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Zameer Uddin Shah’s Memoir ‘The Sarkari Mussalman’ is Essentially a Proud Muslim Army Man’s Book

A book review of The Sarkari Mussalman: The Life and Travails of a Soldier Educationist, The Memoirs of Lt Gen Zameer Uddin Shah.

The word memoir, often used interchangeably with autobiography, derived from the French word memoire meaning memory, is usually a part of the author’s life unlike an autobiography which captures the entire life of the subject. Memoirs can be truthful, evasive and sanitised. Of late, we have been bombarded by memoirs of politicians, film stars, sportspersons and just any public figure who had something to say, interesting or not. Some of these memoirs revisit debates and controversies that readers have followed over the years. This is what Saurav Ganguly did in his autobiography when he dwelt on his spat with Greg Chappell or what Shane Warne did spoke about Steve Waugh’s role in his omission from the team.

Less in public view have been the memoirs of many army men. Some, like the ones written by the soldiers of Azad Hind Fauj, have been of interest only to historians. Others, by more celebrated names, also have not been in public view as much as probably those of sportspersons and film stars.

Lt Gen Zameer Uddin Shah’s memoir The Sarkari Mussalman: The Life and Travails of a Soldier Educationist (Konark Publishers, 2018) follows a sparse chronology of the author’s life from his childhood to his role as the vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. But essentially, it is a proud Muslim army man’s book.

Shah must have had a challenge of sorts about what to include about his early years in his memoir because his celebrity brother Naseeruddin Shah’s outstandingly-written memoir And Then One Day (2014) had already dwelt on his family. In his memoir Naseer has written quite a bit about his mother, father, his extended family of uncles and his days at Mussoorie and Nainital. It was very well received both by the highbrow critics and the lay readers. One of the ‘complaints’ of Zameer Uddin Shah about Naseer’s memoir was the very candid treatment of its material at some places. But then, when was Naseer not known for his candid opinions on his films and his co-stars?

Zameer Uddin Shah
Zameer Uddin Shah (L) with his brother Naseeruddin Shah. (Photo: Twitter/@BharatTiwari)

Importantly, the two brothers had very different career choices and hence the nature of their memoirs is very different. In terms of variety and diversity Zameer Uddin Shah has led a remarkable life as a soldier, military justice and educational head of one of the premier central universities in India, besides travelling far and wide.  In terms of style, Naseer’s eye for details and theorizing is matched by Zameer Uddin Shah’s crisp and definitive opinions on a range of subjects.

The Sarkari Mussalman has been discussed in the media for tacitly charging the 2002 Gujarat state government for its inaction in stopping the violence against the minority community. Shah reveals how the army lost crucial hours because vehicles were not arranged for its operations despite his meeting with the erstwhile chief minister Narendra Modi and the then defence minister George Fernandes. Shah minces no words in talking about the violent nature of bandh organised by the right wing organisations on 28 February 2002. “The bandh turned violent with large-scale communal killings, destruction of economic assets, arson and looting, targeting the minority community(115).” Shah notes how the entire Ahmedabad city was burning and was horrified “to observe rampaging mobs, burning and pillaging with the police as mute spectators(115).” He further notes that “armed mobs were roaming unrestrained, committing arson and murder(116)”… and the police had a “contemptible and partisan attitude(118).” It “melted away when faced with majority community rioters(122).”

Even Army WhatsApp groups are awash with…blatant anti-Muslim venom, mostly directed at fellow countrymen.

His soldier’s pride shines through the entire book. He speaks very highly of the Indian army where he never experienced any religious prejudice. He is proud that the army did not indulge in profiling on the basis of one’s caste, creed and colour. It is because of his reverence for the army that he notes with grave concern, the recent incidents of hate mongering by, of all persons, army men. “I notice with concern that even Army WhatsApp groups are awash with…blatant anti-Muslim venom, mostly directed at fellow countrymen(181).” His view of India as a ‘salad bowl’ or a ‘harmonious orchestra’ is badly jolted when he witnesses such attitudes.

