LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — There is a fairly good chance that you have not heard of Syed Waseem Rizvi from Old Lucknow – a most sympathetic champion of the campaign to build the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
The mild-mannered Shia Muslim may not have exploded onto the national scene like the blustering Shri Rajput Karni Sena, but in Uttar Pradesh, the Muslim community finds itself obsessing over the 48-year-old chairman of the UP Shia Waqf Board, the body which looks after Shia properties in the state.
Once the blue-eyed boy of Samajwadi Party’s Muslim firebrand Azam Khan, both Rizvi and his mentor were looking down the barrel of a federal investigation after the BJP came to power in UP earlier this year and accused them of corruption in their handling of Waqf properties. Waqf refers to properties donated for a religious or charitable cause that cannot be transferred or sold.
Suddenly, the heat is off. Instead of fretting about a CBI probe, Rizvi has been meeting with influential men like Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to discuss ways and means of resolving the contentious Babri Masjid–Ram Janmabhoomi dispute. Not surprisingly, they all see building the Ram Temple in Ayodhya as the only way forward.
In a strange twist to an already tragic story, 25 years after hundreds of kar sevaks demolished the Babri Masjid, a Muslim has emerged as a messiah for the Hindu nationalists bent on building the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
Undaunted by a volley of criticism from both Sunni and Shia leaders, Rizvi has proven himself to be more loyal than the king when it comes to bashing the Sunni Muslim litigants in the title suit of the Babri Masjid, now in the final hearing stage before the Supreme Court.
While the Waqf board chairman has no qualms about disregarding the history of sectarian violence in his hometown, Hindu nationalists have found someone to say the things from which even they must refrain.
In its affidavit filed before the Supreme Court in August, the Shia Waqf Board said, “It is submitted that the Sunni Central Waqf Board U.P. is under the dominant control of Sunni hardliners, the fanatics and non-believers in peaceful co-existence, who have no stake in the present case…”
While addressing a press conference in Delhi, last month, Rizvi said that Pakistan was funding the UP Sunni Waqf Board, the Muslim litigant in the legal dispute.
In a recent conversation with HuffPost India, Rizvi repeated the allegation but offered no proof. In addition to recalling that Pakistan had seen huge demonstrations on 6 December, 1992, the Shia Waqf Board chairman said, “The Sunni Board cannot pay its members but it can hire expensive lawyers like Kapil Sibal. How do you explain it?”
When I pointed out that he might be toying with the fragile calm that prevailed between Sunnis and Shiites after a century of bloodshed in Lucknow, Rizvi said, “What is more important, Shia-Sunni unity or Hindu-Muslim unity?”
“I suppose the Shia-Sunni problems in the Middle East and Pakistan are also my fault. Shia and Sunni have fought since the beginning. Even to make peace in Lucknow, it was the Shia who compromised. Is that real peace?” he continued.
What is more important, Shia-Sunni unity or Hindu-Muslim unity?
More than words
Rizvi’s recent interventions mark the first time that anyone has attempted a sectarian divide over the Babri Masjid since 1946, when a civil court in Faizabad ruled that the 16th century mosque belonged to the Sunni community.
In November, a month before the final hearing was to commence in the Supreme Court, the Shia Waqf Board moved the Supreme Court against its Sunni counterpart, claiming that the Babri Masjid had always belonged to the Shiite because its architect and Mughal commander Mir Baqi was Shia.
Not only did the Shia Waqf Board force itself into the interminable litigation going back half-a-century, Rizvi welcomed Hindus to build their Ram Temple on the disputed site. He even asked the BJP-run state government for land to build a “mosque of peace” in Lucknow, over 100 kilometers from Ayodhya.
Rizvi told me, “The only way to resolve the dispute is to build the Ram Temple. Will the Muslims ever be able to build a mosque in the old spot? No, never. So why not give millions of Hindus what they have desired for so long? Why not end the dispute and make peace?”
The only way to resolve the dispute is to build the Ram Temple.
While ratcheting up the rhetoric against the Sunnis, Rizvi has also managed to orchestrate a major turnaround in his own declining fortune. The Waqf Board chairman told me that he had a “good” meeting with the chief minister, but he vehemently denied trying to appease the BJP.
