MARSHAL EVERY stereo type of Muslims loudly proclaimed from public rallies, stereotypes drifting unquestioned in the wind, stereotypes snaking below joking asides even in liberal conversations. Muslims can’t be trusted. Muslims are pan-religionists. Muslims cheer for Pakistan. Muslims are bigots. Muslims have three wives. Muslims have too many children. Muslims are dirty. And the latest, all Muslims may not be terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.
In post-Partition India, Muslims have increasingly receded from public view and dialogue as a community of thinking, flesh-and-blood, individual citizens. For the average non-Muslim, they are little more than a homogenous, vaguely threatening spectre. Swathes of skull cap and lungi smudged across ghetto towns of middle India. A community about which we have made up our minds and have no curiosity. The “These people…” of our parents’ conversations. The imaginative (and information) vacuum into which the communal Hindu Right has poured its poison.
These are the stereotypes that tremble beneath the humorous anxiety of one’s family. “What? You are going alone on a train with 2,000 Muslim clerics to Hyderabad? One woman amidst 2,000 Muslim men?”
On November 6, 2008, rising in a magnificent and hopeful gesture against the image that has come to imprison their community, 2,000 Muslim clerics set off on a train decorated with zebra-stripe flags and marigold strings from Deoband to Hyderabad. The Sheikh-Ul-Hind Express — a “peace train” carrying a promising message of national integration. Four thousand other clerics were to join them there from different corners of India – Gujarat, Assam, Manipur, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Bihar, Kerala and Maharashtra — to attend the 29th general body meeting of the Jamiat-Ulema-I-Hind at the Nizam College ground.
The train — a metaphorical masterstroke — is only a prop in a journey that began in Deoband in February this year, when the Darul Uloom, an old and influential madrassa, ironically often touted in the wind as the intellectual fountainhead for militant Islamic groups across Asia, issued a fatwa against terrorism. This fatwa — something of a historic first — was endorsed publicly a few months later in May at a huge anti-terror rally of almost three lakh Muslims at the Ramlila Ground in Delhi. Then too, clerics from every state, representatives of Shia and Sunni sects, and Muslim organisations like the Jamiat-Ulema-I-Hind, Nadwatul Ulema Lucknow, the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, and the Muslim Personal Law Board were present. Each organisation the face of a vast hinterland of influence.
The significances are hard to miss. Sixteen years earlier, LK Advani’s rath yatra had ripped the country with pungent speeches and a call to hate. His chariot gave the ugliest face to existing faultlines. It released a narrative of exclusion that has brought the country to the brink. Now, rising from its bruised aftermath, here were people readying to sow it back. At a time when one has grown weary of hearing political and religious leaders talk a reckless language of reprisal and atavistic hate, here were these clerics — by all accounts the most conservative face of Islam in India — reaching for the higher ground, the redemptive note.
Perhaps, a potent new counter-narrative is starting to roll.
It is three in the afternoon. The Sheikhul- Hind Express has just chugged into Nizam-ud-din station. Hundreds of clerics in white kurtas and caps are waiting to get in. There is an air of palpable excitement, almost elation. The frisson of a collective welded together by a higher purpose. It might dissipate later as the group disperses to the individual struggle and dilemmas of life, but for now, it is unmistakable. For all the hustle to get in, the atmosphere in the train is marked by an ordered — almost astonishing — civility. Two thousand men, but a marked absence of male aggression. None of the bogeys suffer the slightest indiscipline.
The Sheikh-ul-Hind Express offers other revelations. In a sense, travelling on it is a journey into the belly of one’s own unsuspected prejudices. It is a reminder of how little one knows, how little one ventures into other cultures, and how easily such a blank slate can be usurped and written on.
As the train pulls out of the station, Maulana Kalimullah Khan, the founder of Hira Public School in Faizabad, a genteel man in amehendi beard, is detailed by the organisers to facilitate conversation between the indifferent Hindi of the journalist and the eloquent Urdu of the clerics. He proves to be an untiring bridge, with a smiling gift for irony.
