By Hasan Suroor
Nov 4, 2014
An old joke about his father, Syed Abdullah Bukhari, likened him to a megalomaniac clown who wouldn't stop playing to the gallery even after the music had stopped and the audience had gone home.
Ahmad Bukhari is proving very much to be a chip off the old block: besides inheriting the Imamat of Delhi's historic Jama Masjid from his father, he also appears to have inherited his megalomania. His farcical bid to "snub" Narendra Modi (excluding the Indian PM from his son's comical Dastarbandi while pointedly inviting Nawaz Sharif to this non-event) in the name of advancing the Muslim cause is straight from his old man's fatwa spewing playbook that kept him in the headlines.
As the anti-Modi stunt shows, Bukhari junior is no less adept in garnering gratuitous publicity. But, curiously, amid all the sound and fury, the question that nobody has asked is: what is it that makes the nasty Bukhari dynasty tick so viciously? And why no attempt has ever been made to fix things?
For an answer, look no further than the popular Urdu saying; "Kyon Ke Is Hammam Mein Sab Nange Hai".
Let me explain.
The issue at the heart of this low farce is Jama Masjid’s arcane management regime that has allowed one of South Asia’s grandest mosques to be turned into the Bukharis’ personal fiefdom, and used for political blackmail. It is the biggest elephant in the room. Yet, no political party wishes to recognise it because at some point all, including the BJP, have flirted with the Imam.
Whatever may have been its origins, there's absolutely no justification in this time and age for persisting with a feudal arrangement whereby the Masjid’s control is automatically inherited by members of the same family without any independent oversight.
Shaban Bukhari, all set to become the new “Naib Imam’’ (deputy Imam) and ultimately succeed his father is only 19; and is, by all accounts, a novice with no formal grounding in Islamic theology. Yet, this teenager would lead Friday prayers and deliver Khutbah when his father is away. No wonder people are asking what is going on at the country’s most prestigious mosque?
To put it crudely, what is going on is a flourishing family racket. Running Jama Masjid brings with it not only immense political influence, as we have seen over the years, but also a great deal of financial muscle thanks to the income from the real estate attached to the mosque. Money, which is then used to buy and dispense patronage. It is common knowledge on the streets of Jama Masjid how its funds go into supporting favourite election candidates and keeping municipal and police officials happy.
So, why has this state of affairs been allowed to continue by successive governments?
Answer: political opportunism. For, let's not forget that there was a time when the then Imam (Abdullah Bukhari) could --and did--deliver Muslim votes to whichever party he chose to back. The Congress, the Janata Party (of which the BJP's precursor the Jana Sangh, was a part) and the Janata Dal, all benefited from the Imam's Muslim vote bank. As did the Samajwadi Party; and more recently, the present Imam endorsed Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the 2004 general elections. Naturally no party has ever wished to mess with the Bukharis.
It is also true that in another era—1970s and through the 1980s-- any outside interference in Jama Masjid’s affairs might have been resented by the Muslim community, generally. Fears of a Muslim backlash were real. In fact, the rise of Abdullah Bukhari as a national figure and a “leader’’ of the Muslim community is attributed by some to an attempt by the Delhi Wakf Board in the 1970s to question his authority. This led to a personal clash between him and the then chairman of the Board, Shah Nawaz Khan, following which he was detained under the Maintenance of the Internal Security Act. His supporters used it to whip up communal passions, sparking riots in the Jama Masjid area. He came out of the jail to a hero’s welcome marking the start of his career as a political broker.
But all that has changed.
Indeed, it had changed even in the old Imam’s life time. He died in 2009, but by then he had already become a spent force with his credibility greatly eroded because of his opportunistic wheeling-dealing. His anointed successor, the incumbent Imam, was never taken seriously -- and as last week's row showed, yet again, he is regarded as a bit of a joke. His writ doesn't run even in his own neighbourhood.
Given the anti-Bukhari backlash sweeping the Muslim community ("Who said you represent us? Fuming Muslims ask Shahi Imam after he snubs PM Modi”—Firstpost, Nov 2) few will shed a tear over the demise of this shadowy self-styled dynasty. In fact, Muslims themselves are calling for the current management and succession regime to be abolished and replaced by a more transparent system such as a democratically elected body accountable to Parliament. Likewise, succession should be either through election or a rigorous selection process. There is no reason why such changes cannot be brought through legislation after consulting the Muslim community.
Now is the time for the government to act when the Muslim public opinion is favour of reform. The Forum for Muslim Studies and Analysis (FMSA) , an Aligarh-based think-tank, called the current hereditary system of succession “un-Islamic Imamat’’.
“Passing on Imamat is un-Islamic and undemocratic that should not be allowed to go unchallenged. It must end,’’ a spokesman said.
No doubt, the Imam will try to give any such move a communal colour and accuse the government of being vindictive etc. The challenge for Modi is to ensure that the issue is handled with sensitivity and in full consultation with the Muslim community. This could also be a good moment to start talking to Muslims about other issues of specific concern to them.
Finally, I can’t resist complimenting the Imam for having managed to achieve, even if wholly inadvertently, what the battalions of secularists battling for years failed to do. In one silly, but momentous stroke, he has united Indian Muslims against his brand of communal and divisive politics that has greatly contributed to the state in which the community finds itself today. His misjudged attempt to cash in on Muslim scepticism about Modi has backfired so spectacularly that even his closest supporters have joined in condemning him.
Who would have thought that we would see the likes of Kamal Farooqui of the regressive All India Muslim Personal Board agreeing with the likes of Tavleen Singh and Sadia Dehlvi. Although I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the internal Muslim politics and group rivalries, for now I'm not tempted to look the horse too closely in the mouth.