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Left-wing Islamophobia? 'Apolitical' Tablighis not close to RSS-BJP: Rejoinder

Tablighis
By Abhay Kumar*
A recent article by Shamsul Islam, former professor of political science at the University of Delhi ("Muslims punished though Tablighi Jamat enjoyed 'good Muslim' tag from BJP-RSS", Counterview), about the Tablighi Jamaat and its alleged role in spreading coronavirus has knowingly or unknowingly done a great harm to the image of the Tablighi Jamaat, even as providing fuel to the communal hatred against the minority Muslim community in India.
The Tablighi Jamaat -- which is made of two Arabic words Tabligh (propagation) and Jamaat (group) -- is an Islamic reform movement to teach the basic tenets of Islam to common Muslims and make them pious. Established by Maulana Ilyas, a Muslim religious scholar from Muzaffarnagar in UP in the 1920s, the Tablighi Jamaat is a group of Sunni Muslims, which has much common with Deoband school. Over the few years it has become an international movement, though its branches work independently in different countries.
Ever since the raid on the Tablighi Jamaat’s Markaz office in Delhi, anti-Muslim feelings have swept the country, blaming the community for being “carriers” of the deadly coronavirus.
Shockingly, the attack on the Tablighi Jamaat has come from Prof Islam, who happens to be a leftist scholar. A common Muslim looks at a leftist scholar as a sympathizer, who is sensitive about the minority question. At a time when the Hindutva assault on the minority has intensified, his article disappoints.
What are Prof Islam’s claims?
First of all, he tries to imply that that the organisations like the RSS, the Shuddhi Movement and the Tablighi Jamaat were established around 1925 with a design. These organisations, in the name of shaping “good Muslims” and “good Hindus”, were trying to divide the people on religious lines at a time when they were fighting against the British colonial rule.
Secondly, he says, Tablighi Jamaat has been liked by the RSS as “good Muslims”. In other words, RSS and BJP have a tacit understanding with the Tablighi Jamaat. This is a tall claim, because the very foundation of RSS and BJP is based on anti-Muslim politics. If the Tablighi Jamaat is close to RSS and BJP, then it is not a well-wisher of Muslims.
And finally, he seems to be validating the Hindutva discourse that the Tablighi Jamaat was indeed the carrier of coronavirus.
Let me start with his first claim. Was the Tablighi Jamaat established to divide people on religious lines? In other words, was it working for the British colonial government? Prof Islam throws up a wild allegation, but does not substantiate it. He quotes a few lines from a speech of the revolutionary freedom fighter Ashfaqullah Khan (1900-27):
“Oh! How can we appreciate the present-day life when our political leadership is going through internal strife? If one is fond of Tableegh [the propagation of Islam] the other believes that dying for Shuddhi only will lead to emancipation”.
Khan’s statement definitely criticized religious revivalist movements. It had to do with the rise of communal tensions in the 1920s. For example, eminent historian Sumit Sarkar (“Modern India”) said that the Tablighi Jamaat was as a reaction to the shuddhi (purification) movement of the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha. But even Sarkar did not jump to conclusions that the Tablighi Jamaat was a “baby” of the colonial British government. To quote Sarkar:
“It needs to be emphasized, however, that much of this was a reaction against the very rapid spread of Hindu communalism in those years. Tabligh and tanzim were in large part a response to Arya Samajist shuddhi and sangathan, started after the Moplah forcible conversions and extended in 1923 by Shraddhanand to western U.P. in a determined bid to win back for Hinduism Malkana Rajput, Gujar and Bania converts to Islam.
“The Hindu Mahasabha, started at the Hardwar Kumbh Mela in 1915 by Madan Mohan Malaviya along with some Punjabi leaders, had become practically defunct in the Non-Cooperation years. A major revival began from 1922-23, and the Banares session of August 1923, which incorporated the shuddhi programme and called for Hindu self-defence squads, represented an alliance of Arya Samajist reformers with Sanatan Dharma Sabha conservatives in a common Hindu-communal front presided over, as usual, by Malaviya”
(p 235).
Like Sarkar, the writings of Islamic scholars of the Tablighi movement such as Syed Abul Hasan Ali Hasani Nadvi (“Life and Mission of Maulana Mohammad Ilyas”) and Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (“Tablighi Tahreek”) did mention any threat from the Shuddhi movement. None of them referred to the Tablighi Jamaat as collaborator, which Prof Islam implies, with the British Empire.
One limitation of Islamic scholars’ writings is, they narrate history of the Tablighi Jamaat without political and economic context. For example, how the history of the Tabligh movement could be told without discussing or analysing events like the mounting communal tension in 1930s and 1940s, leading to Partition?
But without citing any evidence, Prof Islam alleges that the Tablighi Jamaat was working as an enemy of the freedom struggle. Is this not an act of intellectual dishonesty?
Prof Islam clubbing together RSS and the Tablighi Jamaat is also flawed. RSS, though it claims to be a cultural organisation, is in fact a political organization. It controls several wings. Its political outfit (BJP) is the ruling party in India at present. Its militant wing (Bajrang Dal) has been allegedly involved in anti-Muslim and anti-Christian riots.
