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
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.]