One of the great follies of the contemporary world is the conversion of the priest, of any faith, into a cartoon character. And so the imam is caricatured with an elongated beard and twisted eye; the pandit has an exaggerated tuft, obese stomach and gloats; the Christian father wears a sanctimonious air barely disguising a leer. This nonsense is largely due to the decline of religion in the ebbing moral universe of modern man, and partly due to the existence of a radical extreme at the edge of every clerical class, which justifies violence in the name of a higher power.
Faith — mosque, temple or church — has been a traditional sanctuary of the people in their constant struggle against innumerable forms of autocracy and dictatorship that have been the tragedy of human history. The institutions of God provide a comfort zone to the individual persecuted by institutions of man, particularly during moments of distress. Faith is often a symbol of resistance, as autocratic Arab regimes are discovering today when the streets are finally alive with the thunder of long-overdue protest against smug dictatorships that confused their harsh intelligence services with intelligence.
Competent governments, whether of dictators or democrats, have understood the power of the clergy and chosen a dual response: repression of the radical extreme and a continuous attempt to co-opt the clergy into the establishment through a less than discreet combination of flattery and bribery. The real test for the clergy comes not during periods of relative calm, but during phases of social and political oppression.
If we want to understand the influence of the ulema in the life of the Indian Muslim, particularly in north India, then we must remember the sterling part they played in the age of decline, the 19th century, when every other of pillar of sustenance crumbled, either eaten by the worms of decay and decadence, or defeated by the rising force of British arms. It was the clergy that held the community together, even as its radical wing, led by the students, or taliban, of the seminary of Shah Waliullah launched a jihad for the restoration of political power. That war failed, but those who did not go to war provided a greater service through leadership at the micro level to a community that was under such economic and social pressure that it feared the loss not only of sustenance but also its most cherished elements of language and culture. Out of such traumatic conditions was an institution like the Dar-ul-Uloom at Deoband born nearly a century and a half ago.
Its founders refused to accept a single rupee as donation from the British; its small band of teachers and students ate what the local community offered. Mahatma Gandhi recognised not just the theological importance of this seminary but also the empirical influence of its grassroots connections. Deoband was the antithesis of the elitist, Nawab and landlord-dominated Muslim politics of the early 20th century.
Deoband is often demonized by a Western-influenced discourse. Yes, there is a fringe that has converted Deoband into a fatwa factory for regressive pronouncements; and some of its influences have been distorted to justify violence. But every great centre of education produces a few children who dishonour their intellectual parent. Deoband is a tremendous resource for those Muslims who do not have the advantage of birth or lineage. It is the hope and dream not only of those who want to serve Allah through the mosque, but also young men who see in its educational repository a chance for a better life. The place it commands in the affections of Muslims makes Deoband a power centre; and where there is power, there will be politics. What we are seeing at the moment is a political battle between factions, and the vested interests that feed off them, for the control of Deoband.
There are many reasons for the unrest generated by the appointment of Maulana Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi as mohtamim, or virtual vice chancellor. Vastanvi is a remarkable Maulana who started a school with just six students in a hut in a tribal region on the Gujarat-Maharashtra border in 1979, and built it into an institution with 200,000 students across the country. This is why he is the first person from outside the immediate UP region to be given this honour and responsibility. His presence promised the reform that students thirst for; but it also threatened to upset the cartel that has used Deoband to squeeze out personal benefits from Delhi and abroad. These deep-seated interests would have challenged Vastanvi on any pretext; they found an emotive one with the help of narcissistic, power-hungry journalists in their club.
Deoband is, as has happened before, at a crossroads. If Deoband has become the property of a clerical group that wants to exploit this great name for its own greed, then Vastanvi will be driven out. If Deoband remains honest to the ideals of its founding fathers, then it will lead the way to educational reform and open thought that can turn an underprivileged Indian Muslim child into a privileged adult.