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Precarious perch

Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid Maulana Syed Ahmed Bukhari issues fatwas on political issues but his political capital remains negligible

On Sunday, Daryaganj and Chandni Chowk are busy places. The street market does brisk business on the week of Holi. Elections being at the top-of-the-mind, people are seen discussing whether AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal will be able to offer any challenge to the BJP. Here faith guides political choices, for Muslims and BJP are antithetical to each other. Still, the man in the street is not sure whom to vote for.

The runup to elections is also the season of fatwas in this part of the city. Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid in Delhi, Maulana Syed Ahmed Bukhari, issues fatwas as if fellow Muslims don’t have a mind of their own, and they need his counsel and guidance. His support to various political parties has changed in the past —driven, some Ulemas allege, by his own vested interests, political ambitions and to curry favour from the party in power, irrespective of the ideology it professes.

The self-styled leader panders to the worst fears of the Muslim community to create a support base. Such pronouncements may make him seem an important leader but his political capital is next to insignificant. He doesn’t have the support of the people in his own bastion: his supporters have not been able to win the Muslim-dominated Matia Mahal Delhi Assembly constituency where the Jama Masjid is located.

To the contrary, despite his opposition, Shoaib Iqbal was elected from here five times in succession till 2015, when AAP’s candidate won. Outside Delhi, Bukhari’s condition is even more deplorable. In 2012, Bukhari’s son-in-law contested from Behat — an Assembly constituency dominated by Muslims — in Uttar Pradesh on a Samajwadi Party ticket. He didn’t even garner enough votes to prevent forfeiture of his deposit.

Shoaib Iqbal is seated in the lobby of hotel Wall Street that he owns, located on the main Daryaganj road. He talks in a matter-of-fact way, chewing paan, staking his claim for the Congress ticket from Chandni Chowk parliamentary seat. “Shahi Imam has his own set of supporters. But he cannot stop me. All the councillors here support me.” Iqbal’s son is a corporator. He supports Congress joining hands with AAP to stop “communal forces”.  He considers BJP the real challenge, not Shahi Imam.

Now that he has proved his supremacy as far as political support in this part of the city is concerned, Iqbal asserts, “His (Imam’s) pressure doesn’t work on me…people close to him don’t want us to be friends,” he says and then qualifies it by saying, “I respect him. He’s the Shahi Imam.”

All the same, he can’t help adding, “They have some business that people don’t know about.” Bukhari’s wealth was on display at the coronation of his son in 2014.

Before the 2004 general elections, the Shahi Imam asked the Muslim community to support BJP led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and not get bogged down by what happened to the Babri Masjid or BJP’s stand on Article 370 or demand for a uniform civil code. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he supported Congress to “strengthen secularism” as communalism is a “bigger threat” than corruption.

Bukhari pledged support for AAP in 2015, which was rejected by the latter. “AAP has nothing to do with Bukhari,” said Ashutosh, the then AAP spokesperson. “We don’t need the support of a man who did not invite India’s Prime Minister but invited Pakistan’s PM on his son’s anointment.”

Incidentally, a PIL has been filed by Suhail Ahmed Khan and others who claim that the Jama Masjid is a property of Delhi Waqf Board. Therefore, Bukhari is just an employee and has no right to appoint his son Ahmed, that too in an ostentatious coronation ceremony, as the Naib Imam (deputy Imam). The PIL alleges that by virtue of being the Shahi Imam, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, has usurped the position of the spiritual leader of the Muslims. The Ulemas don’t trust him enough to acknowledge him as the spiritual leader.

Bukhari, on his part, claims to be the 13th descendant of the first Imam anointed by none other than Mughal emperor Shahjahan.

More recently, as part of the Sampark for Samarthan campaign, BJP leader Vijay Goel met the Shahi Imam last year. Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari shared pictures of his meeting with Shahi Imam on Twitter with the words, “I was pleasantly surprised today by Shahi Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari ji’s visit to my home to ask after my well being.”

In 2017, before the UP Assembly elections, Bukhari supported Mayawati’s BSP and asked Muslims to show Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party the “exit route” as SP has “gone back on its words…and every political party will use Muslims like football for their own interest.” His father Abdullah initially supported Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement during the Emergency years but later switched sides and became a defender of Indira Gandhi after her return to power.

In this capacity as Shahi Imam, Bukhari keeps writing to political leaders. In 2016, he wrote to prime minister Narendra Modi, “Gullible Muslims trading cattle on crossroads are murdered by organised mobs of Gau Rakshaks involved in mob violence, in full view of the people…only tears have become the faith of the helpless Muslims, 64 such incidents have come to the knowledge.”

More recently, commenting on the Supreme Court order seeking mediation in the Ram Janmabhoomi case, Shahi Imam came out categorically against it: “We respect Supreme Court’s order but doubt that the matter will be resolved through mediation. We feel that the matter can only be resolved through the court, not through mediation.”

Last year, while welcoming Indian participation in talks with Afghan Taliban, the Shahi Imam made a comment: Why was New Delhi was not initiating a similar dialogue with separatist leaders in Kashmir?

Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi questions even Bukhari’s religious leadership by saying that Islam “has no Pope and he is no Shahi Imam” and at best he’s an “illegal” occupant of Jama Masjid “treating it as his private property.”