“Even the Samajwadi Party had false corruption cases against me. In fact, the Akhilesh government was worse. They slapped six FIRs against me and dissolved the Waqf Board. The Supreme Court stayed it. This year, the BJP sacked six members of the Waqf Board but the Allahabad High Court stayed it. I am fighting each and every allegation and winning because the truth is on my side.”
Despite the host of allegations against him and no dearth of powerful enemies, Rizvi has by some miracle managed to get elected as chairman of the Shia Waqf Board four times.
While his friends joke that a lucky star is shining on him, Rizvi attributes it to his “life experience” working as a cook in Saudi Arabia, a salesman in America, and making carburetors in a factory in Japan.
“I am the chairman of the Shia Waqf Board till 2020 and I will keep calling for the Ram Temple,” he said. “Let the entire Muslim community stand on one side. I will stand on the other side.”
The timing seems most convenient. Ten years since he first became the chairman, his enthusiasm for the Ram Temple peaked only after the BJP came to power and accused him of corruption.
To the question, “Why now?”, he replied, “Well, why not.”
I am the chairman of the Shia Waqf Board till 2020 and I will keep calling for the Ram Temple.
The Shiites, who make up just 10 to 15 percent of the Muslim population in India, have from time to time backed Hindu nationalist forces like the BJP. In the 2014 general election, for instance, the Shiites backed Narendra Modi, but in the UP Assembly election in 2012, they backed the Samajwadi Party and in the state polls this year, it was Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party.
On the Babri Masjid, however, the Shiites have stood behind the Sunni since independence. After the BJP came to power in UP this year, a few cracks have appeared. In addition to their political loyalties and ideological convictions, longstanding personal rivalries have also pitted Shia leaders against each other and fashioned their response to the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute.
Take, for instance, the revered Shia cleric Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, who, while sharing the stage with yoga guru Baba Ramdev in August, told Muslims, “If you give this one plot, you will win crores of hearts.”
Sadiq was immediately opposed by his own nephew, Maulana Kalbe Jawad, the most powerful religious leader in the Shia community, who has for years led an agitation against the Shia Waqf Board and its chairman.
In a past life, before they both rose to hold public positions, Jawad and Rizvi had played carrom together. Rizvi told me that he used to play cricket with Jawad’s nephew. But for years now, the mualana has been accusing Rizvi for raking in crores by illegally selling Waqf properties, and Rizvi has accused the Shia cleric of making millions by selling burial spots in graveyards.
Jawad has branded Rizvi’s intervention in the Ayodhya dispute as just another attempt to cover up corruption in the Shia Waqf Board.
It suits the Hindu nationalists just fine to have the Shia leaders fighting amongst themselves and exchanging barbs with the Sunnis in the media over the Babri Masjid, giving rise to the perception of a divided Muslim community.
Perception is vital for the Hindutva camp.
Rizvi’s intervention bolsters the Hindu nationalists who would have you believe that the vast majority of Muslims are in favor of relenting and only the radicalized section persists in hurting Hindu sentiments. Meanwhile, couching the anti-mosque campaign in terms such a “peace” and “winning hearts” helps create a mahaul (atmosphere) which forces the Muslims to settle.
In reality, Rizvi and the nine members of the Waqf board are only custodians of the Shia properties, not representatives of the community. And they have all been roundly criticized by both Shia and Sunni leaders. But these subtleties are lost in the carefully crafted clamor.
Religious leaders of both sects are shocked at just how much publicity Rizvi has received. His detractors were confident of him being dismissed as a troublemaker right off the bat but contrary to their expectations, major newspapers and new channels have been carrying his controversial remarks for the better part of the year. His meeting with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar garnered tremendous attention.
Rizvi insists that he is speaking truth to power. “It is high time that the matter was resolved. Muslims want to end the dispute with Hindus. The Sunnis must listen,” he said.
It doesn’t bother Rizvi if his involvement in the Ayodhya dispute is short-lived.
When I asked him his plans if the Supreme Court rejected the Shia Waqf Board’s claim as the Faizabad court had done in 1946, Rizvi said, “I will accept it. But I have spoken the truth and people will remember it.”