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Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi: A Victim Of Super-Caste And Family Hegemony In Deoband? – Analysis


By R. Upadhyay

The removal of Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi from the post of Mohtamim (Vice Chancellor) of Darul Uloom Deoband received a reasonable space including editorials in the Indian print media. However, the un-Islamic ’super-caste’ hegemonic tradition of this globally venerated institution which is a primary reason behind his unceremonious sacking rarely attracted the attention of the media.

Historically, the Muslim society in South Asia is broadly divided into three categories of Ashraf (highborn), Ajlaf (lowborn) and Arzal (lowborn and socially degraded). Of them Shaikh, Sayeed, Mogul and Pathan are within Ashraf category. Even within Ashraf, Sayeeds are considered ‘super caste’ in Indian Muslim society for their acclaimed genealogical descent from Prophet Mohammad. For Sayeeds, the Islamic injunction that “all Muslims are brothers” did not seem to affect them.


The tradition of super-caste hegemony in Darul Uloom Deoband is no classified document. Ask any unbiased Muslim intellectual, he will confirm that ever since its inception, this Islamic seminary has been under the hegemonic control of Sayeeds.
Contrary to this tradition election of a non-Sayeed Vastanvi to the post of Vice Chancellor was a major historical event in its 145 year history.

Ever since Vastanvi’s election in January last, it was taken as a challenge to the ‘super caste’ hegemony in general and Madani family of Sayeed sect in particular that claims its lineage from Ali bin Hussain, grand son of Prophet Mohammad.

Another point which worked against Vastanvi was that he was also not a graduate from Darul Uloom Deoband.Moreover, contrary to the orthodox tradition of Deoband seminary, Vastanavi is known as a reformist who was not acceptable to the conservative Madani family.

A close look in the history of the “who is who”of Darul Uloom Deoband right from the day of its inception in 1866 reveals that it was initially founded by a group of Sayeed Ulema led by Muhammad Qasim Nanaotawi and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi for the Ashraf
by the Ashraf and of the Ashraf with an objective to impart Jihadi education to them and restore the Muslim rule in the sub-continent which was lost to the British in 1857.

So long the Muslim rule was intact in the sub-continent; Islamist clerics enjoyed the royal patronage and privilege. However, after the advent of the British rule they were scared of losing such status and therefore, revisited the eighteenth
century Islamist doctrine of Shah Waliullah and his disciples of Delhi and Mawlana Wahhab of Arabia which formed the part of this primary level madrasa at Deoband.

Right from the days of its founder Ulema Muhammad Qasim Nanaotawi (1832-1880) to Maulana Asad Madni(1928-2006) Deoband madrasa which was later known as Darul Uloom Deoband was always headed by a clergy of super caste Sayeed from the Urdu speaking north Indians. This seminary believed in orthodox interpretation of Islam and played
aggressive politics for transforming the Muslims into a political community. This was the reason that a vast majority of Indian Muslims who are the descendents of their Hindu ancestors went against this Ashraf dominated institution which
fanatically opposed even the prevailing tradition of the tomb worship of Islamic saints among Indian Muslims.

By the second decade of twentieth century Deoband came into the focus of Muslim politics in India particularly after 1919 when a political association of Deobandi Ulema known as Jamiyat Ulema-e-Hind (JUH) was formed for political struggle against the
British with twin purposes of restoration of Caliphate and Islamisation of the Indian sub-continent.

After the failure of Khilafat movement in early twenties of the last century and also the death of most of the senior Deobandi Ulema except Maulana Syed Hussain Ahmad Madni(1879 – 1957), the demoralised clerics readily accepted the latter as their leader.

Partition of the sub-continent led to the migration of a sizeable number of Deobandi Ulema to Pakistan which was an added advantage for Hussain Ahmad Madani to become the unchallenged leader of Darul Uloom as well as JUH. In the changed political
scenario Ahmad Madani adopted the strategy to manoeuvre the ruling political class in democratic and secular India for sharing power but never compromised with the orthodox tradition of Deoband. On Islamist radicalism of Madani, a noted Muslim writer Safia Amir observed, “For Madani all non-Muslims are the enemies of Islam and Muslims” (Muslim Nationhood in India – Safia Amir, 2000, page 179).

Over the years Madani under the patronage of the ruling Congress emerged as an eminent influential Muslim leader and firmed up his grip over Deoband to such an extent that he turned it into the family fiefdom of ‘Hussaini Saiyyads’.

Against the backdrop of the conservative Sayeed tradition of Darul Uloom Deoband, Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi belongs to a non- Sayeed Gujarati Vohara (Also spelled as Bohara) community of Sunni Muslims who are also known as Surti Muslims. Primarily a business-centric community they are by and large far removed from religious fanaticism.

Since they are also known to be converted from Shia Islam to Sunni Islam with mixed lineage from Arab, Afghan, Pathan, Greek, Khazar, Turkmen and Central Asian ancestors as well as from indigenous Gujrati Jain and Rajput due to assimilation over the millennia (Wickpedia), Sayeeds never accepted the Voharas as socially equal to them.

Following the death of Hussain Ahmad Madani in 1957, his son Maulana Sayeed Asad Madani (1928-2006) provided the crucial leadership of Darul Uloom Deoband as well as JUH.

But his death in 2006 gave rise to family feud over sharing power in managing the well funded Darul Uloom which was a regular recipient of huge donations from Muslim world particularly from the oil-rich middle-east countries.

