By Swapan Dasgupta
There is a political storm brewing over an interview the newly-appointed Vice Chancellor of Darul Uloom seminary Maulana Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi gave to Times of India last Wednesday in Surat. On a TV channel last Thursday evening, MIM leader from Hyderabad Asaduddin Owaisi called for him to apologise to the Muslim community and All India Muslim Personal Law Board member Kamal Farooqui demanded his immediate resignation, failing which moves would be initiated for his removal. The Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid too has denounced Maulana Vastanvi and is reportedly building up Muslim opinion against him.
What did the Maulana say in his interview that has provoked some Muslim notables to such fury? He did not issue Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi a 'clean chit', as is being suggested by facile TV anchors. That prerogative, as he told a TV channel, belongs to either the courts or a higher power. In fact, he was categorical that the Gujarat riots of 2002 were "a blemish" on India and that "all culprits should be punished", presumably through the due process of law.
What irked Messrs Owaisi, Bukhari and co were three observations relating to Gujarat. First, unlike the human rights groups and ambulance chasers who have made it their business to insist that there is no worthwhile rehabilitation of riot victims, Vastanvi—who is from Gujarat and should be aware of what is happening in his home state—said that "As far as relief work is concerned, it has been carried out very well by (the) government and people of Gujarat."
Secondly, the Darul Uloom head argued that Muslims shouldn't become obsessive about the riots: "The issue is almost eight years old now and we should move forward." The implication was that Muslim politicians should evolve beyond frightening co-religionists with an unreal fear of imminent butchery. In short, the community should transcend the victimhood game.
Finally, and this was to my mind his most forceful argument, Muslims should take full advantage of the economic resurgence and development of Gujarat. "Development has undoubtedly taken place in Gujarat" which had, he said, benefitted "all communities". "I ask Muslims to study well. The government is ready to offer jobs, but for that they need good education." Unspoken but implicit is the suggestion that the Muslim community should strive for greater economic integration into the economic mainstream and not be bogged down in self-contained ghettos.
Apart from Left-wing economists who are sceptical of the economic road being followed by the Gujarat Government, Vastanvi's advice (aimed mainly at Gujarati Muslims) is likely to be seen by most Indians as sensible and reassuring. The Maulana consciously shied away from the blame game and the excitable rhetoric of the pulpit. Instead, he offered a practical way forward for his community, as only a good Gujarati can. He was also reflecting the growing self-confidence of Gujarati Muslims resulting from personal and educational advancement—something that even the Rajinder Sachar committee acknowledged.
The Muslims of Gujarat aren't some desi Amish Mennonites or similar oddities who consciously keep away from modern civilisation. They too have benefitted from better roads, uninterrupted power, a 9.9 per cent growth in agriculture and a better climate for investment. Vastanvi was reflecting this overall mood of optimism.
If Vastanvi had been faulted for viewing Indian Muslims through the prism of the community in Gujarat, there would have been scope for some meaningful discussion. Gujarat's Muslims are essentially traders and entrepreneurs while Muslims in Uttar Pradesh tend to be skilled workers, farmers and fallen taluqdars. Gujaratis tend to minimise the role of government while UP is inclined to exaggerate it. These are differences that are worthy of a good discussion; they shouldn't trigger calls for a Vice Chancellor's resignation.
The problem, it would seem, stems from Vastanvi's desire to take Muslims out of the ghettos of economic and social backwardness, without compromising their religious identity. As Vice Chancellor, he has been stressing the importance of blending religious instruction with more meaningful study of "secular" disciplines such as the sciences, medicine and management. Given the symbolic importance of Deoband to Muslims in the whole subcontinent, the curriculum shifts in Darul Uloom is calculated to send a powerful reformist message to the whole community.
This may be welcome to most of India but the educational and economic empowerment of Muslims and their ability to compete on equal terms in the marketplace poses a potential threat to those who play broker between the Muslim masses and the political elite. As long as Muslims are nervous, defensive, educationally backward and hark back wistfully to a lost court culture in Awadh and the Deccan, they need to services of those who can leverage their significant electoral clout for advantage. The last thing these political middlemen need is an atmosphere of calm, bereft of both loony Islamists and loony Hindus, where people can go about their primary mission in life: self-improvement.
By questioning a fundamental tenet of this contrived tension, Vastanvi has been guilty of the gravest 'secular' offence. He has argued that Muslims are normal Indians, driven by the same urges and aspirations of everyone else. He has, in fact, actually challenged Islamophobia in a nuanced fashion. But he has also threatened the rozi-roti of the merchants of fear. If their assault on him is successful, it may bolster many of the worst stereotypes of the Muslim community.