The Rediff Interview/Shahi Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari

Without Pakistan's consent, a ceasefire is difficult
'An interview with Syed Ahmed Bukhari, Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid

Within days of taking over as the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid, India's biggest mosque, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, has created a political storm. The cleric has hit the headlines with controversial statements on the brokering of peace in Jammu & Kashmir and forming a new political party, exclusively for Muslims.

His father, Syed Abdullah Bukhari, the last head cleric, handed over charge to him at a tearful ceremony. Though assigned the job of conducting daily prayers, the Shahi Imam has often made political statements at his prayer meetings. Syed Ahmed Bukhari answers this and many other thorny questions with a straight face in an exclusive interview with Roving Editor Ramesh Menon.

Abdullah Bukhari with son Syed Ahmed Bukhari To begin with, how does it feel to be the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid?

I feel very responsible. Now, I want to work for humanity. One of my main aims is to break the walls of hate that have been built between the Hindus and Muslims.

Bangaru Laxman, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has welcomed Muslims to join the BJP. What do you think of this?

The question is who drove the Muslims away. The BJP distanced us. We were pushed away by them. They got rid of us to come to power. All these years, the secular fabric of India prevented them from gaining power. So they created an atmosphere of hate in the name of religion to get Hindu votes and succeeded in coming to power. They used the name of Lord Ram. That Lord Ram who never fought with the Muslims. That Lord Ram who never preached hate and intolerance.

The BJP -- in the name of Lord Ram -- walked over the dead bodies of innocent Muslims killed in the riots and came to power. They whipped up a hate campaign to help themselves. The walls of hate were so high that they spun out of control. Now, even secular Hindus are moving away from the BJP for they realise that what is happening is not what the religious scriptures told them. The BJP now remembers Muslims as elections are not far away.

Is it only because of elections?

What use are Muslims for? How else can they use Muslims? It is only for elections. All parties have used them. When the secular Hindus started moving away, they turned again to the Muslims. In order to bring them closer, they will have to do something for the Muslims. When you feed pigeons, they don't just come and attack the grain. They watch carefully and try to figure out whether they are going to be fed or whether a trap is being laid.

The Muslims understand what the new BJP offer is all about. They listen to their heart beats now and ask one question: Was December 6, 1992 a proud or shameful day for India when the Babri Masjid was broken down? We want Bangaru Laxman to answer this. After the BJP answers this, we will decide.

Sometime back, Home Minister, L K Advani, had asked Indian Muslims to come out into the open to fight Pakistan. You were clearly upset then.

Why did he just ask Muslims to come forward? Do we have to prove any loyalty? Is there any instance when we have turned our backs on India? Has Advani and his government given us a chance to fight for India? Why are Muslims not given jobs in the army? Not even two per cent of the jawans are Muslims. Give us an opportunity and we will show how we can die fighting for India. Have Muslims not sacrificed in the wars? Have not Muslims contributed anything towards India? Everywhere we are discriminated against. In jobs. In education. In everything.

RSS chief K S Sudershan has called upon Indian Muslims to Indianise themselves.

Bangaru wants Muslims to get close (to the BJP) and Sudershan says Muslims must Indianise themselves. Islam is an universal religion. You cannot confine it to one area. Do you call a Muslim living in America as an American Muslim or do you call him an American citizen? If a Hindu lives in Jordan, do you call him a Jordanian Indian or an Indian? A Muslim cannot be forced to follow different customs in different parts of the world.

Sudershan was saying that Indonesian Muslims observe festivals like Durga Puja and Diwali and also have a mixture of Hindu and Muslim names.

I do not know what they do in Indonesia. But you cannot tell Muslims how to live and what to do and how to follow Islam.

What is this new party for India's Muslims that you want to start?