RSS does majoritarian politics. Its ideologues were staunch anti-Muslims. The Tablighi Jamaat in India, contrary to them, works among the Muslim minority only, not the majority Hindus. It shuns politics. It has no militant wing. It has never been accused of leading a riot or speaking against Hindus.
As its stated policy, it deliberately avoids publicity and works without keeping any records or having a formal office. Its members are on the move all the time. In fact, it is meant to work among the common Muslims and teach them the basics of Islam.
Knowing Kalimah (the creed of Islam), learning how to offer namaz (prayer), acquiring religious knowledge, respecting Muslims, withdrawing from worldly engagement for religious activities and purifying one’s intensions are some of the basic principles of the Tablighi Jamaat.
Some accuse the Tablighi Jamaat of spreading superstition. But calling it a superstitious body is easier said than prove, because there is a thin line between religion and superstition. Even rationalists, who often criticise religion and faith, do not realise that their rationality is also conditioned by a particular framework.
Prof Islam arrives at the conclusion that the Tablighi Jamaat was responsible for the Partition of India. As he put it, “The history of freedom movement is witness to the fact that these organizations led to the aggressive currents of Hindu and Muslim separatism, finally, leading to the Partition of India”.
Was the Tablighi Jamaat responsible for the division of the country? No. If he had read Maulana Azad’s work (“India Wins Freedom”), he would not have committed such a blunder. The Partition, as the Maulana concluded, was result of the failure of the Congress to share power with the minority Muslims. He painfully described how Nehru and Sardar Patel turned cold. Finally, the Mahatma gave in to the demands of Pakistan.
Prof Islam tries to imply that the Tablighi Jamaat and RSS have tacit understanding. He claims that RSS and BJP consider the Tablighi Jamaat as “good Muslims”: “TJ has always been on top of the list of 'good Muslims' (Rashtriya Muslims) of the RSS-BJP rulers”. But again, he gives no evidence.
In his attempt to establish the Tabligh Jamaat’s nexus with RSS, Prof Islam cites two examples. First, he says that the Tablighi Jamaat has not been vocal against the incidents of anti-Muslims riots. It maintained “silence” during Advani's Rath Yatra (1990), demolition of Babri mosque (1992), the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, and the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protest etc.
In its defence, one could argue that the Tablighi Jamaat, as it has defined its goal to work among Muslims for bringing them close to the teachings of Islam, deliberately shuns politics. However, its members may participate in political activity. In other words, a Tablighi member can be a politician and he could do politics outside the sphere of the Tablighi Jamaat.
Prof Shamsul Islam
Not all Muslims are members of the Tablighi Jamaat. There is an intense debate and contestation among different schools and sects within Islam. One of the common allegations levelled against the Tablighi Jamaat is that it is “depoliticising” Muslims. In its defence, the Tablighi Jamaat argues that it is not depoliticizing Muslims but making them pious and internally strong. Without the solid base (the piety of hearts), no edifice (no political system) can stand for long, it argue.
On sectarian lines, there is a huge contestation about its functioning. For example, two Sunni Muslim groups Barelwis and the Tablighi Jamaat often see each other as rivals. In 2001, a clash between the supporters of the Tablighi Jamaat and the Barelwis in Dahod (Gujarat) was reported in which a large number of Tabligh people were arrested by the police. It is often heard that the Barelwis have prohibited the entry of Tablighi Jamaat people into their mosques.
What is the difference between the Barelwis and the Tablighi Jamaat? According to historian Usha Sanyal (“Ahmad Riza Khan Barelwi: In the Path of the Prophet”), a group of Sunni Muslims were called Barelwis after the late 19th century scholar Ahmad Raza Khan. The term is derived from the north Indian city of Bareilly where Ahmad Riza Khan (1856-1921) was born.
Barelwis embrace Sufism and Islamic mysticism, give importance to saintly mediators, believe in miracles and argue that the Prophet had the power of unseen. Some of their ideas are in clash with Deobandi Muslims, named after the Deoband seminary, and Ahl-e-Hadith. As far as the Tablighi Jamaat is concerned, a large group of its activists are graduates from Deoband and Nadwa seminaries.
Without citing any evidence, Prof Islam alleges that the Tablighi Jamaat was working as an enemy of the freedom struggle
Though Tablighi Jamaat is said be an international organisation, the reality is that it has no centralised authority controlling everything. With the passage of time, the Tabligh Movement got split into several independent organisations, operating separately inside their countries. The Tablighi Movement is just an inspiration for many other such organisations.
For example, the Tablighi Jamaats in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are run separately. Though there is no centralized organisation, Nizamuddin Markaz, being the oldest, where the movement was born, is perceived as a “spiritual” centre by a large group of members of the Tablighi Jamaats outside India.
Even within India, a tug of war is going on between two fractions of the Tablighi Jamaat. For example, in 2016 two groups, one led by Maulana Saad and the other by Maulana Zuhairul Hassan, physically attacked each other inside the Markaz after which the movement split in India.
