AUTHOR: Abdul Ghafoor Noorani - Courage to speak

By M. H. Askari

Compliments to DAWN

The recent visit to Pakistan of the renowned Indian lawyer and author, Abdul Ghafoor Noorani (A.G. as he is popularly known), aroused unusual interest. His presence happened to coincide with the particularly tense situation on the India-Pakistan border, with the talk of yet another war almost incessantly in the air. However, A.G. insisted that if there were really a threat of war he would not have come.

There was speculation whether A.G. could be carrying some sort of a message from New Delhi to Islamabad, like what yet another prominent Indian journalist, R. K. Mishra, did on the eve of Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's bus journey to Lahore. However, those who know A.G. well instantly ruled this out in spite of his cordial relations with top-level policy makers in both countries and the fact that he is known as uncommonly trustworthy in both Islamabad and New Delhi. But he is also uncommonly independent minded, something that renders him somewhat unsuited to that sort of a role.

As A.G. explained, his visit was primarily to familiarize himself with the situation in Pakistan. He had not been here for almost a decade and the intervening years had seen some of the most momentous changes. In any case, he has a lot of friends (and admirers) here and wished to renew his acquaintance with them. He was in Pakistan on what he called a busman's holiday; relaxing, meeting friends and getting a feel for the situation on our side of the border.

After about two weeks that he was in Pakistan he felt that he had been well rewarded for the trouble he took, travelling from Mumbai at a time when well-wishers advised him not to undertake the journey. After India banned PIA overflights, his journey back to Mumbai was along a circuitous route. In Karachi he met several old friends and made a number of new acquaintances. In Islamabad he was the house guest of an old Pakistani friend from the diplomatic service whom he first met while he was serving with our mission in New Delhi in the 1980s.

He also called on foreign minister Abdul Sattar whom he knows well from the time that the former was Pakistan's high commissioner in New Delhi. A.G. was delighted when he managed to get an interview with Sattar Sahib which was to be carried by Frontline, the prestigious news magazine of Chennai and gave him a fresh insight into the actual state of India-Pakistan relations. In Lahore among others he met members of a group which called itself the Kashmir committee but did not feel particularly enthused, about his talk with them.

The high point of A.G.'s itinerary in Karachi before his return home was his lecture on India-Pakistan relations - a subject which is close to his heart and on which he is probably much better informed than most others. The turnout at his talk sponsored by the Oxford University Press was exceptionally large and included the elite from among the Pakistani intellectuals, writers, newspaper people and lawyers and a number of foreign diplomats based in Karachi.

In his lecture, Noorani expressed his deep respect and admiration for Quaid-i-Azam for his political acumen and integrity and impeccable reputation as a lawyer in the Bombay of pre-Partition days. I remember A.G. telling me once while I was serving with the Pakistan Embassy in India and got to know him personally that whenever he went past Mr Jinnah's chambers in Bombay, he promised to himself that he would try to be a lawyer of his calibre, integrity and reputation after he had finished with his law studies.

The lecture itself was remarkable for the fact that A.G. specially spoke of the important turning points in the chequered relationship between Pakistan and India. He was candid almost to the point of being blunt while handling the questions at the end of the talk. It was not fair, as one of the Karachi eveningers suggested that he spoke like an Indian; the fact is that A.G. is too honest and too logical in the expression of his views to be partisan or be on the defensive. He has the courage of his conviction, on the basis of his deep study of the problem, and has no hesitation in speaking out his mind before any sort of audience - Pakistani or Indian or anything else.

Indeed, A.G. has an almost superhuman capacity to research for facts and is gifted with a memory which helps him recall almost instantly everything that he stores at the back of his mind. Of course, he also has a point of view but on the whole he is objective and has always wished well for India-Pakistan relations.

One of A.G.'s latest books deals with the BJP and its leadership. He has been most outspoken and critical abut the party's communalist policies and devious political tactics. To my question that since the BJP-led national coalition in New Delhi had made India's politics too Hindutva-oriented how did he think India could ever be rid of this brand of politics, his reply was: the need of the hour is for all the secular parties in India to come together to provide an alternative to the BJP-dominated National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which is at present in power.

