Syed Jalaluddin Umari is the President (amir) of the Jamaat-e Islami Hind, one of the largest and most influential Islamic organizations in India . In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about the recent wave of terror attacks in India , attacks on Muslims and on moves to set up a Muslim political party in the country.
By Yoginder Sikand
Q: What do you have to say about the recent wave of bomb blasts across India , which the media and the intelligence agencies have sought to blame Muslims for?
A: Soon after the deadly state-sponsored anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002 there was a sort of lull in communal violence and disruptive acts, but now, over the last year or so, suddenly blasts are happening in various parts of the country, causing widespread death and destruction and indiscriminate arrests, mainly of Muslim youths. The state agencies, the police and the media have sought to blame Muslims for all these disruptive acts, but, as the recent revelations about the role of Hindutva groups in the Malegaon and Modassa incidents clearly shows, this accusation appears to have little merit. In the wake of blasts across India, scores of Muslims have been targeted, picked up by the police, and tortured, and the law has not been allowed to take its proper course. All that we have, in the vast majority of cases, are confessions probably forcibly procured by the police from those arrested, and this cannot be adduced as proof in any court of law. Yet, the media takes these confessional statements extracted under duress as gospel truth and has been engaged in a concerted campaign to brand Muslims as terrorists.
Q: So, do you mean to say that Muslims might not be responsible for these various blasts, contrary to what the media and the intelligence agencies allege?
A: I am not saying that there might not be even a single Muslim who could engage in disruptive activities. But I strongly feel, and this some sections of the media are themselves now saying, that these blasts might have been perpetrated by fiercely anti-Muslim groups, by radical Hindutva outfits or their activists, who seek, along with the media and the intelligence agencies, to blame Muslims for them so that Islam and Muslims get a bad name. They want to thereby divide the people of India against each other, widen communal polarisation, create anti-Muslim hysteria, and consolidate a Hindu vote-bank, particularly keeping in mind the coming elections. Anyone with a bit of commonsense must certainly wonder why Muslims would engage in such activities when they cause grave harm and damage to Muslims themselves, because after these blasts it is inevitably Muslims alone who are arrested or gunned down in fake encounters and who have to suffer increasing suspicion and hatred from other communities. And then several of these blasts have taken place in Muslim localities, even in mosques, dargahs and Muslim graveyards, where those killed and injured have been wholly Muslims. Why on earth would Muslims target their own people? Why are the police and the media not coming out in the open about the evidence of militant Hindutva groups and activists being involved in several terrorist attacks and bomb blasts? Why is this not being branded or described as terrorism?
I must also state here that all Indian Muslim organizations and notable leaders have openly and forcefully condemned all these disruptive acts, no matter who their perpetrators might be. These activities harm our country, kill innocent people, Hindus, Muslims and others, and do the most damage to Muslims, because it is Muslims who inevitably bear the brunt of the wrath of the police, the intelligence agencies and the media in the aftermath of these incidents even when they are not behind them.
We demand a proper and fair investigation into all such incidents. But is this being done? I regret to say it is not. Take the case of the recent killing of two Muslim youth in Batla House in New Delhi . Muslim as well as secular human rights organizations are raising serious questions about the police’s version of the story, and they are demanding a proper investigation of the incident. This is a purely democratic demand, but why is it that this is not conceded? Are the authorities afraid that such an investigation might reveal the police’s version to be false? To claim, as those who oppose this sort of investigation say, that this would result in the lowering of the morale of the police is completely bizarre.
Q: What, then, do you think is the way out?
A: We want the law to take its proper course. We want the legal process to be allowed to properly function. Unfortunately, however, this is not happening in scores of cases. Muslims are being arbitrarily arrested and branded, by the police, intelligence agencies and the media, as terrorists, though the courts as yet have not delivered any judgment. Our point is that if any persons, no matter what their religion, or if any organization, irrespective of whichever community it is associated with, are proved, after proper investigation, to be indeed involved in these blasts, they must be punished according to the law.
