Few spare a glance for the Jamia Islamia Ishataul Uloom in Akkalkuwa, started originally as a seminary, that mentors an unusual educational experiment. Melding Islamic teachings with mainstream education, it takes care of the needs of 1.7 lakh students across India and even bordering Nepal. Vastanvi, or Bade Hazrat, as they call him, is central to this initiative.
Many quietly point out that in the scale of operations, it is the Akkalkuwa seminary which is larger, while Deobands is important for historical and religious reasons. There are 3,000-odd students at Deoband, but here we manage 1.7 lakh students, says one of Vastanvis confidantes.
Some say that a north Indian clique, which has traditonally held sway over ulema politics in India, has now been challenged by a rank outsider Vastanvi.
Vastanvi has two qualities first, his relations across India and abroad with all important seminaries and ability to collect funds; second , he is open minded, emphasising on both kinds of education, religious and mainstream, says Maulana Habibur Rehman Matadar, who taught with Vastanvi at the Kantharia seminary.
Unlike his peers at Deoband Darul Uloom, Vastanvi does not claim any historical or academic lineage. Most of his family members in his native village of Vastan, 125 km from Akkalkuwa, are farmers. The lone Muslim family in the village, he took on the village name after he adopted Islamic education as a career.
The only new buildings in the tribal town belong to engineering, pharmacy and medical colleges, and also residential complexes for students, teachers and staff of the seminary. His son and other relatives, along with orphans and children of lower middle-class Muslim families who cannot afford schooling, now study at various institutes here.
We receive no government grant, 70%of the cost is taken care of by donations, barely 25% is fees from students, points out Akbar Patel, the campus coordinator.
Explaining how he came to settle in Akkalkuwa, Vastanvi says: While I was the Arabic teacher at Kantharia (in South Gujarat) some of my students called me to Akkalkuwa. I found Muslims here to be poor materially as well as spiritually. Elders and ulemas advised me baith jao, baith jao. And this is how I am here.
The Akkalkuwa seminary began from a small hut in Makrani Mohalla.Vastanvis elder brother Hafiz Issac stared with six students. It was in the eighties that Vastanvi shifted base from Gujarat to this Maharashtra town and has stayed put ever since.
The Deoband connection is talked about cautiously, though Vastanvi has been Darul Ulooms governing council member for a dozen years. The family is also cautious about another less-known connection: that Vastanvis daughter is married to Maulana Arshad Madanis son. Among those Vastanvi defeated to become Darul Uloom vice-chancellor was Madani.
The campuses dont have a a single TV set, students catch up on the latest on Vastanvi.
The colleges mostly have students from Maharashtra and Gujarat.