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Islam and Politics ( 13 May 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Inside Darul Uloom Deoband, a Seminary under Siege

By Mohammad Ali

14 May 2016

Forced to confront insinuations of terror links every time a plot is perpetrated or foiled, South Asia’s leading madrasa goes into a shell

Mohammad Saleem, 26, is browsing through the morning papers with a curiosity reserved for the unusual. Sipping tea at the grand-sounding Hotel Alfalah, which is but a regular snack joint, located just opposite the narrow lane which divides the landmark seminary Darul Uloom Deoband from the rest of the small town, he grows increasingly livid as he shuffles through the local pages of the Hindi dailies. Deoband-as-the-terrorism-hub is back in the media, a week after Shakir Ansari, a 22-old-resident, was arrested in the sleepy town 180 km away from the national capital on charges of being an sympathiser of a terrorist outfit.

“Again they are making a terrorist out of us. This is why we do not read Hindi newspapers. Such utter disregard for facts,” says Mr. Saleem, a Maulvi from Darul Uloom Deoband, as he discards the paper in his hand and picks up the Urdu daily Inquilab instead. He is referring to the Hindi press insinuating “a well-entrenched network of terrorists’ sleeper cell and training module” in Deoband even as the Delhi Police released 10 of the 13 youth arrested due to lack of evidence linking them to the banned outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Shakir is still in custody.

Spin-off reports in the local Hindi press after the May 3 arrests included one about Shakir allegedly planning a terrorist attack on the Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Thana Bawan constituency, Suresh Rana, incidentally an accused in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. Mr. Rana had, in February this year, stirred a controversy by suggesting that Muslims living in Deoband planned “Pathankot-like terror attacks” while addressing a by poll campaign meeting. Mr. Saleem’s issue with what he sees as a concerted media campaign to foist the badge of terrorism on the Islamic institution — and one that was closely involved with the freedom struggle — is that it is one of a piece with similar attempts of Hindutva groups owing allegiance to the BJP and the Sangh Parivar and this when no intelligence agency has yet found any evidence of Darul Uloom Deoband fomenting Islamist terror.

Glorious Past, Present Tense

Less than a kilometre away from the Alfalah hotel, past the white minarets of the nearby mosque and the wide red brick gates, one gets a sense of an institution — one of the most influential Islamic institutions in the world that frames Islamic discourse in the subcontinent — retreating further and further into its shell at being besieged. Students, research scholars, teachers and sympathisers betray a disturbing narrative, one in which the members of the Deoband community are on the defensive despite not having done anything that runs afoul of the law. The discomfiture is palpable — at having their nationalist credentials called into question and the badge of “terrorism” being pinned on the institution every time there is a terror attack or arrest in India and abroad; and at the simmering tension and sharp polarisation in the area three years after communal violence in nearby Muzaffarnagar claimed over 60 lives and displaced over 50,000 people.

Sitting on a chair in one of the rooms in the grand building, Maulana Ashraf Usmani, the spokesperson of the seminary, explains how the situation came to such a pass. “It is not just fatwa alone. Everything about Darul Uloom is up for demonisation,” he says even as the chorus of students learning the Hadith (the precepts and practices of Prophet Muhammad) floats in from the classrooms. The seminary’s Muhtamim (Vice-Chancellor), Maulana Qasim Nomani, a mufti and a Maulana by training, seated on a thin mattress spread across the floor, describes his dilemma every time “a journalist from Delhi, unaware of Deoband’s glorious past, interrogates us about our patriotism”.

“There is an attempt to erase our contribution in the freedom struggle. Our statements are manipulated to sound like we are asking Muslims to become nation-loving citizens, as if they generally do not love their country. Every time we have to shout at the top of our voice about our nationalist credentials,” he says. Maulana Nomani asserts that love and sacrifice for the nation was “inherent” in the fabric of the seminary since it was set up in 1866 in the aftermath of the 1857 War of Independence. “People are not aware about the contribution of religious scholars from Deoband to the freedom movement. Maulana Mahmood-ul-Hasan [widely regarded as the first student at Darul Uloom Deoband and who later taught at the seminary] was a part of the nationalist government-in-exile set up in 1915 in Kabul which was headed by Raja Mahendra Pratap and had Maulana Barkatullah as foreign minister, in what is known as the Silk Letter Conspiracy. Deoband’s founding fathers such as Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani and Maulana Ozair Gul were arrested and kept under detention on the island of Malta for a number of years.” Maulana Usmani adds that in December 1919, Mahmood-ul-Hasan gave the fatwa of “Tark-e-Mawalat (boycott of goods)” to boycott every English product. “This was one of the effective instruments against the colonial rulers which later even Mahatma Gandhi adopted,” he says.

Later the leaders of Deoband supported Mahatma Gandhi and opposed the two-nation theory. “Tell me about any other organisation in the country with such a nationalist and glorious past. Those who are questioning people’s patriotism need to come clean about their own allegiance to the Constitution and their role in freedom movement,” Maulana Usmani chips in rhetorically. Maulana Nomani interjects, reminding how Darul Uloom Deoband was one of the first madrasas to issue a fatwa against terrorism. “To disappoint many who revel in our demonisation, I must say that what takes place here is the opposite of radicalisation.”

A Secluded Island

A subdivision of Saharanpur district in the western part of Uttar Pradesh, Deoband is a Qasba, a small town which is essentially defined by its association with the religious seminary. But beyond the confines of the seminary housing 5,000 students, the urban population of the Qasba has a 60:40 Muslim-Hindu ratio while the rural population is more or less equally divided. The interwoven social fabric has ensured that the town has been spared of communal violence for the longest time. “Even after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, no Hindu-Muslim clash was reported. When Muzaffarnagar, Shamli and other places in the area were burning in 2013, Deoband, just twenty kilometres from the riots epicentre, stayed calm,” says Arvind Singhal, chairman of the local institute, Infinity College of Management.

There was a time, say Hindu elders of the area, when Darul Uloom Deoband would actively engage not only with the outer world but also its vicinity. Kuldeep Saith, whose family migrated from Pakistan decades before the Partition and who is one of the oldest residents of Deoband, remembers the time he used to play badminton with the children of senior Darul Uloom clergy at the local club, and of “mango parties” thrown by then-Vice-Chancellor Maulana Marghub-ur-Rehman in the Eighties. “There was people-to-people contact between the Deoband seminary and those outside. Sadly, that culture of interaction does not exist anymore,” he says. “It is because of the communication gap that there is a strong divide across religious lines and there is intense polarisation in the rural areas. Hindutva groups like the Bajrang Dal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh have exploited this communication gap and deepened the divide among people,” he adds. Mr. Saith, in what rings very similar to Mr. Saleem’s grouse, decries the “baseless” reportage of the local press and the slandering of Muslims without “any evidence and proper trial”.

It hasn’t helped that the seminary itself isn’t willing to rise about its purist moorings, as evidenced in its dismissive view of the recent debate over triple Talaq — after Shayara Bano, a 35-year-old woman, approached the Supreme Court demanding equality before law and seeking a ban on the practice — as “un-Islamic” and this, when 22 Muslim countries including Pakistan and Bangladesh have abolished it. The contradiction of its appeals to the secular democratic polity of India to uphold the rights of minorities in the country and its own failure to do its bit to protecting the rights of its own minorities couldn’t be starker. But the project of Darul Uloom Deoband embracing modernity even as it upholds tradition will proceed only if the media eschews ill-founded stereotypes of madrasas as nurseries of terror instead of peddling them.