Rare Interview of Hamid Dalwai Gives Insight Into the Social Reformer's Thinking

In a 1973 interview, the founder of the Muslim Satyshodhak Samaj talked about his beliefs and the roots of his politics.

Hamid Dalwai’s name was first introduced to many young Indians in Ramachandra Guha’s book, Makers of Modern India. He was referred to as the “last modernist”. He was a journalist and social reformer, and the man who carried out India’s first protest march for abolishing triple talaq.

On the occasion of Dalwai’s 46th death anniversary, The Wire reflects on his remarkable contributions and contemplates how would have perceived present-day India. He was only 44 at the time of his death.

Dalwai championed the cause of progressive reforms within the Muslim community, challenging practices like triple talaq and resisting the communalisation of the Urdu language. Unfortunately, these very issues have now been co-opted by the RSS to promote their divisive communal agenda. It is worth noting that Dalwai even advocated for a unified secular civil code, contrasting RSS leader M.S. Golwalkar’s staunch opposition.

Dalwai hailed from the village of Mirjoli, Chiplun in Maharashtra’s Konkan region. At the age of 14, he became a member of the Rashtra Seva Dal, an emerging organisation established just five years earlier. During this formative period, he imbibed the principles of democratic socialism, secularism, scientific rationality and national pride, which would profoundly shape his journey. While organisations witness numerous members over time, only a select few possess an unwavering commitment and adherence to their ideals, and Dalwai was undoubtedly one of those exceptional individuals.

During his early years, Dalwai engaged in socialist activism and also worked as a journalist for Acharya Atre’s newspaper, Maratha. It was during this period that he authored the novel Indhan (Fuel), which has been translated into English by Dilip Chitre. However, Dalwai’s literary pursuits took a backseat as his dedication shifted towards social reforms. He was deeply troubled by issues like arbitrary polygamy and forced divorces inflicted upon women within the Muslim community. This concern drove him to lead a significant protest march on April 18, 1966, where divorced women boldly voiced their grievances – an audacious form of protest in those times.

He founded the Muslim Satyshodhak Samaj, an organisation inspired by Jyotiba Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj. Dalwai had his wife and social reformer Mehrunnisa Dalwai by his side at all times. Mehrunissa’s autobiography describes how the life of a social activist and reformer is far from easy. She also narrates the tensions that arose within the protest movements and the threats her husband faced from the orthodox Muslim community.

Mehrunnisa too passed away in Pune in 2017. She had published a book titled Angry Young Secularist, a compilation of 13 Marathi articles written by various people about Hamid Dalwai. The book also includes a rare, easy-going and subtle interview with Hamid Dalwai. This interview, conducted in 1973 and published in Manohar Weekly on August 26, 1973, provides a good understanding of the way Dalwai thought about the politics of the time, communism and religious fundamentalism, among other things.

Read the full interview below, translated from the Marathi original by Zeeshan Kaskar.

Medha Golwalkar (Dadar): What is the dispute/difference between your ideology and the programmes of the Jan Sangh? 

I am totally against the ban on cow slaughter. I feel society should be rebuilt on the principles of equality. Aligarh and Benaras Universities must get rid of the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Hindu’ and these universities should be declared as central universities. Men and women must have equal rights, and that’s why I am constantly keeping a track of the Uniform Civil Code. In my opinion, everyone must resort to family planning; not just that, it must be compulsory for everyone.

In short, the administrative and political decisions of this country should not be influenced by what is followed by a particular religion, or what a particular religion agrees or disagrees with, but on the basis of what is required for the economic and social development of millions of people of this country. Jan Sangh’s views on these issues can be found in their values. Medhabai, I hope it will be easier for you to point out the differences in our views from my above answer.

Hamid Dalwai leading a protest demanding a Uniform Civil Code.

Ashok Parab (Jogeshwari): What are your honest views on inter-caste marriage?

Those who want to get into an inter-caste marriage should be allowed to do so without any restrictions. Marriage is a private thing, I think people should not tamper with others.

I am giving my ‘honest’ opinions here, thus, I don’t feel that there’s a need to write that I am giving my honest ‘opinion’, it is what I feel.

Ramesh Udare (Mumbai): “Destroy the one, who is an idol worshipper.” Is there a statement like this in Quran?

There is not a statement like the one which you said. But there is a statement which says that there should be a tax on idol worshippers. It’s this very statement which gives birth to the Jizyah tax. (Jizyah tax was historically levied in the form of financial charges on permanent non-Muslim subjects (dhimmi) of a state governed by Islamic law.)