CONVERSATIONS SWIRL through the train. Sixty years of India’s chequered history compacted into a bogey. There is animated talk of terror blasts, the arrests of Muslim youth, “appeasement”, reservations, equal opportunity, the Sachar Committee Report, discrimination, Muslim mistakes, the Hindu Right, Babri Masjid demolition, SIMI, the comparative merits of Hindu and Islamic societies, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Pakistan, Kashmir and the Koran’s position on women.
(When conversation on that subject gets particularly heated, I say exasperatedly to my interlocutor, “what can one say if the Koran is the voice of Khuda who is male, and all the codes are written from a male point of view. All I can say for Hindus is that at least we have devis as goddesses, so the road is a little more open.” The maulanas listening in burst into laughter.)
Many of the conversations are more sombre. Maulana Kalimullah Khan describes the hostility he faced getting CBSE recognition for his school. Maulana Mahmood Madani, Rajya Sabha member, secretary of the Jamiat-Ulema-I-Hind, and a key figure behind the anti-terror initiative, talks of his humiliating attempt to start an CBSE affiliated boarding school for Muslim children in Dehradun. Given sanction at first to buy land by then Chief Minister ND Tiwari, he was later stopped from making the school by the government. The reason? They suspected he was going to start a madrassa and this would compromise the security of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) there! “And they say we are being appeased by political parties,” he laughs ruefully. “This is what happened with me, a Rajya Sabha member. You can imagine what happens with ordinary Muslims. There were 150 other institutions in the 12 kilometres that separated my land from the IMA, but only we were suspect. I told the education minister I did not need his permission to start madrassas. I could start them in Aruna–chal Pradesh on the China border sitting right here! They make such a bogey out of madrassas, but they won’t let us start any other schools either. There has been a systematic programme to keep Muslims out of the mainstream. What people don’t understand is that if such a large percentage of the population is ghettoised and kept backward, it is not just harmful for Muslims, it is harmful for the entire country,” says he.
“The communal forces accuse us of being terrorists and anti-national,” says Mohammad Rafeeque Khan, secretary of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, a fatherly man, with a vein of kindly laughter running below his voice, “but Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse of the RSS. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh bodyguards. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by the LTTE. From the Supreme Court to district court — was there ever an injunction from the Bar Council that these perpetrators will not be defended? In fact, a lawyer as reputed as Ram Jethmalani fought the case for Indira Gandhi’s assassins. Yet now the Bar Council of Gorakhpur, Benaras, Faizabad and Lucknow have ordained that Muslims caught for the Sabarmati Express carnage or Sankat Mochan temple blast will not be defended. They are just suspects, their crime has not yet been proved. That’s one scenario. The other is that the VHP, BJP and RSS have said they will open their coffers to save Sadhvi Pragya Thakur. Why this discrimination? There are only two fair routes — either don’t give legal or financial assistance to anyone accused in this category of terror crime; or else give everybody due legal assistance and deem them worthy of reasonable doubt. For Rahul Raj’s death, Ram Vilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav — three men who never unite — came together to ask the Prime Minister for an investigation. But when there are other false encounters — and human rights groups and media outfits are themselves pointing in that direction — it becomes traitorous if Muslims ask for an investigation? How can these attitudes lead to progress? It can only lead to the country’s destruction. No matter how much we want the country to progress, until we unite hearts and realise that Hindus and Muslims feel the same pain, it will only slip into more anarchy.”
Other repudiations are made. Reeling out his ideological rants, in an interview to TEHELKA two weeks ago, Prakash Sharma, national convenor of the Bajrang Dal, had claimed that the Hindu Right fought Muslims because areas in which they were concentrated would lead to demands for new partitions. Maulana Rafeeque tackles this propaganda patiently: Uttarkhand. Chhattisgarh. Jharkhand. Greater Nagaland. Gorkhaland, Telengana. The LTTE’s demands. Assam’s ULFA demand. The Shiv Sena’s Marathi manoos campaign. Which of these separatist movements are led by Muslims? he asks quietly. For the space of one pulse beat that follows, the propaganda this embattled community has suffered comes home in its crushing enormity.
