Historic Friday for Indian Muslims

Print edition : January 17, 2020

Bhim Sena chief Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan along with Muslims protesting against the CAA-NRC at the Jama Masjid in New Delhi on December 20. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and senior Congress leaders at a peace march held to protest against the CAA in Jaipur on December 22. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

Muslims ignore the advice of their religious leaders on the CAA.

December 20, 2019, will go down in history as the day the Muslim community for once chose not to listen to self-serving clerics. It started in Delhi’s Jama Masjid, the most unlikely of places for a revolt or even social engineering to begin. For decades, the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid has had a firm grip over the community. His writ runs in the area. He is as feared as he is respected. Never has the imam been defied publicly by the residents of the walled city. In the lanes around the mosque, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the word of the imam, who hails from the family of the first imam from Bukhara, is respected.

It all changed on December 20, a Friday, as thousands marched across the streets of Old Delhi protesting against the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (NRC-CAA). Two days earlier, Imam Ahmad Bukhari spoke to community members, seeking to allay their fears about the CAA and the NRC. “It [CAA] is not against the minorities. It is not against Muslims of India. They [Muslims] need not fear. Nobody is asking them to prove their identity. They will not be deported,” Bukhari told a few hundred people who had joined the protest near the mosque. “First understand the CAA. It is not about Indian Muslims,” the imam said.

The protesters heard him out, but apparently not many agreed with what he said. On the following Friday, thousands gathered to speak in one voice against the CAA. Significantly, they prayed together in the Jama Masjid. The imam knew the writing was on the wall. He avoided the burning topic in his speech, which precedes Friday prayers. There was no mention of the NRC-CAA in his sermon. What is more, he even stepped aside for another imam to lead the prayers. Once the prayers were over, the faithful ignored Bukhari’s advice and rallied behind the Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Ravan. The youth leader addressed the faithful from the steps of the mosque, waving a copy of the Constitution of India. He read out the Preamble, in English and Hindi. The crowd read after him. As he raised slogans and pledged to uphold the Constitution, the law of the land, the crowd roared behind him. As he walked down the steps, men jostled with one another to touch him, hold his hand, embrace him. Together thousands of people, their heads still covered with skullcaps, raised their voice against the CAA. Chandrashekhar could as well have been a popular Muslim leader. It reminded old-timers of the address of Swami Shradhhanand, who too had spoken about Hindu-Muslim unity from the mosque in 1919 during the freedom struggle.

Imam Bukhari, meanwhile, cut a forlorn figure as he watched from the ramparts of the mosque with only a handful of his aides standing by his side. The vast multitudes followed the Dalit leader. The faithful leaving Bukhari for Chandrashekhar was more than symbolic. The community had decided to break free of leaders who could not be trusted. The imam was supposed to lead the prayer, not be a politician, was the message.

This was in stark contrast to 1975 when from the same ramparts of the masjid the present imam’s father and predecessor, Imam Abdullah Bukhari, stood up to the dictates of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had declared the Emergency. His words counted. At that time, he saved many a house from being demolished and many a man from being subjected to a coercive vasectomy. The masses rallied behind him. His popularity rose so high that no subsequent election could ever take place without a fatwa issued by Imam Abdullah Bukhari.

If there was any consolation for Ahmad Bukhari, it was that he was not the only religious leader whom the community members defied. Similar was the fate of the likes of the popular Shia leader Kalbe Jawwad and the Ajmer dargah dewan Sayed Zainul Hussain Chishti, who too had urged the community not to link the NRC and the CAA. The masses refused to buy into their defence of the Act. “Muslims of India should not be scared of this law and it will not take away the citizenship of any Indian Muslim,” Chishti said a day before the Friday prayers. Muslims of Ajmer, Jaipur, Tonk and other areas joined Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and others as they marched behind Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, forming a three-lakh-strong contingent of the Samvidhan Bachao Rally against the CAA in Jaipur. Chishti’s counsel was ignored; Gehlot’s words were applauded when he said: “They want to divide people in the name of religion. What is their agenda? Their agenda is the making of a Hindu Rashtra.”

A couple of days after the Jaipur march, the Ajmer dargah head was compelled to write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reconsider the decision to implement the CAA. He wrote: “No law that even remotely hurts the sentiments of any religion should be framed.”

Jawwad, too, changed his tune shortly after urging Muslims to first read the Act and avoid being misled by politicians. Anjuman-e-Haideri, whose chief patron is Jawwad, moved the Delhi High Court against the CAA. Later, his lawyer insisted that members of the Anjuman stood behind Chandrashekhar Ravan.

Not everybody bought intAnjuman’s defence or took Jawwad’s change of heart seriously. Soon Shia scholars and other clerics called for a boycott of the NRC and the CAA, calling them “discriminatory, divisive, and against the spirit of the Constitution of India”. At a press conference, the Shia cleric Imam Maulana Syed Ahmed Ali declared: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi should live up to his slogan of sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas. The government took an oath in the name of the Constitution. It should not abdicate its constitutional responsibility of treating all citizens equally.”

The fate of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind’s Mahmood Madani was no different. Before the protesters hit the road, he had claimed: “I am not against the CAA. Why would a Muslim from Pakistan or Bangladesh seek shelter here? He would not be subjected to discrimination there.” Four days after the masses turned up in good numbers of “Not In My Name” protests against the CAA, he sang a different tune, urging the government to rethink the Act. A day later, he was out on the streets protesting against the CAA.

Ahmed Ali, a 70-year-old retired academic from Old Delhi, said: “Whether the government rolls back the CAA or not, one thing has been achieved. The masses who had lost their voice in fear have recovered their voice. Post Kashmir and Ayodhya judgment, the community’s members had retreated into silent mode. They are speaking up. They have derived confidence from lakhs of Hindus and others who have stood up against the CAA. They realise that they are not alone. Not every Hindu agrees with Modi. When you get support from across religions, sectarian leaders are ignored. This is happening with the so-called Muslim religious leaders.”

Winds of change may just sweep the old order away.