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Ahead of polls,a sect seeks to be counted

It was a show of strength by heads of dargahs and shrines identified with the Barelvi sect.

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi |
October 26, 2011 3:40:14 am

A mahapanchayat in Moradabad last week,calling itself the “Sufi Mahapanchayat”,citing a “threat of Wahabi terror” and equating terror to the Deobandi tradition,is being seen as a positioning for power within the Muslim community ahead of the UP elections next year.

Those ulemas left out of the traditional leadership of the Muslims,it is believed,are trying to showcase themselves to those outside the community through their “secular” credentials while not losing sight of the “Muslim vote”.

The event also drew attention to the bitter,old divide between the Deobandi and Barelvi sects — who share a fractious relationship,especially in UP,despite both being Sunnis. It was a show of strength by heads of dargahs and shrines identified with the Barelvi sect.

Said Maulana Syed Mohammed Ashraf Kachchochvi of the All India Ulema and Mashlaikh Board: “The purpose of the rally,the fifth this year,was to show our strength,our numbers and to alert governments about ourselves,ke hum bhi hain. The Deobandis control all positions,claim to represent us,and what has been our plight in 63 years? We want to distinguish between ourselves,the keepers of harmonious Islam,Islam ki rooh,from those who are promoters of terror.”

Dismissing the charge hurled at them,the Mohtamim of Deoband,Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani,told The Indian Express: “It’s all false and baseless. It is at Deoband in 2008 that we gathered Muslim ulemas across all sects and issued a fatwa against terrorism. And then at state-level meetings,we pushed the message even more. We were not sectarian about it.”

At a theological level,the difference between Barelvi and Deobandi Islam is about how Islam is interpreted. Said historian and director general,National Archives of India,Prof Mushirul Hasan: “Barelvis stand for popular Islam,which co-opts shrine worship and dargahs into Islam. Deoband is a more spartan sect that does not look kindly at anything that deviates from monotheism. It’s more high Islam,of a section which has been politically active too,since 1857. The divide is much sharper in Pakistan,but even here,Barelvis and Deobandis have different architecture for mosques and different customs.”

The social differences have never quite been assessed for their impact on how the two view their politics. There may be an attempt now to change that. Said a prominent Deobandi maulana: “They have Azam Khan who is with the Samajwadi Party,Touqir Raza with the Congress,and Maulana Kachchochvi with the Lok Dal. The same is with our Maulanas; they are with different political parties. We only broadly support secular parties. Now they can keep collecting numbers and try to demonstrate to parties that they can make a difference,and that they will vote as a sect. But Indian Muslims are much more sophisticated and guard their vote carefully.”

To demonstrate that the Muslim vote can be split is something that has not been quite tested yet,says sociologist Prof Imtiaz Ahmed. “Most Indian Muslims follow a mix of the Deobandi and Barelvi traditions. Riots have been triggered too. For example Azamgarh saw prolonged Deobandi-Barelvi tensions. But the differences are at higher levels where the ulema hazraat,who have been tangentially influencing politics and participating in the business of representation of the community,come into play. The Deobandi Maualans have been doing it,now the Barelvis want to have a go at it.”

Earlier,Muslim politics was about making a case for them as a minority,Prof Ahmed added. “If these sectarian differences which always existed are now blown up,the attempt is to wrest that control,of claiming to represent Muslims.”

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