EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
During Partition, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind voted to stay back in India. Sixty six years later, do you feel the Indian State has betrayed the faith of Muslims?
Betrayal is too harsh a word. It would be a great insult to the elders of Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind and national leaders of the stature of Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who fought together for freedom and swaraj. It would raise serious questions about their sincerity and statesmanship. A large number of people continue to be poor, but does that mean Indians have been betrayed by freedom and swaraj? Despite the poverty, backwardness, injustice and inequality, we do take pride in our country. We never regret being Indian. The Jamiat did not vote to stay back in India just because it would be economically and politically advantageous. Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League used that argument to woo the Muslim masses. But Jamiat elders led by Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani and Maulana Azad opposed it tooth and nail, saying that Islam did not allow division of nations on the basis of religion. You feel betrayed only when you are selfish. But when you think of your problems in the context of the country’s collective interest, you talk of injustice and inequalities. You struggle for reform and affirmative action. We have faith in the secular and democratic values deeply rooted in the soul of our country.
The Sachar Committee documented the terrible inequality faced by Muslims. But does not the Muslim community also need to look at some of its own failures? Has the community played a role in ghettoising itself?
It’s wrong to say that Muslims are suffering the consequences of their own actions. The so-called secular governments have not done their duty towards the Muslims. However, we must introspect for our own good. Unless a community changes itself, even Allah will not change its condition. Ghettoisation is a manifestation of the fight for survival. As long as there is poverty and insecurity, there will be ghettos. The Dalits have been ghettoised for centuries; do you blame them for their plight?
You have been critical of secular parties recently for the way they have imprisoned Muslims into a sort of fearful vote bank. How can Muslims break out of this and claim their rightful place in Indian democracy?
I am scared of polarisation. The toll on human lives is unbearable. It’s a loss for the country, not just Muslims. We have been demanding a law to curb communal violence. While the State machinery has the power to restrain and kill for maintaining law and order, doesn’t it need to be held accountable for its actions? Terrorism and communal violence are the two most potent threats to our security. But they have become mere electoral ploys. I want India to wake up to this opportunism.
Your criticism of the Congress is seen as an endorsement of Narendra Modi. What do you think of Modi’s claims that Muslims are better off under him than under Congress governments?
The people of this country will never accept anything except a secular State. Even after Pakistan was formed in the name of religion, both Hindus and Muslims opted for a secular India. That covenant still ties the two communities together. Hindutva is no alternative for the people of India.
Would you agree that Islam in India is very different in tone and identity from Islam in the Middle East?
Essentially, Islam is the same everywhere. But there is diversity also because it teaches us to coexist with others and does not curb our other identities and loyalties. In countries like India, with its own ancient civilisation and languages, this spirit of coexistence has produced the beautiful phenomena of a pluralistic culture and identity. While in the Arab countries, due to one language and culture, uniformity is the hallmark.
Some Muslim organisations, including the Darul Uloom in Deoband, are accused of importing Wahhabism to India. This is changing the nature of Muslim identity in India. How would you respond to this worry?
This is a malicious allegation. The Deobandi Ulema and Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani pioneered composite nationalism and fought the Britishers. The same Britishers installed Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. In modern times, Deoband is the first Islamic institution in India to issue a fatwa against terrorism. But, yes, Wahhabism is today spreading its tentacles in many countries, including India.
The status of women is the best measure of how progressive a community is. Do you think some of the Darul Uloom’s views on women needs to change?
On education, health, empowerment and freedom of choice, there is change for the better and there will be more progress in the future. But, on Islamic morals, ethics and family structure, the Darul Uloom has not changed, and I don’t think it should.
Won’t reservations for Muslims add to the tension between communities?
The benefits of reservations for people dehumanised over the centuries are quite apparent. Now that it has been established that the plight of Muslims is worse than that of the Scheduled Castes, how can you justify denying reservation to them? All those who are underprivileged should be given reservation irrespective of the religion they belong to.
What are the three key issues that you think Muslims in India need to focus on?
First and foremost, security for all: we all want an India free of terror and communal riots. Second, education for everyone and the promotion of excellence. And third, development and equal opportunity for employment.