The Madanis of Deoband and Modi

This could hardly have escaped national attention: Have Muslims made their peace with Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s demagogic chief minister? It is a tough question, really. Let’s attempt an answer.

We must taper our search down to a few helpful cues: servitude, subjugation, co-option, compromise or happy reconciliation? A more neutral question to ask would be, how is Modi managing minorities?

Mahmood Madni, the youngest among the illustrious Madni clan of Deobandi clerics, weighed in with apparently mellowed comments on the issue in a recent televised interview.

He largely agreed on three or four points: that Modi has successfully secured Muslim votes; that Muslims have faced far greater injustices in so-called “secular” spaces outside Modi’s sphere of influence; and that much has changed, after all.

He then tempered this with a confusing statement: “There is no development without justice…and there has been no justice for Muslims in Gujarat.”

In politics, people generally tend to make sense of an evolving situation by listening in to the general political discourse, which is of some value, but never sufficient in explaining things fully.

My view is that an effective answer – to whether Muslims have made peace with Modi – can’t be possible without a little help from political theory, which alone can offer a useful framework to understand Modi’s public administration vis-à-vis Muslims. Relying on Madni alone would be to fall one sandwich short of a picnic.

It’s not inconceivable that Modi’s politics is largely monolithic, a spell of efficient, unilateral politics in which the power equation is clearly defined in terms of his political vision. It is an established political theory that large, monolithic political cultures offer little space for group-differentiated and diverse political activity or discourse, eventually leading to compliance and co-option of dissidents.

For example, Hindus during Aurangzeb’s reign fully complied with “jizya”, a discriminatory tax Islamic rulers levied on non-Muslims. To that extent, Hindus made peace with the Mughal emperor.

This could partly explain Modi as an electoral choice for Muslims. Once the monolithic structures weaken, however, conflicting positions start playing out again. Hindu-Muslim conflicts and indeed Hindu and Islamic revivalism, absent in much of the early Mughal rule, began to rise with the advent of the British, who were looked upon as a religiously neutral force.

Madni could not have been unaware of Gujarat’s ground realities. Historically, the Deobandi ulama have been immensely “creative” – to borrow Francis Robinson’s description – in taking political positions, whether in opposing the creation of Pakistan, or backing Gandhi instead of Jinnah or getting the British to legislate the Shariat Act in 1937.

A cleric with sharp political sensors, Madni has often sought to align his community-centric outlook with larger goals of common citizenship, in line with Deoband’s historical “creativity”. He also has to assert himself over his older rival, uncle Arshad Madni. Privately, he held that the Ayodhya verdict to split the ownership of the disputed land be accepted. Publicly, he advocated an appeal in the Supreme Court. Both Madnis had however united to oust Deoband’s Gujarati rector Maulana Vastanvi, after he took a less than extreme position on Modi.

During the long course of my reporting on Muslim politics, I have followed Madni to Gujarat. His Rajya Sabha term has ended, and Gujarat is his best bet if he were ever to contest an election because of his strong following among its Sunni Muslims. A harsh assessment of Modi may make him fall at the first hurdle.

Yet, Madni could be clever by half. He may well have to choose between Gujarat and Deoband, a conservative establishment whose inner quarters cannot accept Modi. He can’t make peace with both.

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