Secular Indian or obfuscated Muslim?

Asif Anwar Alig on a unique set of memoirs and insights from veteran Indian journalist Seema Mustafa

Secular Indian or obfuscated Muslim?
Considering how such writings generally go, Azadi’s Daughter: Being a Secular Muslim in India  – A Memoir by Seema Mustafa is an unusual one to read and react to.

Eminent journalist Seema Mustafa has had an eventful journey in journalism for many decades now. She witnessed the massive transformation in Indian journalism: a process by which print and electronic media were entirely overhauled, changing hues in a period of over half a century. This memoir evaluates such facets of the fourth estate in India through her experiences as a female journalist, in the context of her credentials as a secular Muslim in India. Ironically, she is always seen through the prism of the Muslim communal context —though she repeatedly avowed her secularism.

Narrating the good, bad and ugly trends in Indian society, the book’s plot takes the reader from her birthplace Lucknow, to the national capital Delhi where she delved into the media profession and then to the many regions where she lived and worked as a journalist.

Little known facts come out about her life – from an unfulfilled stint in politics to encountering constant prejudice from political stalwarts and top bureaucrats against the country’s Muslims. Her name ‘Mustafa’, linked so overtly to a Muslim identity in general, brought her face-to-face with the chauvinistic context which prevails in India today.

By the manner in which it raises some formidable questions, this memoir turns into food for thought for both intelligentsia and common readers. It asks what caused the Indian Muslims to face such fear and suspicion. The seeds of communalism, after all, are plaguing Hindus and Muslims in India in all aspects of their social lives – while the dream of the country’s founding fathers for a secular nation has started fading.

Insurmountable questions from the wounds of the 1947 Partition to the rapid disintegration of secular harmonies are just some of the themes she explores. Examining stereotypes surrounding the Muslim communities and turning a critical eye towards the Kashmir context, this memoir does perceptive justice to such issues.
The story of her separated family, denied meetings by the respective countries India and Pakistan, continues until her father faces the biggest crossroads of identity in 1971

Being one of the few Muslim women and journalists from India to have served the country’s prominent English dailies, Mustafa asserts that “undoubtedly she is a Muslim culturally but not the same religiously.” Secular views were inculcated in her early on, due to her grooming in a culture and family that believed and lived with the spirit of secularism. By identifying the problems within and putting them in the context of rigidity and chauvinism from the so-called fundamentalists within the Muslim communities, she believes such attitudes forced them to face anarchy in their cultural identities.

She insists that there is a need to understand that far more importantly than asserting religious vigour through one’s external appearance, there is an urgent need to emphasise cultural roots without adopting divisive religious identities.

She brings quite a few anecdotes pertaining to her family, especially her father Colonel Mustafa, and speaks also of her family tree from both the maternal and paternal sides. Both sides of her family would defy the ghetto-style restrictions prevalent in Muslim communities for the girls to be groomed in ‘typical’ manner. Thus, she paints a vivid picture of her own upbringing in a free and secular atmosphere.

Seema Mustafa was born in Lucknow - an urban centre that is iconic to Indian Muslim cultural identity

Such an upbringing inculcated in her the dream of understanding India from a different perspective instead of being caught up in the usual challenges that come with belonging to an Indian Muslim family – and on top of that, being a woman and a journalist. She hoped to find such a spirit in her colleagues in the media, but found them in only some select individuals.

She provides a contextual explanation of events which transformed the culture of India for better or worse – from the Shah Bano case in the 1980s; the demolition of the Babri Masjid in the 1990s; mass arrests and the torture of Muslim youths in the aftermath of 9/11. She could not avoid the fact that the 2002 Gujarat riots brought about drastic changes in her life even as a seasoned journalist. She comes forth as a witness to the process of erosion of the culture of tolerance.

Her meticulous explanation of the national identities of Muslims in India in the context of Pakistan and the 1947 Partition is particularly candid. Her father’s five siblings, including the eldest brother, preferred going to Pakistan during Partition but others stayed in India. She writes about them in a sensitively crafted narrative.

The story of her separated family, denied meetings by the respective countries India and Pakistan, continues until her father faces the biggest crossroads of identity in 1971. His nephew, a Pakistan Army officer became a prisoner of war in India and a son-in-law lost his life when Pakistani submarine Ghazi was destroyed off India’s east coast. These are the painful narratives from a family which was destined to be separated. Her father was in the Indian Army and so he couldn’t utter a single word about such personal losses. In painful juxtaposition, on one side there were blood ties and on the other national loyalties.

This unique and fascinating memoir is more of a masterly commentary on Indian politics, rather than being narrowly focused on the personal insights and experiences of an autobiography.

Asif Anwar Alig is co-founder cum Editor-in-Chief at He was television producer at ETV; editorial coordinator at Management Development Institute, Gurgaon, India; Media Specialist at Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University, Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia; and assistant professor in the Saudi Ministry of Education. He recently co-authored the book ‘An Introduction to E-Learning’. He may be reached at