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Mosques, Madarsas, "mad mullas"
By Mohd. Zeyaul Haque

At this rate it would not take long for the practice of Islam itself to be declared a seditious act

During the invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, Israelis bombed a hospital, killing and maiming patients. An American reporter sent the despatch to his newspaper, writing in detail about the horror of the obvious act of war crime. He did not believe his eyes when he saw the published report in his newspaper: the sub-editor had changed "Israeli warplanes bombed a hospital" to "Israeli warplanes bombed a terrorist hideout". A small editorial sleight of hand had taken away the guilt and criminality of the Israeli act and infused it with a certain heroism and moral justification. Such wizardry is routine in media editorial rooms worldwide. Truth, fairplay and impartiality – values by which media outfits swear – are often the casualty.

Newspapers, magazines, news agencies and TV crew do not always have to resort to such blatant mischief as changing a hospital into a terrorist hideout. There are a hundred and one smarter ways of distorting or effacing truth and subtly altering the emphasis of an argument, without changing the facts. A lie can be comfortably told with facts and statistics as these are not synonymous with truth. The media has an uncanny way of resorting to all the tricks in trade.

There is yet another way of vitiating a discourse: Just set the agenda in a mischievous way. Disadvantaged groups that do not have a fair degree of access to the media are always at the receiving end of this game of agenda setting. Edward Said in his brilliant work Covering Islam and Noam Chomsky in his The Silent Consensus and other writings have discussed it with great clarity.

This is like asking somebody, "when did you stop beating your wife?" The poor fellow may not have even dreamt of his wife in violent terms, but he is left with no option other than either keeping quiet (and accepting, by implication, that he has yet to stop beating his wife) or to give a firm date when he stopped it. In one case he is guilty of continuing a barbarous act; in another, he is guilty of the act in the past. In both cases he has no respite; in both cases he attracts punishment though the fact remains that he is not guilty. It is only the agenda set by someone else that has cornered him. 

One such agenda of the Indian political establishment backed by the media is the ISI scare in which all Indian Muslims are sought to be implicated. There is no escape left for the accused (Indian Muslims) like the unfortunate man queried about when he stopped beating his wife. 

The year 1992, like 1947 and 1857, is a clear watershed for Muslim history in India. Before December 1992 very few people knew anything more about ISI than that it was a national standards organisation that certified the quality of industrial products, a desi version of ISO 9000. That the same abbreviated form stood for both Indian Standards Institution and Pakistani military intelligence (Inter Services Intelligence) became more widely known only after the Babri Masjid demolition and concomitant riots. 

The Muslims ended up as the aggrieved party of the demolition, victims of mob violence and police brutality, and stood accused (most of the time, falsely) in criminal cases. It was at this time that the spectre of ISI was built up by the political class and drummed up by the media. The ISI was allegedly using Indian Muslims as fifth columnists. This subterfuge somehow shifted the focus from the ignominy of the demolition which took place despite assurances by the Sangh to the National Integration Council, Parliament and Supreme Court, the most visible symbols of Indian nationhood, state authority and justice. The enormity of the crime was greatly mitigated in public consciousness once the victims themselves were blamed for the trouble. The charge that they were in league with the enemy country’s military intelligence was enough to destroy all sympathy for them. Since then the ISI ploy has consistently been used for this end.

As a journalist I have some first hand experiences from this period to narrate. With the passage of time the ISI scare-crow became so big that it seemed to usurp the entire national political discourse, creating the impression that the state authority had abdicated, ISI had taken over and the entire police, paramilitary and intelligence apparatus had become useless. Only there was the omnipresent ISI, and all the mosques and madarsas across the length and breadth of the country were their camp sites. By implication, the teaching and practice of Islam had been declared acts of sedition. Prestigious madarsas like Nadwatul Ulema (Lucknow) were raided, the staff humiliated, students assaulted, rounded up and marched off to police lock-up. All this was done in the name of catching ISI. Yet not a single ISI functionary was nabbed, no evidence of its presence found. Red-faced officials were groping for explanation. Muslims were stunned at this second round of humiliation.

