Ahead of the UP polls,there is much speculation about how the Muslim vote would fare. However,within the community itself,there is a simmering tension. If a new group of Sufi Mashaikhs has been holding mahapanchayats denouncing Deobandis,the bastion of Deobandi Sunnis,Saharanpur,has been witnessing attempts to foment trouble between Shias and Sunnis.
Home to Darul Uloom Deoband and two other respected seminaries,Saharanpur has not had any history of factional feud between its Sunni majority and its small group of Shias. However,a day before Muharram last month,three unsigned handbills appeared on the walls of Shia mosques,saying Shias were not Muslim.
The handbills claimed to have been inspired by a decree by Mazahir ul Uloom (which later disowned any association) and mentioned an organisation that no one had heard of,the Majlis-e-Tahaffuz-e-Islam (Society for Protection of Islam).
The area where the mosques are located has a mixed population and Sunnis have been known to participate wholeheartedly in Moharram. By playing down the posters,both sides ensured peace was kept and the processions passed peacefully.
Maulana Izhar Haider,who leads prayers in Shia mosques,was among the first to see the posters. We are just about 5,000 Shias in the town. I think some elements decided to get us to fight,as it was December 6 (the Babri Masjid demolition anniversary). But I just let it be and nothing happened. Muharram is usually supported by all parties and groups,so there was no problem.
Maulana Haider isnt the only one to play down the tension. Niaz Haider Zaidi,the Mutawalli at the Shia Imam Bara,calls it mischief created by outsiders,who want us to fight. This could even be a conspiracy to divide Muslims here,so that we cant assert ourselves meaningfully,politically, he says.
There are other conspiracy theories doing the rounds. Two years ago,Saharanpur had seen a bitter movement,where a small group of Qadiayanis were decreed non-Muslims and hounded back to Ludhiana in Punjab. Says Maulana Haider: This could be the Qadiayanis getting back… and trying to split us. The Qadiayanis derive their name from Qadiyan in Punjab.
Local journalist Shahid Zubairi sees another kind of conspiracy. It could be the Saudi-Iran clash in the world playing out here. The US is getting ready to make a case against Iran,which is mostly Shia. If they can spread it amongst Muslims that Shias are not Muslims,it would help isolate Iran even more.
The head of a Sunni madrasa connected to the Mazahir ul Uloom,Jamia Tutaiyabat,Maulana Yaqoob Bulandshahri,also sees the events in Saharanpur in a larger context of the Iran-US politics. However,he adds: We will not stop our work of pushing for the community forging closer ties.
Says Dr Qudsiya Anjum,the principal of Hindu College in Saharanpur and a political scientist: There is no history of such factional fights in Saharanpur. I am a Shia,but headed a Sunni college for 21 years. But some hardliners on both sides may be spoiling for a fight and wanting to take control.
Sources at the Deoband deny any divide,saying both sects are represented in the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and that the chief currently is a Shia. So where is the question of saying anyone is a non-Muslim?
Maulana Haider sums it up best on why Saharanpur has kept its peace and may continue to do so. Asked if he tore off the handbills on seeing them,Maulana Haider says: No,I did not. That in itself would have meant I am paying attention to such trouble-makers… I ignored it and went about my business. Some Sunni neighbours tore these off soon after.