Q: What do you feel about the charges about the banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) being behind these blasts? After all, at one time, the SIMI was the youth wing of the Jamaat-e Islami.
A: It should be clear that SIMI was never a wing of the Jamaat. Jamaat has its own wing, the SIO (formed in 1982). In 1992, the Iqdam-e-Ummat conference was organized by SIMI in Mumbai. There the SIMI activists used intemperate language. Then the Jamaat-e Islami Hind decided that henceforth no Jamaat representative would attend any SIMI meetings. This was done to emphasize the Jamaat’s stand that the language used by Muslims must be proper and balanced. Prior to this, we had tried to make the SIMI realize that their immature approach was wrong, and under the circumstances it was unrealistic and impractical as well and not in accordance with the Islamic temperament.
However the ground reality is that even before the ban on the SIMI, its influence was rather limited. It was not the hugely influential movement that the media makes it out to be. Moreover as journalists such as Ajit Sahi of Tehelka have shown, no case of SIMI activists being involved in any illegal or disruptive acts has ever been proved in any court. If SIMI was really wedded to terrorism, as is being alleged, then why is it that when it was not banned it did not engage in such activities, and that after the ban, when its wings were clipped, its offices sealed, many of its activists arrested and others who had been associated with it closely watched by intelligence agencies, it was allegedly able to mastermind all these deadly blasts across the country? This question must be asked, but, of course, the media is not asking it.
Q: But surely the SIMI’s radical rhetoric was inflammatory and pernicious. Its call for armed jihad, its visceral hatred for and opposition to democracy, secularism and the concept of the nation-state and its appeal for establishing a Caliphate in India naturally made it seen by many Indians, including Muslims, as very dangerous. In this sense, it was akin to some extreme radical Islamist groups in the Arab world. What do you have to say about this sort of approach?
A: Any immature approach is of course wrong and completely impractical and, moreover, it is counter-productive. However, you must realize that much of the SIMI’s rhetoric was limited to raising slogans. Islamic movements across the world have increasingly begun to avoid empty rhetoric. They know that any immature action leads to harsh suppression. Islamic movements in various countries are clearly realizing that the only practical avenue before them is through peaceful mass movements which could engage in democratic politics and in elections to present their agenda and win public support. Well-known Islamic parties such as the Jamaat-e Islami of Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Ikhwan ul-Muslimin in Egypt, the Refah Party in Turkey and so on are routinely taking part in elections and seeking peaceful means to come to power. They de facto recognize the existing secular and democratic Constitutions, even though they may not be Islamic Constitutions. Seeking to gain public acceptance and support by participating in elections and using peaceful means is their method.
Q: So, are you suggesting that the radical approach of extremist groups such as Hizb ut Tahrir in the Arab world and Central Asia or the SIMI, which aimed to capture political power through violence to establish what they call an Islamic state, is wrong?
A: To shun peaceful mass movement and adopt coercion is entirely impractical and counter-productive, as I earlier mentioned. As I said, only through peaceful means one may seek to bring about the desired change. However your perception that SIMI aimed to capture power through violence is entirely wrong. Participating in democratic elections is certainly one possibility before the Islamic parties. It is a different matter that when in some countries an Islamic party wins the elections the West (which otherwise keeps harping about democracy) makes sure that such a party does not actually come to power. The instances of Turkey and Algeria can be seen in this context. But even if this happens, there is no practical alternative to the peaceful movement method. After all, how long can the West succeed in denying Muslim masses the regimes that they democratically wish to elect?
Q: In the wake of the terror attacks and bomb blasts across India and the growing hounding of Muslims, what political course would you personally and as head of the Jamaat-e Islami Hind suggest for the Indian Muslims to follow, especially with regard to the forthcoming Parliamentary elections?
