Vivek Sinha’s novel ‘Chip In The Madrasa’ explores the corrosive effect of Wahhabism on a small, peaceful Indian village.
Indian journalist and filmmaker Vivek Sinha’s novel Chip in the Madrasa is the heartrending, all-too-familiar tale of how the influence of Saudi-backed Wahhabism gradually and insidiously poisons the serene, progressive stream of village life in a rural modern-day Indian village. In his village, Basera, a learned Maulvi sahab wants to teach science, mathematics, and computers at his madrasa. He sees himself as a faithful representative of the basic tenet of Islam, which is to seek and to spread knowledge. Instead of demanding respect, he commands it from both the old and young inhabitants of the village.
His son’s plan to introduce computers to the madrasa even wins the backing of members of the management committee and some community leaders. But it isn’t long before Basera, and adjoining villages become laboratories on which Wahhabi strategists test their game plan, bringing the learned men of the villages with their progressive interpretation of Islam and their penchant for development into dangerous conflict with theocratic ideologues vying for control over both political parties and the definition of Islam. As Maulvi sahab realises, his struggle is for an Islamic reformation, in which Muslims who know about the history of Islam engage in a battle of ideas and ideals to reclaim it from the clutches of Wahhabi thugs and their virulent version of Islam.
The story charts the slow and steady change through which younger men become increasingly assertive while the conservative older and wiser ones fearfully rein in their activities. Chacha’s dilapidated rustic tea shack undergoes refurbishment (with an injection of Saudi cash) and bubbles with business and prosperity, all an investment to spread the Wahhabi tentacles across the region and to insinuate it into everyday village life. Because it is frequented mostly by the illiterate or semi-literate labourers who lack the tools to reason out the rhetoric, the tea stall becomes the locus of Islamist influence.
Their strategy is to deprive Muslims of modern education while simultaneously keeping the ‘Muslim victim’ leitmotif spinning, allowing Wahhabis to gain control by posturing as noble saviours and representing themselves as spokesmen for ‘Muslim victims’ everywhere. Meanwhile, the educated and rational Muslims like the book’s protagonist Maulvi sahab are marginalised, thus removing the most qualified rivals to the Islamists’ propaganda. Having mobilised Muslim resentment, the next phase sees the village’s infiltrators exploiting the most vulnerable daily wage-earners from the lower social strata and turning them into pawns, while instilling the importance of following Sharia law, and explaining all of the people’s ills as the result of impiety, a model drawn directly from Kashmir.
At election time, the Muslim victimisation mantra becomes the singular winning formula. Central to the story is the impact of these changes on women and girls. Sinha is blunt in his exposition of how the men who posture as champions of chastity and modesty for women are simultaneously obsessed with sexuality and turn even young girls and even female relatives into bargaining chips to be traded for their political cache or into sex slaves to feed their violently misogynistic sexual fantasies.
It isn’t long before the humble Maulvi sahab, and his madrasa becomes a bone of contention because, as a thinking mind, he is one of the few critical thinkers in the village who has sufficient background education to see through the deceptive game plan woven in the name of Islam.
Sinha’s book, like its central character, draws on extensive research about Islam and Islamic scriptures. It details the eighteenth-century history of how Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahab’s extremely narrow view of Islamic teachings became a tool for the imperial designs of the tribal chief of a small town in Saudi Arabia (Muhammad Ibn Saud) and became the template for territorial expansionism across the Arabian Peninsula.
Through the eyes of Anil, a university student from Kerala who was introduced to the pro-Islamist FPI Party’s ideology at university, but who later saw how the ideas flaunted in public were openly flouted in practice, the hypocrisy of Islamist ideologues is laid bare. While cursing Western imperialism and decadence during the day, the party cadres are pictured sipping whiskey and wine in urban five-star nightclubs by night and constantly using prostitutes.
Maulvi sahab is the one antidote to their poison, the most competent Islamic scholar in the village who knows that the new arrivals from Saudi Arabia do not follow the spirit of the Holy Quran. While the visiting ‘Maulana’ Kamran is festooned with accolades and given a marketing blitzkrieg for his lecture before a pious congregation of Basera villagers, Maulvi sahab is among the few present who knows that, contrary to Kamran’s proclamations, nowhere in the Quran is it explicitly mentioned that women must cover themselves, or that men are permitted to hurt, abuse or offend a woman.
To counter the rhetoric of these self-proclaimed custodians of Islam and their Allah-e-Niyamat Urdu newspaper, Maulvi sahab begins to pen articles with the help of his son’s start-up newspaper, Mudaakhilat (‘Intervention’). Despite its relatively low circulation, Maulvi sahab commits his energies to explaining in Mudaakhilat how man-made sources have been used to derive sharia laws and to elaborate on the Holy Quran, beyond anything coming from Allah. In a very tangible way, Vivek Sinha’s book is itself an intervention, a vivid reminder that religion is a potentially powerful instrument of political power that does not necessarily always serve human flourishing and progress.