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Free Fall


The influence of Muslim clerics, who once dominated political and social life in their community, is eroding at a very fast pace; their voice becoming feebler with each passing day. Syed Khurram Raza examines why this is the case.
SYED KHURRAM RAZA | Issue Dated: February 9, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Free Fall | Kejriwal | Muslim clerics | AAP | Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind |

There was a time, not too long ago, when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi could be seen addressing people from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day, a practice followed assiduously since Jawaharlal Nehru; simultaneously, the then Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid Maulana Syed Abdullah Bukhari would address a parallel gathering, a meeting of the Muslim community from the high walls of the historic and adjacent Jama Masjid.

That was the high point in life of Muslim men of God, a period of time when respected community leaders enjoyed the support of their masses. Now, despite a lot of noise and never-ending debate on the status and future of the country’s largest minority community, there remains no single powerful voice in the fraternity who can either take any government head on, or ideally represent the aspirations of its people.

Muslim religious leadership has always played an important role in Indian politics and Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, the main organization of Muslim religious scholars of India, has traditionally enjoyed mass support, much before India’s independence. It was at the forefront of the country’s freedom struggle, never aligning with the Muslim League or other separatist ideologies.

The Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind was founded by prominent Muslim religious scholars including Sheikh ul Hind Maulana Mehmood Hasan and Maulana Syed Hussain Ahmad Madani in 1919. This was the overarching organization of Muslim clerics who enjoyed popular support, known and respected for their impartiality and integrity.

Things were pretty much in their control till recently; not a chance occupation that either. Partition to Pakistan had claimed most of the educated middle class and upper classes leaving the political space open for the clergy to intervene and take over the leadership. “After Partition, only the uneducated or semi-educated lower middle class Muslims remained in India and this left not only open space for clerics but a conducive enough atmosphere for them to take over the reins of leadership. For almost five decades, Muslims followed what clerics said but with modern education, the vacuum created by Partition is almost nearly filled. Today the community has intellect and experience in every walk of life. Naturally, the control of clerics over the community has weakened,’’ says Mohammed Maroof Khan, principal, Dr Zakir Husain School of Delhi.

Little surprise then big congregations and clarion calls on Friday or other select occasions are more or less a thing of the past. Says Maroof: “We rarely hear calls for a bandh or rally from Jama Masjid or Deoband. Earlier hardly a Friday passed when there was no call from the Jama Masjid and people used to take pains to perform namaz there. The sole purpose of performing Friday prayers was to hear the views of Abdullah Bukhari, the phrases acting as a guiding beacon to the masses who paid heed to the imam’s speeches. Now people neither go to Jama Masjid with this purpose nor is there a political speech given. Recently, there were communal riots in Muzzafarnagar but there was no call for a rally or bandh against the Akhilesh Yadav-led government in Uttar Pradesh. There was no noise.’’

In fact quite on the contrary, there was news that Maulana Arshad Madni for going soft on the Akhilesh government for which the revered Maulana was compelled to issue a clarification in the Urdu media. Obviously, Muslims cannot remain immune to major political trends. Khan adds: “The common Muslim follows various political parties as the impact of education, the role of electronic media and images of clerics sharing dais with different political parties has been enormous. The sheen has worn off.”

There was also a good reason for this give and take between believers and the clergy - the community’s religious bend. Explains Navaid Hamid, general secretary, Movement for Empowerment of Muslim Indian, “The Muslim society is a religious oriented society and clerics have always played an important role on issues that concern the community. For 50 years the Muslim community was backward when it came to acquiring modern education. There was a huge network of madrasas which played an important role in promoting education and literacy among Indian Muslims. Because of this network, the clerics enjoyed their role as leaders of the Muslim community. In the post-1992 era, Muslims have realized the importance of modern education. Today about 65 percent of Indian Muslims are below 30. This large population is well educated and net savvy. It is exposed to global trends and sees the world with a different perspective. The age old complexes are gone.’’

This young generation has an agenda which is totally in variance with the clerics. Agrees Navaid Hamid: “Fifty percent of the so-called Muslim clerics have no mental rapport with 65 percent of the youth educated at modern institutions. This young generation has reached the conclusion that the established Muslim leadership rarely ever spoke about issues that concern them. Thus this connectivity between the established leadership and young generation has been gradually but steadily weakening’’.

