New Age Islam
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The War Within Islam ( 7 Feb 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Deoband: The Maulana’s Challenge

By Seema Chishti

 Feb 08 2011

Debate around Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi, the Surat-born maulana who was elected last month to head the Darul Uloom at Deoband, provides a great moment to look at various aspects of being Muslim in India.

There have been several such moments over the past century, many of them seminal, as they have shed light on hidden truths, unpeeled stereotypes and challenged the claims of those who hope to either understand Muslim dynamics in India or play the dynamics. Sir Syed’s decision to start his Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College (later the Aligarh Muslim University) was one such. The rise of Jinnah, who challenged Indian Muslims to choose between a syncretic environment and a

“separate” one, was another. More recently, there was the Sachar Committee report. Some Muslims sneered at it: “We knew we were at the bottom of the pile.” But as it zeroed in and provided numbers and statistics on the backwardness of Indian Muslims, it shifted the debate even within the community to issues like drinking water, drainage and drop-out rates, away from daadhi-topi issues, peripheral identity questions isolated from their engagement and requirements as citizens. Conversely, for those who thrive on portraying Muslims as the “other”, the myth of appeasement was blown apart. Findings such as the fact that just 4 per cent of Muslims were madrasa-educated were like sunlight on the cobwebbed corners of a room full of prejudices.

Vastanvi has stirred up debate on a whole range of issues. What did he mean by the Gujarat statement, should Muslims accede to Modi in Gujarat, even vote for him? Is he right in talking pharmacology when he is expected to think of deeniyat (or theology) and not duniyadari in his new role? Is Vastanvi a dyed-in-the-wool believer in the Qasimi way of doing things (Qasimi referring to those schooled at the Deobandi madrasa)? Is the fuss only because he is a backward, a non-Ashraf, a Gujarati? Is there an old UP-led order he is challenging?

The biggest realisation for those of us who subscribe to the “Muslim monolith” argument is how rich, complex and colourful the variations within the community are. As a Gujarati, Vastanvi’s orientation, his approach to business, his purpose in the world, are strikingly different. The fact that he runs engineering colleges and pharma courses has become as much as a bane for him with the purists as it is an advantage with the rest of the world. His critics went blue in the face, saying it was like offering to open a polytechnic in the Vatican.

That he is, strictly speaking, not an Ashraf is brushed aside as a non-issue by several respectable clerics who have never wanted to accept that caste divisions are prevalent amongst their community. But go down the list of the OBCs in B.P. Mandal’s report — Noniya, Dhuniya, Bhishti or Nat — and then examine where and how, far from city centres, they stay in small-town India, and you will see that caste is always a question, irrespective of where you go to pray.

Rapidly altering levels of aspiration over the past two decades have impacted the minorities as much as anyone else. Old inhibitory factors have been blown away by new pulls: opportunity, hopes for a better life for younger people, the unspoken comfort provided by a fairly long spell of governance without needing to debate or fortify themselves from destructive elements on the right. There have been pushes too: for example, the collapse of traditional crafts (which Muslims have depended upon in clusters) has forced people out of old networks. Government largesse has been more innovative; scholarships, bicycles, housing loans, education opportunities and a promise of more, even in BJP-ruled states, have expanded the space for the Indian Muslim. The virtual collapse of Pakistan as an ideal Islamic state (with Shia-Sunni conflicts and Hanafi-Wahhabi strife tearing the country apart, making even offering prayers in mosques a risky proposition) has also sobered down those who may have secretly yearned for the comfort of being “there”.

Of course, to many of those watching the Vastanvi debate from outside, it is a story of a modern game-changer being done in. But it is much more than that. Of course, the battles, debates and squabbles in the Urdu press, in English, on TV and in drawing rooms have helped the debate pan across these many faultlines. What Vastanvi’s comment on Gujarat did was to again bring to the fore the reaction of a very small minority (7 per cent in Gujarat) telling an incredulous and large minority (18.5 per cent in UP) that they have got to “adjust”, “accept” and get on with it. In states like UP, Bihar, Bengal and Assam, minorities have been able to push their interests into the political mainstream by virtue of their numbers, and they were horrified at the suggestion of a supposed direct victim being so off-key.

Navigating for the Muslim between the Hindu and the Muslim right (and others in the political spectrum happy to keep Muslims slotted) has been tight. The Modi chapter that Vastanvi opened, therefore, should be dealt with and understood.

In Gujarat, elections did not provide for any resolution. The BJP adamantly never reached out, or even did what the Congress tried after the anti-Sikh pogrom, symbolically and politically. So the oversimplified and incorrect “development versus justice” choice squeezes Muslims into a binary trap. Is saying that good roads in Gujarat help us, too, akin to saying that Modi’s politics is acceptable, or that the economic environment there is not discriminatory? Is it okay to wave away the “justice” issue as boring and ideological if a Muslim wants access to better prospects? Most importantly, is it now to be expected of all “modern” Muslims (of the “moving-on” school) to, like the British Tebbit test of nationality, say they are alright with Modi?

Most of these questions will not be answered in one go. The Supreme Court is, of course, hearing several cases on the Gujarat riots. But on the 23rd of this month, some will be addressed by the 17 clerics in the Majlis-e-Shoora in Deoband. They are expected to say what they propose to do with Maulana Vastanvi.

Irrespective of what they choose to do, one good thing that Darul Uloom has done is what it is supposed to be doing — educate us. To educate us about several dimensions of what it means to be a Muslim in India in 2011. And beyond.

Source: Indian Express