Late last week, amidst much fanfare, a new political party, styling itself the ‘Welfare Party of India’, was launched in New Delhi. It is the brainchild of India’s foremost Islamist outfit, the Jamaat-e Islami Hind, and most of its top office-bearers are senior Jamaat leaders. Politics is, however, not new to the Jamaat at all, for the Jamaat’s ideology is itself based on a distinctly political interpretation of Islam. It is premised on the centrality of the notion of the ‘Islamic state’, without which, it insists, Islam is ‘incomplete’. Bringing the whole world under the rule of such a state or states, styled as the Caliphate, is central to the Jamaat’s vision of Islam.
In launching its political party (although careful not to project it as a Jamaat venture) the Indian Jamaat has finally discarded its longstanding pretence of being a benign religio-cultural organisation. Aware that floating the party would inevitably win it fierce criticism from some quarters, Jamaat leaders have been quick to disclaim direct involvement of the Jamaat. That claim, of course, has few takers, and critics will easily dismiss it as utterly hypocritical. It is common knowledge that the party has been set up at the Jamaat’s initiative and will function under its directions. Cautiously distinguishing the Jamaat from the Welfare Party might be a well-thought of move in order to give the party more room for manoeuvre and for making ideological compromises. Such a distinction might also help the Jamaat, if the need so arises, to distance itself from the party in case the party runs into trouble or goes out of control, in the same way as the Jamaat was forced to disclaim any links with the Students’ Islamic Movement of India which it had helped set up when the latter was banned on the alleged grounds of fanning terrorism some years ago.
The formation of the WPI does not signal, as some might think, a shift in the Jamaat’s understanding of Islam or of the relationship between Islam and politics. After all, it has never distanced itself from its founder, Syed Abul Ala Maududi, whose politically-driven, and deeply fascist interpretation of Islam it still champions, as evidenced by the vast amounts of literature, including writings of Maududi himself, that it continues to publish in various languages. Maududi vehemently insisted that there was no distinction at all between Islam and politics or the state, claiming that the mission of the prophets was precisely to establish political power and thereby bring into being what he regarded as a divinely-ordered society. In his frighteningly Manichaean worldview, the whole of humanity was divided into two rival camps: the ‘friends of God’ (that is to say, ‘good’ Muslims like himself and others who shared his vision of Islam) and the ‘friends of the Devil’ (the rest of humanity). The former were soldiers of God in a cosmic war against the latter to establish global ‘Islamic’ rule, using force, if need be and in some circumstances, to bring the whole world under ‘Islamic’ domination. Under no circumstances could Muslims turn their backs on what Maududi believed was this divinely-ordained duty.
Maududi’s politically-inflected Islam brooked no compromise with other ideologies and religions and their adherents. Islam (and his brand of it, at that) alone represented the truth, he insisted, while other belief-systems were patently false and were, by definition, opposed to God. Their followers were to be struggled against till they accepted Islamic supremacy. Democracy, secularism, nationalism and socialism, too, in his view, represented revolts against God, and Maududi vehemently denounced them as utterly anti-Islamic.
Maududi is regarded as one of the pillars of modern ‘political Islam’ or Islamism, and is recognised as having exercised a major influence on Islamist, including radical ‘jihadist’, thinking and politics all across the world. After laying the foundation of the Jamaat-e Islami in 1941, he migrated to Pakistan in the wake of the Partition, leaving behind a branch of his outfit in independent India to carry on the struggle to establish an ‘Islamic polity’ based on his particular version of Islam. In Pakistan, Maududi and the Pakistani Jamaat, which was transformed into a political party, played a leading role in whipping up support for the establishment of an ‘Islamic state’ of their dreams. As numerous Pakistani writers have documented, they crusaded against not just other versions of Islam, such as popular Sufi traditions, but also against progressive trends in Pakistani society, including peasants’ and women’s struggles, and the fledgling communist movement. They vehemently denounced liberal and democratic voices, and crusaded against equal rights for Pakistan’s beleaguered non-Muslim minorities, all in the name of Maududi’s authoritarian and deeply despotic interpretation of Islam.
Pakistan’s ruling elites, particularly the regime of the military dictator Zia ul-Haq, actively courted the Jamaat in order to fend off rivals and clamp down on democratic struggles. The Jamaat soon emerged as the vanguard of fascism in Pakistan. It was, and remains, one of the major channels of anti-Indian and anti-Hindu hatred in Pakistan, and the major ideological force behind what it regards as a divinely-blessed jihad against ‘infidel’ rule in Kashmir. Yet, despite the Jamaat’s considerable influence in Pakistan, it has miserably failed in successive elections in the country (that is, on the rare occasions when they are held), simply because most Pakistanis, despite being Muslims, do not subscribe to Maududi’s understanding of their faith and would loathe to live under a repressive regime that the Jamaat wishes to establish in the name ofhukumat-e ilahiyah or ‘divine rule’.
