Zakaria, a champion of communal harmony

Rafiq Zakaria

Rafiq Zakaria  

Ranjit Hoskote

MUMBAI: The cause of inter-religious understanding in India has lost one of its leading champions with the death of Rafiq Zakaria, eminent scholar of Islamic history and jurisprudence and former Congress leader. Dr. Zakaria, who died here on Saturday morning, was 79.

He had long balanced the contrary demands of public life and private research in his various roles as politician, educationist, historian and activist for communal harmony. He wrote extensively, both at book-length and for the newspapers, on subjects that had long exercised him: the history of Islam, the effects of British imperialism, and the trajectory of India as a secular polity burdened with religious conflicts.

The Partition of British India in 1947 was perhaps the key trauma of Dr. Zakaria's life. All his writings and activity may be seen, in one form or another, to be a response to this epochal event, which split the Muslims of the subcontinent between two nation-states, straining their identity and sense of belonging to the point of crisis while unleashing an unending cycle of rivalry and violence between India and Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims. Dr. Zakaria approached these themes through a masterly combination of personal reflection and historical analysis, in such books as The Price of Partition and his study of Jinnah, bluntly titled The Man Who Divided India.

Born on April 5, 1926, Dr. Zakaria was among the thousands of students who rallied to the Congress banner in August 1942, when the Mahatma called upon the British colonial regime to `Quit India!' He won the Chancellor's Gold Medal for his MA performance at the University of Bombay (as it then was) and went on to take a Ph. D. from the University of London. Having studied law at the Inns of Court, he was called to the Bar from Lincoln's Inn.

On his return to India, he practised law and entered public life as a member of the Congress party.

He served as a Minister in the Maharashtra Cabinet from 1962 to 1977. Elected to the Lok Sabha, he served as deputy leader of the Congress in 1978. Dr. Zakaria will be remembered as one of the few prominent Indian Muslim intellectuals who could squarely confront the obscurantism that threatened Indian Islam from within, while maintaining a consistent critique of the majoritarian forces threatening the community from without.

A formidably informed and erudite writer, Dr. Zakaria addressed the calumnies with which Islam is often assailed by its detractors in several of his works, including The Struggle Within Islam. Prompted by the debate surrounding Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwah against Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses — a debate in which liberal opinion often revealed itself to be as doctrinaire and insensitive as religious orthodoxy — he wrote Muhammad and the Quran, a book in which he courageously attempted to dispel the prejudices and misunderstandings that cloud the popular perception of Islam, and to remind the world of the progressive, transformative and creative dimensions of Islamic thought and culture.

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