Even though Arshad Madani the younger brother of Maulana Asad Madani emerged as latter’s successor, he ignored the on going family tussle over the leadership of JUH with his nephew Mehmmod Madani (Son of Ahmad Madani) which ultimately led to the
split of Jamiyat Ulema-e- Hind, a politically influential association of Deobandi Ulema in two factions- each led by the uncle and the nephew. The relation between the uncle and the nephew was so bitter that the JUH faction led by Mehmood Madani gave hidden support to Vastanvi which was an important factor in the defeat of Arshad Madni in the election of the V.C. in January this year.

It is also said that a sizeable section of Deobandi clerics were not happy with the financial health of Deoband in the hands of Madanis for decades. But they never dared to raise voice against the domineering and arrogant Arshad Madani. They took advantage of the quarrel in Madani family and supported Vastanvi who had the patronage of another powerful Ulema of Assam namely Mawlana Badruddin Ajmal. This was the first time in the history of Deoband when a non-north Indian V.C. that too from a non-Urdu speaking region could be elected.

The election of non-syeed Vastanvi was not only a shocking event in the history of Deoband but also a challenge to the super caste hegemony over this seminary.

Vastanvi was known for modernization of madrasas and as such his election as VC of Darul Uloom scared the conservative Madani who felt that new VC’s liberalism would undermine the influence of his family in the secular world. Taking his defeat as a loss to the unquestionable sway of his family in Deoband Arshad Madani patched up with his nephew Memood Madni in the name of family prestige and launched campaign to oust Vastanvi ever since his election.

An interesting point in the whole episode is the visit of the chief Imam of Mecca mosque in India from March 24 to 28, 2011 which was managed by Arshad Madani to mobilise the Deobandi Ulema against Vastanvi. It may not be out of place to mention that at the time of the formation of JUH Deobandi Ulema were not happy with the role of Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia in the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924.

However, they gradually succumbed to the petro-dollar politics of Saudi Arabia and Arshad Madani became very close to the Saudi monarchy.

Incidentally, Vastanvi gave a statement on Gujarati Muslims to the effect that there was “no discrimination against the minorities in the state as far as development was concerned” and all communities are flourishing in Gujarat. Taking this statement as
a support to Narendra Modi Government who is not liked by the Muslims ever since communal riot in Gujarat , Madani and his supporting north Indian Ulema including Imam Bukhari of Jama Masjid Delhi accused Vastanvi as a supporter of RSS and the BJP
and therefore demanded his resignation. Prominent Urdu media under their influence on the other hand highlighted this issue out of proportion which ultimately led to the removal of Vastanvi.

Another development during anti- Vastanvi campaign was the unexpected visit of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the head of Jamiat-ul-Islami the Pakistani counterpart of the JUH which is known to have connection with Taliban. Apparently, his visit was suspected to bring the uncle-nephew duo together but according to some media report his ‘real intent behind bringing the Madnis together was to strengthen the anti-Vastanvi lobby.’ He reportedly tried to turn the struggle between Arshad Madani and Vastanvi as fight between the orthodox and the reformers.

Some say that even if Vastanvi had not given the statement, the hard-liners in Deoband who considered him as a threat to the existing orthodoxy in Darul Uloom would have found another excuse to remove him. In fact Vastanvi was not the only Muslim leader who had praised Gujarat Government In 2009 even, Mufti Ahmad Siddiqi, the Imam of Jama Masjid, Ahmadabad was quoted in media that “Muslims too have an opportunity to prosper in the peaceful environment that the Modi government has created”. There was hardly any hue and cry over his statement even though it was similar to the statement of Vastanvi.

As expected, the Congress party expressed its satisfaction over the removal of Vastanvi whose statement had indirectly supported the Narendra Modi Government. In fact the campaign for removal of a reformist Vastanvi launched by conservative Arshad Madni faction of JUH had the patronage of the Congress party ever since Vastanvi was elected with the support of anti- Congress Deobandi Ulema led by Mawlana Ajmal.

Badruddin Ajmal, a powerful JUH leader from Assam had founded All India United Democratic Front (AUDF), contested the last assembly election in the state and won a significant number of seats and as a result Congress was against this Mawlana. He emerged as a parallel power centre to Arsad Madani who had supported Congress. As the post of V.C. was taken over by Vastanvi, it meant a shift of power from pro-Congress Ulema to the anti-congress Ajmal and Vastanvi.

In view of the coming assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress did not want to take the risk of the continuance of Vastanvi as VC of Deoband that has a significant influence over the Muslim voters and therefore supported Arshad Madani in his campaign against him.

The statement of the Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid on July 23, 2011, the day removal of Vastanvi was announced that “The Congress Party respects the decision of the committee, which sacked Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi, as vice-chancellor of Darul
Uloom Deoband University” proves this point.

Madanis might have patted their back after removal of Vastanvi but the episode had not only exposed their un-Islamic super-caste politics in internationally-venerated Darul Uloom but has also given a bad name to it.

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One thought on “Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi: A Victim Of Super-Caste And Family Hegemony In Deoband? – Analysis

  • August 13, 2011 at 8:00 am

    There is no caste element in the Vastanvi matter, since now the newly elected mohtamim i.e. Mufti Abul Qasim Nomani is not from a supercaste, rather he is Ansari an OBC. It is rubbiish to malign the Madanis for designed accusations.


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