Why is there so much of a controversy about this? There can be a Hindu party. There can be a Sikh party. But there cannot be a Muslim party. Muslims have always been taken for granted. They have only been used by political parties. At least the BJP is openly against the Muslims. But what did secular parties like the Congress do after Independence for the Muslims? What did the so called secular parties like the Janata Party and the Janata Dal do for us? Mulayam Singh won only because of the Muslim vote and what did he do for the community? He threw his weight behind Sakshi Maharaj who was one of those who helped in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. And he threatened the Muslims openly. Muslims were ignored by each party. When the question of social justice arose, Muslims were not counted.

We were talking of the Muslim party you were starting.

It has created a flutter. Let the other political parties now realise that we can get political power if we want. I do not say that a Muslim party is going to be a magic wand, but at least it can force Parliament to discuss issues that Muslims want like education and jobs. We are not here just to cast our votes and then suffer till the next election. And then again cast votes hoping for change. I told Muslims to remove their crutches and walk on their feet and become a political power.

When are you going to start the new party?

In January, I plan to call Muslim leaders from every state to decide what the party should be called and how to go about forming it.

You will then become an all-India Muslim leader when you do this.

I have not ever called myself a leader. If I speak the truth before the Muslims, they will accept it. I will speak against injustice. Talking against the government is not talking against the country.

What is the problem with Indian Muslims?

I tell the Muslims that they must be united. At the moment, they are divided and clash with each other. This has made them weak. I tell Muslims to become a force and defeat political parties. We must stop feeling like a defeated community. We must make political parties recognise our strength. Only then can we get what we want.

Do you have any political ambitions?

None. I am happy where I am. I do not want to reach a stage where I am folding my hands in front of everyone and lowering my head before anyone. For 400 years, we have been in the Masjid. Morarji Desai offered to make my father the vice-president. I got numerous offers to be made a member of Parliament. But I am happy in the masjid.

Your father, the earlier Shahi Imam, wanted to be seen as a leader.

He never wanted to be a leader. I am also like him.

Of late, Muslims have often been labelled anti-Indian or pro-Pakistan.

Syed Ahmed Bukhari It is an absolutely baseless allegation. How can anyone say this? I do not understand. Muslims shed their blood for the Independence of this country. They have also sacrificed. This is an absolute lie. Mosques are supposed to be ISI centres. Madarssas are called ISI centres. Muslims have always been with India. I did not talk to the government about peace in Kashmir. I spoke to Kashmiri leaders, Hizbul chief Syed Salahuddin and militant leaders to secure peace during Ramzan. I want peace in Kashmir. I want the bloodshed to stop. Why should I do it if I or Muslims are pro-Pakistan? As far as Kashmir is concerned, we are clear that we are not at all sympathetic with Pakistan.

What will ultimately happen in Kashmir?

There has to be peace. Either today or twenty years later, talks will have to happen. But first, the peace process has to start. Let us look at it this way. At least now we are talking about peace.

What about the prime minister's offer for ceasefire during Ramzan?

Let us see. I think it is difficult to work it out without Pakistan's consent.

Will India and Pakistan enjoy the fruits of peace someday?

Absolutely. People of both countries want peace. It has to happen. We must admit that Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried to do a lot. We cannot take the credit away from him of taking a bus to Lahore.

If you were to draw a blueprint for Indian Muslims, how would you draw it?

Well, the first thing as I said is unity. Muslims need to be brought together. Different sects fight against each other. After ruling India for 900 years, Muslims today live like slaves. The reason is that the community has been delivered slow poison. Muslims now have to ask themselves what they want. Political power is very important. Only then can they bargain for reservation in education and jobs. There are school text books today that are spreading the message of hate underlining that Muslims had oppressed the Hindus. We need to change our thinking today. Hindus and Muslims must protect each other. Only then will India emerge with a new strength. And both Hindus and Muslims will be strong communities.

The VHP has now said it is determined to build the temple in Ayodhya.

They can say what they like. If there is a law in this country, is it not for the VHP too? We are saying we will respect the decision of the court. But the VHP says the court cannot decide and they will do what they like. Is the Constitution only for Muslims and not the VHP?