Since I was required to do a formal interview of A.G. Noorani and he was too busy most of the time, I gave him a set of questions to which he graciously responded in his own time. Excerpts from these questions and answers are given bellow:

Q: You have made a special study of the Kashmir issue and are also the author of the most authentic book (The Kashmir question) about the problem, how do you think India and Pakistan could come out of the situation in which they find themselves locked?

AGN: The most important thing for the two countries to do is to establish a process of structured dialogue. This was attempted in the Islamabad joint statement of June 23, 1997 but it could not fructify. The (proposed) Agra Declaration also did precisely that. The draft declaration did not aim to settle the Kashmir problem but it did seek to establish the process which could have yielded that result. Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar explained the situation to me at length in his interview to me published in the current issue of Frontline. The two parties should now defuse the tension by a formula that reckons with the concerns of both sides. This is contained in the model joint statement issued in February 1997 on the conclusion of Mr Abdul Sattar's visit to New Delhi in the wake of the Exercise Brasstacks.

Q: As we view the situation in Pakistan, the Muslims of India have not been able to throw up competent leadership, one that would ensure that they get their rights under the Indian Constitution and receive a fair treatment. Your comment?

AGN: As you are aware, the cream of India's Muslim leadership went over to Pakistan immediately after its establishment. Even the ones who remained, like Chaudhri Khaliquzzaman, Hussain Imam and Z.H. Lari, who pledged loyalty to India, later went in search of greener pastures. They inflicted grave harm on the community, as did others like Josh. Well, what to speak of Indian Muslims, which country in South Asia has thrown up new leadership? In Britain, John Major and Neil Kinnock resigned from the party leadership when they led their respective parties to electoral defeat. Here in our region, leaders cling on despite several setbacks.

Q: Your extremely well-researched and highly esteemed book on Bhagat Singh has been published in Pakistan. What is your impression of the book publishing business here and of what is being written here on subjects like politics, India-Pakistan relations etc?

AGN: I have been in Pakistan now for a little over a fortnight, in three cities - Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. First, there was not a trace of war hysteria. Second, no panic either. Third, a blend of concern and regret at the troop mobilization and hope that the crisis would be resolved. I found Pakistanis asking themselves searching questions and challenging conventional wisdom. The press (in Pakistan) is free to an unprecedented degree. One has only to read the three volumes by Zamir Niazi, the devoted and superb chronicler of the press, to realize the degree of change (from the past) and to admire the fight that some put up, no less than the craven submission of same to power. We experienced that ourselves (in India) during the emergency in 1975-76.

A.G. Noorani is easily one of the important authors in India today. One is rather sad to see that he appears to have become somewhat estranged from several of his contemporaries including Kuldip Nayar (who in fact first introduced this writer to A.G. Noorani) and Khushwant Singh. At least this was the impression I formed while talking to A.G. during his recent visit and I would be happy to find that I am wrong.

A.G. Noorani: profile

Born in Bombay on Sept 16, 1930.
Education: at a government school in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Government Law College, Bombay.

Profession: practises law in Mumbai High Court and The Indian Supreme Court. In the highly Hindu-dominated society of Maharashtra it is not easy for a Muslim to make his mark as a lawyer and a writer which A.G. Noorani has done. He is one of India's top lawyers and defended Shaikh Abdullah of Kashmir during his long period of detention. More recently, he appeared in the Mumbai High Court against the glamorous film star and now politician, Jayalalitha, on the side of her main rival in politics, Karunenidhi.

Writings: Has written prolifically on Indian politics and foreign policy for most Indian journals and currently contributes regularly to The Hindustan Times (published from New Delhi and several other locations). His weekly column appears regularly in India's highly prestigious news-weekly, Frontline, belonging to the Hindu group of newspapers of Chennai (South India). He is the author of several books including The Kashmir question, (1964), Ministers' misconduct (1974), Constitutional questions in India (2000), BJP and RSS - a division of labour (2001), Trial of Bhagat Singh - politics of justice, and Muslims of India (under publication). He has also authored the biographies of M. Badruddin Tyabji and Dr Zakir Hussain.