Provocative clerics, frenzied mobs and the widening fault lines of communal India
PR Ramesh and Ullekh NP | 14 Jan, 2016
Sitting inside a teashop not far from Darul Uloom Deoband, Rasheed, a mechanic, can’t hide his anger as he sips tea with vigorous slurps as if to beat the biting cold. “Allah ko badnaam kiya,” he growls, justifying a recent protest in this part of northwest Uttar Pradesh against Kamlesh Tiwari, a self-proclaimed Hindu nationalist ‘neta’ based in Lucknow who made derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad on Facebook. The moustachioed Rasheed has no doubt whatsoever that Tiwari is a ‘BJP neta’. The skullcap-wearing 30-year-old also has no idea that the statements that Tiwari made, contemptible as they are, were made in response to an attack on members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) by Samajwadi Party strongman Azam Khan, who called them ‘homosexuals’. “We came to know about Tiwari’s blasphemy from our community leaders,” says Rasheed, referring to clerics of the noted seminary nearby where thousands of students come to study Islam. Rasheed doesn’t know that it was in Deoband that a case was filed against Tiwari (which led to his arrest and detention) and insists on identifying him as a “well-known RSS leader” though police confirm that he was not associated with either the RSS or the now-defunct Hindu Mahasabha. Rasheed then claims that there was stone-pelting at the protest venue, injuring Deoband Municipal Board chairman Maviya Ali, though the latter himself confirms that he was hurt by a loudspeaker that fell on his head.
Tiwari shot into national limelight after Muslim groups in various parts of the country—from Muzaffarnagar in UP to Nellore in Andhra Pradesh and from Bengaluru in Karnataka to Kaliachak in West Bengal’s Muslim- dominated border district of Malda—took to what intelligence agencies call ‘instant crowd violence’. Several officials in Delhi contend that this betrays a pattern of behaviour: protests orchestrated particularly to fan communal hatred. “There is nothing spontaneous about it, other than the spontaneity of being available as cannon fodder for clerics and a few Islamic strongmen,” says another senior intelligence officer who has studied communal strife closely for decades. Violent protests have rocked several other parts of the country, too, over the past several weeks, following the arrest of Tiwari in the first week of December. These include Dehradun, Indore, Bhopal, Kanpur, Bareilly, Lucknow, Purnea and others (see ‘Mob Fury’). According to at least four senior Central Government officials who spoke to Open, the “uncontrollable Muslim anger” at the protest venues suggested “rabble- rousing, planning and execution” of demonstrations designed to create religious polarisation in largely Muslim pockets. “To a large extent, these protests were meant to provoke retaliation,” says one of them.
Indications are that at least in places such as Malda and parts of UP, these shows of ‘Muslim frustration and wrath’ have succeeded in inviting a potential backlash. This, intelligence agencies suggest, is the apparent motive of Islamic clerics and leaders who have been zealously unleashing mob fury, using ‘brainwashed youths’, most of them illiterate or semi-literate, as expendable pawns. While Muslim organisations deny any such motive, calls from various Islamic bodies, including the Deoband seminary, to “target” Tiwari with attacks reveal a “mischievous plot”, claim intelligence officials.
The religious call-to-arms of sorts began last month with Rabey Hasani Nadwi, rector of Lucknow’s Islamic seminary Nadwatul Ulema—a cleric who also heads the All India Muslim Personal Law Board—lapping up the controversial comment by Tiwari. The self-appointed leader won some notoriety earlier this year when he suggested that a temple be built for Nathuram Vinayak Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin. But then, Nadwi’s response— to use blasphemy as an excuse to instigate communal disharmony— was no less incendiary. An organisation called Edara-e-Sharia issued pamphlets calling for large-scale protests against Tiwari, who has been in jail since he was arrested early last month for creating disharmony. While students and clerics at Darul Uloom Deoband had an active role in the demonstrations at Bijnor, UP, Maulana Anwarul Haq, general secretary of Jamiat Shababul Islam, offered Rs 51 lakh as a reward on Tiwari’s head.
