By Hilal Ahmed
THE DEBATE on the “contentious” statement made by the Darul Uloom Deoband’s newly appointed rector, Maulana Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi, it seems, is dying down after his offer to step down. However, the manner in which this episode has been interpreted and analysed, especially by the media and political elite, raises a few fundamental questions about our awareness of the complex religious identities of Muslim communities and their practices of secularism.
Let me begin with the actual incident. In a news report based on an interview, Vastanvi was quoted as saying that all communities “are prospering in Gujarat” and there was “no discrimination against the minorities in the state as far as development was concerned”. Although Vastanvi did not give a clean chit to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in this interview on the 2002 pogrom, he stressed that it was now time to move on.
This became highly controversial. A section of Islamic scholars and a few Muslim political leaders alleged that Vastanvi’s statement had not only given legitimacy to the policies of the Modi government but also undervalued the trauma of the 2002 riot victims. Students at Darul Uloom also protested and demanded his resignation. Refuting these claims, Vastanvi said the media had misquoted him. He argued that he did
not praise Modi at all. His opponents, however, did not accept this clarification.
One finds three very different explanations of this event. A section of Muslim intellectual elite placed this incident in the conventional "secularism versus communalism" framework. It was argued that these remarks were not "secular" primarily because the Muslims of Gujarat had been suffering from state-sponsored communalism since 2002. Therefore, the progress of Muslims in Modi's Gujarat is a false claim.
The second kind of explanation was a bit supportive of Vastanvi.
Criticising the mentality of Muslim victimhood, a few commentators argued that Vastanvi's statement should be seen in the wider perspective of social change and economic progress of the state.
Gujarat, we were told, is developing very fast and it is quite obvious that all communities, including Muslims, are getting the benefits of this all-round progress.
Thus, Muslims are advised that they should get rid of the mentality of victimhood and think of moving ahead.
Finally, there was a third, rather unclear, explanation of the controversy. The statement was described as "shocking" because it was not expected that someone like the rector of Darul Uloom would make a statement like this.
It was assumed that the dividing line between the Muslim leader ship and Hindutva forces is given, fixed and historically natural. Thus, Vastanvi’s statement is “abnormal” and could easily be described as “breaking news”.
These explanations, I believe, are quite instructive. No one would deny that the riots in Gujarat in 2002 are not an important concern for Muslims; nor could one ignore the relevance of moving forward in a positive sense. However, what is problematic in these accounts is a given fixity of Muslim identity and, for that matter, a rigid understanding of Muslim socio-political concerns.
I would like to specify two important points here to underline these limitations: The problem of treating Muslims as a single, homogeneous social entity and; the participation of Muslims in socio-political movements.
Muslims in India are not at all homogeneous. There are various Muslim communities which are divided along caste, language, region and class lines. There is no one Islam in India which could be called “the religion of India’s Muslims”. It is true that the Hanafi sect of Sunni Islam is the dominant sect of Muslims in India, which is quite directly related to the Deoband school. But there are other Muslims sects that do not follow the Deoband kind of Islam. In such a complex scenario, is it appropriate to treat a statement by the Deoband’s rector as a “defining” political claim?
One may argue that Deoband has a political history of its own.
It is true that in post-colonial India, especially in the late 1960s, this seminary was changed into a "Muslim political centre". The pro-Congress Madani group, which established its virtual dominance over Deoband, started giving political "advice" to Muslims during the time of elections. However, after the emergence of the "election fatwa" politics of the self-styled "Shahi Imam" of Jama Masjid in the 1970s, the Madani group was somehow marginalised. But they managed to establish a media-friendly image of Deoband. This image was further consolidated in the post-9/11 scenario, when Islamic terrorism was alleged to be linked to the ideology of the Wahabism/Deoband school. Although, the madrasa came out openly against terrorism, this negative publicity also helped the ulema elite get significant media attention. The recent controversy, in my opinion, grew out of this "media-centric" approach of the madrasa.
Interestingly, most of the commentators virtually ignored the actual social status of Deoband.
This madrasa is not a centre of Muslim political discourse and precisely for that reason common Muslims, including those who follow Deobandi Islam, do not treat it as more than a reputed educational institution.
This brings us to the second point. It is strongly believed that Muslims do not think of non-religious issues. For them religion is everything. This assumption is again problematic. From electoral politics to social movements, Muslims have been participating in all kinds of politics — not merely as Muslim voters but also as workers, peasants, displaced people and so on.
Unlike the popular conviction that socio-economic issues are purely “this worldly” and one cannot raise them without accepting a rational-secular worldview, Muslims participate in the political process without giving up their specific cultural identities and Islamic religiosities.
Muslim participation in the Chhattisgarh movement, and more recently in Nandigram agitation, are quite relevant examples in this regard. So, Muslim communities at the grassroots level do not need political advice from Maulana Vastanvi or media commentators to move forward. They have their own issues, their own resolves and their own mode of politics.
The emptiness of the Deoband controversy thus reminds us that we need to devote our intellectual energies to recognise the diversity of Muslim communities and their own meanings of secularism at various levels. This might help us make sense of the actual political values of those controversies that are often imposed on Muslims as “Muslim issues”.
HILAL AHMED is an associate fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi