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India's new Shahi Imam, Syed Ahmed Bukhari.

Conversations: 'Muslims Have Been Reduced to a Pitiable Condition'
Web-only interview with India's top Muslim cleric Syed Ahmed Bukhari

November 7, 2000
Web posted at 6:15 p.m. Hong Kong time, 6:15 a.m. EDT

Syed Ahmed Bukhari is the influential, newly installed Shahi Imam, or head cleric, of India's biggest mosque, Jama Masjid. Taking up the post held by his father (the imamate is hereditaru) on October 14, he didn't waste any time: announcing plans to set up a new political party for the country's Muslims, while criticizing the treatment of minority religious groups. Bukhari is a religious leader, but the Shahi Imams of Delhi have historically rubbed shoulders with potentates and politicians. He spoke recently to TIME contributor Maseeh Rahman. Edited Excerpts:

Web-only interviews with South Asia's opinion makers

Visit the Conversations Archive in TIME Asia's Web Features for more interviews with South Asia's opinion makers

TIME: Why do you want to start a political party for India's Muslims?
India's Muslims participated in the freedom struggle with the hope that after independence, there would be an end to injustice and oppression, and that they would get their due position in the new nation. But 53 years after independence, no one has been able to heal their wounds. The Muslim community has supported every leader who raised the slogan of democracy and secularism. These leaders, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and V.P. Singh, were all Hindus, but Muslims played an important role in their coming to power. There is no greater evidence of the secularism of India's Muslims than the fact that they did not acknowledge Mohammed Ali Jinnah [the founder of Pakistan] as their leader. But they got nothing in return. On the contrary, only those Muslims who agreed not to raise the community's real problems in parliament got positions of importance.

TIME: But Jinnah created Pakistan in 1947 as a homeland for the subcontinent's Muslims.
Those Muslims who agreed with Jinnah's policies went to Pakistan. But those who wanted to remain in India clearly rejected Jinnah's ideas [of separate Muslim and Hindu nations].

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TIME: Are you saying that this charge often leveled against India's Muslims, that they are pro-Pakistan, is false?
What do we have to do with Pakistan? Love of the nation is the Islamic duty of every Muslim; those who do not love their nation are acting against Islam. Until now every Muslim leader has been afraid to speak out openly against Pakistan. But I want to make it very clear: it's regrettable that today it is India's Muslims who are suffering due to Pakistan's anti-India policies. It is they who are bearing the brunt of the damage caused by the activities of Pakistan's ISI [Inter Services Intelligence, the Pakistan military intelligence agency] in India. If anything happens today, Indian Muslims are accused of being ISI agents and our mosques and institutions are blamed for harboring terrorists. We cannot tolerate such conspiracies against our nation. It is true that the country's Muslims have been opposed to governments in New Delhi due to their style of functioning. But people are labeling us as antinational just because we oppose a government. Voting against a government in power is our democratic and fundamental right. Our love and loyalty is with the nation, not with governments.

TIME: So you feel the time has come to set up a separate political party?
In every field -- education, employment, business, government -- the country's Muslims have been kept down. So we've been forced to consider the need for Muslims to assert their own political strength. None of the secular parties we supported have given anything [back]. In fact, no party has harmed Muslims more than the Congress Party, which ruled for decades with the support of the community. The party in power today, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is openly antagonistic to Muslims and Islam. But the Congress, which pretended to be a sympathizer, actually stabbed us in the back.

TIME: How close is your decision to set up a Muslim party linked to the fact that the BJP is in power today?
India has the second largest population of Muslims in the world after Indonesia. Yet the Muslims here have been reduced to a pitiable condition. Until we acquire political strength, we will continue to suffer and we will get no economic justice, no share in power, no education, no jobs...

TIME: But the new BJP president [Bangaru Laxman] has called upon his workers to build bridges with the Muslims.
The BJP has received support from Muslims in the past. But it is the BJP that alienated the community. What does the BJP President have to offer Muslims? Is he willing to clear the grievances Muslims have against the BJP? On December 6, 1992, the Babri Mosque was destroyed [by Hindu fanatics in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya]. Does the president acknowledge December 6 as a day of pride or of shame? On the one hand, BJP leaders say Muslim Personal Law will be changed, that Islam should be Indianized, and that "Islamic terrorism" is on the rise. And on the other, there's talk of bringing Muslims closer to the BJP. It is no longer possible to get Muslim support merely on the basis of verbal assurances. Until we have our own party and become a political force, every party will go on exploiting our weakness.

TIME: But won't a Muslim party face the charge of being sectarian? And what will be your role in the new party?
What's wrong if Muslims have their own party? The Sikhs have one, the Dalits have their parties, and the BJP came to power as a Hindu party. The new party will not be antinational; its objective will be to strengthen the community. As for my role, my mandate is not political. But speaking out against injustice and oppression, and conveying a message to Muslims, is my religious duty. I will not be a member of the party, but I will always be there to advise Muslims.

TIME: It is said that Muslims have remained backward in India, partly because of their religious leaders. What do you say about that?
This charge may have been valid in the past, when many elders would not allow girls to go to school, for instance. But today you will find that in the madrasas [religious schools], secular education is given and computer courses are offered. The young want education, but don't get enough opportunities because the system is unfair. They even find it difficult to get admitted into municipal schools. Muslims today face discrimination in every sphere.

TIME: But some religious leaders have issued fatwas [a legal opinion or decree] against women participating in elections.
These are people with antiquated ideas. And they constitute less than 1% of the community.

TIME: So how come Muslim Personal Law has been reformed in countries like Egypt and even Pakistan, but in India religious leaders continue to resist change. Recently, they failed to agree to an amendment to the divorce law, whereby a Muslim man in India can get rid of his wife simply by saying "I divorce you" thrice.
In no Islamic country has anything been done against the teachings of the Koran. That is all propaganda. As far as the practice of divorce is concerned, there is evidence of reform from early Islamic history. No single religious scholar or leader can decide on this issue, though. There's no doubt that the occurrence of divorce -- given in anger or in a drunken state -- has increased within the community in India. If we're to escape this malaise, there is an urgent need for religious leaders to sit together and discuss the issue.

TIME: The chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS, a radical Hindu group] recently called upon India's Muslims and Christians to acknowledge their "Hindu ancestry and roots" and "Indianize" their religions? What is your reaction to this demand?
Religion is a revealed reality; it is universal. You cannot enclose it within political boundaries. Don't the Hindus living in the U.S., for instance, see their religion as universal, and acknowledge its links with India? So how can you tell the Christians living here to confine themselves to India and have no link with the Vatican? Or tell the Muslims that they cannot look toward Mecca and Medina?

TIME: Why does the RSS go on about such issues then?
They are basically attempting to emotionally provoke the minorities -- first the Muslims, then the Sikhs, now Christians -- so that they get distracted from genuine economic and social issues. Christians have been the most apolitical and peaceful group in India, and Christian organizations have been providing education and medical aid to countless Indians without any discrimination on the basis of religion. Since they [the RSS] have failed to dominate Muslims, they're now provoking Christians and hoping to dominate them. The same injustice, the same persecution meted out to us is being directed toward the Christians. The RSS is not interested in the welfare of the nation. It is only concerned with dividing the people. It is neither loyal to the nation, nor is it concerned with people's welfare. The basis of their organization is to spread sectarian hatred.

TIME: You recently met the Kashmiri leader Mirwaiz Omar Farooq. Do you see yourself playing a role in resolving the deadlock over Kashmir?
Both India and Pakistan are concerned about Kashmir, but neither side is concerned about its people. Efforts have to be made to stop the bloodshed in the Valley. Then the two governments, along with Kashmiri leaders, should sit down and discuss ways of resolving the problem. All three have to ultimately come together, as I can't foresee the issue getting resolved without our involving both the Pakistan government and Kashmiri leaders. India's demand that the violence should end before talks can begin is a legitimate one. Efforts are being made to achieve this objective, and in this process India's Muslims are willing to help in whatever way possible. But the Indian government needs to take Kashmiri leaders into confidence. When I spoke to Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, I got the impression that Kashmiri leaders were willing to assist in efforts toward ending the violence there.

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