I often joke that I didn’t like being born into a country of slaves, so I brought independence with me,” quips Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi.
Going by the images that surround him in his Nirvachan Sadan office on Ashoka Road, New Delhi, this Haryana-cadre IAS officer of the 1971 batch truly treasures independence.
One of the two election commissioners, he was appointed for a six-year term in June 2006, when he moved from his last posting as secretary, ministry of youth affairs and sports.
There is a photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru being sworn in as the country’s first Prime Minister, flanked by Lord Mountbatten and shadowed by Lady Mountbatten, in one frame, and another of him signing the Constitution of India. There is Rajendra Prasad, taking oath as the first President, and there is Mahatma Gandhi. “This is our history. This is how we started our journey as a free nation,” he says.
Quraishi had to dig into the treasures of the ministry of information and broadcasting’s photo division to procure these images.
He reasons that his lineage, and a childhood spent in old Delhi’s Mughal neighbourhood of Chandni Chowk, instilled in him a serious appreciation of freedom. “I come from a family that had lived in Chandni Chowk for five centuries. For the past century and a half, they occupied the same house in Matia Mahal. As children, we (six brothers and three sisters) played inside the Lal Qila, the symbol of India’s first war of independence in 1857.”
Like his father, he was schooled in the city’s oldest institution, the Anglo Arabic School, which dates back to the early 1700s. This was followed by admission to St Stephen’s College. He studied history and went on to become the first Muslim from Delhi to be selected in the IAS. Just as, 35 years later, he would become the first Muslim to be appointed an election commissioner.
The variety of influences during his youth meant he developed a passion for Urdu poetry, Cliff Richard and The Shadows at the same time. In college, he assembled his own electric guitars and played bass guitar in a band that had Sharon Prabhakar as the lead singer.
Although he was a Haryana cadre officer, he says he made sure that he got to live in New Delhi most of the time: “Delhi Gate, just a few kilometres from home, was the outpost in our world. I remember my father going past Delhi Gate for hunting. Our world was confined within the boundaries of what is now known as the walled city.”
Over time, he acquired a doctorate in social marketing and expertise in gender issues and HIV/AIDS. Several key positions, including that of the director-general of Doordarshan, came his way.
While in Haryana, he did his bit to revive interest in Urdu poetry by organizing mushairas and getting books published. He’s also working on a book to help people learn Urdu poetry through 199 key words. “The appreciation of poetry has gone down drastically,” he laments. As he does the fact that communal polarization has increased over time. “More than 80% of our tenants, during my childhood, were Hindus. By the time the Babri Masjid was demolished, nearly all of them had left. And several Muslim families that had moved out of Chandni Chowk had returned. We used to patronize several shops owned by Hindus; I still miss them.”
Which is why, perhaps, he says visits to his ancestral home, a far cry from his official residence on Akbar Road, have lost their charm.
As the world of his childhood crumbles around him, and that of his two children charts its own course, poetry consoles him. An ardent admirer of Mirza Ghalib and Bahadur Shah Zafar, he finds Momin Khan Momin’s couplet, that wowed even Ghalib, comforting: “Tum mere paas hote ho goya/Jab koi doosra nahin hota (It feels as if you are close to me/When no one else is).