Shah shares some interesting insights about army life. For example, as he writes, “the most sought-after assignment for a military officer is a posting abroad (46).” His own assignment in Saudi Arabia gave him valuable experience about army and civil life in countries like Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and UAE.  He candidly shares his other observations .Thus he considers Haj subsidy a big hoax because “air fares are doubled and the government subsidises half the cost. In actual fact, the pilgrims are paying more than they would have paid had they obtained a group booking for such large numbers(58).”

Also Read: Book Review: A Chronicle Of A Journey Of Solidarity Through A Wounded India

There is useful information in the book about insurgency, its causes and various operations to tackle it in North East. Shah stresses his ethical point of view by speaking against seeking retribution by the army, against what he calls ‘Body Count Syndrome’ and killings for hurt army honour. He also reports about his experience of secret trans-border raids which are publicized today as surgical strikes. He makes a very important point when he stresses that “an insurgent deserves no sympathy but empathy is essential (91).” He considers the use of pellet guns in insurgency operations abhorrent and categorically states that “the Army must not protect wrong-doing by military personnel in cases involving rape, torture, false encounters et cetera(92).”

Importantly Shah does not favour military solution to an insurgency. “Most insurgencies stem from real or perceived sense of persecution, mostly bread and butter issues. The Armed Forces must remember that they are dealing with dissatisfied countrymen and not an enemy (99),” he writes. It may be remembered that Shah was part of 1971 Indo-Pak War, led anti-insurgency operations in the North East and was sent to quell violence in Gujarat in 2002. He is obviously privy to many important conversations and negotiations.

One longish chapter on his stint as vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University talks about his efforts to make the AMU one of the top ranked universities, to reform madrasa education, to open modern schools and to streamline and strengthen alumni network of the University. He does not shy away from speaking about his spat with an ex-Rajya Sabha MP who was an influential member of the Executive Council of the University. Neither does he evade some of the controversies, particularly the issue of the entry of undergraduate girl students in the central library which was blown out of all proportion, his spat with Smriti Irani, the then HRD minister and his problems with Aligarh’s Member of Parliament who was responsible for vitiating the communal atmosphere in the city and the University. His short essay on higher education in India, though, appears a bit simplistic and it is also difficult to agree with him when he speaks about “a total ban on teachers’ unions or associations(173).”

Zameer Uddin Shah

Talking about 2002 Gujarat violence, he takes a dig at K.P.S. Gill for hogging the limelight “after the task had already been done by the army.

Shah also does not shy away from expressing his opinions about some celebrity officers and army men. Talking about 2002 Gujarat violence, he takes a dig at K.P.S. Gill for hogging the limelight “after the task had already been done by the army (120).” He shares the snide remarks of soldiers about the title Sam Bahadur bequeathed to Field Marshal Manekshaw “who had never served with the Gorkha Rifles(43).” Shah also does not believe that Sam Manekshaw would have made the famous remark attributed to him before an imperious Indira Gandhi: “Madame, you don’t stick your big nose into my business, and I wont stick my big nose into yours.”

The book is written in a precise, unambiguous prose and a confident tone. There are no hedging modifications like ‘probably’, ‘sort of’ or ‘fairly’ in his prose; no discourse particles like ‘of course’  positioning him defensively. Instead there are plenty of verbal surgical strikes in the form of very direct one liners and epigrammatic expressions. One may and may not agree with the substance contained in them but they do lend the book a certain style. Sample the following: “Fight small-fight clever”; “The one who sees first-shoots first-and kills”; “Soldiers are seldom spurned and neither was I” or “ History has shown that only hardliners can take hard decisions.” Shah loves brevity and his book, all of 200 pages including very valuable and rare photographs, becomes a racy read because of his direct and uncomplicated approach to his subject.

(The author teaches English at Aligarh Muslim University)

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