A: I would advise Muslims to refrain from emotionalism and seek to struggle for their rights using all available peaceful and legal means. They must desist from any illegal or disruptive activity. In general, they should seek to create avenues of dialogue and build bridges with non-Muslims, including with the people in the media and in political field with genuine commitment to democracy and justice. The Jamaat, along with some other Muslim groups, has been trying to push a constructive agenda forward in the recent past. We have called a meeting that is to be convened soon of leaders of various political parties other than the Congress and BJP and social and human rights activists in Delhi to discuss such an agenda.
All this while, Muslims have been treated as a captive vote-bank of the Congress Party, but, as the ongoing repression of Muslims even in many Congress-ruled states shows, this party has done little for Muslims. In the wake of the disruptive acts and the consequent large-scale persecution of hapless Muslims, the Congress has taken no positive measures at all. It maintains a studious silence, for fear of losing Hindu votes to the BJP. It could have, if it had wanted to, prevented the targeting of Muslims, but it did not do so. Now it is making some feeble attempts to regain Muslim votes before the coming elections by talking of the Hindutva terrorists who are said to be behind the Malegaon and Modassa blasts, but all this while it has remained silent on the ongoing repression of Muslims. Because of this, many Muslims think that as far as Muslim issues are concerned there is little difference between the Congress and the BJP.
My advice to Muslims, and this is also what I think most Muslims would themselves do on their own, is that in states where there is a realistic alternative available to both the Congress and the BJP, Muslims should prefer this alternative, and where there is no such credible alternative they might consider the Congress. This would not be because of any great enthusiasm for that party’s record but simply a matter of compulsion.
Q: In this regard, what do you have to say about ongoing talk about setting up of a Muslim political party in India ? According to some sources, the Jamaat-e Islami Hind is also thinking of entering politics.
A: We feel that in today’s national and international context, particularly in the face of mounting anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim prejudice, when even legitimate grievances of Muslims are ignored, there is a pressing need for Muslims to make their presence felt in the political realm as well. This can take the shape of a lobby, an opinion-building group or a political party, and through this sort of effort Muslims might be able to talk more effectively with various political parties and present their views and concerns. As to the exact shape this effort will take, we do not really know for sure at the moment. It may well be in the form of a political party with its own agenda. It will work out how best to relate to other parties and to marginalized communities. I don’t think such a party may emerge before the coming Parliamentary elections early next year because the time left now is too short. I think that till then the Jamaat will continue with its present policy of seeking to present its views and concerns to various political parties. It will work for the cause of genuine democracy, for equal treatment by the state of all citizens, for social justice for all marginalized communities, such as Dalits, Christians, Sikhs as well as Muslims, and for countering communal fascism.
Q: All these years the Jamaat has stayed aloof from politics. How and why is it that now it wants to become actively politically involved?
A: It is not true to say that we have remained aloof from politics. We understand Islam to be a code of life, which talks about not only prayer and fasting but also about all social and collective affairs, including economics and politics. It is a question of how far existing conditions allow us to organize activities representing the collective aspects of Islam. In any case we have been always been open to change in the face of changing political and social conditions. We have always encouraged our members to seek to particularly interact with secular and democratic parties and convey the Jamaat’s views. In view of the mounting anti-Muslim prejudice and attacks on the community and of concerted efforts by powerful fascist groups to practically turn Muslims into second-class citizens by destroying their religious identity, Muslims need to be politically more active. This could take the form of a separate political party which the Jamaat might wish to help form.
Q: What sort of issues would this party take up?
A: As I said, we have not discussed this in detail so far, and it would take a while for things to finally crystallize. The main agenda for the party, if it comes into being, would be working for social justice and genuine democracy, not for Muslims alone but of all communities and sections who might be facing various forms of persecution. This party would not be associated with the Jamaat alone. In any case, the Jamaat would continue to engage in its primary work, of education, propagation and social change. We would like other Muslim groups and organizations to join the party if it comes into being, based on a common minimum agenda, although the Jamaat might have to play a leading role in establishing and guiding it.