Growing Up in the House
by Ms. Shabana Azmi

No two cities are as unlike as Mumbai and Delhi. The first, of course, is my city. I grew up and became what I am here. The other, I got to know a bit better during my stint as a Member of the Rajya Sabha. In Delhi, there are two clear divides. You can live in one part of it without being in the least conscious of how the other half lives or dies. In Mumbai, this is just not possible because even the swankiest localities exist cheek-by-jowl with slum tenements. As a Mumbai resident, therefore, you are forced to confront the hierarchies of life, and the deprivations that mark them. But Delhi has something that Mumbai does not have — a resource base of academics. They helped me understand issues in their greater complexity; helped me realise what it actually meant to be a liberal.

Therefore, looking back on my six years as an MP I cannot but feel a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity I was given to witness, at first hand, the vibrancy of Indian democracy. It has perhaps been the most educative of all my life experiences. I came to the Rajya Sabha with some trepidation. The very first day was marked by noisy protests and walkouts followed by an adjournment. The din carried on for several days. It was quite unlike anything I had witnessed before. My heart sank because I thought I would be a misfit. But as weeks passed by and I started understanding how the system worked — that this was not merely wilful behavior but a strategy to put pressure on the opponent to yield — I started warming up to the proceedings. There were times later when I found it difficult to resist the desire to exercise my vocal chords at the highest decibel! But I had promised myself that this would be within limits and I am happy to have been a disciplined member.

In my years here I listened with respect as my colleagues debated various issues of national interest. I realised how little the outside world knows about the hard work that goes into the passing of a bill — the amount of scrutiny every clause is subjected to, the learned opinions that are brought to bear on the desirability or otherwise of a particular word. In recent times, for instance, the quality of debate on CAS was of the highest order.

It was also rewarding to hear two points of view on a subject. It was a privilege to hear the best legal minds, Fali Nariman, Kapil Sibal, on one side, and Ram Jethmalani and Arun Jaitley, on the other. I have often had the freedom to make up my mind on an issue after I had heard all points of view on it expressed. There are, of course, the constraints of the party line that have to be observed. But what is clearly evident is that every person in the House recognises that there is a plurality of contesting voices that needs to be accommodated in the national interest. To be able to do this without fear is the hallmark of a democracy and, in this context, India does itself proud. This House is a microcosm of the diversity and the contradictions that are India’s greatest strength. Early on in my term, I happened to clash rather unpleasantly with my colleague, Sanjay Nirupam. Both of us used harsh words against each other. It is to our credit and maturity that today neither of us harbours any ill will towards the other. We agreed to disagree in an atmosphere free from rancour. This is a lesson I learnt and it should stand me in good stead.

There have been disappointments, too. I believe the Women’s Reservation Bill is crucial and it is a matter of deep regret that we haven’t been able to pass it in spite of all the parties claiming to support gender justice. The bill is no magic wand but it will help give women the right to participate in the decision-making process. I believe when a critical mass of women get empowered politically, they will transform the very notion of power itself.

I am also disappointed that we could not discuss the National Population Policy in spite of it having been listed. There just isn’t enough clarity on the issue and we resort to knee jerk reactions of panic in attempts to “control” the population when it has been proved elsewhere in the world that coercive measures do not work. The ground reality is that there is an inbuilt momentum in population growth — we have 240 million people in the reproductive age group of 15-25 years. Even if they were coerced into having just one child each, the population would not get stabilised before 2050, which is the goal of the National Population Policy. The two-child norm imposed as a condition to contest panchayat elections is a populist measure that will in no way stabilise the population. Instead it will divert attention from the government’s commitment to implement the policies already in place. It is, besides, anti-democratic, anti-poor and anti-women, because in our society women do not decide how many children to have or how to space them.

Looking back, I realise that my years in the Rajya Sabha were also years that saw the rising tide of communalism in our country. India’s greatest strength is her tolerance, her composite culture, her steadfast adherence to secularism. We must celebrate this pluralism. We need to understand that the fight today is not between Hindus and Muslims but between liberal Hindus and Muslims on one hand and fundamentalist Hindus and Muslims on the other. Fundamentalists, whether Hindu Muslim Sikh or Christian, are mirror images of each other. By their very existence they serve each other’s purpose but harm the nation grievously.

I ended my term with just one thought: Let us not be polarised on religious lines. Let us work towards healing each other’s wounds, let us live in harmony with all our differences and our contradictions, let us look into the future with hope. In my first speech in the Rajya Sabha, I had ended with a sher of my father, Jananb Kaifi Azmi. I last speech in the House also ended with a sher from his work:

Pyar ka jashn nai tarha manana hoga,/ Gham kisi dil mein sahi, gham ko mitana hoga.

We must celebrate love anew/ We must banish sadness, in whichever heart it may reside.

Editor's Note: Ms. Azmi, famous actress and activist, has just completed her stint as a Rajya Sabha member. Published in The Indian Express, September 2003.]

© 2001