If the beard were a sign of wisdom, goats would preach. The vice-chancellor of the Deoband seminary, Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, sports a long, flowing beard, but his bleatings only betray a mind that is trapped in 20th century politics.
The maulana wants the government to disallow writer Salman Rushdie from visiting India for the Jaipur literary festival because, he says, Muslims are even today incensed over his “anti-Islamic” writing in The Satanic Verses, which the Rajiv Gandhi government banned in 1988.
Perhaps the maulana felt that in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, with the Congress – and most regional parties - on overdrive to harvest the Muslim vote, the seminary could inject itself into the political arena with an outlandish demand that the Congress would find hard to reject. He probably saw Rushdie as a low hanging fruit to play the victimhood card.
But the manifest attempt to whip up manufactured Muslim rage may yet fall flat on its face for the reason that 2012 isn’t quite 1988. Even the Congress, which has perfected the art of pandering to minority sensibilities and continues to feed off the politics of victimisation, is wary of heeding the appeal to disallow Rushdie from visiting India.
The ban on the Satanic Verses was imposed in 1988 when a politically inept Rajiv Gandhi, caught up in the Bofors kickback allegations, resorted to reflexive appeasement to win back the Muslim support that his party had seemingly lost with the decision in 1986 to reopen the locks at the disputed site where the Babri Masjid stood.
Together with the regressive law that the parliament passed in 1986 to dilute the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case (where the court upheld Muslim women’s right to alimony in the event of a divorce), the decision to ban The Satanic Verses marked a new low in minority appeasement.
The Congress paid a heavy political price for that appeasement, which contributed to the rise of the BJP starting with the 1989 elections. And although that reflexive instinct of pandering to minority sensitivities is still alive and well in the Congress, even it has had to acknowledge that the centre of gravity of Indian politics has since shifted in a way that has marginalised the Shahi Imams and the maulanas.
There was a time in the late 1980s, when political parties would get their list of party candidates for elections vetted by the Imam – who would then “deliver” the Muslim vote in its entirety.
Minority politics has come some way since then, particularly with a new generation of Muslim youth rejecting the politics of victimhood of the earlier generation of leaders and instead seeking out economic opportunities in an India that has moved into a high growth orbit.
For instance, when the Jama Masjid Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari issued a fatwa in August last year directing Muslims to boycott the fast by Anna Hazare at Ramlila Grounds because of the “nationalist” slogans that were raised there, many young Muslims publicly rejected the fatwa.
“Why should we accept what some leaders with vested interests tell us is right or wrong? Will what we say or not say change our identity or our faith?” said one young Muslim woman who addressed the crowds at Ramlila grounds. .
But the memo from such young Muslims appears not to have reached the mullahs and the maulanas.
With their mindless resort to identity politics of the last century, they are only reinforcing their own political irrelevance today.