Over the next few weeks, as violence by Muslim mobs spread to other parts of the country over obnoxious statements on Prophet Muhammad, in Kaliachak of West Bengal’s Malda district—where more than 200,000 people had reportedly assembled to take part in anti-Tiwari demonstrations—protestors went on a rampage of destruction. Some state home officials claim they were acting at the behest of local mafia dons engaged in the opium trade and smuggling of fake currencies to India. “Mind you, the incident happened more than a month after the arrest of Tiwari,” says a senior state government official on the phone, requesting anonymity. On 4 January in Malda, Muslim protestors set fire to a police station and damaged vehicles and property worth crores of rupees.
While the Mamata Banerjee-led government in West Bengal claimed the violence occurred on account of some trouble between the BSF and locals in Malda district on 3 January, other political parties allege that she is being forced to gloss over the issue because Muslims form close to 30 per cent of the state’s electorate and she doesn’t want to upset her vote base in an election year. Malda, a district bordering Bangladesh, has 51 per cent Muslims. Officials say that several provocative pamphlets were distributed among them ahead of the “unfortunate incident”. In any case, the place has a reputation for rampant crime, especially the contraband trade. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has so far arrested over 15 people in connection with the violence and all of them are linked to a fake- currency racket in Malda.
Notes Dr Faisal Devji, referring to the recent violence: “Uncontrollable crowd action in the name of vague and emotive causes indicates the failure of Muslim political action, for which the ‘provocative’ statements of Mahasabha leaders serves only as an excuse.” Devji, reader in Indian History, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, has authored several books on Islam and modern Indian history.
A few intellectuals have spoken of Muslim anger as a backlash to pro-Hindutva assertions, placing it in the context of the raging debate over rising ‘intolerance’ in the country since the BJP returned to power after a gap of 10 years in May 2014 under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But nothing could be farther from the truth, say former intelligence officials who hasten to reel out past incidents of Muslim mob fury over what some of them call developments “unrelated to India”.
Mob mobilisation is easier in the age of mobile phones and internet connectivity. The previous UPA Government had called out various outfits, including the Popular Front of India (PFI), for spreading rumours in 2012 that led to thousands of panic-stricken Indians from the Northeast fleeing Bengaluru—rumours spread by bulk SMSes that warned students from Assam of attacks by Muslims in retaliation for communal violence in their home state. The rumours were believed because the community is seen as ghettoised and easily given to mob formation.
Scholars like Devji and a few others are of the view that the trend—of large groups of Muslims reacting to calls from clerics and radicalised political leaders from the community—is an outcome of the criminalisation of Indian politics, especially among Muslims who think they must depend on strongmen for their security, a situation which, he says, makes “religion” their only medium of “authentic” public expression. “And yet, however instrumentalised it becomes, this form of expression reveals the loss of politics among many Muslims, a phenomenon that isn’t defined by the coming to power of any single political party, either at the Centre or at the state level,” he observes. “The fact that in this case [of protests against Tiwari], it was the old cry of an insult to Muhammad that seems to have given the mobilisation its reason, as well as its transformation into an equally old-fashioned riot, suggests the hopelessness of the situation. Indeed, given the relative decline and even absence of Muslim riots in India over the past few decades (these having been replaced by terrorism as a form that presupposes the absence of mass action or support), the re-emergence of the Muslim riot in Malda is interesting.”
According to Devji, there is nothing ‘global’ or ‘jihadist’ about “this apparent return to highly local forms of communalism”. He adds, “We saw similar scenes in Mumbai some years ago, when false social media reports of the persecution of [Rohingya] Muslims in Myanmar were used to gather a large crowd that then went on a rampage against police and media vehicles, though there was no ‘communal’— in the sense of ‘anti-Hindu’—motive in that case.”
Yet the pattern of violence and outrageous threats by Muslims in India against non-Muslims over cartoons appearing in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 reveals a different story. According to an intelligence official who has followed the global events that unfolded following the publication of those cartoons, some depicting Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist with a bomb, and also the recent Paris attacks, “identifying themselves with the global Islamic cause” has become “normal” among Indian Muslims too. In various states, including Kerala and West Bengal, such an identification with global—and even jihadist—causes is alarmingly widespread.
