Sait Sahib: A Beacon of Unity in a World of Chaos

Arbitration between two contending parties is often an unenviable task. The matter is further compounded when the arbitrator cannot afford to be on the side of either party involved. In many ways, arbitration and the just settlements of disputes is an art that not many people can hope to master. Belonging, as he does, to this select category, the late Indian parliamentarian, Sulaiman Sait, was known for the firm, but cordial relations, which he maintained with a wide cross-section of the public, whether King or commoner, with whom he came into contact.

In the words of his son, Mohammed Siraj Ebrahim, rare were the people who had shared his father’s company for even a short while, and come off unaffected and untouched by his simplicity and genial nature. It is perhaps a fitting testimony to Sait’s cordial ties as much with different, as with differing, sections of the community in India that he was chosen as the sole arbitrator in Shia-Sunni disputes by the Allahabad High Court in the early 80s when sectarian strife within the Muslim community had reached its zenith of those turbulent years. The Shias and Sunnis would have no other single Muslim leader who was equally acceptable as the arbitrator. Indeed, Sait Sahib’s unflagging efforts in easing tensions between the two groups played no small part in the subsequent picture of the late 80s and the 90s which witnessed a general coming-to-terms between Shias and Sunnis in India: by all accounts a landmark achievement, considering the fact that a wholly Muslim-populated nation like Pakistan continually, and to this day, struggles in the grip of this demon of sectarian politics.

Realistically, however, and for a visionary such as the one that Sait Sahib arguably was, for Muslim survival in India, unlike in Pakistan, unity between the diverse members of the community was, and still is, an absolute necessity. Perhaps, few political leaders of the community in India realized this to the extent that Sulaiman Sait did.  To Sait, individuality was the essential cornerstone of Muslim politics. This was exemplified dramatically when, prior to the national emergency clamped down by Indira Gandhi in the 70s, she invited Sait for a merger of the IUML within the Indian National Congress, in the process offering him a central cabinet portfolio of his choice and the Chief Ministership of Kerala for C.H. Mohammed Koya, another respected IUML leader from Kerala. In keeping with his vision that the IUML must retain its primary nature as the political instrument of the Muslim minority, Sait turned down the invitation.

From the records that speak out for Sulaiman Sait, one facet of his personality stands out for the impartial historian: he cared little for personal gains or losses in declaring, or carrying out, boldly what he felt was necessary to be stated, or to be done, in the interest of the community that he represented. Never wanting in his loyalty to the Indian nation in general, he, however, did not allow this patriotism to stand in the way of his first love – the good of the Indian Muslims whom he represented in particular. For those biographers who might object to this aspect of Sait’s patriotism, it would be sufficient to be reminded of the analogy that no person, granted the faculty of his innate and human nature, would seek to protect, or care for, his blood relatives in a manner that supersedes his loyalty to, and intimacy with, his very own parents – his mother and father – although all blood relatives do have their respective places within his heart. This acute sense of priority was an essential hallmark of Sulaiman Sait: a quality so sadly lacking in most others in the Indian political scene who constantly profess for themselves, the championing of the Muslim cause.

Answering a Pakistani tele-journalist’s question as to whether Muslims were secure under the Indian government of Indira Gandhi, Sait had, bluntly and without much ado about diplomatic niceties, answered that, on the contrary, Muslims had suffered persecution and had witnessed attacks on their lives and properties time and again under the Congress ministries. Sulaiman Sait had cared little for the repercussions back home for this statement of his which would, without doubt, be construed as an ‘irresponsible’ statement from an Indian diplomat in Pakistan. Being the man that he was, Sait, of course, could have done no other thing, although reports of the period state that a rather rattled Indira Gandhi had suggested – in vain – that he would give her no peace in his stand for Muslim rights.

Indira Gandhi, however, was not unaware of the mettle of the man that she was dealing with, and conscious of the international stature of this MP, she had suggested that he be appointed to the capacity of the Indian ambassador to the UN in the 70s. Being the iron-fisted PM that she was, it is difficult to visualize the chagrin that must have been writ large on her face, when Sait politely, but firmly, rejected her offer: an offer that was a lifetime opportunity which lesser men utilized, and continue to utilize, as their ticket to the high life of a privileged, globe-trotting, diplomat of the Indian government. Legend has it that the then Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister had intimated the news, that Sait had wasted away the opportunity of a life-time, to the Delhi-based State Trading Corporation (STC) deputy-head, Mr. Abdul Majeed, who was a close confidante of the parliamentarian. Appalled at Sait’s off-hand rejection of the PM’s offer, Majeed sought him for an explanation. It was an explanation which Majeed, in later years, would fondly remember as one of the very few which, thenceforth, made of him a virtual slave to the one offering the explanation. Sulaiman Sait had quite easily reminded him that being an Indian ambassador to the UN inevitably implied that, at all international venues where he was deputed, he was to – indeed, had to – pass over the predicament of the minorities in India lightly in keeping with the demands of global real-politick. And this, he certainly did not intend to do for, how else, he had asked Majeed, would he face his Creator in the Hereafter for the crime of being careless of the plight of the Ummah entrusted to his care? It was, indeed, a question over which the speechless Majeed would spend days, considering, in what wise, such words could emanate from a politician of post-independence India.

While being an act that was, in itself, reflective of his concern for the Muslims, it is of further interest to recall that it was Sulaiman Sait, and no other, who, in his capacity as a Muslim parliamentary member from India, undertook a risky mission to Iran and Iraq during the height of the devastating war between the two countries in the mid 80s.  His objective then, and as might be expected of him, was to attempt the making of a way for reconciliation between the two warring neighbours. Doubtless, his genuine concern for the Muslims spanned the breadth not just of districts and states of India, but, indeed, of nations and continents as well. His efforts with Ayatollah Khomeini and the Saddam Hussein of those heady days apart, Sait had also been one of the select political leaders in India who had, a personal bonhomie aside, an intimate understanding with the late Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman who represented, for better or for worse, the international face of the Palestinian suffering unleashed by the racist Zionist regime in the occupied holy land. For those who closely monitored the numerous humane gestures and interactions of the international masses, as against their corrupt governments, with the tragedy of the Palestinian predicament of the 60s, they will not fail to remember this remarkable parliamentarian who went out of his way after the 1967 war to forge the Indo-Palestinian Friendship Forum to which he, granted his credentials and impeccable track record in the cause of the Islamic community, was promptly elected as the General Secretary.

As has been said before, Sulaiman Sait’s had been a personality enamoured of the faith of the Arabian Prophet: a faith that preaches a universal – as opposed to a restricted – brotherhood of its followers. Indeed, in its higher purpose of convincing the people of the world with the timeless wisdom of its teachings, it envisions a brotherhood of all mankind in their common affiliation of belonging to the human race. With such an egalitarian philosophy close to his own heart, Sulaiman Sait could not but be concerned about the factionalism that has become the curse of the Muslim community within India and abroad.

Whether his efforts went unrewarded or not, is for history to judge. One thing, however, is certain: Sait had, through his exemplary activism towards just arbitration, both on the national and international stage, shown that it was still possible, in these difficult, unhappy times, to exist as a politician with more than a modicum of integrity and sincerity for the nation, in general, and the Muslim community, in particular. History, if it has any meaning, cannot fail to record him as such, and to grant him his rightful place within its hallowed precincts: the hall of those rare individuals who have contributed to the very making of its nobility down the ages.