But through all of this, through all the vexed conversations, two things shine through. Gauged by some lenses, the genteel men on Sheikh-ul-Hind Express might seem suffocatingly conservative and unyielding on some issues: the inalienable correctness of Muslim Personal Law and a refusal to allow Muslim women to function out of purdah. But these are matters of culture to either be accepted or fought from within the community. There may also inevitably be an underlying sense of Islam’s superiority in terms of its sense of order, justice and decreed morality. But this is only a window into how a culture sees itself and what it holds dear. What shines through it all is an unveering loyalty to land and nation and a language of unequivocal respect, amiability and tolerance. Unlike the virulent rhetoric of the Hindu Right — the demonising of others, the insidious theory of “action and reaction” they use to justify their violence — the men on this peace train say no provocation, absolutely none, evokes a call for violent reprisal.
“Please do not mix these issues of justice or Muslim reservations or discrimination with our message against terror and plea for communal harmony,” Maulana Madani urges repeatedly on the plane back to Delhi from Hyderabad. “These are separate stories.”
“Even if our demands and needs are not met, we do not believe in spreading anarchy,” says Jamiat-Ulema-I-Hind president Maulana Qari Usman. “We fight for our rights and will continue to do so as legitimate citizens of this country, but only by the rule, only within the framework of the Indian Constitution.”
This is a voice of the Indian Muslim that the average non-Muslim Indian has started to forget completely. A voice that the national media does not seek out and politicians don’t woo. A voice that has been completely smothered in the war of “action and reaction”, competitive word and deed, between belligerent Muslim radical and parasitic Hindu Right. In fact, it is a voice of moderation and sanity that Indian public life has begun to forfeit altogether.
THE PHILOSOPHY of the Jamiat- Ulema-I-Hind has much to do with the fashioning of this voice. The driving force behind the fatwa against terror, the rallies and now the peace train, the Jamiat-Ulema-I-Hind is one of the leading Muslim organisations in India, mainly comprising of clerics and scholars from the Deoband alumni. With ten million primary members, who in turn run schools and madrassas in every corner of India, the Jamiat wields considerable influence. It is a part of the dangerous amnesias that have beset India that very few non-Muslim Indians would know that the Jamiat-Ulema-I-Hind, set up in 1919, sent out a powerful call to all Indian Muslims to join the freedom struggle against the British. When talk of Partition arose, it resisted the idea of Pakistan ferociously. It passed a resolution declaring that the demand for a homeland on the basis of religion was against the tenets of Islam: the Koran emphatically disallowed it. It put all its strength instead on backing the foundation of India as a secular democracy, committed to tolerance and coexistence between Muslims and those of other faiths.
Much of this ethos is on display at the Jamiat’s general assembly on November 9, 2008. Around one lakh Muslims sit in orderly rows at the Nizam College grounds in Hyderabad. Cleric after cleric takes the mike and exhorts the audience to unity and a righteous life. Swami Swaroop– anand, the Shankaracharya of Dwarka peeth, has sent a message. Among other things, he says, there can be no war between Hindus and Muslims because Hindu scriptures prophesied the coming of the Prophet 5,000 years ago and so He is perhaps more dear to Hindus than even Muslims. The crowd erupts in a joyous Allah ho Akbar! Sri Sri Ravi Shankar speaks of peace between communities. Every now and then plangent solo-voiced taranas soar up to the sky:“Hum Musalman Bharat ke wafadar hain…” (We Muslims are loyal to India). The mood is both reconciliatory and assertive. Towards the end, in an electric moment, the entire congregation rises up, lifts a finger of witness, and takes an oath of allegiance to fight against terrorism.
Inevitably, there are critics who will dismiss this as the new-found piousness of a community on the backfoot. Even if one supposed for a moment that this is true, one ought to remember that under siege, there are two responses possible: one can either reach for the higher ground or for reactive anger and anarchy. Clearly, a redemptive resolution has been made towards the former — stronger for having been born out of internal debate and dissent. For those who are seeking meek submission and an acceptance of second – class citizenship, the Sheikh-Ul-Hind Express might have some unpleasant surprises. This is not a capitulation of legitimate demands; it is an azaan for peace and civil dialogue. In a moment of crisis, we can turn ourselves either into something shining or sullied. This appears a hopeful call to the first.
Also Read: Four Clerics Speak Out On Their Peace Fatwa