As the 2014 Indian general elections near fruition, all eyes are set to see which direction India’s political compass pivots to. But what has been commended for being the longest and biggest democratic election ever held has not been devoid of political manoeuvres. In the battle between politics and principles, even musicians haven’t been spared.
Recently, the family of renowned Shehnai player Ustad Bismillah Khan (late) was caught up in the political whirlwind. Members of Bismillah’s family played shehnai during the road show of the Indian National Congress’ Prime Ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi, elucidating that their performance was not an endorsement of the party.
“We would have performed for Narendra Modi [of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)]. We do not have any political affiliations. No one should mix politics with music,” said Affaq Haider, Bismillah’s grandson. “No one should see any politics in our performance today. It was not to endorse or extend support to anybody. We were invited and that is why we came here to perform,” he reiterated, reported the Indian Express.
But the performance was misconstrued, as it took place a mere two weeks after Bismillah’s family refused to become a proponent of BJP’s candidate for Prime Ministership, hardliner Modi, who filed nomination for the Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh (UP) Lok Sabha seat on April 24.
Affaq clarified that the family does not wish to be affiliated with any political party. He shared that his family members were approached by BJP’s mayor Ramgopal Mohale for a meeting. What they thought was a meeting intended to arrange a cultural programme turned out to be a politically driven one as Modi had sent “some people from Gujarat to meet them since he wanted Ustad Zamin Hussain (Affaq’s father) to be his proposer.”
“We politely told him that we cannot be Modiji’s proposer as neither was Bismillah involved with any political party nor do we wish to be. Bismillah used to say that you can talk to me for hours about music, but keep me away from politics,” said Affaq.
He proclaimed that he and his father never refuse any invitation for a cultural programme, be it for any political party including BJP, but he won’t let Bismillah’s name be dragged into politics. “Political parties remember Ustad only during elections and after that, no one bothers about him. You can see that even after eight years of his death, his mausoleum is yet to be built despite tall promises.”
The BJP has neutralised the issue by stating that Bismillah’s family is apolitical and that it had also performed during a dinner in favour of Modi.
With BJP and Congress head-to-head in the quest for forming a majority in the 16th Lok Sabha, contenders have been utilising every chance to make political mileage.
Two months ago, BJP workers and Modi supporters visited Khan’s grave in Varanasi at the occasion of his 101st birth anniversary. Although they did not carry party symbols and publicity material, they asked for media coverage, reported the Times of India.
Congress MLA Ajay Rai said, “Khan saheb took the shehnai to its zenith and popularised it throughout the world. But the UP government couldn’t even fulfil its promise of building a grand ‘maqbara’ in his honour.” BJP’s local media in charge also said, “We’re here to pay our tributes to the great son of Varanasi.”
Although the credibility of exit polls is questionable, they point to a landslide victory for BJP. This expected win portends colossal changes in India’s posture towards domestic affairs and poses serious questions over Modi’s treatment of Indian Muslims.
Given his perceived silence over the 2002 Gujarat riots and his association with the 1980s Ayodhya campaign, which sought to build a temple in place of the Babri mosque, there have been serious concerns among the Indian Muslim community regarding his Prime Ministership. Amid such a scenario, using confidence building measures for Muslims would be critical for his political trajectory. It seems that Bismillah’s family is also being used to develop this challenging rapport.
It is unfortunate that music maestros are being used as mediums of furthering political agendas. The ‘Pied Piper’ of BJP may draw a whopping number of votes, but it will be a little more difficult to turn a family of shehnai players to his advantage.
COMPILED BY AYESHA SHAIKH
Published in The Express Tribune, May 15th, 2014.