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Dutt, Half Hindu Half Muslim? 

Who believed in Imam Hussain By: Ishatiq Ahmed

On May 25, 2005 Indian Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports Sunil Dutt, the legendary mega star, expired in his sleep at his residence in Bandra, Mumbai. Dutt Sahib was born on June 6, 1929 in a West Punjab village called Khurd, some 20 kilometers from Jhelum City. During the shooting of Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, Sunil Dutt met the famous Nargis; they fell in love and married. Dutt, a Punjabi Brahmin, and Nargis, a Muslim, became one of the most respected couples in the Indian film industry. I talked to Sunil Dutt in his office for several hours on October 20, 2001. 

I had met him to seek his support for my idea that a memorial to the victims — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs — of the 1947 partition be built in the no man’s land at the Wagah-Attari border. The idea of the memorial had occurred to me on November 27, 1999 when I was flying over the India-Pakistan border on my way from Delhi to Stockholm. The SAS aero plane flew over Lahore, my home city, but we did not land there and that made me sad. I felt that a memorial to the tragedy of 1947 would signify the acceptance of guilt on all sides as well as a genuine desire for reconciliation and forgiveness. Pakistan and India could then stop being hostile neighbours and start living like two brothers in their separate homes.

Dutt Sahib’s enthusiasm for the idea knew no bounds. He promised to help in all possible ways. Therefore the announcement that a Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service will start from April 7, 2005 made me feel that that magic moment was finally on the horizon and it was time to launch a campaign for the memorial. I was in the process of preparing for it when the news came in that Dutt Sahib had passed away. It was a great shock and I must admit it felt like a personal loss. Why someone who had only met Sunil Dutt for a few hours should feel so strongly about his death is something I feel I need to elaborate. 

I had followed Dutt Sahib’s public life with great interest when he entered politics as a member of the Congress Party in the 1980s. He was a committed Gandhian and held both Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr Ambedkar in great respect. His first great public engagement was to lead a long march from Mumbai to the Golden Temple in Amritsar after the assassination of Mrs Gandhi on October 31, 1984 and the subsequent massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, which shocked him deeply. His intervention was to protest the violence against innocent people.

He was elected five times to the lower house of Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha, never losing any election although he did not contest office in the late 1990s when his son, Sanjay Dutt, was facing charges of possessing a gun without proper license and having links with the underworld. The background to the trumped-up charges was that both father and son had taken to the streets during the 1993 anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai to protect Muslims from the Shiv Sena and other neo-fascist outfits. The riots had broken out in the wake of bomb blasts, which killed some 300 people and were blamed on the ISI and mafia dons such as Daud Ibrahim. Sanjay was subsequently cleared of the charges.

In 1999, when I visited Mumbai I had a conversation with a Muslim taxi driver about the bomb blasts and the subsequent riots. The taxi driver wore a long beard and was undoubtedly a pious Muslim. He told me that Dilip Kumar and his wife Saira Bano had done a lot to protect Muslims, but the contributions of Sunil Dutt and his son Sanjay will never be forgotten by the Muslims of Mumbai. They went from street to street intervening personally to stop mob attacks on Muslims. His narrative made a very strong impression on me and I asked him: “Well, tell me would Sunil Dutt go to paradise or not when he dies?” He hesitated for a moment and then said, “Babu ji you have asked a very provocative question and I am not a learned man, but Allah sees and hears everything and He is just. In my humble opinion Dutt Sahib should be admitted to paradise before me and my children.” I must say I have never heard a fairer statement and I was pleased none of us had been trained as a dogmatic cleric.

The Dutt Brahmins are also known as Hussaini Brahmins. In undivided Punjab they were to be found all over that province but considered the Rawalpindi-Jhelum tract their original homeland. According to their family belief and legend their ancestor Rahab Dutt was settled in Arabia and had met Imam Hussain and became his admirer and supporter. He and his seven sons died fighting on the side of the Imam at the battle of Karbala. The Dutts had subsequently continued 
to observe the month of Muharram with great solemnity and took part in the various ceremonies related to the tragedy of Karbala, but remained Hindus. The following folk quote reflects this:

Wah Dutt Sultan,
Hindu ka dharm
Musalman ka iman,
Adha Hindu adha Musalman
(Oh! Dutt the king
With the religion of the Hindu
And the faith of the Muslim
Half Hindu, half Muslim)

Sunil Dutt’s life was full of tragedy. His father died when he was only five. When the partition took place in August 1947 his mother, sisters and brother and uncle were in Pakistan. They had to flee to save their lives when people from outside their village threatened to come and kill them. His father’s friend Yaqub, who lived in a neighboring village, helped them escape to safety in 

When Nargis died of cancer in 1981, Dutt Sahib decided to help those suffering from that disease in all possible ways. He expressed his philosophy in the following words: “Disease and suffering have no religion and no nationality. My work encompasses mankind.” Thus he was the first Indian film personality to help Imran Khan raise funds for his cancer hospital in Lahore. In 1997 he was able to visit his village in the Pakistani Punjab. The people met him with great warmth and love and treated him as a lost son. He also visited Yaqub’s village to thank him but that great soul had passed away and his children no longer lived in the village. 

The author is an associate professor of political science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books. His email address is

courtesy: Zulfiqar Ali Butt





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