The Feverish Case of Ahmed Bukhari

In the middle of the seventeenth century, a Mughal ruler in a jovial mood sealed the fate of a generation. And of a whole country and community. Around 1650 AD, Mughal ruler Shahjahan laid the foundation of the Jama Masjid, in then Shahjahanabad, and now Old Delhi. The mosque took six years to complete.

The slow pace of work troubled the ruler and he asked his minister overlooking the constructions, that even after employing the best calligraphers, construction workers, and the very best of chiselers, why is the work lagging? The minister, Saadullah Khan replied that a recitation of Holy Quran precedes the installation of every stone. Such was the purity of the place, as it was intended. Shahjahan wanted a man of equal purity and stature to lead the prayers in Jama Masjid. He called upon the leaders of Bukhara, in Uzbekistan, which was a renowned centre of intellect and wisdom. Syed Abdul Ghafoor Shah Bukhari was sent to Delhi and became the first ‘Shahi Imam’ of the mosque.

The place still stands in more-or-less similar way, structurally. But the moral pillars are weakening. Corruption has seeped into the thick red walls of the mosque. Three years ago, I went to the Jama Masjid to get some photographs. One of the minarets can be climbed, which offers a beautiful, panoramic view of the city. I had a camera which was not allowed, but a bearded man in kurta asked for a small fee to take it along. It was not a ticket, but an informal token of money, a bribe. A flock of pigeons flew by, creating a windy flutter. I was sad, not about the camera of course.

Jama Masjid is one of those rare mosques in the world where the position of ‘Shahi Imam’ gets passed through the descendants of the original office-holder. Now the ‘Bukhara’ effect has been largely limited to Bukhari in the name. Syed Ahmed Bukhari is the man who is the current Shahi Imam. He has been dabbling with politics, and his association with a significant vote-bank, makes him value himself more than the role he has inherited. Historically, Shahi Imams performed coronation of new kings.

Syed Ahmed Bukhari wanted to be a kingmaker of the modern time. His struggle for political clout and his regular statements ‘behalf of the Indian Muslim community’, created an environment of distrust around him. I remember chatter around my neighborhood, in the month of Ramadan a few years ago. Everyone was on the terrace to catch a glimpse of the moon. Everyone failed. Someone commented, “We have one more day of fasting tomorrow”. “Abhi kuchh nahin keh sakte, pata nahin kab Bukhari ko bukhaar aajaye” (“Nothing can be said right now, you never know when Bukhaari catches the fever”, replied another voice. In a live midnight press-conference, Ahmed Bukhaari announced that Eid would be observed the next day. Needless to say, everybody rushed to complete festival formalities.

Syed Ahmed Bukhari is again in the news. He has organised an investiture ceremony for his 19-year-old son to be the next Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid. The ceremony has been marked heavily with the political agenda attached to it. Ahmed Bukhari has been deserted by Congress, overlooked by the Samajwadi Party, and virtually failed in politics. The ceremony invites have stirred up a controversy this time. Syed Ahmed Bukhaari has said that he has invited the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, and not the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The reason he has attributed is of Modi’s involvement in the Gujarat riots.

The other people invited are Rajnath Singh, Dr Harsh Vardhan, Vijay Goel, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Mulayam Singh Yadav. The equation needs to be balanced at all times in politics, after all. The only grouse in this scenario is the adamant invitation to the Prime Minister of Pakistan at a time when the two nations are seeing a stiff stance towards each other. What this also translates, especially when the Shahi Imam speaks on behalf of the Indian Muslims, is to the often-accused Indian Muslims are more loyal towards Pakistan. Whatever may have been the political logistics of this strategic invitation, the Indian Muslim community will have to bear the brunt of the rising right-wing, and that too for all the wrong reasons.

How does inviting the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and leaving the Indian Prime Minister makes sense? I fail to get it. It’s a case of misplaced intentions and how they may back-fire. And somehow all this action doesn’t feel like genuine steps taken to voice the plea of the Muslim community. This is how the community has been used time and again, to secure votes. Syed Ahmed Bukhari is playing on the same chords too. His politicized self overpowering the dignified position he holds, which was to be clean and higher than the seat of power.

Both Shahjahan and Syed Ahmed Bukhari stand testimony to two different times, on how their intentions can get misplaced in the long run. And yes, this gives an idea of how wrong one could go with decisions made in happiness and anger.


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