Deoband: Deep inside Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district is the town of Deoband. Its streets are filled with young men in white kurta-pajamas and white skull caps, clutching books and bags on their backs.
This, locals say, is the result of about 300 seminaries or madrasas in the town alone that house about 6,000 students, many from Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh looking to attain religious education.
The town is also home to the Darul Uloom Deoband, an Islamic seminary established in 1886, which has emerged as a revered global centre for Sunni education.
The seminary and its Deobandi version of Islam have once again hit the headlines following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The Taliban follows the Deobandi school of Islam but locals say that it is an extremist version that has little to do with them.
Arshad Madani, president of the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind and principal of the Darul Uloom Deoband, told ThePrint that the connection is only historical.
According to him, the Deobandis of India did teach their counterparts of Pakistan and Afghanistan but this was only during the 19th century when there was an effort to get the British out of the subcontinent.
“Our ancestor Maulana Mahmud Hassan Deobandi, who was also called Shaykh-al- Hind, was a freedom fighter in the Indian freedom movement,” Madani said. “In order to fight the British, he had created a jamait of freedom fighters. During this freedom movement, he sent his close ally Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi to Afghanistan to create an allied force to aid the freedom movement in India.”
“In order to create this group of allies, Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi was able to form relations with the people of Afghanistan and was able to create the first provisional government of India in Afghanistan where Mahendra Pratap Singh was declared the president and who declared a jihad against the colonial rule,” he said.
Madani said that in recent times, the town has no connection to Afghanistan.
“The person who started the freedom movement in Afghanistan was a Deobandi and the Taliban claiming to be followers of Deoband are probably his followers three generations down the line,” he said.
As for students coming in from Pakistan and Afghanistan, he said, “Students from all over South Asia come here; for 800 seats, we get about 10,000 applications every year. Students are selected based on different parameters that we have.
“Students from Afghanistan or Pakistan only come here if the Indian government gives them a visa. So all students coming in, come through a formal administrative process. The government obviously has all the information about our international students.”
‘Stop associating us with terror groups’
This isn’t the first time that Deoband town has attracted media attention.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in the US in 2001, The New York Times carried a piece on Deoband titled, ‘Indian town’s seed grew into the Taliban’s code’.
Now, the Indian media has begun to focus on the town and its school of Islam.
A spokesperson of the Darul Uloom, who did not want to be named, however, said they have stopped talking to the media due to “twisted narratives”.
“We are a religious school but we are also Indians. To doubt our integrity every time the Taliban spread terror is shameful,” he said.
His view was echoed by a 60-year-old farmer, who has been living in Deoband for over three generations.
“Linking terrorists with a school of religious teachings is unfair. Blaming Islam for their actions is worse,” the farmer said. “No religion in the world teaches anyone to kill or maim; neither does Islam. The Taliban have done terrible things to women and men that go against the teachings of Islam.”
Locals argue that if they indeed are proponents of radical Islam, then terror activities would have hit other countries that the students come from.
Deoband and orthodoxy
One of the chief criticisms of the Deoband Islam is that it “promotes extreme orthodoxy”, especially when it comes to women, constricting them to their homes and denying them access to education, jobs and an equal say.
At Deoband, however, the view, among locals and the maulanas, is that they are being misrepresented.
Mohammad Arshad Faruqi, chairman of the Darul Uloom’s online fatwa services, told ThePrint that according to the teachings of Islam, women have the right to education and equal job opportunities but on the condition that they maintain purdah (condition of being fully covered).
Ziya Fatima, a 53-year-old homemaker in Deoband, said that Sharia law imposed on women in Afghanistan is extreme and does not abide by the the teachings of Islam.
“My daughters were educated; they live in the Middle East,” she said. “We go out in the market and attend to our daily chores and run our households, our religion does not restrict us from doing these things.”
“What they did to the women in Afghanistan is wrong; women should be a part of the system and given equal opportunities,” she added.
The orthodoxy, however, does extend to what women wear.
Ziya Us Salam, author of the book Women In Masjid: A quest for Justice, said this is due to a “patriarchal interpretation of the Quran”.
“Women have been instructed to wear loose garments in our religious text, which is often translated into the burqa, but the same instruction has been given to men too,” he said. “Men are supposed to cover the part between their navel up to their knees with a loose garment. But we don’t see women telling men how to dress because in India, all positions of religious power across religions have been held by men.”
An ATS centre
Amid the Taliban takeover, the Uttar Pradesh government has decided to set up a training centre for Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) commandos in Deoband.
“Amid the Taliban’s savagery, here is a piece of news from UP. Yogi Ji has decided to open a commando training centre in Deoband,” CM Yogi Adityanath’s media advisor Shalabh Mani Tripathi tweeted in Hindi.
Despite the communal overtones, residents and maulanas in the area welcomed the decision. “There is nothing wrong with what we teach and we welcome the ATS staff to be a part of our classes whenever they like,” Madani said.
Residents added that it will only make them feel safer.
“It is better if they come here and find the truth. Maybe these connections they keep making between Deoband and Taliban will stop,” Tehseen Khan, a lawyer living in town, said. “In the current polarised times, we will feel safer knowing that there is a security force present in the area.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)