinking too. But I must tell you that I cannot do so constantly. To recharge your neurons, you have to give them a break, have some light conversation too.

Well, it's reassuring to know that some intellectuals also need to take a break.

Actually, I get terribly embarrassed because I don't think I am an intellectual. The only thing I can say about myself with certainty is that I question. Whatever I hear or read is not taken at face value; I try to understand, analyse and question it.

On a less serious note, you are known for your colourful kurtas. So how come you've been seen largely in white in the Rajya Sabha?

It's been so hot in Delhi that I simply cannot wear colourful kurtas there. In summer, even in Mumbai, I wear only white. (Smiles) But as the weather changes, so will my wardrobe.

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