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Deoband and the machinations of the mullahs

February 17, 2011 11:42 IST

For many mullahs, religion and religious institutions are simply tools to feather their own nests and to whip up the support of the credulous by projecting themselves as pious defenders of the faith, says Yoginder Sikand

As the battle for the post of rector of the Deoband madrasa heats up, a number of influential Deobandi maulvis, who have hitherto chosen to be silent on the ongoing controversy, are beginning to speak out in favour of the besieged head of India's largest Islamic seminary, Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi.

Many of them, as some Urdu papers report, have now come out in strong opposition to Vastanvi's rival, the Congress-backed political maverick Arshad Madni, whose family has exercised a dictatorial control over the madrasa for decades. Whatever else be their merit, the charges that these maulvis are now levelling against the Madni clique clearly reveal the crass corruption and petty politicking among the Deobandi clerics who piously claim to be the 'heir of the Prophet' (waris-e anbiya).

In a strongly-worded statement, a graduate of the Deoband madrasa, Mufti Afroz Alam Qasmi, general-secretary of the little-known Jamiat-e Millat-e Islamiya-e Hind, has lambasted Vastanvi's opponents (although without naming them) for being engaged in a 'conspiracy' against the Deoband madrasa while claiming to defend it.

Vastanvi, he points out, was democratically elected by the majlis-e shura or governing council of the Deoband madrasa. By challenging the shura's decision, Vastanvi's opponents are guilty, he says, of a gross violation of the shura system itself. If Vastanvi is forced by his critics to resign, he adds, it would have grave implications for the members of the shura as well, raising questions about their own status, for it was they who had elected him.

He bitterly critiques Vastanvi's opponents for slandering the members of the shura, and thus of discrediting the Deoband madrasa itself. 'Those who are behind the agitation', he says, 'want to crush the honour of the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, under their feet to acquire wealth and power, on which they are inebriated.'

In what is probably a thinly veiled reference to the Madni family which, in the 1980s, had engineered a split in the Deoband madrasa by forcing the then rector of the madrasa, Qari Tayyeb, to flee, Mufti Qasmi laments, 'In the past, they divided the community, and they are doing the same today, too, and are now destroying the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband.'

In a similar vein, another graduate of the Deoband madrasa, Atif Sohel Siddiqui, insists that Vastanvi's opponents are, while claiming to 'love the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband', bent on defying the decision of the institution's shura, which ought to be binding and final.

'They talk of protecting the interests of the Dar ul-Uloom, but in fact they are only concerned about protecting their own interests. This is a repeat of history. In the past, too, newspapers were bought to insult those ulema of Deoband who opposed them,' he points out.

Siddiqui refers to the role of the Madnis in the 1980s in creating a students group, the Jamiat Tulaba, to instigate opposition to Qari Tayyeb and to put their man in his place, and points out that Vastanvi's opponents are doing precisely the same thing today, 'by buying students' to whip up an agitation to get rid of him.

He also indicates how, in the 1980s split, the Madnis had taken the help of the Congress, and how the same is happening today. Siddiqui insists that the mullahs behind the anti-Vastanvi agitation are not the 'guides of the Muslims' that they claim to be. 'They are habituated to selling off the interests of the community', he alleges, and  expresses what he calls his 'pity' for 'those who project themselves as the merchants of the Deobandi sect, who engage in petty bargains against it'.

Writing in the Deobandi journal Tarjuman Markazi Dar ul-Uloom, another graduate of the Deoband madrasa, Sohail Ahmad Qasmi, insists that it is improper for Vastanvi's critics to contest the decision of the shura to appoint him, and laments that sections of the Urdu press, including what he calls 'papers that are sold in bulk to garbage collectors', are involved in the agitation to unset him, thus 'daring to interfere in the madrasa's administrative affairs.'

He bitterly attacks Vastanvi's critics who, in his words, are 'drunk on politics' for their campaign against the man, and insists that their opposition has nothing to do with their concern for the Deoband madrasa. Rather, he attributes this to what he terms as their 'innate jealousy'.

Mohammad Ahmad Fida Siddiqui, general secretary of the Graduates' Association of the Mazahir ul-Uloom, Saharanpur (of which Vastanvi is an alumnus), exhorts Vastanvi to keep up his struggle and to refuse to cow down before the opposition engineered against him.

Another influential Mazahri maulvi, Hafiz Saeed, a close disciple of the chief ideologue of the global Tablighi Jamaat, probably the largest Islamic movement in the world, Shaikh Mohammad Zakariya, likens the opposition to Vastanvi to the campaign that forced Qari Tayyeb to quit the Deoband madrasa.

Maulana Abdul Wajid Sheri Dehlvi, an influential maulvi from the Deobandi stronghold of Gangoh, in western Uttar Pradesh, insists that since Vastanvi has rebutted the allegations levelled against him by his opponents, 'those who love the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, must stay away from the propaganda of unwanted elements.'

Likewise, Hafiz Arif Usmani, general-secretary of the Aligarh Muslim University Old Boys' Association and chairman of the Education League of the Muslims of India, condemns the vilification campaign directed against Vastanvi and insists that the 'honour of the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, rests in halting the agitation and in accepting the decision of the shura to appoint him'. 

Voicing the same sentiment, at a meeting of Deobandi maulvis from various mosques and madrasas in Delhi, organised recently by the Indian Muslim Rabita Council, numerous speakers denounced what they called 'troublemakers who are bent on defaming the Deoband madrasa, its honour and interests' by agitating against Vastanvi.

At the same time, they lauded Vastavi's yeoman services in promoting both religious and secular education among Muslims. They decried the campaign to unseat him as being 'not at all in the interests of the Muslims', calling it a 'negative and destructive approach'.

From what these Deobandi maulvis are alleging about the men behind the anti-Vastanvi campaign -- fellow Deobandi maulvis, led by the Madni gang that has monopolised the Deoband madrasa for decades -- one thing is clear: that for many mullahs, religion and religious institutions are simply tools to feather their own nests and to whip up the support of the credulous by projecting themselves as pious defenders of the faith.

As rival factions of the Deobandi mullah community continue to battle each other, the sordid role of the 'secular' Congress party in backing the most obscurantist sections of the mullahs, as represented by the Madni clique, is also becoming increasingly evident. 

Needless to say, in this symbiotic nexus, the common Muslims, sacrificial victims of the machinations of political parties and the mullahs, have everything to lose, even the faint glimmer of hope for educational empowerment that Vastanvi's appointment had appeared to promise.
Yoginder Sikand