Accused by a section of influential fellow Deobandi mullahs of issuing a statement that they interpreted as supporting Narendra Modi, the beleaguered newly-appointed rector of the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi, has sought to clarify that he is not the ‘RSS agent’ that some of them have accused him of being. In a hurriedly issued clarification, he denounced Modi for his role in the deadly anti-Muslim pogroms of 2002. At the same time, however, he continued to insist that the Muslims of Gujarat were, like other communities in the state, prospering in Modi-land, and that they had fully recovered from the enormous destruction that they had suffered in the course of the state-sponsored violence. He has even praised the relief efforts of both the central and state governments, certifying them as being very successful.
The claim so aggressively being propagated, including through the Urdu press, of Vastanvi being a ‘Modi man’ and an ‘RSS agent’, is, of course, ridiculous. But in itself this claim is not surprising, however, given that the mullahs and their followers have a nasty penchant for concocting bizarre conspiracy theories at the drop of a skull-cap. Almost every problem facing Muslims and any critique of the mullahs, even the most meaningful and legitimate, is conveniently attributed to what are routinely described as ‘anti-Islamic conspiracies’ hatched by a host of supposed ‘enemies of Islam’, whose identity switches according to the situation: Jews, Christians, Hindus, the RSS, the CIA, the Mossad, and so on and so forth. It is certainly not my argument that there are no forces whatsoever inimical to and working against Muslims, and that all Muslim-spun conspiracy theories are products of extra fertile minds, but the tendency to attribute all the ills of the Muslims or any critique of the mullahs to a hidden ‘conspiracy’ against Islam is quite simply absurd.
Ill-founded conspiracy theories that the mullahs and likeminded folks spin are often simply a convenient ruse to deny the culpability of some Muslims or mullahs in the problems that they are forced to face, as well as a convenient way to clamp down on legitimate critique and internal dissent. Often, they indicate a stubborn refusal to recognize that Muslims or the mullahs, are in large measure, to blame for many of their own problems, and that many of these are actually self-created. They also do nothing whatsoever to promote much-needed introspection. Often—certainly in the ongoing agitation over Vastanvi’s appointment—conspiracy theories that describe problems as having been created by menacing conspiratorial non-Muslim ‘others’ are invented and most aggressively propagated by those who are themselves to blame for creating these controversies.
To be fair, however, one cannot spare Vastanvi entirely of blame in stoking the agitation that now threatens to displace him from his seat at the Deoband madrasa. He put his foot in his own mouth with his naïve and untenable claims about Muslims in Gujarat allegedly prospering under Modi’s rule and of their having fully recovered from the devastation they had suffered in the wake of the state-sponsored violence in 2002. Both claims are deeply problematic.
The 24th January issue of the Hindustan Times quotes Vastanvi as saying, ‘I believe that most of the Muslims in Gujarat are prospering. Excluding a few, who are embroiled in one case or the other, most of them are happy with their work. Their financial condition is also good.’ Vastanvi here displays astounding ignorance of the extent of poverty among large sections of Muslims in his own home state. I am no ‘expert’ (I detest that term) on Gujarat, but I have travelled enough there in recent years to know that a large section of the Muslims in the state are indeed woefully impoverished, and that they do face various forms of discrimination at the hands of bigoted Hindus and agencies of the state. To claim, therefore, that ‘most’ of the Gujarati Muslims are ‘prospering’ and that ‘their financial condition is also good’, as Vastanvi does, and that efforts to rehabilitate the thousands of Muslims hit by the 2002 violence have been very successful is, to my mind, entirely preposterous.
Vastanvi is said to be an enormously rich man, He runs scores of educational institutions, which some of his fellow mullah detractors (perhaps unfairly) claim are exploitative money-making rackets. It may be that his interactions with Gujarati Muslims are limited largely to fellow rich men, and do not extend to the slum-dwellers I have seen in the Muslim ghettos of Ahmedabad or the wretchedly poor Muslim pastoralists I have stayed with in Kutch. Could this be why the man fondly imagines that besides a tiny handful, the Muslims of Gujarat are all thriving, as he himself is?
