Reforms in education imparted in madrassas is the unique proposition of the advent on the national scene of this scholar, barely known outside the tribal areas of Gujarat and Mahartashtra, where he has a fine track record of introducing modern education in institutions he has set up.
Although there is no real count of the number of Muslim seminaries in India, the estimate is of about 35,000. Not all of them are controlled by the school of theology that Deoband propagates.
In response to the rising needs of Muslim boys and girls, many madrassas have begun teaching science, engineering and IT. In doing so, they are also refuting the perceptions, heightened post-9/11, that Muslim seminaries are stoking fundamentalism and militancy.
Elected Jan 10, Vastanvi announced his intent to resign within a fortnight amid a raging controversy, not for his views on education, but having triggered a debate on the 2002 violence in Gujarat in which a thousand Muslims were killed.
Vastanvi does not condone the Gujarat carnage. He wants those guilty punished. But he says it is time for Muslims to emerge out of the past and move on. They must educate their children so that they do not take to crime or religious extremism and strive to flow within the national mainstream.
This is a very bold, if conciliatory, message and not just to Gujarat's Muslims, an estimated 100,000 of whom were displaced during the riots. It goes across India and wherever the 2002 events have cast a dark shadow.
Vastanvi, who takes his name after his birthplace Vastan, a southern Gujarat village, perhaps knows the ground reality better. He differs with what activists working among the riot victims, and the New Delhi government that keeps an eagle eye on opposition-ruled Gujarat, claim about continuing discrimination against Muslims.
The relief work has been carried out very well by the government and the people, says Vastanvi. "All communities are prospering in Chief Minister Narendra Modi's Gujarat and there is no discrimination against the minorities as far as development is concerned," he said in an interview to a newspaper.
This is arguably the most significant endorsement of Modi. Dubbed "merchant of death", he is still under investigation. Since 2005, the State Department has barred his entry into the United States. The European Union too has denied him diplomatic status.
Not surprisingly, the conservatives among Muslim theologians, scholars, lawmakers and members of representative bodies like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board roundly condemned Vastanvi and demanded his removal from the high post.
The demonstrations by students on the campus and a smear campaign castigating him as a Modi beneficiary appeared to unnerve Vastanvi who initially said he would resign. However, he appears to have gathered support among the students and teachers and has since dug in his heels.
The campaign against him stems from the fact that he is the first clergyman from Gujarat to head the institution that has domination of the people from Uttar Pradesh - students, teachers, the staff and the management - and has been remote-controlled by a Delhi-based family.
Also, neither liberal Muslims nor much of the media that generally takes up issues in favour of forward-looking reforms have supported him so far. Muslims seem unable to forget or forgive Modi.
But there is nothing to indicate that Vastanvi has any hidden agenda to absolve Modi. This makes his call to Gujarat's Muslims to move on noteworthy.
Vastanvi's education model for seminaries has been replicated in many parts of Maharashtra and Gujarat. For these largely unsung efforts, he was honoured with the Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad Award by the Maharashtra government.
New Delhi: The controversy surrounding Maulana Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi, elected as vice chancellor of Darul Uloom in Deoband, a leading school of Islamic theology with followers across the world, would need to be viewed in the larger context of modernisation of education for India's 160 million Muslims.
First Published: Tuesday, February 01, 2011, 11:40