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The War Within Islam ( 31 March 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Bareillvi-Deobandi Tussle: Behind Bareilly’s Communal Turmoil

By M Shamsur Rabb Khan

The communal flare-up that hit Bareilly – a sleepy city of Uttar Pradesh – on March 2, 2010 when Juloos-e-Muhammadi procession (a procession taken out to mark the birthday of Prophet Muhammad) turned violent after insisting on marching through a communally sensitive locality, which was followed by riots between Hindus and Muslims. Soon, the trouble escalated to other parts of the city due to which curfew was clamped. On March 8, Tauqir Raza Khan, son-in-law of Subhani Miyan and national president of a Muslim organization, Itihad-e-Millat Council (IMC), who was leading the Juloos-e-Muhammadi procession, was arrested from his office by police in connection with the rioting. The police booked Tauqeer Raza, who he had been booked in the past under various sections of the IPC, including anti-national activities for his fiery speeches, for inciting people and plotting riots.

The arrest of Tauqir Raza Khan turned the situation more volatile since the followers of Bareilwi sect came out on the road, defying curfew, for his immediate release. It was the result of the high-pitched communal speech by Sunni cleric Subhan Raza Khan (popularly known as Subhani Miyan), the head of the famous Ala Hazrat dargah (also known as Khankahe Niyaziya mosque) only added fuel to the fire. Via loudspeakers, Subhani Miyan called people of the city to come out on the streets and protest against the detention of Tauqir Raza Khan. But here took place a lapse on the part of the administration. Had the police acted with a little prudence, the matter would not have escalated to the extent it did. Ignoring the importance of Tauqeer Raza Khan, one of the most important Maulanas of the Barelwis in India, and a direct descendant of Ahmad Riza Khan Bareilwi, who is revered by the Barelwis throughout the sub-continent, the police went on to book him. For local Muslims, this was a partial move by the police as they did not arrest any other ‘prominent’ person from the Hindu community. After comprehending the importance of Tauqeer Raza Khan along with political pressure from above, the police released him. But the damage had been done by then. Now it was the turn of Hindus to raise their protest, protesting against his release.

While assessing the communal flare-up in Bareilly, we need to explore the great Deobandi-Barelwi divide, aided and abetted by the religio-political ambitions that the holy men of these two sects nurse. Historically, the bitter rift between Deobandis and Barelwis dates back to the 19th century, when, Ahmed Raza Khan (also called Aala Hazrat or Fazil-e-Barelwi), a religious scholar of repute and founder of Barelwi School, parted ways on a theological line that was different from Deoband. Having established his dargah (hospice) at Bareilly, Ahmed Raza Khan propagated Barelwi thought and called himself and his followers “True Sunnis”, and described Deobandis as “Wahhabis”, while Deobandis called the belief of Ahmed Raza Khan and his followers ‘Biddat’ (innovative practice in Islam). The enmity grew so intense in the first half of the 20th century that countless “Munazras” (religious debates) between the two sects ended in fierce antagonism, abuses and even throwing of holy books including Quran.

The intensity of antagonism can be experienced throughout northern India; even in villages followers of each school don’t see eye to eye. While Barelwis revere ‘Milad’ as sacred Islamic belief, Deobandis ridicule it as the imitation of non-believers. In my village in Gaya district of Bihar, when a mosque has to be constructed the issue arises as to who will control it – Deobandis or Barelwis. That is the crux of the matter. The tussle between Barelwis and Deobandis has much to do with the dominance of mosques. This has become a major issue since the Deobandi ideology has been on the rise in recent decades due to which the Barelwis feel threatened. So, in a few mosques in Sasaram and Mumbai, it is clearly written in bold letters: “Tablighis, Deobandis, Ahle Hadis, Jamaat-e-Islami, Kafirs are not allowed”. Just a few months ago, in a meeting of prominent Barelwis, Maulana Tauqeer Raza gave a call to all Barelwi Muslims to ‘liberate’ their mosques and madrasas from the clutches of the Deobandis. Within Bareilly itself, mosques have become the sites of an ideological battle with the Barelwis accusing Deobandis of usurping their mosques. 

