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.’’
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