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Situation fragile, door shut
- Politicians told to stay off Deoband seminary till elections are over

A boy at the Darul Uloom complex, Deoband, on Monday. Picture by Prem Singh

Deoband, April 9: The words couldn’t have been clearer. No politicians are allowed inside till the elections get over.

So says the pamphlet hanging on the giant gates of the red-brick Darul Uloom Deoband, the country’s oldest Islamic seminary.

“Ours is an Islamic institution that has nothing to do with politics. Both Hindus and Muslims should vote in favour of secular parties to save the secular polity of India,” said Maulana Mufti Mohammed Imran.

This is the first time that the seminary, situated in Uttar Pradesh, has made itself off-limits to politicians. The ban has come in the wake of last year’s riots in neighbouring Muzaffarnagar district. “Bade hi nazuk haalaat hain abhi (It’s a very fragile situation now),” said the maulana.

The ban was not ordered by the maulana. The order came from the seminary’s managing committee. At the back of their mind, perhaps, was the fear that its name might be misused by parties in this “communally charged” election.

The 147-year-old institute, situated on the Muzaffarnagar-Saharanpur highway, has considerable influence among Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, where the multiple-phase elections will begin on Thursday.

Old-timers still remember the visit of Indira Gandhi as chief guest for the seminary’s centenary celebrations. “But politicians visit the seminary these days with a vested interest to publicise their visit and ask for votes, saying they have got its support. This is why we had to ban their entry this time (till the end of the elections),” said a member of the managing committee.

Several politicians, including Samajwadi chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, had visited the seminary ahead of the elections. Recently, Aam Aadmi Party leader Manish Sisodia had also dropped by.

Three years ago, the seminary authorities had removed Maulana Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi as vice-chancellor for praising Narendra Modi. Originally from Gujarat, Vastanvi had said Muslims in the western state were prospering under Modi.

Outside the seminary, most people did not want to discuss who they’d vote for. “Khamoshi bhi kaafi achchhi cheez hoti hai kabhi kabhi (silence is golden at times),” said Taiyab Qasmi, who sells Urdu newspapers and Islamic books near the main entrance.

A group of 10 men sitting nearby walked over but kept silent.

Qasmi, 60, said: “This election is not about Muslims and Hindus as it is made out to be but about the poor and the rich. Modi has the support of the rich and powerful corporates and industrialists. Common people know who is good for them and would vote accordingly.”

This time, he added, people here would vote for the candidate who can help maintain peace. “This election is candidate-specific.” The others nodded in agreement. “Everybody hates divisive forces and wants to live in peace. All of us will suffer if there is another riot.”

The riots, triggered by an incident of teasing that snowballed, claimed dozens of lives and drove thousands from their homes to relief camps.

Muslims are in a majority in Deoband town but many had still not decided whom to press the button for on Thursday.

The Congress has fielded Imran Masood, recently in the news for his hate speech against Modi. The Samajwadi Party candidate is Shazan Masood, son of former Union minister Rashid Masood and Imran’s cousin. Sitting MP Jagdish Singh Rana, of the Bahujan Samaj Party, is in the fray. The BJP has fielded Raghav Lakhanpal.

“Nobody here will vote for the BJP and Modi,” said Ajmal, who is doing a maulvi course at the seminary. “Why will Muslims vote for the BJP if Amit Shah (Modi’s right-hand man) spreads poison?”

Over the past few days, however, there has been a perceptible wave in favour of Imran Masood. “People are talking about him for taking on Modi. He has become a hero in the area after his arrest a few days ago for his hate speech,” said Ajmal. “He has shown himmat (courage).”

K.K. Sharma, principal, Maharaj Singh College in Saharanpur, rued that voters had been polarised along communal lines. “Development has taken a back seat in this election and people are talking about community interests. It is bad for the country,” he said.

In its message to people over the past week, the seminary has asked them to vote in large numbers to stop communal forces. “Vote for secular forces in the election,” is the message from the managing committee.

RSS cadres and BJP workers have been working overtime. “Winds of change are blowing everywhere and there is a Modi wave. We are trying to consolidate Hindu votes to help bring out the change,” said Ravi Singh, an RSS worker in Saharanpur.

Cadres, he said, were going door to door in Hindu-majority areas, asking people to vote in large numbers.

Political parties, said IIT student Akshay Singh, had succeeded in driving a wedge between voters. “The riots have sown the seeds of poison. But India is a secular country and I hope people will vote for the right candidate and defeat the divisive forces.”

Mufti Imran summed it up. “India is a secular country,” he said. “Everybody has the right to live in peace.”