The Jamaat-e Islami also exists as separate political parties in Bangladesh and Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, where their political course has been no different from the Pakistani Jamaat. The Jamaat in undivided (pre-1971) Pakistan was viscerally opposed to the creation of Bangladesh, and its frontal organisations played a key role in killing vast numbers of pro-independence Bengali freedom fighters, Hindus and Muslims, backing the Pakistani Army in the wake of the liberation struggle launched by the Mukti Bahini. For the Bangladeshi Jamaat, like its Pakistani counterpart, anti-Indian hysteria is almost an article of faith, and it has consistently opposed all leftist, progressive voices and even liberal and democratic trends in Bangladesh, branding these as wholly ‘anti-Islamic’. In Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir, too, the Jamaat’s brand of Islam has been pressed into the service of an extremely regressive social agenda at the same time as the Jamaat there considers the on-going militant struggle against Indian rule as nothing short of a divinely-approved jihad against the ‘infidels’.
The course of the Jamaat as a political party in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, which seems uniformly reactionary (to put it mildly), poses important questions for what the newly-floated Welfare Party of India, a Jamaat-e Islami Hind front, would mean for the Indian Muslims, for their understandings of Islam and for India as a whole. If the history of the Jamaat-e Islami and its political involvement in other parts of South Asia is any indicator, the answers to these pressing questions do not seem encouraging at all, to say the least.
The course of Maududi’s heirs in India has not been all that different from those elsewhere in South Asia. Given that, following the Partition, the Indian Muslims were transformed into a heavily-reduced and insecure minority, it was but natural that, in contrast to Muslim-majority Pakistan, the Indian Jamaat chose to stay aloof from active politics. Like its Hindu counterpart, the RSS, the Indian Jamaat sought to camouflage its politically-driven understanding of religion by claiming the seemingly innocuous label of a ‘cultural organisation’. While sharing the same broad understanding of Islam as represented by the Jamaat in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian Jamaat adopted a different, seemingly ‘apolitical’, strategy to achieve the same goals.
Following Maududi, early post-47 Indian Jamaat leaders insisted that secular democracy was sheer anathema, and advised Muslims to abstain from any activity that might strengthen such a ‘godless’ ideology and a polity based on it. Jamaat members were forbidden from voting or to standing in elections. They regarded government employment, working for a state that was not ‘Islamic’, as ‘un-Islamic’ for this would only lend legitimacy to such a state. They saw government schools as calculated to lead Muslims astray from Islam and advocated ‘Islamic schools’ in their place. Critics regarded this as tantamount to ‘self-marginalisation’, but the Jamaat believed that this was a truly ‘Islamic’ strategy to preserve the Muslims’ faith, in a context that was seen as ‘anti-Islamic’.
The Indian Jamaat never gave up its dream of an ‘Islamic’ state in India, though. Through its missionary work, it hoped that the dominant Hindus would realise what it regarded as the veracity of Islam, and if the majority of Indians were won to the faith, the ‘Islamic state’ would come into being on its own. Another focus of the Indian Jamaat was on the dissemination of its ideology among the Indian Muslims, many of who it thought of as hardly ‘true’ Muslims simply because they did not subscribe to its brand of Islam. If Muslims were to embrace the Jamaat’s version of Islam, it hoped, the struggle to establish an ‘Islamic’ state or social order in India would be greatly facilitated. This task was to be undertaken through setting up a vast chain of schools, institutes, and publishing houses that produced huge amounts of Jamaat-style literature, particularly tracts and tomes by Maududi. At the same time, the Indian Jamaat, like its counterparts elsewhere in South Asia, kept up a steady opposition to liberal, democratic and leftist tendencies among Muslims. Thus, it continues to vehemently oppose reservations for Muslims on the basis of caste (for ‘low’ caste Muslims, who form the majority of the Indian Muslim population), and, like most other ‘Islamic’ organisations, denounces efforts to reform Muslim Personal Law to ensure gender justice and equality. While constantly appealing for true ‘democracy’ in India (this being one of the major rationales for the Welfare Party of India), the Indian Jamaat has thus been consistently opposed to the internal democratisation of the larger Indian Muslim community in the name of a monolithic and authoritarian understanding of Islam.
Not everyone within the Indian Jamaat agreed on the need to stay aloof from active political assertion, in terms of party politics, though this remained a generally-held position till the recent formation of the Welfare Party. The Jamaat’s students’ wing, the Students Islamic Movement of India, for instance, began distancing itself somewhat from the Jamaat from the 1980s in the face both of Islamist assertion globally and Hindutva aggression within India. Following the destruction of the disputed mosque/temple structure in Ayodhya in 1992 and the ensuing massacre of Muslims, the SIMI called for Muslims to engage in what it called jihad. When the Government of India stepped in to ban the SIMI, Jamaat leaders hurriedly denied any links with it, while at the same time criticising the Government (and rightly so) for turning a blind eye to Hindu terrorist outfits.
Increasingly, from the early 1990s onwards, voices began being heard within the Jamaat for it to take a more overt political role in the face of the perceived helplessness of Muslims at the hands of a hostile state and Hindu chauvinists. The floating of the new political party by the Jamaat thus represents a shift in terms of the Indian Jamaat’s strategy in the face of a transformed political context. Yet this does not necessarily mean a transformation of its overall ideology. Given the Jamaat’s particular understanding of Islam, which many other Muslims do not accept, it is not surprising that the move has provoked considerable debate, including visceral opposition, in Muslim circles.