When Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman decided to visit Deoband in Uttar Pradesh -- a non-descript town by any standard -- most, including the usually well-informed media, were caught on the wrong foot.
'What was the leader of the Pakistan opposition and chief of the hardline Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, with three colleagues to boot, doing in Deoband of all places?' was an oft-repeated question.
Deoband is one of world's leading centres of Islamic learning. Interestingly, the hardline Pakistani outfit's roots can be traced to this town.
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The Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind -- the parent organisation on whose invitation Rehman is in India -- was formed in November 1919 by leading Islamic scholars (Ulemas).
Some of its founders were Abdul Mohasim Sajjad, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Ahmed Saeed Dehlvi and Abdul Bari Firangi Mehli. Mahmood Hassan, a leading Islamic scholar of that time, was the guiding force behind the initiative.
Their aim was to take on the British rulers head on. The organisation's involvement in the Khilafat Movement brought them close to Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, a link that is existent to this day.
Leading Congress leader Abul Kalam Azad, himself a product of the Islamic seminary, was the president of the JUH in 1948. Others like Saifuddin Kitchlu and Maulana Mohammad Ali Johar were also closely associated with the Jamiat.
Historian Mohammad Sajjad of Jamia Millia Islamia University said, "It remained with the Congress through out the freedom movement and even after that. It played an important role in Muslim mobilisation."
Echoing Sajjad, JUH spokesman Abdul Hameed Nomani told rediff.com: "We demanded complete independence from the British in 1927. This was even before the Congress did. We collected money and took Gandhiji throughout the country for mobilisation."
"It was Maulana Abdul Bari of Jamiat who gave the title of Mahatma to Gandhiji in 1920," he said.
Bari was Jamiat's first president.
One of the Jamiat leaders, Shabbir Ahmed Usmani, split from the organisation in 1937 and later formed the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam in Dhaka in 1940.
"They believed in the two-nation theory. They went towards Muslim League. They believed that religious identity defines a nation. But we said no. Culture defines a nation. Wherever we go in the world, we are identified as Hindi," Nomani said.
"Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and all others living here are Indians. And hence one nation," he said.
After the partition, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam went to Pakistan and Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind remained in India.
But Jamiat's links with Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam remained intact.
"We had a different political viewpoint. But they still seek guidance from us in the matters of Sharia (Islamic law and jurisprudence)," he said.
Despite a fundamentalist image of Pakistan's Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind had no problems in inviting them to India.
"If somebody is firm on his religious faith, you cannot call him fundamentalist. It is propaganda against Islam. It is the conspiracy of the Zionist lobby to dub Muslims with beard and cap as fundamentalist and terrorist. We don't care about this image," he said.
"The world is changing. People are hungry for love and peace. We have to do something about it. How long will we continue looking at each other with suspicion?" he asked.
"The major problem between India and Pakistan is Kashmir. Let us not talk about it. It will get solved in course of time with negotiations," he added.
Jamiat, which is well networked across the country, identifies itself as a religious and social group.
The membership, however, is confined to Islamic scholars, who mostly pass out of Islamic seminaries.
Some Imams of mosques are also its members. Though Jamiat claims to represent all Muslim groups, most of its members are from the Deoband school of thought.
JUH hopes the visit of Rehman will help in carrying forward the peace initiative taken by India and Pakistan.
Rehman and three of his parliamentary colleagues -- Qazi Hamidullah, Gul Nasseb, Hafiz Hussain Ahmed -- are in India on an official visit.
Nomani said, "Religion can help reduce tension between India and Pakistan. If religious leaders from both sides convince the people that war is not a solution then a peaceful atmosphere can be created."
More people-to-people contact and exchange of religious leaders from both sides, he added, will lead to a cordial environment between the neighbours.
"That is why we have invited Maulana Fazlur Rahman here. He is a religious head. This is in continuation of the peace initiative taken by our Prime Minister (Atal Bihari Vajpayee). Pakistan has also responded positively this time," he said.
"Many politicians and cultural groups from both sides have taken delegations to the other country. But nothing has worked out so far. Politics is seen with suspicion. So we thought of the exchange of religious leaders that may help in the long run," he added. "People from both sides will pressure their respective governments to avoid the path of war and violence."
After crossing the border at Wagah, Rehman first went to the Golden Temple in Amritsar and met the leaders of the Akal Takht. He also went to pray at the Sufi shrine in Sirhind.
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