Is there some solution to the Babri Masjid issue? Or will it simmer on and on?

The government must have special courts and speedy day-to-day hearings. Otherwise, it will continue for years.

Who would you say is a Muslim leader who has an acceptance all over India?

(Smiles) Well, I do not know. I cannot say. The Muslims know who their leader is. You should know.

What do you think of the Muslim leadership in India?

We have sarkari Muslim leaders who have no eyes as they cannot see what is happening to their community. They have no tongue to speak and fight for the Muslims. We kick this kind of leadership. Then there were others who could have done something but they are either dead or are too old. We need a younger lot now. We need leaders who are committed like Kanshi Ram and Mayawati who did a lot for their community when in power. Muslim leaders are more interested in power, bettering their personal and family interests.

When will someone pull Indian Muslims out of the typical ghetto, give them better education, give them a wider worldview and work to mobilise them into a modern flourishing community?

Maybe a Muslim party can do it. No government or political party has yet done this.

Why have Muslims not taken to education?

Jama Masjid No government has been interested in educating Muslims. And the Muslim leadership has not been able to convince the government about the importance of educating Muslims. Will the BJP do something to spread education among Muslims? They want us to get close them!

Muslim leaders are often accused, even within the community, that they are responsible for the plight of Muslims today. It is felt that the Muslim leadership will rather have illiterate Muslims so that they can follow them blindly.

That is not true. Schools and colleges are not ready to accept Muslims. Many of them just get rejected. Let anybody deny it and I will send thousands of Muslims to them for admission. Muslims want to study and do well. Muslims must be given reservation in schools and colleges.

What do you think about the equality of women? Why have they not been allowed to pray with men?

Again, not true. Here in theJama Masjid, women come for prayers. We do not stop women. It is just that in most small places, women themselves do not go to the mosque. If they want to pray, no one stops them. This is just false propaganda.

Why do we not have leaders like you funding films like Salim langde me pat ro? It might help non-Muslims to understand Muslims better and also for Muslims to understand their tragedy.

Everyone knows the tragedy that Muslims are caught up in.

Your critics say your father refashioned the phrase from Imam of Shahi Juma Masjid to Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid during the Emergency when he was arrested.

When the Masjid was made in 1656, Shah Jehan made two announcements. One was that the Imam would come from one family -- generation after generation. He appointed Syed Abdul Ghafoor Shah Bukhari as the first Imam. Then onwards it has been his descendents. The second announcement was that the king will now be crowned by the Shahi Imam.

Why do you say that Muslims are insecure?

Muslims are given a feeling of security before elections. They are given all kinds of assurances. After the elections, the promises are not kept and they are left high and dry. Naturally, they feel unwanted and insecure. In numerous places like Meerut and Moradabad, Muslims were killed by police atrocities. And there was no government to protect them. Naturally, they will feel insecure. When Muslims come out into the streets to protest against such injustice, they are labelled as mulk ka gaddar (unpatriotic).

What does your father, Abdullah Bukhari, do today? He was seemingly upset when he handed over charge.

He is resting. He has been the Shahi Imam for 52 years. If he cried during the ceremony, it was only because he was happy. They were tears of joy. He felt sentimental seeing his son take over from him.

Basically, your role is just to lead the prayer. You cannot give fatwas or ask the community to vote for a particular party. The Khutba prayer meeting should really be a religious address by you every Friday. But every Friday, you stray into politics.

Khutba means a speech. But it need not necessarily be a religious speech. One part of it is purely religious. But the other can be on any current issue. I am just following my religious duty of informing the Muslim community of what is happening around.

Why did your father call himself an ISI agent? He dared the government to arrest him?

It must be understood in the right perspective. Every Muslim was being called an ISI agent. My father said that if his community is full of ISI agents, he being their leader made him the biggest ISI agent.

Photographs: Ramesh Menon and Saab Press

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