But the bigger question is not what is or is not written in the Quran, it’s how do we want to keep up our human relations in today’s times? You will find statements [that go against] the ideas of social equality in almost every religion. Manusmriti too has not given equal rights to women and the lower castes. Modern Indian society will not be based on the ideas of the Manusmriti and Quran. It’s essential for both Hindus and Muslims to understand that the development of Indian society depends on equality for all its citizens.

Prakash Bhagwat (Yavatmal): Who is mainly responsible for the communal riots?

Many a times, both Hindus and Muslims are responsible for the communal riots.

A.R. Kasture (Gultekadi): How are the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims outside of India?

Relations are good in some places, and bad in some other places. For example, in Indonesia, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus are a minority, but still there isn’t any communal tension. There are other countries too, like, Malaysia, Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia, etc, where the non-Muslims are a minority and still living peacefully. Arabs and Jews have faced persecution in a few Arab countries. Sikh and Hindu minorities of Pakistan have diminished. On the other hand, the Hindus of Bangladesh have been provided with safety.

Mahadev Kokate, Chandrakant Dharmadhikari (Andheri): Will there be demands of a new Pakistan if the number of communal Muslims increases in India?

I don’t think you should worry much about the demands of the communal Muslims. They might even say, ‘We want a Pakistan at Bhendi Bazar.’ I don’t think it’s wise to think that such a thing will happen, just because they are demanding this. And there isn’t a foreign government in place, which will ‘give’ a separate country.

Mohammad Sami Contractor (Aurangabad): Do you consider yourself as a Muslim? If yes, then what are your principles regarding namaz, fasting, Quran and the day of Qayamat?

I don’t pray, neither do I fast. I believe the Quran is not made by God, rather, it’s made by Mohammad. Thus, as a matter of course, I don’t believe in the day of Qayamat. But then too, I am a Muslim, because I am born in a Muslim family. I am Muslim by the same logic by which Nehru was a Hindu even after being a non-believer. Because I don’t agree with the typical definition of being a Hindu or Muslim. I believe it is much more nuanced than that.

Bal Jambhekar (Vasai): Who is your political guru? And do you too, like Bal Thackeray, have bodyguards with you?

I am my own political guru. And where is the money to afford bodyguards?

Ghulam Ahmed (Aurangabad): Why do you choose to write in Marathi, when only 10% of Maharashtra’s Muslims understand Marathi?

Ninety percent of Maharashtra’s Muslims understand Marathi. The rest 10% Muslims from the urban areas understand improper Urdu. That brand of Urdu is mostly Marathi mixed or filled with a typical Mumbai slang. Such Urdu would make the head of a person from Lucknow spin.

Ghulam Ahmedbhai, now you understand why have I done all my work in Marathi?

Sudhir Kumar Acharya (Kalyan): Did you get the support of your family in this programme of social development?

Yes, in various ways. But you must define first what you mean by ‘family’. A lot of my family’s responsibility is shared by my wife as she also works to earn money. I feel, even this is a kind of support.

Swamiprasad Pandit (Pimpri): How much has a creative writer benefited by entering into politics? You are a profound, light-hearted writer; have you left writing in that manner these days?

I think you should answer to how much politics has benefited me. I don’t rest enough these days, to write in a light-hearted manner. I regret it, too. So, the fact that I am regretting it, is enough assurance that I will start writing in a light-hearted manner soon.

Meenakshi Tatke (Pune): Your family – especially your mother, father, wife and kids – do they agree with your views on religion?

They do not necessarily agree. Also, I don’t insist that they should agree. They should not force their perspectives on me. Everyone must have a right to choose their religion, that is what I believe. Thus, in a similar way, we have brought about a democratic freedom in our house and are leading a peaceful life. Even you must try this practice in your house.

Sheikh Siraj Ahmed (Samsherpur): Why is the Satyashodhak Movement based in an urban area when most of the Muslim population lives in the villages?

All movements originate in cities, then they are followed by rural areas. Our movement has just begun. As it will grow, it will spread in the rural areas too. I hope you are able to find the answer to your question.

Arun Chavhan (Satara): Indian Muslims are mostly living happily here due to the tolerance of the Hindus. Why can’t the Muslims unite amongst themselves?

I might have to write an entire thesis to answer this question. The internal struggles of differences in Muslim society are the biggest hurdle in uniting Muslims, that is the shortest answer to your question. But the differences will only diminish when Hindu society is made modern.

Sudhakar Joshi (Jamner): Is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) communal?

The spokespersons of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) claim that it is communal. You will understand that from the speeches and writings of many leaders of the Sangh. Also, from the political positions they have taken, you will understand that.

Vishwas Diggikar (Umarga): It is very rare that the ‘good’ people of politics are solid financially, that’s why I ask, what are your means of sustenance?