These internal contestations among the several groups of Muslims are conveniently ignored by the Hindutva forces because their main goal is to paint all Muslims with a broad brush. For Hindutva forces, Muslims have no difference. They are one. Shamsul Islam did not try to break the narrow framework.
Ignoring all these complexities, Prof Islam jumps to the 2017 conference (ijtema) of the Tablighi Jamaat held in Bhopal. His article carries a picture of chief minister and BJP leader Shivraj Singh Chauhan being present in the said Tablighi Jamaat’s function, quoting the chief minister’s website as stating, he “reached and inspected the Tablighi Ijtema site today. He took stock of the arrangements related to the congregation”.
With this little evidence, Prof Islam weaves a conspiracy theory that the Tablighi Jamaat was close to BJP and RSS. But it is also a reality that Chauhan attended the Tablighi Jamaat’s function as the chief minister of the state and not as the political leader of a Hindu nationalist party. Was he invited? Or did he show his desire to attend the function? No one knows.
Even if the BJP chief minister attended the meet, it cannot be a conclusive ground to imply that it is an agent of BJP and RSS. Visits of politicians and ministers to Islamic seminaries such as Nadwa and Deoband are not uncommon.
Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and former BJP president Rajnath Singh have visited Nadwa and met ulama there. Can it be a ground for calling Nadwa a centre working for the BJP and the RSS? One can understand the concern that educational and religious institutions should not give platform to political leaders. But their visit to these Islamic institutions cannot be a basis of alleging their link with the saffron organisation.
Finally, Prof Islam appears to hold Tablighi Jamaat responsible for being the carrier of coronavirus. As he puts it, “The reality is that Muslims who attended global meet (March 13-15) at its headquarters followed [Maulana] Saad's words as divine. They kept huddled in the mosques and refused to be counted as pandemic suspect. As late as April 11, administration is having hell of a time in tracing those who attended the TJ [Tablighi Jamaat] international conference at its headquarters. The health and police teams trying to locate suspects have been attacked”.
Here again Prof Islam exaggerates the situation and strengthens the agenda set by BJP. As a result, he fails in his analysis. The country-wide lockdown was announced in the night of March 24 and it was put in force just four hours after its announcement. The New York Times aptly called the order as “the biggest and most severe action undertaken anywhere to stop the spread of the coronavirus”.
If guests and members of the Tablighi Jamaat got stranded in the Markaz HQ, the larger blame should go to the government for announcing the lockdown without giving time to people to reach their destinations. As far as the speech of Maulana Saad, the Tablighi Jamaat’s head, in which he is alleged to have said that he dismissed the guidelines of maintaining social distancing, its authenticity is still in question. But Prof Islam uses it as a major evidence to build up his argument.
In fact, Prof Islam does not even care to give space to the Tablighi Jamaat’s point of view. He conveniently ignores the fact that on March 30 the Tablighi Jamaat issued a two-page press statement. Here the Tabligh Jamaat’s leadership, contrary to allegations, argued that some guests could not leave for their homes as the lockdown was abruptly imposed and all means of transport got snapped. It even claimed that the Tabligh Jamaat was cooperating with the police and administration and it did not violate the guidelines.
Despite being a leftist scholar, Prof Islam, in his analysis, has ignored the issue from the question of labour. If he had cared to read newspapers after March 24 till March 30, the day of raid on the Tablighi Jamaat, he would not have made such a mistake of blaming the Tabligh Jamaat for spreading coronavirus.
A few days after the lockdown, things began to go out of control of the government. Without any package for the poor and the migrant workers, the unrest was erupting on the streets. Hungry and thirsty workers were coming out of their places and marching on roads to go home.
For a few days, Delhi’s Anand Vihar station was brimming with thousands of migrant workers from UP, Bihar and Bengal, defeating the very purpose of social distancing. At that movement, it was time when the failure of the government was manifest. The government could have managed the situation by announcing a package for the poor and migrant workers.
But it decided to play its mastercard, i.e., finding Muslims as scapegoats and blaming the Tabligh Jamaat for spreading the coronavirus. Targeting the weaker sections during the epidemic has a long history.
With the help of a pliant media, a narrative was created and spread against Muslims. The focus was suddenly shifted from the suffering of the poor and the workers to the “dreadful” Tablighi “virus”. The media has been spewing venom. Jehalat (ignorance), “suicide bomb”, “anti-national” and “terrorists” were some of the abusive terms hurled at Muslims.
They continue to be abused, attacked and economically boycotted. Worse still, there are incidents where the poor Muslim vegetable venders were not allowed to enter Hindu areas. In Gujarat, separate wards for corona positives were created in a hospital on religious lines. These dangerous trends go on unabated. Prof Islam ignores all these big realities. Instead, he just focuses on “misdeeds” of the Tabligh Jamaat.
---
*PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, interested in minority rights and social justice

Comments

Unknown said…
fully agree with you Sir,
john said…
Thank you.

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