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The War Within Islam ( 30 Jan 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Deoband Stir: History Repeats Itself

By Shakil Khan,


31- Jan 2011


Newspaper reports indicate that two Deobandi mullahs, both political bigwigs, Arshad Madani and his nephew Mahmood Madani, are behind the continuing agitation to unseat the recently-appointed rector of the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi. The Madani duo have been at fierce loggerheads since 2006, when Syed Asad Madani (brother of Arshad Madani and Mahmood Madani’s father), longstanding Congress MP, and head of the enormously influential Deobandi mass organization Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind, died. Following his death, uncle and nephew both staked their claim to head the Jamiat, which controls the Deoband madrasa, resulting in a split in the organization and the setting up of two rival wings, each of which claims the Jamiat’s mantle. Now, however, faced with an outsider like Vastanvi as head of the Deoband madrasa, Arshad Madani and Mahmood Madani are said to have buried their differences in order, so critics claim, to ensure that the Deoband madrasa remains their family fiefdom. This, they are reportedly desperately seeking to do by ousting Vastanvi and appointing Arshad Madani or some other person loyal to the Madani family in his place. And in order to pursue this sinister political game, a concerted campaign of calumny has been directed at the hapless Vastanvi, who has been falsely accused of being a ‘Modi agent’, a ‘patron of idolatry’ and worse.


It is not that the Deoband madrasa is new to such petty politics, being used as a tool to promote the political designs of certain mullahs who claim to speak for Islam and for all the Muslims of India. What Arshad Madani and Mahmood Madani are being accused of doing today is in itself nothing novel. Indeed, they appear to be faithfully following in the footsteps of the late Asad Madani, the man behind a similar controversy in the Deoband  as we are witness to today, that caused a major split in the madrasa which still remains unhealed after more than three decades. That controversy, and the deadly politics behind it, bears eerie parallels with the current anti-Vastanvi agitation, showing the depths that self-styled religious ‘leaders’ can stoop for the sake of power and pelf.


In his Hindi book Deoband Itihas (‘History of Deoband’), a Muslim journalist from Deoband, Ali Hasan Sagar, provides chilling details of Syed Asad Madani’s sinister role, backed by the Congress Party, in engineering a major stir in Deoband that resulted in the ouster of  the then rector of the Dar ul-Uloom, Qari Mohammad Tayyeb (grandson of Qasim Nanotwi, founder of the madrasa) and his replacement by Madani’s nominee, the pliant Marghoob ur-Rehman, who died last year.


In order to unseat Tayyeb, Sagar writes, Asad first captured the Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind (and, in the capacity of its new head, was widely touted about by his followers as the new amir ul-hind or ‘head of India’), after which he began instigating various mullahs within the Deoband madrasa against Tayyeb. At this time, Asad was a longstanding Congress MP, having already served two long terms in the Rajya Sabha. In 1980, Asad, backed by an influential Deobandi mullah, Wahiduzzaman Kairanwi, who had considerable clout among a section of the madrasa’s students, began flexing his muscles to defy Tayyeb. Asad used Kairwani to demand that he be made a member of the madrasa’s governing council. Tayyeb turned this down on the grounds that Asad was a politician and that, therefore, his presence would negatively impact on the madrasa and politicize it. In protest, Kairwani engineered a strike. Shortly after, in 1981, faced with mounting opposition from Asad’s men, Tayyeb hurriedly dissolved the madrasa’s governing council.


The turning point came in 1982, when the Deoband madrasa began making lavish preparations to celebrate its centenary. The politically ambitious, Asad, eager to flatter his Congress bosses, insisted that the madrasa should invite the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as a guest of honour for the function. Tayyeb was against the idea, principally because he was opposed to a woman being seated on the stage in front of a vast crowd of Deobandi mullahs. Asad found a clever way around that bit of patriarchal wisdom, and suggested that a letter of invitation be sent in the name of the Prime Minister of India without taking Mrs. Gandhi’s name. Tayyeb objected that this would lead to the perception that the madrasa was being tied to a particular political party. Under pressure, however, he reluctantly conceded to Asad’s demand, though he sought to balance Asad’s clearly pro-Congress leanings by also inviting a number of opposition party leaders, including  Raj Narayan, Charan Singh, Jagjivan Ram, and Chandra Shekar. All of these, and several others, attended the two-day celebrations at Deoband, from 21-23 March, 1982, along with Indira Gandhi.


Taking advantage of the presence of such political big-wigs in Deoband, Sagar writes, on 22nd March, Asad engineered some graduates of the madrasa to set up the Deoband Graduates’ Association, with himself as head, although a similar, somewhat defunct, students’ association existed prior to this. This association was then pressed into use to extend Asad’s control over the madrasa by instigating the madrasa’s students against Tayyeb in the name of struggling for their rights, during and in the months after the madrasa’s centenary celebrations. In June, 1982, the governing council of the madrasa met, but their proceedings were disrupted by Asad’s cronies. Asad’s men accused Tayyeb of corruption and dictatorial tendencies and of seeking to groom his son Mohammad Salim Qasmi as his heir and successor to the post of the madrasa’s rector—allegations that were not entirely untrue.


