Faced with fierce condemnation from his fellow Deobandi mullahs and other Muslim ‘leaders’, the newly-appointed rector of the Deoband madrasa, Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi, has been forced to issue a clarification about his comments, as reported by the Times of India, about Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Vastanvi now claims that the newspaper had distorted his remarks and insists that Modi cannot be ‘given a clean chit’. He has hinted that he did indeed recognize Modi’s culpability in the dastardly anti-Muslim pogroms that rocked Gujarat in 2002. He has also clearly stated that Modi could not be forgiven for this crime, and that the struggle for justice to the victims of the massacre and to bring those responsible for it to book should continue.
Vastanvi’s clarification, hurriedly issued no doubt in order to save himself from the fierce condemnation that his earlier statement, as reported in the Times of India, had provoked, seems to have failed to convince many of his critics, as a glance at the Urdu press reveals. According to the 24th January issue of the Delhi edition of the Daily Sahafat, despite Vastanvi’s statement, the wave of anger against Vastanvi shows no sign of abating in the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband itself, where he is presently holed up. The paper reports that studies have been completely disrupted in the madrasa, with irate students preventing teachers from taking their classes, locking all the gates leading into the complex and cutting off the electricity supply. They have even threatened to go on hunger strike till Vastanvi is forced to resign. They are raising slogans against Vastanvi, and distributing anti-Vastanvi pamphlets. For his own protection, the report says, Vastanvi, who reached Deoband two days ago, has been locked up inside the madrasa’s guest house, although enraged students are demanding that he come out. The paper also reports that the anti-Vastanvi movement has spread throughout Deoband town.
A number of Muslim ‘leaders’, mostly mullahs and some Urdu journalists, have refused to accept Vastanvi’s clarification, branding it as sheer deception. No doubt, some of them are desperately seeking to add fuel to the anti-Vastanvi movement, wanting their own man to take his place as head of India’s most influential madrasa. Others might have no personal axe to grind and may well be genuinely and justifiably aghast at how anyone could appear to be soft on Modi. They are continuing to insist that Vastanvi has committed a heinous crime in appearing to give a ‘clean chit’ to Modi and that, therefore, he has no business being the head of the Deoband madrasa.
As quoted in the Daily Sahafat, Khalid Rashid Firanghi Mahali of the Lucknow Eidgah, seen as a ‘moderate’ in mullah circles, has condemned Vastanvi for his statement that, as he out it, ‘pains the hearts of the oppressed Muslims and those non-Muslims, too, who are secular-minded and have been raising their voice against Modi’. He berates Vastanvi for ‘dampening the enthusiasm of those who speak out against oppression.’ The Daily Sahafat quotes an influential Deobandi mullah, Muhammad Arshad Qasmi, who declares, ‘It is utterly laughable for the rector of the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, to sing the praises of the biggest killer of the Muslims (qatil-e azam) and to call him a supporter of justice.’ The paper highlights a certain Mufti Ashfaq Ahmed Azmi, who accuses Vastanvi of being a liar and even of using money to buy his way to become the rector of the Deoband madrasa. He also uncharitably denounces Vastanvi for allegedly running a chain of educational institutions simply for making money, and remarks, ‘The Dar ul-Uloom is a spiritual institution, and it will not all benefit from his presence. Rather, he will spoil it.’ In a similar vein, the Daily Sahafat reports, Syed Raza Qasmi of the probably non-existent ‘Lovers of the Deoband Madrasa Association’, claims that Vastanvi’s subsequent statement seeking to clear himself of the charge of being pro-Modi is a complete ‘lie’ aimed at ‘misleading Muslims’ and to ‘control the damage’ done to his image by his earlier reported statement.
Syed Ahmad Bukhari, the controversial self-styled Shahi (‘Royal’) Imam of Delhi’s Jamia Masjid, has been quick to jump into the fray by accusing Vastanvi of being a ‘government mullah’. ‘The most dangerous person for Muslims are government mullahs,’ the Daily Sahafat quotes him as having declaring before a vast congregation during the Friday prayers held last week at the mosque he controls in Delhi. Completely unmindful of the sordid history of his own family in murky political deals with various political parties, including the BJP, he claims that Vastanvi was nudged by the Congress to issue his alleged pro-Modi statements. How praising Modi would help the Congress he leaves, curiously enough, unexplained. He alleges that Vastanvi is being used by inimical forces in order to divide Muslims. ‘Whenever the Muslims show any inclination to unite, the sarkari maulvis create divisions’, he thunders.
The self-styled ‘Shahi’ Imam’s brother, Syed Yahya Bukhari, simply parrots his brother’s views. In an interview with the Daily Sahafat’s bureau chief, he insists that Vastanvi’s alleged pro-Modi remarks are ‘wrong according to the shariah’. On Vastanvi’s subsequent clarification that he had not intended to give Modi a ‘clean chit’, he insists that ‘no wise and intelligent’ Muslim will accept this explanation. When asked by the newspaper if, since the RSS has infiltrated into ‘all institutions’, it might not be possible that it had introduced its own ‘agent’ (an oblique reference to the much-maligned Vastanvi) into the Deoband madrasa, Yahya Bukhari retorted, ‘I cannot deny this apprehension. I would request the governing council [of the Deoband madrasa] to serious investigate this because this is an important question and in the times we are passing through anything is possible.’ Despite Vastanvi’s clarification, Yahya Bukhari kept up with the demand that he resign, or else, so he claimed, ‘The Muslims not just of India alone, but, indeed, of the entire world will stop looking towards’ the Deoband madrasa. ‘If you ask 100 Muslims if Maulana Vastanvi should remain as rector, then 101 will say that he should not,’ he added with obvious exaggeration.
Writing in the 24th January Lucknow edition of the Daily Sahafat, journalist Hasan Kamal, in a piece titled ‘An Effort to Provide Modi a Clean Chit’, lambasted Vastanvi for allegedly ignoring Modi’s crimes. But, more than this, he claimed that he heard from an influential maulvi in Mumbai (who, he says, wishes to remain unnamed) that last year, Vastanvi had a face-to-face meeting with Modi. After this, Kamal writes, Vastanvi apparently told his followers, ‘Narendra Modi’s personality reflects a strange sort of Hindu spirituality. A person who meets him cannot remain uninfluenced by it.’ This story might be entirely apocryphal, but Kamal probably wants Muslims to believe the theory doing the rounds in the anti-Vastanvi camp that Vastanvi is definitely a Modi man or an RSS plant.
Reliable sources claim that certain top figures within one (of the three rival) factions of the Deobandi mass organization Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind are the real brains behind the ongoing hate-campaign directed against Vastanvi, and that they are using Vastanvi’s alleged pro-Modi remarks and certain other accusations now being leveled against him to oust him in order to put their own man at the helm of affairs of one of the most influential madrasas in the world. Whether Vastanvi’s clarification and his insistence that, contrary to what his detractors claim, he has definitely not provided Modi a ‘clean chit’, will be able to prevail against his vast numbers of enemies among his fellow mullahs now remains to be seen.
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.