That has not come in the way of clerics trying to influence voting patterns, if they can help it. In October last year three prominent Muslim clerics unleashed a fresh barrage of criticism at the ruling Congress, slamming it for mistreating their community, while at the same time dismissing suggestions they were warming up to Narendra Modi. The leaders, Maulana Syed Kalbe Jawad Naqvi and Maulana Abur Irfan Firangi Mahali from Uttar Pradesh, and Maulana Muhammed Wali Rahmani from Bihar said that while Narendra Modi was still to prove through his deeds that he cares for the minority community, the Congress with their several acts of omission and commission since Independence, stood thoroughly exposed for treating the community as a mere vote bank.  The critical question to answer here is this: could things be changing even further? Activist and senior leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Firoz Bakht Ahmed agrees that the clerics are fast losing grip over the community – and the situation. “It is absolutely correct that the Muslim leadership is losing its grip over the community because they are no longer sincere in serving the community; they use their positions to fill up their personal coffers. They are least concerned about the welfare of the community and for them, self-promotion is paramount. After Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and former President Dr Zakir Husain, the community has not seen any leader and there is a huge vacuum. I do not believe that clerics should be bestowed with the responsibility of leading any community but unfortunately this has become the practice and several clerics have misused their position and the faith reposed in them by the community.’’

More voices are now beginning to come out in radically different tones. Columnist Zafar Agha, for instance, disbelieves the theory that Muslim clerics ever enjoyed any popular support among the Muslim masses. “I am of the view that no Muslim leader has ever had a hold over the Muslim community except Mohammed Ali Jinnah and as far as clerics are concerned, all political parties have used them despite the fact that they never really enjoyed the community’s support. The Muslim community does listen to their clerics but only on religious issues, not on political matters.’’

To buttress his point, Agha calls for a deeper analysis of a pretty complex situation. He says voting pattern of the Muslim community would provide clues to why the cleric hold over the community is over rated. “Just go into a bit deep and analyze the voting pattern of Muslims in our country. They have voted just like any other community in the country. In 1977 the whole nation voted against Indira Gandhi and so did Muslims. In 1989 the mood of the nation was against Rajiv Gandhi, as were the sentiments of Muslims and they voted against the prime minister. The late Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid - a well recognized personality in the corridors of power back in the 1970s wooed by ruling party politicians across the board - appealed to Muslims to vote for the Janta Party in 1977 and Janata Dal in 1989 but his appeal was of no consequence. He just played safe and issued a general appeal knowing the direction in which the wind was blowing against the Congress. On the contrary, Indira Gandhi in 1977 (post-Emergency) liberally used several Muslim clerics hoping they would matter but eventually failed to convince the community about the logic for voting the Congress. In 2004, the Himayat Committee appealed to Muslims to vote for Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA but it did not work”.

Most experts agree that the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 represents the high water mark, a changing point in modern history. It altered the thinking of the Muslim masses who at that point of time were severely disillusioned by the role of their leaders in the contentious Ramjanma Bhoomi temple movement. After all the noise and fury had died down and after all the corpses had been buried, it became apparent that the community leaders who had for years vowed to protect the sanctity of the disputed structure in Ayodhya come what may, had failed its adherents miserably. It was also in a sense, a time for denouement; the masses had the opportunity of getting out of the shackles of the conservative cleric leadership and join the national mainstream and that is precisely what they did.
 Says Agha: “It was after the demolition of Babri Masjid that the voting pattern among Muslims changed – for the first time they did not vote as other communities did. The pattern of voting changed; the first instinct of the Muslims told them to back any party which could defeat the BJP. In their effort, they juggled between the regional parties or the Congress, as the situation demanded. Muslim clerics have never been able to influence the community on political issues”.

