Considering their temperaments, it is not unsurprising that Maulana Arshad Madani and his nephew Maulana Mahmood Madani parted ways in 2008, splitting the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind, one of the most influential Muslim organisations in the country. Mahmood Madani, 51, maintains the stance of a moderate in politics, while his 74-year-old uncle Maulana Arshad Madani takes a harder line on community matters, frequently castigating the Government for various things. But seven years after the split, they are searching for common ground to join forces again.
The reconciliation process comes as assembly polls approach in Assam and West Bengal next year and in Uttar Pradesh the year after. All these states have Muslim populations that are electorally significant, and given the sway the Madanis are seen to have with them, their moves are being watched closely. “It is not an attempt to regain lost strength,” says Mahmood Madani. “We never lost our strength in the first place. We were always together. It is just that organisational unity is happening once again.” Sitting next door in his office in Delhi, the nephew echoes those words. “There is no difference. We sit in offices next to each other’s. In fact, Mahmood and I just met over namaaz in the mosque,” he says. The differences, they claim, were over thought processes and not ideology.
The Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind was set up in 1919 as an organisation of Muslim clerics, and among its founders was Arshad Madani’s father Maulana Syed Husain Ahmed Madani. Famously, it had opposed Partition and the creation of Pakistan in favour of a united India as a secular state. “Our Constitution gives equal rights to people from all communities and that is the very basis of our organisation,” says Mahmood Madani, whose father Maulana Asad Madani was its president until his death in 2006.
The Madanis have led the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, which claims more than 10 million members, for most of its existence. They run madrassas in every nook and corner of the country, besides offering social services like building houses for poor Muslims, aiding people who have suffered man-made or natural disasters, conducting group marriages and fighting cases on behalf of Muslim youths who they think are being framed by the police. The Madanis also control Darul Uloom Deoband, which, located near Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, is one of the world’s largest Muslim educational institutions. Madani Manzil, their permanent residence in Deoband, has been a Sunni power centre for decades. Come election time, they are often courted by various political parties in search of an endorsement.
The differences between Arshad Madani and Mahmood Madani can be traced to the question of how political the Jamiat should be. “My view was that we shouldn’t actively participate in politics and rather be working for our community independently,” says Arshad Madani. “But Mahmood wanted active participation in politics.” Two years after he became president, their rift was out in the open. Both gathered their supporters and claimed leadership of the organisation. In effect, there were two groups with the same name. Their fields of work and influence also got divided, with the Mahmood faction being stronger in western UP, West Bengal and Gujarat, and Arshad faction taking the lead in Assam, Maharashtra and some other states.
Several attempts in the last few years to bring the factions together failed. However, a serious effort began in July this year when Mahmood Madani proposed that they dilute their differences and come together. The uncle agreed. They decided to work on a five-point agenda to facilitate a merger at various levels. “There is no problem at the central level,” says Mahmood Madani. “I have agreed to work under [Arshad Madani’s] leadership. Since the organisation is huge, the modalities are being worked out at the state levels.” The proposal is to dismantle all existing committees, all office bearers will have to resign and new teams would be formed.
They also plan to maintain a distance from politics, they say. Mahmood Madani had served as a Rajya Sabha member representing Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal from 2006 to 2012. “I am done with politics in my six years of Rajya Sabha,” he says. “For a person like me who likes to speak his mind, I have realised that politics is not the place.” He refrains from directly attacking the NDA Government over charges of intolerance, but has an opinion to express on it. “Indian Muslims are in better condition than those in other countries of Asia,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean there is no discrimination against Muslims in society. It has been happening over the years, and if we go ahead like this, the country is under threat.” Communal hatred, he is clear, should never to be fanned.
If some sections of society say they are feeling threatened, Arshad Madani says, “It is not smoke without fire.” “Organisations like the RSS and Bajrang Dal are constantly attacking the basic right to live freely,” he adds, “and the current Government is silent on that.”
