Young leader of ancient Ajmer dargah wants people to vote for development

As one of the custodians of Ajmer's Dargah Sharif, Syed Salman Chisthy gets a ringside view of the increasing polarisation of the electorate — and he blames both sides for it.
Syed Salman Chishty is a diplomatic man.

He has to be too, since he speaks not just for himself but as the inheritor of an 800-year-old legacy at Ajmer’s Dargah Sharif. Chisthy is a Gaddi Nishan (heir apparent), a custodian of the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, one of the most important pilgrimage spots for South Asian Islam. This means that along with the rest of those who watch over the keys of the Dargah, Chishty is in a position to influence the millions of worshippers who visit the shrine and may look to its leadership for guidance.

Which is why he can’t necessarily name names. “Our approach has always been to be open to all political leadership. There has never been a particular inclination,” the 32-year-old custodian said. “Before Independence, the British built structures within the complex. After Independence, the Nehru-Gandhi family was always attached to the dargah. And under the NDA, Atal Bihari Vajpayee always sent a chaadar for the shrine. So we’re open to all comers.”

But that doesn’t mean Chisthy, as a young Muslim in an election where the "minority question" seems to have been as central as ever, doesn’t have political views. It would be hard not to.

Aside from the overarching question of Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s approach to Muslims, the matter is also of interest closer to home. The Congress party, led by former chief minister Ashok Gehlot, was routed in state elections late last year — a result that was widely attributed to the regime’s inability to keep Muslims on its side because of a series of communal incidents.

“There has been violence and many such incidents, and it is a dangerous trend,” Chishty said. “Because, as a result of it, extremism is growing. You now have to be conscious what you say, and who you’re talking to. The youth are no longer open.”

As a Muslim leader who regularly meets youngsters both in his role at the dargah and as director of the Chishty Foundation, Chisthy is acutely aware of the effects polarisation is having on Indian society — and he won’t just blame it on party, or even on one community.

“It works for some of these organisations, whether they are youth groups or religious ones or political parties," he said. "They want to add to the trouble for their own good, and the result will be sad for the rest of India.”

That points to the BJP, a party not known for its tolerant outlook, but applies equally to the Congress or outfits like the Samajwadi Party, who benefit from this approach. Chisthy is no fan of politicians’ desires to be seen around Imams come election time. “You can’t turn up in front of a religious leader just before the elections and assume an entire community will back you,” he said. “And what about those religious leaders? What have they done for the community?”

It might be easier for Chishty, as someone associated with the more liberal Sufi strain of Islam, to pin the blame on the more orthodox set, but it is still unusual for a prominent Muslim to point to parties like the Congress and the SP as being as much part of the problem.

“This is what happens in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar," he said. "Look at all the Muslims there, see how low the proportion of education is in those communities. This is deliberately done so that they’ll look up to certain groups as their saviours. No one wants to give the community a chance to be self-reliant. Different political parties are just taking Muslims for a ride.”

And if the BJP is sincere about being a development-focused alternative, shedding its Hindutva leanings, he would be all for it. “They have a promising manifesto, mostly, and if they fulfill it that can only be encouraged. In fact, if they can go beyond Gujarat — where they only focus on the rich — and help the middle-class and lower middle-class, that would be a welcome step,” he said. “But if it’s just false promises, as it usually is, it will be a disaster for the country and for the stability of the population.”

Does Modi need to put on the topi then, as everyone on Twitter seems to be demanding? “It might not mean much, he can still fool us after, but not putting it on — when you can wear all sorts of other headgear — send a message about his intentions. If you’re defense is you don’t want to fool us, were you trying to fool all those other communities?”

At home, though, Chishty says his vote will not be given as a Muslim or a minority, but as someone who appreciates development — which in this case is not a euphemism for Modi. “[Congress’] Sachin Pilot has transformed the place, he’s brought an airport, a central university, speed post," Chishty said. "If you have to vote for development, Pilot should win.”

 
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