I have always been attracted to the conservative intellectual, even the one I disagree with. This is because I like constructs, theories of the ideal. For this reason I am not as attracted to the progressive intellectual, the liberal, even if I agree with him.
For while to be conservative is to seek to conserve, it is often also to create. To be liberal is always to reject the present. The liberal intellectual— Chomsky, Arundhati Roy—objects. The conservative intellectual—Maududi, Iqbal—builds.
Conservatives tend to believe. Liberals are usually agnostic, unwilling to set great store by faith. This produces another difference. The conservative attempts to change society from within—Gandhi, M.S. Golwalkar—accepting its wisdoms and its prejudices, not discarding its beliefs. He engages.
Centre of controversy : Maulana Vastanvi (centre) was removed as the mohtamim, or vice-chancellor, of the Darul Uloom seminary in July ( photo by Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images); and (right) Edward Said (photo by Francis Tsang/Cover/Getty Images).
The liberal—Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar— appeals to universal ideas, while being intolerant of the faults of the present. Because of this trait liberalism improves the world more efficiently. It knows the world can never be perfect. It is suspicious of utopia, of the idealized forms dreamt by the conservative, like Shariah or Ram Rajya.
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Improvement can come only from finding fault with the present, true. But because of this trait liberalism is intellectually quite boring, since it seeks small steps not grand designs. It is also not as effective in tribal societies like India, whose culture isn’t self-correcting.
The West corrects itself quite easily because it is a thinking society. The East needs external correction.
Edward Said is a hero to the West because he uncovered one of its flaws, a patronizing approach to the Eastern mind. Said is not a friend of the East, however, because he covers up our flaws. To many, his work transfers responsibility. Our barbarisms are passed off as nothing more than the West’s jaundiced view.
The Eastern liberal uses Said and Chomsky to bash the West, but this is actually victimhood. It offers us nothing creative. Our problems remain.
That point I touched upon earlier, about the conservative intellectual seeking to change from within, is one of his great traits and it shows his humanity. This man I am attracted to above all, the conservative who is pragmatic, like Maulana Azad. His faith is strong, but his mind is curious and alert to the world outside faith. He sees the other side and empathizes, even if he doesn’t agree. Because he’s pragmatic, he seeks solutions. He prefers compromise to martyrdom. He knows which doors may be broken down, and which may need more knocking. India’s Muslims have punished themselves by depriving their children of guidance from such a man, Maulana Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi of Surat.
He was fired as rector of Darul Uloom Deoband. This Uttar Pradesh seminary was formed in the years after 1857’s defeat, and it is the seat of conservative Sunni Islam on the subcontinent and farther afield.
In the world of madrasas, Vastanvi is without peer as an organizer, raiser of funds and, most important, as someone convinced that Muslims, including madrasa students, must be given a strong secular education to make them employable.
After his election as rector, Vastanvi said two things in an interview with The Times of India that offended. He said all Gujaratis had progressed economically under chief minister Narendra Modi. There was “no discrimination against minorities in the state as far as development was concerned”.
He qualified this by adding that the riots in 2002 were “a blemish for India and all culprits should be punished”. The riots had worsened because “the police did not act due to political pressure”.
He then asked Muslims, this is the second thing, to move on, saying: “I ask Muslims to study well. The government is ready to offer jobs, but for that they need good education.”
It is difficult for us to see what was wrong with what Maulana Vastanvi said, but most Muslims will not tolerate anything said about Modi that isn’t harsh.
Vadodara’s physics professor J.S. Bandukwala wrote in the online paper New Age Islam introduced as: Why Gujarati Muslims oppose Maulana Vastanvi as head of Deoband despite his admirable modernisation of madrasas.
It isn’t true to say that “Gujarati Muslims” oppose Vastanvi, because after the interview was published he was received as a hero by many Gujarati Muslims who are proud of his achievements.
Prof. Bandukwala wrote: “Maulana Vastanvi is a very gifted man. He has built up an educational complex that is admirable. He receives huge amounts of donations and zakat, which he has utilized to modernize the madrasa system. That is why we feel so bad about opposing him. Because we had no choice. The Modi remarks and the manner in which the BJP used those comments, has caused much damage to the demand for justice in Gujarat.”
This prescription punishes Gujarat’s Muslims further by taking away one of their champions. Prof. Bandukwala’s own house was vandalized by Hindus during the 2002 riots. His daughter and he gave a moving interview to TV journalist Barkha Dutt, sitting amid the ruins. Prof. Bandukwala seeks justice, quite rightly, but it is not being denied by Vastanvi, who is helping Muslims progress, as Prof. Bandukwala himself acknowledges. Vastanvi’s removal will not affect the status of the riot cases. It will not affect the status of Modi, who remains a hero to Gujarati Hindus. But it will affect Deoband, which has reverted to rougher hands. It will affect Muslim education in general, because Deoband is a beacon. Why punish yourself to shame another? It is difficult to understand this argument.
Vastanvi is from Rander, on the Tapi’s west bank in Surat. For generations, the men of my family and those of my friends, have bought their kites on the night of 12 January, two days before Uttarayan, from the Muslims of Rander. The Surti Hindu is a most competitive flyer, and Rander’s Muslims are the greatest kite-makers on the subcontinent, I was taught as a child. The Surti Hindu recognizes nobody better.
Vastanvi is from the Sunni Vohra community, converted from the peasantry, but mercantile in outlook. Sunni Vohras made millions under the British, travelling to Burma and Africa to run timber businesses (many have names like Rangoonwala). Vastanvi absorbed the pragmatism of his mercantile background. It made his thinking more supple than that of the rigid maulvis who surround him in our seminaries.
Vastanvi recognizes that the problem in Gujarat is not Modi, but a civil society that is bigoted. Sulking won’t help here, though engagement might.
He was the first Gujarati to head Deoband, and also, though this isn’t mentioned, the first man from the backward classes, what Muslims call Ajlaf. The snooty upper-caste north Indian Muslims who monopolize Deoband would have disliked him at sight. They must be greatly relieved he’s gone.
Vastanvi was defeated because we let him down. Hindus don’t weigh in on such issues because they think they have no stake in them. In any case, religion puts off the liberal, as we have seen, and he’s neither informed nor interested about this.
Vastanvi should have been treasured by us for his wisdom but our apathy saw him off. External correction was needed here, because a wrong decision was being taken emotionally, but it wasn’t forthcoming. We did not see in Vastanvi the beauty of a conservative intellectual with an open mind.
He is gone, fully deserving his title of Maulana, a word that means “our master” in Arabic.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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