While Tuesday’s verdict in the Godhra case couldn’t possibly have come at a worse time for Ghulam Ahmed Vastanvi, the majlis-e-shura, or council, of Deoband’s Darul Uloom chose on Wednesday to give its mohtamim, or vice-chancellor, a reprieve, allowing him to stay in his post at South Asia’s most influential Islamic centre of learning. Vastanvi got into trouble over a remark that Muslims in his home state of Gujarat were prosperous and that it was time the community put behind it the trauma of the religious riots that broke out in the state after a coach full of kar sevaks was torched in Godhra.
His statement set off a campaign—fanned by various interested parties—to get Vastanvi out, demonizing him within the community as an apologist for Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, a figure who evokes fear and loathing among Muslims. Vastanvi has rejected the characterization of himself, but the statements fed into a wider power struggle—to make a broad generalization—between traditionalists and modernizers, and not just in Deoband.
Like all generalizations, this one isn’t entirely helpful. The tussle is coloured, for instance, by the rift in the Madani family that has held sway over Darul Uloom since the early 1980s, a situation complicated by the fact that Vastanvi himself has married one of them.
Over its history, Darul Uloom has been as steadfast in upholding the faith as it has been in championing the cause of Indian nationhood. On the other hand, fatwas on what women should wear sit ill with a community that’s an immutable part of India and is struggling (like everyone else) with mortgage payments, onion prices and finding gainful employment.
India has the world’s biggest population of Muslims after Indonesia and their economic state, especially in the northern part of the country, is woeful. The self-styled leaders of the community have for the most part enriched themselves and nurtured pockets of influence into family fiefs. Education has been the community’s sole ticket to upward mobility and, in that respect, Vastanvi, an educationist of repute himself, is the kind of person Darul Uloom needs in a leadership role.
The shura has decided that a three-member panel will consider Vastanvi’s eventual fate. That decision will have an impact far beyond the confines of a small town in Uttar Pradesh.
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