Deoband power struggle could change the face of Muslim society in India

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Allegations against Dar ul-Uloom rector Ghulam Vastanvi are a ploy to stop reforms By Yoginder Sikand

THE DAR ul-Uloom at Deoband in Uttar Pradesh is one of the most influential madrassas in the world. It is the nerve centre of the Deobandi movement that champions a deeply conservative form of Islam that its liberal Muslim critics as well as followers of rival Muslim sects find deeply problematic.

Despite its religious conservatism, the madrassa played a major role in India’s freedom struggle — one that, lamentably, finds almost no mention in Indian history textbooks. Leading Deobandis vociferously opposed British imperialism, the Muslim League’s ‘two-nation’ theory and the demand for Pakistan, although a minority among the Deobandis advocated a separate state for Indian Muslims. Following Partition, the Deobandis in Pakistan and India have gone their separate ways, although they still share a common worldview and understanding of Islam.

In Pakistan, Deobandi groups are in the forefront of the demand for establishing an ‘Islamic State’, vehemently denouncing secular democracy and insisting that the State enforce conservative interpretations of Shariah laws. They are among the most passionate supporters of the Taliban, who are also fellow Deobandis, and have been engaged in sectarian violence against other Muslim groups. Some Pakistani Deobandi groups have also been heavily involved in the ongoing violence in Kashmir.

On the other hand, Deobandis in India have adopted a different path, focussing mainly on preaching, issuing fatwas (often controversial, particularly with regard to women) and setting up madrassas. Distancing itself from the Pakistani radicals, the Dar ul-Uloom at Deoband has issued fatwas denouncing terrorism. Indian Deobandis have the potential of becoming an important force in the struggle against terrorism in the name of Islam and promoting communal harmony, following in the footsteps of leading Deobandi scholars in pre-Partition India.

Vastanvi’s elevation was welcomed by many Muslims, who felt he might help usher in much-needed reforms at the Deoband madrassa

Today, however, the Deoband madrassa finds itself at the centre of an unprecedented controversy. On 10 January, Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi was appointed its new rector. The move was welcomed by many Muslims, who felt he might help usher in much-needed reforms, particularly by introducing the teaching of modern subjects. This, they felt, was urgently necessary not only so that graduates of the Dar ul-Uloom (and thousands of affiliated madrassas scattered across India) could secure gainful employment but also so that they could articulate more socially-engaged, contextually-relevant and enlightened understandings of Islam.

They felt that Vastanvi would be able to do wonders in this regard, for, being both a trained Deobandi scholar as well as a holder of an MBA degree, he is an ardent supporter of modern education. He runs a chain of institutions in western India providing professional as well as traditional Islamic education. However, no sooner had Vastanvi taken up his new job than a wave of angry protests erupted against him. He was unfairly accused of having praised Gujarat CM Narendra Modi in an interview granted to The Times of India, to which was added the accusation of promoting the cardinal sin of idolatry by having handed a memento with a portrait of Radha and Krishna to a Maharashtra minister at an Eid Milan function last year.

In the line of fire Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi, the rector of the Dar ul-Uloom
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

New allegations were hurled at Vastanvi, which sections of the Urdu press, wedded to scandal and sensation, aggressively propagated. He was accused of ignoring the plight of the Gujarati Muslims, of conspiring to turn the Dar ul-Uloom into a centre of promoting idolatry, of being an ‘RSS agent’, and even of being part of a grand “conspiracy of the Jews (yahud) and Hindus (hunud)against Islam”. Vastanvi’s detractors alleged that Jews and Hindus, whom they banded together as wholly and viscerally inimical to Islam, had got together and planted him in the Deoband madrassa to do their bidding.

THEY CLAIMED that in the name of modernising the madrassa, he would destroy what they regarded as its specifically ‘Islamic’ character. They accused him of supporting the proposal of a Central Madrassa Board, which, they claimed, was a ‘plot’ against Islam hatched by the Indian government. They mocked his remarkable work for promoting modern education among Muslims by claiming that the scores of institutions that he runs were all money-making rackets. They claimed that he was being promoted by political parties (the Congress, according to some, the BJP, according to others) to promote their interests. They also alleged that he had political ambitions of his own, and that he had bribed members of the madrassa’s governing council to vote in his favour.

According to sources, the agitation is actively promoted by some Deobandi maulvis who want their own man to take Vastanvi’s place

The beleaguered Vastanvi hurriedly sought to deny the accusations that his opponents among his fellow Deobandi maulvis had hurled at him. He issued a statement stressing that he had not given what his detractors termed a “clean chit” to Modi, adding that those responsible for the dastardly anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, including Modi himself, could never be forgiven for their crimes. Vastanvi pleaded that he did not intend to depart from the tradition of the founders of the Deoband madrassa, contrary to what his opponents had alleged. He also shrugged off the ridiculous claim of promoting idolatry.

Yet, despite these clarifications, opposition to Vastanvi continues unabated. The madrassa students have gone on strike, and are keeping up their demand that he resign and that the governing council appoint a replacement. Some Urdu newspapers are actively stoking the anti-Vastanvi campaign, hurriedly contacting various Muslim ‘leaders’, mostly mullahs, to elicit opinions denouncing Vastanvi. Some have even elicited fatwas in connection with his alleged patronage to idolatry in a bid to question his very credentials as a Muslim and thereby damn him in the eyes of the general Muslim public.

According to some sources, the agitation is being actively promoted by a section of the Deobandi maulvi community who want their own man to take Vastanvi’s place and who feel threatened by the reforms they believe the new rector might initiate in an institution that they treat as their fiefdom. These sources point specifically to the leaders of one of the three rival wings of the Deobandi mass organisation, the Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind, as the brains behind the agitation. At the time of going to press, there were reports that Vastanvi had offered to quit, indicating that the controversy had got to him.

Whether Vastanvi stays or is forced out remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: as the calumny he has had to face from fellow maulvis, sections of the Urdu press and scores of Muslim ‘leaders’ so tragically illustrates, the onerous task of promoting long overdue and desperately needed reforms in Indian Muslim society, particularly in the maulvi community, is by no means an easy one.

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