Barring some notable exceptions, the Indian corporate media (which erroneously describes itself as the ‘national’ or ‘mainstream’ media) has been aggressively promoting Narendra Modi’s model of ‘development’ as the path for India’s future. Some sections of this media are even calling for Modi to be made the country’s Prime Minister, claiming that he is one man who can take India to the heights of ‘developmental’ glory. A host of socially-engaged writers and activists in Gujarat have been struggling, against much opposition, to counter this ridiculous claim. They have highlighted the fact, which the ‘mainstream’ media refuses to acknowledge, that Modi’s much touted model of ‘development’—capitalism in its most greedy and crass form—has only helped fatten the Gujarati rich (mainly ‘upper’ caste Hindus, who form only a small minority of the state’s population), and that this ‘development’ and ‘prosperity’ have been at the cost both of the poor (who are mainly Dalits, Adivasis, other ‘low’ castes and Muslims, who together form the vast majority of Gujaratis) and the natural environment.
Vastanvi, however, seems blissfully ignorant of all this when he claims that Gujarat is going through a veritable economic miracle and that the vast majority of the state’s Muslims, too, are fully participating in this process. In a letter published in the 24th January issue of the Lucknow edition of the Urdu Daily Sahafat, a certain Sagheer Qureshi very rightly points out, ‘Maulana Vastanvi sees Gujarat’s prosperity only in the new roads, massive theatres and shopping malls that have come up all around.’ And if some Gujarati Muslims, such as Vastanvi’s rich patrons, are benefiting from this ‘prosperity’, Vastanvi seems to have been led to erroneously imagine that almost all the Muslims in Gujarat must be in the same very contended state.
Ironically, Vastanvi’s fellow mullah detractors, who are whipping up a storm of opposition to him by accusing him of blessing Modi with a ‘clean chit’, and of promoting idolatry (by having presented a memento containing pictures of Radha and Krishna to a Maharashtrian Minister last year) have totally ignored the one issue on which Vastanvi could really be faulted: his sheer ignorance of the reality of Modi’s ‘development’ model. That they have not bothered to refer to this only indicates that they share the same ignorance and that economic, real-world, bread-and-butter concerns of the poor Muslims are of no real concern to them.
But to be fair to Vastanvi, he cannot be entirely blamed for his ignorance of the harsh poverty that a vast section of Gujarati Muslims labour under and for his naïve appreciation of Modi’s ‘development’ model. Nor can his fellow mullah detractors be similarly wholly blamed for not raising the issue. After all, they are all madrasa-trained mullahs. Would-be Deobandi mullahs (like most others) are not taught political economy in their madrasas, where such things are considered to be ‘worldly’ (duniyavi), and, hence, by definition, opposed to ‘religious’ (deeni) knowledge that the madrasas claim to specialize in. Numerous Deobandi mullahs I have met claim that their madrasas deliberately want their students to be ignorant of the complex realities of the world (duniya), which they treat as ephemeral and of little consequence compared to the real and eternal life that starts after death.
If madrasa students are taught duniyavi subjects and issues (such as political economy), they fear, they might well be attracted to the snares of the world and thus lose their deeni commitment. Religion (deen) and the world thus come to be seen as diametrically opposed to each other, the notion being that one can be successful in one only at the cost of the other. And so when Vastanvi spouts bizarre claims about almost all Muslims thriving in Gujarat or praises Modi’s model of ‘development’, it should hardly come as a surprise. Vastanvi is not alone in displaying such ignorance about the duniya. Most of his fellow mullahs, including his arch-detractors, would probably share his sorry predicament.
From the writings of progressive Islamic scholars I have learnt that this rigid distinction between ‘worldly’ and ‘religious’ knowledge actually has no sanction whatsoever in the teachings of the Quran and in the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, and that, in fact, this notion is the creation of conservative mullahs who have invented it themselves for their own benefit. The amazing ignorance that most mullahs display about the duniya, which Vastanvi so well exemplifies in his comments about the Gujarati Muslims, is only a reflection of this deep-rooted and rigid deeni-duniyavi dualism that might actually have no legitimacy in Islam, as properly understood.
If there is one lesson to be learnt from the ongoing sordid controversy centred on Vatsanvi, it is that there is an urgent need for a fundamental reform in the mullah mind-set, so that would-be mullahs can articulate socially-engaged, progressive and relevant understandings of their faith and provide sensible guidance about the duniya in order to truly serve the people they claim to lead. And, if that happens, we might be spared the ignorance that Vastanvi propagates when he spouts meaningless clichés praising Modi’s model of ‘development’, blissfully unaware of the harsh realities about this model’s many victims. We might also be spared the bizarre conspiracy theories that his fellow mullah critics are now so aggressively circulating and the wild intolerance that they are vigorously displaying in a bid to unseat him.
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.