“It is money that is one of the big attractions for many young people to join the ranks of radical Muslim groups that are flush with funds. It has helped these groups spread the word of jihad and Islamist rule. Whoever grows in that environment gets attracted to Salafism and the idea of monotheist rule that Islamic State promises,” states a former senior police officer who has researched the roots of communal conflicts in Kerala, a state that has lately seen the emergence of several hardline Islamist groups amid what scholars such as Mohiyuddin Nadukkandiyil Karassery, popularly known as MN Karassery, call a “perverse assertion” of Muslim identity. Karassery argues that it was Jamaat-e-Islami that provided the “theoretical base” for the rise of Islamism in Kerala, starting in the late 1940s, masquerading as a social organisation and by co-opting Leftist intellectuals to champion their thoughts in the garb of fighting ‘imperialist forces’. For a state that is India’s most literate and where Muslims are socially, financially and politically much better off than members of the community in other states, this is an odd phenomenon. Interestingly, the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s former representative in south India, Thadiyantavide Nazeer, hails from the northern district of Kannur. Nazeer and his men were accused of recruiting youths from across Kerala for the LeT. Though Leftist intellectuals and mainstream political parties have repeatedly rubbished the ‘idea’ that it was the Jamaat-e-Islami that fathered radicalism in post-Independence Kerala using ‘secular means’—such as organising literary events for all communities and championing the cause of the underprivileged— to establish their presence in the state, Hameed Chennamangalur, a critic of Muslim identity politics, says that such outfits have invaded the intellectual space through the use of media and “sheer cunning”.
“Their media organisations—such as Madhyamam (a print media group) and Media One (a TV channel) pay so- called intellectuals a relatively hefty fee for their contributions. So very few intellectuals speak out against the ownership of these media groups. Or the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has over the decades radicalised Muslim youths of the state through meticulous teachings of Abul A’la Maududi and Hassan al-Banna, who are divisive and purveyors of monotheism and the Muslim nation theory,” claims Karassery, a vehement critic of Islamists.
The Kerala experience offers insights into how deep the influence of Islamism can get even among the educated lot, states a Delhi-based intelligence official. In West Bengal, where the Marxists were in power for over three decades until Mamata Banerjee trounced them five years ago, the situation is far worse, as evident from the politics of vote banks and appeasement that political parties play. Political parties in West Bengal, now a hotbed for Islamism—along with Assam, thanks to its porous border with Bangladesh where Islamist forces enjoy tremendous political sway—have connived with terrorists and used them to meet their political ends. The Burdwan blasts had exposed the duplicity of West Bengal’s political parties which had offered a safe haven in the state for Islamists to operate. According to a senior Home Ministry official, masterful command of social media platforms by the IS, which uses jihadi video games, Hollywood thriller-like videos and similar digital campaigns, have attracted Muslim youths across the country either to “identify with local Islamic causes or global ones”.
Luring Muslim students to seminaries that offer them Islamic education—and deprive them any sort of access to secular curriculum—is seen as another root cause of the “political and religious alienation” among Muslims, especially in north India, a senior CPM leader tells Open in an interview. A young SP legislator, speaking on condition of anonymity, says he too sees “dangerous trends” among Muslims, irrespective of which party is in power at the Centre. His party, he says, has been playing a “dangerous game” by “sweeping under the carpet” misdeeds of various Islamic organisations in the state for electoral gains. “Illiterate and under-educated youths are increasingly being used as cannon fodder by their leaders in a major game of competitive communalism that will ultimately be counter-productive to a community that is already extremely backward in most parts of India,” he argues. “The mindset of mainstream political parties has to change. They can’t just highlight the excesses of Hindutva politics and stay blind to the jihadist urges of our Muslims,” he says.
While incidents of attacks on Muslims—like the Dadri incident in October where a Muslim was lynched by a mob that wrongly accused him of having beef at home— are reported 24×7 by the media, often placing the blame at the Prime Minister’s doorstep, the Malda violence was downplayed nationally. “This is damaging. By ignoring the religious and extremist angle to the issue, we are only encouraging such trends,” says the West Bengal CPM leader. “Give Muslims mainstream education,” he says.
The Deoband seminary, feted as a world-renowned centre of Islamic learning—has come under attack from various scholars for ‘corrupting the minds of poor Muslims’ and offering an ideological framework for radicalisation in the country. At Darul Uloom Deoband, students are offered moderate amenities and they live in unhygienic surroundings while an imposing mosque on the campus watches over them. The fatwas issued by clerics are proof of how far removed its teachers are from the modern world and need for reconciliation and peace. Most of the diktats published do little but offer an insight into their mindset.
