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.”
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