Meanwhile, the anti-Tayyeb faction began a concerted campaign to malign Tayyeb within and without the Deoband madrasa in order to garner support for his ouster. Scandalous, and so Sagar says, completely fabricated stories were circulated about him. ‘He was insulted, and […] the rival group falsely accused him of all sorts of imaginary charges and played with his honour […] They even accused him of having fun with girls in hotels abroad. One journalist wrongly accused him of flirting with women (ishqbazi) in America’, Sagar reveals. A completely baseless rumour was spread that Tayyeb ‘had stolen more than a lakh of rupees from the madrasa’s treasury in the middle of the night disguised as a dacoit, and that he had filled two sacks with currency notes and stuffed his turban with gold bricks, and that in the darkness, he fell down the stairs, hearing which people screamed “robber-robber”, and when they shone a torch, they found that it was Tayyeb.’ One of his enemies, a ‘responsible person’ (zimmedar) Sagar tells us, even went to the extent of expressing his doubts that Tayyeb would ‘die in a state of faith (iman)’—that is to say he might turn an apostate.


As the opposition to him became more strident, Tayyeb, fearing bloodshed, so Sagar says, hastened to employ a number of guards to patrol the madrasa. But this did not silence Asad and his followers. In a deliberate bid to create trouble, a group of students interrupted Tayyeb while he was delivering a lecture in a mosque, burst crackers, and then, ‘with the intention of killing him’, Sagar writes, began pelting him with bricks and stones. Violent scuffles broke out between the students and guards, in which many were badly injured. The situation began deteriorating so rapidly that Tayyeb, fearing that Asad and his men would storm the madrasa, ordered the madrasa’s closure, blocked all entrances into the campus, instructed all students to vacate their hostels, and arranged for the dreaded Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) to be stationed at the madrasa to prevent any untoward incident.


Despite all these precautions, under the cover of night, pro-Asad teachers and students broke through a wall encircling the madrasa. They resorted to firing, in which some guards were injured while the rest fled. The PAC guards on duty ‘pretended to be asleep’, writes Sagar, although by this time a vast crowd of people, several thousand strong, from nearby localities had gathered near the madrasa. When the sound of firing from inside the madrasa became too loud to ignore, the PAC men simply fired in the air, which did nothing at all to scare off the miscreants. They ‘probably deliberately’ did not fire on the intruders, Sagar says, thereby suggesting that they had been instructed to support them in their bid to drive Tayyeb out of the madrasa.  This points to the oft-heard allegation that Asad’s drive to capture the madrasa had the blessings of the Congress.


The hapless Tayyeb was literally driven out of the Dar ul-Uloom, and that very night, Asad and his goons had established themselves as masters of what they began to treat, as their critics claim, as their personal fiefdom. When Asad’s supporters captured the madrasa, Sagar writes, ‘from loudspeakers of the mosque of the madrasa it was repeatedly announced that Tayyeb’s bier (janaza) had been taken out of the madrasa and that he would never return to the Dar ul-Uloom.’ Tayyeb and his followers were forced to set up their own parallel madrasa in Deoband, the Dar ul-Uloom Waqf, and, true to form, Tayyeb appointed his own son as its rector. The triumphant Asad appointed the plaint Marghub ur-Rahman as the rector of the original Deoband madrasa, and filled the madrasa’s governing council with his cronies, although the reigns of power remained firmly in his own hands as long as he lived.


But Asad’s hegemonic control over the Deoband madrasa did not go entirely unchallenged. Shortly after ousting Tayyeb, Wahiduzzaman Kairanwi, one of his principal backers in his battle against Tayyeb, revolted against him, disappointed that he had appointed him as only the assistant rector of the madrasa even though he felt he deserved to be nothing less than rector. He set up his rival faction, under the guise of a students’ union, with one Maulvi Usman Ambedthvi as its head. Sagar writes that on one occasion, this union succeeded in capturing the Deoband madrasa campus and threw out the administrative staff, and then when Arshad Madani heard of this, he ‘blindly fired on the crowd of students with a gun’, causing injury to many.


And as for Asad, he remained a loyal Congress MP till 1986, and the supremo of the vastly influential Jamiat-ul Ulema-e Hind till his death in 2006, not doing anything particularly noteworthy for the Muslim cause throughout his long spell of power. This suited the Congress perfectly well, for through him and his obscurantist politics, and his consistent opposition to any progressive reforms among the Muslims, it was assured of a vote-bank of Asad loyalists among the vast Deobandi Muslim community.


Today, very much the same sordid story, of intrigue and character assassination is being replayed in the Deoband madrasa to unseat the present rector, Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi. The actors in this tragic drama are playing identical roles: Vastanvi, like the beleaguered and much-maligned Tayyeb, against whom all sorts of scandalous rumours are being deliberately spread in order to whip up hatred against him ; Arshad and Mahmood Madani, the men behind the move to oust him, following in the path charted by their very own Asad Madani; the madrasa students, being used by the Madani duo, just as Asad Madani himself had done, as foot-soldiers in a nasty power struggle that is being cleverly disguised as a battle for Islam and the Muslim ummah;  and the very same Congress Party, which Arshad Madani is reportedly seeking to woo for support in order to become the next head of one of the world’s most influential seats of Muslim learning.


Shakil Khan is a regular columnist for