The community leaders were upset because the Lucknow episode involved the most revered Muslim leader of the age, the Late Maulana Ali Mian, who was the rector of Nadwatul Ulema. Thankfully, the maulana was not there. It was an attempt to cast aspersions on his integrity. This writer was then with Nation and the World. The editor, Saiyid Hamid, decided to get the ISI charge investigated by our own reporters at different places in the country, including Nadwatul Ulema.

The other places where the media was made to talk loudly about alleged ISI activity in madarsas included Bhatkal town in Karnataka on the Arabian Sea shore, Kishanganj in Bihar on the West Bengal border and close to Bangladesh, and Chandanbara in Bihar on the Indo-Nepalese border. While our young colleague Sardar Sajid Imam (then a 22-year-old fresh graduate from Calcutta University) went to Nadwatul Ulema. I went to the other places. The Bhatkal story was done in collaboration with MA Siraj (formerly an Indian Express reporter and till recently executive editor of Meantime). We will talk about the Bhatkal, Kishanganj and Chandanbara cases next fortnight. Here we concentrate on what Sajid found in Lucknow.

Sajid reported that in the night of November 21, 1994 a posse of IB official from Delhi and a group of UP policemen in uniform and plain clothes forced their way into Nadwa, locked the rooms at the ground floor and first floor of Athar Hostel while students were asleep inside. Within minutes they locked students at the second floor as well, except room number 20. They searched the room, turned everything upside down, ransacked beds and cupboards. They tore mattresses, looking for "proof" of ISI connection, spilled milk, shredded books. Within the next few minutes three students, Farooq Ahmad, Ghazi Moinul Islam and Hussain Ahmad, were arrested. Within the next few minutes four more were arrested. All this happened at midnight.

Hearing the commotion, the warden, a respected maulvi came out of his room. When he asked the policemen whether they had sought permission of the Nadwa authorities, they said they did not need any permission. Saying that, they pushed him around and belaboured him. Another teacher was similarly insulted. As a parting gift they began to fire indiscriminately. Next day newspapers carried police version of the event saying that they had busted an ISI ring at Nadwa. They said they had "fired in the air" toward off a mob of students. However, the firing in the air claim was exposed by student Mohd. Talha, who sustained a bullet wound in his leg. Another student Muqimuddin was shot in the arm. 

For weeks newspapers (particularly Hindi newspapers) carried concocted stories of Nadwa’s alleged ISI connection. The police freed the students the next day after interrogation. Nothing was established. Meanwhile, the newspapers and magazines were publishing false ISI stories planted by the police. 

When they failed to get anything the Central government under Narasimha Rao feigned ignorance of the police action. Railway Minister Jaffar Sharief went to Nadwa to explain that the Central government "did not know" about the raid. Late Rajesh Pilot too visited Nadwa with the same message. On the other hand, Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav denied any prior knowledge of it. The fact, however, remains that it was the handiwork of forces from both the Centre and the state. Sajid’s report on Nadwa’s innocence was vindicated later by independent inquiries by civil liberties groups. Despite that the regional and national media continued publishing innuendoes about Nadwa’s ISI connection. They also kept on publishing BJP’s foolish allegation that Mulayam Singh Yadav let off the ISI- sponsored students. BJP made the fantastic claim that other madarsas in UP were also hotbeds of ISI, but they too were being protected by Mulayam Singh Yadav. The media published all this faithfully, contrary to the fact.

Interestingly, the same BJP has been in power in UP for the last several years, but it has not caught a single student or teacher in any of the madarsas. This is, however, not enough to stop it from making false allegations about the ISI in madarsas. The media too is not bothered about checking facts before publishing them. To top it all, UP policemen once again raided an establishment associated with Ali Mian in 1998, this time his ancestral khanqah at Takia in Rae Baraeli, again without getting anything. 

However, again the media backed it up with all kinds of allegations about Nadwa and Ali Mian, once again without proof. And that was not surely the last time a sizeable section of the media was targetting Muslims.

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