Unlike Hindu-Muslim conflict, Bareilly has witnessed Barelwi-Deobandi riots on several occasions in the past. Over the years, the level of conflict has worsened. Each regards the other as non-believers or kafirs. Mosques in Bareilly, and now in many other towns and cities, carry a signboard announcing that it is a Barelwi mosque and non-Barelwis cannot pray there. If missionaries of the Tablighi Jamaat ever use the mosque to propagate their ideology, the mosque is washed and cleansed. Having hold over illiterate Muslims and to stop the advancement of Deobandis, the Barelwis have been working hard to regain control over mosques, which are slipping away from their hands. Barelwis feel Deobandis enjoy disproportionate power and prestige despite being the numerical minority among Indian Muslims. With visible threat and with more and more Muslims becoming Deobandis, Barelwi maulanas face the danger of losing the patronage of vast number of Muslims across the country. This would make the Barelwi leadership obsolete

The whole idea of being a Barelwi is to oppose Deobandis, Tablighis, Ahle Hadis, Jamaat-e-Islami, etc. So, anything that Deobandis or Jamaat-e-Islamisists do, Barelwis oppose it outright. For example, rejecting the formation of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan formed a new board called AIMPLB Jadeed (modern) under his leadership, though there was hardly anything modern about this Board since it was as ridden with factionalism as the AIMPLB. Interestingly, Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan is the head of an organization called Ittehad-e-Millat (Council of Muslim Unity), although he has worked towards giving self-styled interpretation of Islam, and considers Deobandis and Ahle Hadis as being not Muslim enough and puts them at par with Hindus. Thus Deobandis and the Ahle Hadis are not Muslim enough and it is not permissible for Muslims to pray behind imams (prayer leaders) of such denominations. Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan is also infamous for offering a Rs five lakh reward to anyone who killed Taslima Nasreen. What a way of creating unity among Muslim!

Deobandis are no less vehement in rejecting the ideology of Barelwis. Less moderate while dealing with Barelwis, Deobandis have worked the least to create any rapprochement, in order to create a unified Muslim body. Prominent Muslim bodies such as the AIMPLB are dominated by the Deobandis and various governments have courted them with an eye on the Muslim vote. In Bareilly, the Deobandis are much better organized and through their network or madrasas and movements such as the Tablighi Jamaat, they are winning over considerable sections of the Barelwi Muslims. With nearly 34% Muslims in the district and almost 40% in the city, it is the Barelwis, who are, and have traditionally been, the numerical majority. Deobandis and other reformist traditions within Indian Islam are a minority here although their numbers are growing.

With a belief that they are the sole guardian of Sunni Islam in India, the Maulanas of Barelwi School are very aggressive in speeches and antagonistic in approaches when they deal with ulema of Deobandi School and Jamaat-e-Islami and vice verse. As per the traditional Islamic belief, the Juloos-e-Muhammadi procession is a religious innovation, and Deobandis consider it nothing but an exclusive affair of Barelwis to show the strength of the community. In Bareilly, the Juloos (procession) was an expression of the power of the Barelwi leadership aimed to counter the emerging threat from Deobandis. However, when it transformed into a Hindu-Muslim conflict, Maulana Tauqeer Raza can now claim to be the custodian of all Muslims, something which he had wanted to be for a long time.

Hindus entered the arena since a section of them nurse a grudge against Muslims because of whom BJP lost the last election to the Congress, though it has been a traditional seat for the saffron party. Though the release of Maulana Tauqeer Raza assuaged hurt feelings of the Muslims, it provided an excuse for the Hindu organizations like the VHP and Bajrang Dal, to take to confrontation. These organisations have deep roots in the city and played their role in fomenting trouble. The problem got murkier because soon after the trouble, the Congress, the BSP and the SP started wooing Maulana Tauqeer Raza. This resulted in polarization between Hindus and Muslims. However, the net gainer in this conflict would be Maulana Tauqeer Raza himself. Having an eye on controlling Bareilly and Barelwis, Maulana Tauqeer Raza’s insistence on a particular route for the Juloos-e-Muhhamadi can be seen as a well-calculated strategy to gain extra mileage in the Deobandi-Barelwi tussle. The Bareilly riots should not be seen as direct Hindu-Muslim conflict, but an expression of sectarian contest within the Muslim community itself. The price for such a religio-political ambition has been paid this time by the ordinary Muslims and Hindus of Bareilly.

Among the myriad problems facing the Ummah such as islamization, terror tags, and communal riots, the Deobandi-Bareilwi conflict is far deeper, durable and dangerous. We must understand this.

(Mr M Shamsur Rabb Khan is an Assist. Professor, Department of English, King Khalid University, Saudi Arabia and has authored six academic books. He is also a political and social analyst.)