Is Muslim leadership really in the hands of clergy?

Instead of making a sweeping generalization one must objectively study the nature of religious minority politics.

-Soroor Ahmed

While speaking at ‘Guftugu’, a programme organized by Bihar Collective in Patna on February 24 Prakash Ambedkar, a leading voice of the Dalits, said that as the leadership of Muslim community is in the hands of Maulvis, that is clerics, they do not work for the social, economic and political change. He further explained that this phenomenon has been more pronounced since mid-1960s.

Without doubting Prakash Ambedkar’s scholarship, one may say that this is a widely exaggerated perception. Not only he, but many others jump to this conclusion without cross-checking the factual position.

Besides, a close analysis of the politics of various religious minority communities, for example Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists etc in India––and even elsewhere in the world––would lead to a different conclusion. If one does not understand the politics   of religious minority properly one is bound to express the same view as the grandson of B R Ambedkar did in Patna.

Since religious minority communities––rightly or wrongly––have a lurking fear of their identity being questioned their leadership has a tendency to fall back on religious issue more often than not. This phenomenon is wrongly interpreted by many of our experts, be it in politics or in the media.

For instance, the most prominent leader to emerge in the post independent India is none else but Syed Shahabuddin, a former diplomat, who quit his job to take a plunge into politics.

During his student days he was more inclined to Left politics and has no background whatsoever of any religious institute. Though he is no more yet his stamp is still very much palpable on Babri Masjid Action Committee, All India Muslim Personal Law or Majlis-e-Mushawarat. As he tried to emerge as the leader of the Muslim community he was––once again rightly or wrongly––bound to take up issues related to religion.

Similarly, be it former civil servant and educationist, Syed Hamid, or former ambassador Hamid Ansari, who ended up becoming the Vice President or Zafar Mehmood, OSD in PMO at the time of Manmohan Singh, they are sometimes treated by a section of media in such a way as if they are Maulvis. There is a general perception that only those who do not take up religious issues work for social and economic change.

None of the prominent Muslim faces who frequently appear on television channels like Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, Zafaryab Jilani, Asaduddin Owaisi or Azam Khan has anything to do with clergy yet they are often projected as if they are Maulvis.

In fact it is television channels, which dig up unknown Maulvis to thrust them as the leaders of the community. On the eve of elections they would highlight the ‘fatwas’ of Ahmad Bukhari not knowing that hardly any Muslim outside Delhi’s Jama Masjid would lend his/her ears to him.

Needless to say the Madnis––Maulanas Arshad and Mahmood––have yet to settle their issues.

One has every right to agree or disagree with all the above names––and I too have strong reservations with their approach––yet to claim that they do not raise social, political and economic issues is not fully correct. They do raise, but may be not properly––or with the elitist mind-set.

At the same time one cannot underestimate the role played in politics by clergy. When the western and secular educated Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Muslim League leaders were busy demanding a separate homeland for Muslims, it was the religious organizations and individuals like Jamiat ul Ulema and Husain Ahmad Madni and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, were the champions of the composite Hindu-Muslim culture of undivided India.

Now take the politics of Sikh, who too were affected by partition. Perhaps there is no Muslim organization, which exerts as much influence on the community as Shrimoni Akali Dal on the Sikhs.

True some Sikhs are in Congress or other parties, yet it is a fact that much of Sikh politics revolves around Shrimoni Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) and other related matters. Many Akali Dal leaders were even accused of glorifying the assassins of former PM Indira Gandhi, yet the BJP never hesitated in forming alliance with it.

The Sikh politico-religious leadership in general, has contributed little on the social front. Evils like the spread of drug culture and falling gender ratio as well as break of NRI marriages continued to plague Punjab even when the Akali Dal-BJP government had been in power.

In contrast the political rivals used to accuse several Akali Dal leaders (when they were in power) of patronizing drug-lords.

At the same time it is also true that some Sikh religious leaders have contributed to social change in the community.

A study of the Christian community in India would reveal that there too the leadership is more or less in the hands of clergy. The role Church is playing in the Assembly elections in Nagaland and Meghalaya is very well known. The Church comes at the centre-stage in India because Christians are in minority here. In Christian dominated countries this may not be the case.

But the Christian religious leadership has a better record in working for the social, political and economic change of the society than others.

Instead of making a sweeping generalization one must objectively study the nature of religious minority politics.

(Soroor Ahmed is a freelance journalist writing for prominent dailies.)