Barely a hundred kilometres from Delhi, there is an Islamic seminary known as Darul Uloom Deoband – in Deoband, Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh – that houses a beautiful library. Along the endless arrays of religious texts kept in the library, preserved in the most meticulous manner, there is hardly any difference in the way the Islamic and non-Islamic books are kept, particularly the sacred books of the Hindu religion.
The Bhagavad Gita and the Mahabharata, written in minute scripts legible only through a magnifying glass, are neatly preserved in glassed almirahs. Similarly, Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas and Valmiki’s Ramayana are kept on an enclosed shelf, protected from dust and termites.
The Deoband School of Islamic thought – often associated with the radicalisation of Islam – proudly boasts of such treasures, should a visitor care to look for a syncretism of Indian Islam.
In my frequent visits to the seminary, I always found the faculty members to be quite hospitable towards outsiders. Of course, Deoband in India is associated with a nationalist variant of Islam.
But, in the outside world, particularly in Pakistan, Deobandi Islam is seen as an extension of Salafi Islam – an ultra-conservative reform movement often associated with the promotion of hatred and terrorism. The deficit between reality and perception is quite discernible in the Deoband region. Though there exists a strand of fundamentalism within the wall of the seminary, the Islamic school of Deoband is equally represented by a moderate and liberal stream.
The much-maligned Deobandi Islam, finds considerable moderation at the seminary itself. This innate resilience of India’s orthodox Islam gives enormous comfort to the intelligence agencies which monitor Western Uttar Pradesh, where Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) is believed to have developed its network to propagate the militant variety of political Islam. Top IB sleuths working in the area admit that, given the social texture of India, it would be highly improbable that Indian Muslims would be influenced by Salafi Islam.
This belief has, however, come under strain following the string of recent attacks in Bangladesh – at the Holey Artisan Bakery on 1 July, and then the explosion and gun battle near a mass prayer gathering in northern Bangladesh on Thursday. The group of youth that carried out the attacks belonged to the urbanised and neo-rich social strata.
Not long ago, intelligence agencies in India came across a case in which a convent educated girl, from a Muslim family in Jamshedpur, was found to be listening to speeches of one of the most seditious Islamic motivators – Anwar al-Awlaki. The Intelligence Bureau sleuths got the information from US agencies, about the girl’s frequent access to Awlaki’s sermons – which are known to motivate listeners towards violence.
The girl was unfazed when the sleuths made her face the facts. “Yes I listened to him, as I like his sermons,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. Of course, as per the Indian penal code, she did not transgress any law.
Though the US agencies insisted that the girl be interrogated, the Indian security agencies developed cold feet. “We cannot do anything as it isn’t a crime to listen to someone’s sermons, even if they are seditious in nature,” a senior intelligence officer said.
The intelligence agencies, however, found the trend to be disturbing once they received inputs that a sizeable section of youth, with access to internet, were turning to websites run by Jihadi outfits. Students getting attracted to Jihadi-preachers is something that the intelligence agencies are not full equipped to deal with. And this could be a cause for serious concern as the number of such IS sympathisers seems to be on the rise.
In November last, various reports emerged stating that about 23 Indians in Iraq and Syria were fighting for the Islamic State, out of which 17 were reportedly from southern states of India.
Similarly, in December last year, in a joint operation by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad, the Telangana Police arrested three youths from Hyderabad at the international airport in Nagpur, while they were allegedly on their way to join the IS.
The biggest handicap for the Indian security establishment, it seems, is the limited monitoring of servers in the country. This forces the security agencies to rely on the tips provided by foreign agencies, to conduct their investigations.
Perhaps Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s forthcoming visit to the United States will be aimed at strengthening the Indian intelligence network, and to equip them with wherewithal to counter the sinister radicalism emerging from the subcontinent, in wake of the attacks in Bangladesh.
But, on the other hand, senior police officers on the lookout for Islamic radicalisation in India admit that, given India’s social texture, the violent variant of Islam akin to the Islamic State would find forceful resistance from Muslims within India.
Officials posted in Jammu and Kashmir point out that those motivated by the war-cry of Jihad in the valley get disillusioned the moment they cross the border and reach over to Pakistan and Afghanistan. A dossier prepared on the basis of the interrogation of boys in Jammu and Kashmir, who returned from Pakistan or Afghanistan, by the police exposes the hideous face of Jihadi Islam.
It is in this very context that the Mumbai-based Islamic tele-evangelist Zakir Naik's case needs to be analysed. Naik’s sermons on TV are nothing more than a ridiculous magnification of the maverick babas who get promotion on many Hindi TV news channels, duly approved by the ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB). His irrational discourse, that often promotes Muslim supremacy and exclusivity, finds fierce resistance within the Muslim community.
That his exposition does not go unchallenged became evident recently when he visited Delhi, and addressed a gathering at the India Islamic Centre. One of the prominent intellectual Muslim voices, former union minister Arif Mohammad Khan, stoutly objected to the Islamic Centre’s hosting of the event. In Khan’s view, any attempt to give legitimacy to Naik’s voice was detrimental to Muslims, and could stereotype the community as intolerant and violent.
Of course Naik is not Anwar al-Awlaki. Yet, he is an aberration like the Muslim legislator of Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, who put a prize on the head of a US President George Bush, about a decade back. Though his utterances were criminal in nature, the legislator was allowed to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. There exists many such aberrations across the society in India. At times, leaders like Yogi Adityanath come across as equally despicable as Naik.
But most of these aberrations get coopted into the democratic process and fall into line. Naik and his ilks are worth nothing more than to just grab headlines and hog the limelight. The real threat is indeed lurking elsewhere, as the attacks in Dhaka demonstrated.
Aspiring and educated youth, hooked on to a make-believe virtual world, are extremely exposed and vulnerable to falling prey to pernicious religious doctrine. Unlike Naik, who finds stout resistance from within the Muslim community, these youths are quite susceptible to the monologue of criminals masquerading as preachers. Such a scenario would put enormous strain on the resilience of Indian Islam, which is so carefully preserved at the library in the Deoband seminary.