The shahi imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, Ahmad Bukhari, made an interesting statement on October 25. Announcing that his younger son, 19-year-old Shaban Bukhari, would be appointed as the naib imam (deputy imam) of the Jama Masjid in a dastar bandi ceremony later this month, he also revealed details of this “religious-cum-private” ceremony.
The who’s who of Indian politics, including Rajnath Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Mulayam Singh Yadav, have been invited, along with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But Indian PM Narendra Modi’s name is conspicuous by its absence. Bukhari explained: “I have no personal issues with Modi. Our issues are only ideological. He has been the head of this country for four months, but the Muslims of this country are still not comfortable. He has always treated Muslims as second-class citizens. There has been this great talk about development, but Muslims are not included in it. He has never called to talk about the problems of the Muslim population.” Bukhari also made it clear that Sharif had been invited because of his “personal” relationship with him. The imam’s statement paved the way for another public debate on how representative a Muslim leader Bukhari is.
There are three different reactions to this controversy. First, many Muslim religious leaders, intellectuals and social activists question the Islamic relevance of the dastar bandi. It is argued that the title “shahi imam” is actually un-Islamic; therefore, the tradition of shahi imamat on a hereditary basis should be repudiated. Second, the imam has been criticised by Modi-oriented developmentalists on the ground that he is promoting separatism. It is claimed that Modi’s development agenda has been approved by the masses; therefore, dividing Indians along caste or religious lines should be seen as anti-national. Third, although there is a secular unease with Bukhari’s statement in certain sections of the political class, there isn’t really a properly articulated “secular” critique of the imam.
These reactions revolve around the claims of the imam and/or the legitimacy of the act of dastar bandi. However, to make sense of Bukhari’s “shahi” politics, one needs also to analyse the distinctiveness of his move. First, Bukhari presents the dastar bandi of his son as some kind of official swearing-in ceremony, which is politically legitimate and historically justifiable. The dastar bandi is an established cultural practice in north Indian communities and symbolises the act of entrusting responsibility (not authority) to someone. This practice is not exclusively associated with the imam of the Jama Masjid.
In 1974, the dastar bandi of Abdullah Bukhari (Ahmed Bukhari’s father and the previous imam of the Jama Masjid, who initiated fatwa politics in the 1970s) was not approved by the Delhi Wakf Board. The board insisted that the selection of the imam was its legal prerogative, as per wakf norms. So the dastar bandi of Bukhari’s son cannot be called an age-old Mughal tradition, either.
Bukhari invokes some spurious stereotypes, too: one, that Indian Muslims share a symbolic association with Pakistan; and two, that the community dislikes Modi. His invitation to Sharif seems to play into the worst Hindutva impulses to question the loyalty of Indian Muslims. At the same time, he employs the Modi-Muslim divide to represent himself as an advocate for Muslim concerns.
This is the same man who had asked Muslims to vote for the BJP in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. His criticism of Modi therefore cannot be called ideological. Rather, he looks to be trying to exploit Modi’s unclear policy towards Muslims to legitimise his own political existence.
Bukhari is an authoritative Muslim voice who draws authenticity from the historic-religious significance of the Jama Masjid. The symbolism and language through which shahi politics is being played out might leave it open to charges of being communal, but it also makes it distinctive.
The writer, assistant professor, CSDS, is author of ‘Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation’