Syed Abdullah Bukhari, the grand old Shahi Imam of Delhi's historic Jama Masjid and for long one of India's most outspoken Muslim leaders, died in New Delhi on Wednesday after a long illness. He was 87.
The elderly Bukhari, who anointed his son Syed Ahmed Bukhari as the Shahi Imam in 2000 but continued to retain the title, breathed his last at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) where he had been admitted since June 9 following breathing problems.
"He passed away early in the morning," mosque spokesperson Amanullah Khan told IANS.
As news of the legendary Bukhari's death spread, thousands, mainly Muslims, gathered at the sprawling 17th-century Jama Masjid mosque, the country's biggest and located in the heart of Mughal-built Old Delhi.
National leaders, including Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, joined the Muslim community to mourn the death of Bukhari, who was named the Naib Shahi Imam in 1946, a year before India's independence.
Belonging to a family originally hailing from Central Asia, the Bukharis were invited to Delhi by Mughal emperors to preside over the Jama Masjid.
Abdullah Bukhari, born in Rajasthan and educated in Delhi, was the 12th Shahi Imam.
The image he earned in later years as an aggressive Muslim leader often clouded the difficult role he played before and during August 1947 when he persuaded scores of Indian Muslims not to migrate to Pakistan.
During those troubled days, thousands of Delhi's Muslims, forced out of their homes by mobs, took shelter in the premises of the red-stone mosque under his care. Bukhari provided them food, clothes and medicines.
In the decades that followed, using his clout as the cleric of the country's best known mosque, Bukhari took keen interest in the social and economic issues linked to Muslims.
He took to the streets following communal violence in Delhi's Kishanganj area in 1974, leading to his jailing for 18 days in early 1975. The event triggered widespread protests.
He rose to national prominence in March 1977 when he joined national politicians in mobilising people to vote out the Congress government of Indira Gandhi, accusing it of displacing the poor from their homes and forcing their menfolk to undergo vasectomy.
Since then politicians used to make a beeline for him to seek his support in elections, giving him a larger than life image.
The senior Bukhari also played an active role in support of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya but his appeal started to wane after mobs destroyed the mosque in 1992, creating the worst Hindu-Muslim fissures since 1947.
On Wednesday, Muslim leaders praised the contribution of Bukhari for the country's largest religious minority.
"Imam saab was a dynamic personality. Besides being the Imam, he was always involved in raising social and political issues," respected Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan told IANS. "He played a constructive role in 1947."
Mufti Mukarram Ahmed, the Shahi Imam of the nearby and equally historic Fatahpuri mosque, said Bukhari had been a fighter for 30 long years.
"The Imam was a great personality. He was a fearless man. He tried to pressurise the government to take up issues concerning the community," the Fatehpuri Imam said. "After Emergency, he became more involved."
Abdullah Bukhari's belligerence during and after the Babri mosque demolition coupled with the rise of the Hindu right eclipsed his standing in the national arena.
By then, India saw the birth of several Muslim leaders of various hues. Once Bukhari handed over the charge of the mosque to his son, he retreated from public arena.
As the years rolled by, he became reclusive, meeting only the family and close friends. He could often be seen resting in the mosque complex, surrounded by ducks and children.