 For some like former chairman of the Central Haj Committee, Salamatullah, it is also a question of changing times and shifting norms in society. “Things have changed at a very fast pace. Not long ago, people used to come in large numbers to hear the Friday sermons at Delhi’s Jama Masjid and sermons used be totally political. There was power in them, the willingness to be guided. There used to be large gatherings at meetings addressed by Maulana Arshad Madni but now it is becoming difficult for even clerics of his stature to make their gatherings a guaranteed success. There are two reasons for this; one, the society as a whole, has become materialistic and it is on the verge of collapse because people do not have time to even meet relatives. Second and perhaps most important is the fact that the Muslim community itself stands split. It is a badly divided house and religious leaders take positions as per their personal interests and preferences. Today, Maulana Arshad Madni is the only leader with a base. I believe politics is a very complex game to understand so religious leaders without political background get trapped by parties and end up losing their reputations. I think it would not be an overstatement to say that clerics are very gradually becoming politically irrelevant’’

 The common complaint is that more and more of them are doing what they should not be - trying harder to please mere mortal human beings than God; the results have been disastrous. Mohammed Shakir, a Delhi-based businessman, for instance, sees no good reason to hear out clerics. “It is only during elections that our religious leaders are visible. At other times, the community does not even hear from them. Former Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid Abdullah Bukhari used to take the prime minister of the country head on and community used to respond to him but what is the position of his sons? Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the current Imam of the Jama Masjid is more concerned about the political interests of his son-in-law rather than the interests of the community. Things have reached such a pass that even people like Maulana Arshad Madni have to seek an appointment with the UP chief minister with the help of a local Samajwadi worker. They have lost their voice because when these clerics meet a big political leader or minister, they carry requests of businessmen and contractors. Because of this attitude, they are not taken seriously by political leaders.’’

In addition, divisions of all kinds plague Indian Islam – not very different from the many divisions among the majority Hindu community in India. Islam in India remains divided into many sections and they follow their individual sects so vigorously that they sacrifice the interest of the community as a whole.

The increasing impact of globalisation and modernisation too has altered age-old perceptions. In fact, the theory of clergy impacting the laity not just assumes that all Muslims are swayed by similar questions of religious identity, it’s  based on an old model of patronage politics where the diktat of a Muslim cleric or self-styled leader of the community will deliver the votes of his religious compatriots. A Times of India edit summed it up well: “Secularists who subscribe to this line of thinking perpetuate one of the worst communal stereotypes that of the Indian Muslim as an unthinking tool of his leaders. ‘Secular’ then becomes shorthand for doing what you need to grab the Muslim vote, never mind that this is a subversion of secularism. The Muslim vote generates its own counter-myths that of the Hindu vote, for example, which the Sangh Parivar is keen to mobilise.’’

The critical question is this: has the arrival of the AAP begun the process of churning among Muslims? With the advent of Arvind Kejriwal’s brand of non-conformist and anti-identity politics, suddenly there is a fizz. “I believe intellectuals of the Muslim community should take a cue from the AAP and come forward to lead the community. There is a dire need for some movement or churning within the community and in this process young people should come forward,’’ states Firoz Bakht Ahmed, who sees in this nascent political movement a blow to the aspirations of corrupt elite who have done nothing for the community except to use innocents as cannon fodder.

According to Firoz Bakht Ahmed, the AAP is different from other parties in that it faithfully eschews a religions credo – any religious credo. “It certainly represents a change from the Congress which has done nothing except to indulge in vote bank politics in the name of protecting minorities since 1947 and the RSS-inspired BJP which remains the fountainhead of majority communalism. The AAP does not talk of sectarian politics and focuses only on issues that reflect the aspirations of the common people.’’ There is little doubt then that AAP is turning into a viable option as far as the Muslim voters are concerned.

In addition, and perhaps far more importantly, Kejriwal looks the most likely candidate to take on Modi and the rising Hindutva influence, if the recent poll surveys are anything to go by. With political pundits predicting a serious drubbing for Congress in General Elections which is a few months away, the newly-emerging AAP offers itself as a far more robust alternative to a Congress besieged under a slew of corruption charges and an inflation which it has been unable to control and generally found to be fumbling against the Gujarat strongman.

 Zafar Agha echoes the same concern “There is an urgent need to build Muslim leadership and for this they need churning within the community because only then can Muslims progress”. It makes sense. The way things are going, the clerics may have no option but to change their ways.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017