Many Muslim communalists believe that I get funds from the CIA (American secret service organisation), KGB (Russian secret service organisation), Christian missionaries, RSS, Jan Sangh as well as Indira Gandhi. On the other hand, there are some Hindutvavadis who feel that I am Pakistan’s secret agent and that I get my funds from Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto these days.

Well, the reality is – I am a full time member of the ‘Indian Secular Society’, I get enough salary from the society for my sustenance. Also, my wife works and I live in a two-room chawl in Mumbai’s suburban area. We also help society financially by getting donations as well as a few advertisers for our programmes.

Vishwasrao, I hope you have ‘vishwas’ (trust) on me. And you make your opinion about my sustenance on the basis of my above answer.

Vyankatesh Ligde (Mumbai): Why doesn’t the Indira Gandhi government enact the Uniform Civil Code? Congressmen say, ‘Won’t make any changes in the Muslims Shariyat for an accumulated Muslim vote.’ Is it true?

You asked two questions. I think it would be better if you ask the first question to Indira Gandhi. Your opinion about an ‘accumulated’ vote is true, but the Congress leaders say, ‘We won’t make changes in the Muslim law presently.’ ‘Muslim law’ and ‘presently’ are two very crucial abbreviations by Congressmen. There is Muslim law in India for Muslims, not the Shariyat. Shariyat is not present in any other country, except Saudi Arabia. And I perceive ‘won’t enact a law presently’ as saying, ‘we will do it when time comes’.

Dilipkumar Patanekar (Chiplun): Hamidbhai, is the Muslim League a boon or a curse for the Muslims?

It’s a curse! Not just for the Muslims, but also for the Hindus. Also it’s a curse for our country, is what I think.

Subodh V. Tharval (Khed, Ratnagiri): Islam is a religion that promotes democracy and egalitarianism. What is your opinion on this?

No religion promotes democracy or egalitarianism. Islam is no exception in this case. Religions construct a society on the basis of spirituality. They are all medieval, whereas democracy, egalitarianism, equality, all these are the concepts of the modern age. We all must understand that religion cannot be the basis for the development of a culture in a society.

Digambar Pathak (Amravati): You always write and talk about Hindu-Muslim equality, but many instances have shown that today’s educated Muslim is not ready to show love towards India. What is your opinion on that?

What opinion will I give? I have only pointed out many instances showing that the educated Muslim class doesn’t show love towards India. And you are asking me to give my opinion on my very opinion! You must be awarded a Nobel prize for the light-heartedness for this question of yours.

Kshama Tawade (Mumbai): Muslims are against the idea of family planning. Is this not sedition?

Communal Muslims, Catholics, some leaders of the Jan Sangh, RSS, Shankaracharya of Puri and Acharya Vinoba Bhave, all of them are against the idea of family planning. So are you suggesting that all these people are seditious?

Everyone must bring into practice the national policies which are designed for the financial betterment of millions of Indians. Family planning is one of those policies, and I think it must be made strict for everyone.

Along with that, in a country where there is a rise in the number of unproductive cattle and where the agriculture and finance experts say that there’s a need for their number to go down by 30%, don’t you think that the ban on cow slaughter is also against the development of our country?

Vinod V. Tambre (Nashik): What do you think about the current situation in Bangladesh?

Bangladesh has just been granted freedom and it had seen a lot of violence during the Mukti war. That’s why the current climate is looking unstable there. The pace of financial rebuilding has gone up. Slowly but steadily, the country will become politically stable and then maintain good relations with India, that is what I feel.

Shyamkant Kulkarni (Malegaon): Would you like to convert into Hinduism?

I would like to point your attention to the answer that I gave to Mohammad Sami Contractor’s question. I am a Muslim by birth, and Hindu by tradition. Thus, I feel I should be a better human before becoming a Hindu or Muslim. Because I think religion has now gone behind the curtain of time.

Shyamkantrao, thus, let me be a human for the time being. Don’t pull me into the complexities of Hindu-Muslim.

Sulbha Bakare (Amravati): You face disappointment, insult and sadness in your work often. And a human needs a support system in such times. Who is your support system?

I have never thought like that. It’s a good thought, I will definitely think about it.

Anil Chanakhekar: It is very difficult for an intellectual revolution in a Muslim society where there is a lack of intelligentsia in the Muslim middle class. What are your ways to bring about a social development?

Muslim Satyashodhak Mandal’s main work is to develop individuals with such intellectual abilities.

Ganesh Parshuram Bavarkar (Donivade): Are you ever scared for your life while you express such new, radical opinions in front of the Mullah-Maulavis?

Do you think I would have done the work which I am doing if I was scared?