For example, someone last year asked whether watching a video of sexual foreplay and ‘ejecting semen’ during Ramadan ‘nullifies’ the fast. A Maulvi had this answer:
‘If you ejected semen merely by watching the video and you did not masturbate to eject it, then your fast did not break in the above mentioned case. But it is noteworthy that in no way it is lawful to watch videos with pictures of women. You committed a big sin by watching video in the state of fast. You should do taubah (repentance) for it wholeheartedly and avoid watching videos in future altogether. In case you want to know anything about religion then you should ask any reliable scholar directly or by phone etc. Internet contains each types of information and until it is not confirmed by any reliable and authentic scholar, one should not believe it’
Students at the sprawling Deoband seminary are warm and courteous. However, they refuse to discuss religious violence. One student, Dilshad from Bhilai, says he hopes to return to Chhattisgarh, his home state, and work for his community after a year of learning. Mohammed Sadique, from Azamgarh who has been based there for the past eight years, takes pains to escort us to the vice-chancellor’s home, yet shows no inclination to talk about the blasphemy debate that is raging outside. Conversations with students of the Deoband seminary about their curriculum reveal that their teachers are given to obscurantism in the name of pan-Islamic thought. “Such education renders them easy targets for their leaders and clerics. Which perhaps explains why, after the Malda incident, taking a cue, Muslims went on a riot in the nearby Purnea district of Bihar,” claims an intelligence official.
In an interview to Open, EM Abdul Rahiman, vice-chairman, PFI, seeks to counter such “wild” and “baseless allegations” that institutions of higher Islamic learning like Darul Uloom Deoband indoctrinate Muslims with views that lead them to outfits like ISIS. He concedes, however, that “the theological outlook and the quality of scholars these madrassas produce need improvement to address the challenges of a changing society”. He argues that parents send their children to such seminaries with the hope that “they will not continue to starve and also they will not reach the underworld from the slums they live”. He also draws on the Justice Sachar Committee report to expose the myth that Muslim boys study in madrassas in large numbers. According to the report, he says, only 4 per cent of Muslim students are enrolled in these. Academics of the stature of Francis Robinson, a British historian who specialises in South Asia and Islam, also do not agree that Deoband offers an ideological basis for Islamism in India. “As far as I understand it, [the seminary’s concern is] to fashion an Islamic piety which could operate as far as possible outside the framework of the state. So Deoband, in offering an Islamic education to its wards, while as you say ‘denying any secular education’, is not offering an ideological framework for Islamism in India.” But intelligence agencies feel otherwise.
Contrary to perceptions fed by the secular intelligentsia and others, India has had a long tradition of propagating jihad. Shah Waliullah, an 18th-century Delhi cleric, had played a key role in the radicalisation of Sunni Muslims and converting Muslims to the puritan—and often radical—Wahhabi school of Islam. He had allegedly written letters to Ahmad Shah Durrani of Afghanistan, inviting him to attack India to ‘save Muslims’ from Hindus. However, electoral compulsions appear to have led most Indian political parties to ignore a worrisome trend of minorities wallowing in real and imagined grievances.
“This bizarre political correctness in the name of secularism does not do any good. Malda proves just that,” says a senior government official who is equally critical of communal outfits of other hues, condemning Dadri and Malda in the same breath. Thankfully, the debate on Islamist terror, he says, has resurfaced due to the rise of ISIS and Al-Qaeda’s call to set up sleeper cells in the Subcontinent and unleash terror on targets in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar.
Now, as a pattern emerges from the series of ‘protest marches’ that could potentially endanger national security, denials and counter-accusations don’t seem to wash much. Amid news of jihadist activities from states such as UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Karnataka, Kerala and so on, there is little cause for cheer.
“Obscurantist ways have to be fought tooth and nail if we have to secure our borders and ensure internal security,” says a senior bureaucrat who tracks communal issues as part of his job. “Calling a spade a spade is therefore the best policy,” he adds, emphasising that the country can’t let a chunk of its huge population of Muslims—every tenth adherent of Islam in the world is an Indian citizen— be led astray by wily clerics. “The biggest worry is that the problem is not limited to India alone. The least we could do is address issues at home with diligence, [rather] than look away,” he says.
After all, the recent experience of various countries— from France to Indonesia—shows that terror knows no borders.