The Jamiat may overtly want to keep away from electoral politics, as its leaders say, but their unity will have implications in the states that are going to the polls. Together, the two factions will be able to assert power far more realistically. Just before the Bihar elections, Arshad Madani had written a letter to Congress President Sonia Gandhi urging her to forge a grand alliance to defeat the BJP. “I had made a similar request before the Lok Sabha elections too. I had spoken to Mulayam Singh also. But no one paid attention. The result is there for everyone to see,” he says. “It is very important that all the parties opposed to BJP come together, be it in West Bengal, Assam or UP.”
In UP, Arshad Madani is considered close to Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party (SP). This he doesn’t deny. “But they haven’t been able to fulfill the promises made to the Muslim community,” he adds.
On his part, Mahmood Madani has been shifting informal affiliation from one party to another, though he now claims he wants to stay away from them all. “I have no problem whether the leader is from the right wing or the left wing. If he leads the fight for a secular India, I am ready to accept his leadership,” he says.
What Jamiat leaders say right now is one thing; what they do as the polls near will matter more. On 26 November, the West Bengal unit of the Mahmood Madani faction organised a rally attended by hundreds of thousands of Muslims at Kolkata’s Shaheed Minar grounds, where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made a speech in support of the community’s rights. A poll strategy is being worked out between the organisation and Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress under which the Jamiat may even put up its own candidates. About 28 per cent of the state’s population is Muslim, and Jamiat support could make a difference. “Yes, we are willing to fight elections and have talked of an alliance with Trinamool,” says Siddiqullah Choudhary, general secretary of the West Bengal Jamiat. “I have left it to the Chief Minister to decide the contours of the alliance.”
Arshad Madani, however, says he isn’t too pleased about it. “Every time an election comes, Siddiqullah Choudhary becomes active, trying to get some benefit. He doesn’t get success and goes into hiding after that.” Choudhary puts this comment down to glitches in the state-level merger of the factions. “Arshad Madani is saying this because we are very strong in West Bengal and he doesn’t have a support base,” he says. “If he doesn’t want to be in politics, why does he support Mulayam Singh? During elections, he campaigns in helicopters provided by political parties. What is he talking?”
Since the Jamiat doesn’t want to directly get involved in elections, in West Bengal Choudhary wants to piggyback on the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), Assam’s main opposition. Choudhary is also its West Bengal president and had unsuccessfully contested a Lok Sabha seat in 2014. This time, through an alliance with the TMC, he is eyeing some Assembly seats. In Assam, the AIUDF’s top leader Maulana Badruddin Ajmal is also the state chief of Mahmood Madani’s faction of the Jamiat. The AIUDF has three MPs in the Lok Sabha, the highest for any Muslim party. Ajmal himself is an MP and his role will be crucial in the Assembly polls. Meanwhile, Arshad Madani wants a Bihar-style grand alliance in Assam. But Ajmal is unwilling to have a pre-poll alliance and expects to exercise greater bargaining power after the elections. He is supported by Mahmood Madani, who wants to gain a support base in Assam. Such equations point to difficulties in a common front emerging in these states.
Besides West Bengal and Assam, where the Jamiat factions are looking to strengthen their positions through local leaders, they are also eyeing the UP Assembly polls due in 2017. This is the Madanis’ home state and they might exercise more influence on Muslim voters here than elsewhere. In 2014, their words had little impact on outcomes. For the next polls, Mahmood Madani plans a state-wide contact programme under which he says he’ll travel the state, speaking of the SP government’s failure to keep its word to Muslims. “You will get to know more once the programme is finalised,” he says.
The Jamiat has also been speaking up against the ISIS. Just after the Paris attack, it held protest rallies in 75 Indian towns and cities, with Mahmood Madani leading the one in Delhi. “ISIS doesn’t represent Islam. Islam doesn’t support terrorism. There is no place for this jihad of ISIS in Islam,” he says. “They spread lies on social media about Islam. We will take the same route to counter them.”
The Madanis realise that they have to set themselves apart from Muslim leaders like Owaisi and Azam Khan. The merger will assure the Jamiat a higher profile. But is that enough?