Kazi Masum Akhtar should be bigger news than he is.
When the headmaster of a madrasa is beaten up for training his students to sing the national anthem it should create a bigger furore than it has.
As of now only a couple of media outlets have reported the story. Akhtar is the headmaster of the Talpukur Ara High Madrasah in Kolkata. According to the New Indian Express he was training his students to sing the national anthem for Republic Day. But he ended up being “viciously assaulted by maulanas and their henchmen” who called the national anthem a “sacrilege” and a “Hindutva song”.
That is a bizarre claim in itself since Jana Gana Mana is a pet peeve of the Hindutva brigade who insist, despite Tagore’s own statement to the contrary, that it is obeisance to the King Emperor and would rather have Vande Mataram as the national anthem. The maulanas may have well done the beleaguered Jana Gana Mana a favour.
Except this is not a story about just the national anthem. This is an older feud with Kazi Masum Akhtar. According to the Hindustan Times, way back in March 2015, Akhtar came under fire for not wearing a skull cap and being clean-shaven. His wife told HT that the members of the managing committee asked him to mail photographs to the school to see if his appearance passed muster.
Also Akhtar writes in Bengali dailies and a column calling for strong actions against madrasas which harbor terrorists and an end to early marriages for girls irked many in the local community.
Even back in June 2015, the state education department unable to find a workable and safe solution was allowing him to mark attendance at the office of the district inspector of schools. What the New Indian Express article does not make clear is how he was back at the school teaching the national anthem under those circumstances all of which again underscores the fact that the story has not been covered in depth.
In March 2015, an incensed mob surrounded the school and beat him up with iron rods before police could get to him.
In March 2015, an incensed mob surrounded the school and beat him up with iron rods before police could get to him. They were angered, among other things, by an article he had written giving a historical perspective to the Battle of Karbala. He told the Indian Express he got calls saying “Are you trying to become another Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen? You will be eliminated.” The local police officer in charge told the paper they got a counter FIR where local Muslims alleged he was hurting the community’s feeling by promoting anti-Islam statements.
While many details appear confusing, what is clear is this is not a stray incident. According to the New Indian Express, Akhtar has appealed to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the governor and the chair of the State Minorities Commission six times but to no avail. The Indian Express reported in April 2015 that its investigations had revealed that the Metiabruz madrasah managing committee had petitioned the board to remove him because of an “atmosphere of tension”. At that time the Kolkata municipal elections were around the corner and the government had no interest in alienating powerful local community leaders. The Non-Party Democratic Forum had rallied by Akhtar’s side saying it “signals a forthcoming Talibanistic orthodox reign of terror for all citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims alike".
Ironically, the same Akhtar was recommended for the state government’s Shiksha Ratna award for best teacher in the state shortly before the trouble started.
The national anthem controversy has thrust him into the news because it is so egregious but this is the story of a longer tussle between the belief system of a teacher and the religious leaders of the community which he is serving. One could argue that his “progressive” beliefs are a mismatch in the more orthodox community where he works. But nothing can ever justify a mob with iron rods attacking the headmaster of the school.
Kazi Masum Akhtar deserves our attention because every act of intolerance deserves to be condemned with equal vigour.
Kazi Masum Akhtar deserves our attention because every act of intolerance, especially intolerance that leads to violence, deserves to be condemned with equal vigour. If VHP or Bajrang Dal vigilantes decide to strong-arm theatres to stop screening Shah Rukh Khan’s Dilwaale in Mangalore because of his comments about “intolerance” or the Sri Ram Sene drag women out of pubs, they deserve to be condemned.
Those who threaten Vidya Dinker - the Citizens Forum activist in Mangalore fighting against the spate of “immoral policing”- with rape, assault and murder, should be charged just as those who beat up Akhtar should be charged with assault. When police turns a blind eye to verbal violence, harassment and intimidation because it fears “tension” it sends a green signal to thugs of all sides that they can get away with more.
And that is what seems to have happened in this case as well. The Mamata Banerjee government has actually been good at nipping attempts to create communal tension in the bud. (Remember the furore over the missing fourteen-year-old girl which given communal colours before she suddenly returned home?) But at the same time it has been accused of pandering to the minority community for votes. As a result the police seem unwilling or unable to stand up to bullying to protect the likes of a Kazi Masum Akhtar.
That is why we should ensure Kazi Masum Akhtar’s case is not just a local news footnote. In many ways he stood up for the national anthem. Hopefully the media will also stand up for him.
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