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Let the RSS chief and Muslims search for the middle ground

Faizan Mustafa writes: One meeting between Mohan Bhagwat and prominent Muslims cannot resolve issues that plague the two communities. But in an age of majoritarianism, the RSS chief is one person who can initiate and lead Hindutva’s perestroika

The RSS chief has repeatedly said that Muslims are equal citizens of India while Hindutva has historically distinguished between indigenous religions and Abrahamic religions.

The unexpected meeting between five prominent Muslims who were honest in admitting that they do not represent the whole community and RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat has received much media attention. Many have welcomed this initiative and see it as the continuation of the dialogue process that started on July 4, 2021, when the RSS chief released Khwaja Iftikar Ahmed’s book, The Meeting of Minds: A Bridging Initiative. Some liberal secularists, fundamentalists and well-wishers of the Muslim community have been highly critical of this meeting as they think it is nothing more than a “sell out”. They are not willing to trust the RSS till the organisation explicitly disowns the philosophy and writings of its founders. The pertinent question is: What are Muslims willing to disown? Would Muslims be better off if they do not talk to RSS? All the contentious issues cannot be resolved in just one meeting, which was little more than an icebreaker. But within a month of this meeting, Bhagwat also visited a mosque and interacted with madrasa students.

No meaningful dialogue is possible without creating favourable conditions. Liberals are right that the RSS chief went to the meeting from a position of power. In fact, the person who has power has the responsibility of initiating, sustaining and taking the dialogue forward. What is Bhagwat’s record? Does it inspire confidence?

The RSS chief in July 2021 had asserted that “the only solution to Hindu-Muslim conflict is dialogue, not discord”. Bhagwat reiterated that the talk of Hindu-Muslim unity is misleading “as they are not different, but one”. He has famously said that the DNA of Hindus and Muslims is the same. In the last few years, Bhagwat has been consistently making several positive statements about Muslims. Speaking at the event ‘Hindustan First, Hindustani Best’ in July 2021, Bhagwat, in a way acknowledged that many Muslims today indeed live under fear. He urged Muslims not to get “trapped in the cycle of fear that Islam is in danger in India”. If a meaningful dialogue is sustained over a period of time, he may be persuaded to tell Hindutva foot soldiers that Hindus too are not in any danger.

On January 1, 2021, at the launch of J K Bajaj and M D Srinivas’s book, Making of a Hindu Patriot: Background of Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj, Bhagwat clearly went against Hindutva’s narrow concept of nationalism, in which territory is given excessive importance. In his characteristic style and again without mincing words, he said that “love for the country does not mean land only, it means its people, rivers, culture, traditions and everything”. Condemning mob lynchings in the strongest words, Bhagwat had said that “these lynchings are against Hindutva” and those who indulge in it are not Hindus.

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In a clear departure from the classical Hindutva stand, he has asserted that the Constitution nowhere says that only Hindus can live in India or only Hindus will have a say in this country or to live in India one has to accept the supremacy of Hindus. He also tried to demolish the Hindutva theory of Muslim rule being exclusively “Muslim” rule by citing the example of the battle of Haldighati (1576) between Mughals and Rajputs, when he said that a large number of Muslims were on the side of Maharana Pratap and fought bravely against the Mughal army led by another Rajput, Raja Man Singh.

SY Quraishi writes |Why we met the RSS chief

In his address at the Muslim gathering on ‘Nation first, Nation Supreme’, Bhagwat had rightly blamed the British for sowing the seeds of communalism in India. He had said that the British told Muslims that in a Hindu majority state, they would be at a receiving end with no power, position or influence. They similarly convinced Hindus about the dangers of staying with Muslims who are by nature extremists. Indeed, the British distorted history to demonstrate that Muslim rulers discriminated against Hindus.

The RSS chief has repeatedly said that Muslims are equal citizens of India while Hindutva has historically distinguished between indigenous religions and Abrahamic religions. Such a departure from the stated position should not be overlooked. One should not expect a complete break from the past ideology overnight. Any change in the century-old position can only be gradual. One has to have patience as the RSS chief cannot afford to lose his core constituency. There would surely be setbacks to the dialogue process from both sides.

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Are not the above statements indicative of the fact that Bhagwat is – albeit in an extremely slow and gradual manner – trying to change Sangh’s attitude towards Muslims? He is facing huge criticism for going soft on Muslims. He is in a precarious situation — liberals do not trust him and hardcore Hindutva supporters have started disowning him. Annoyed by Bhagwat’s so-called “Muslim appeasement”, former CBI head M Nageswara Rao termed the RSS as “pseudo-Hindutva fraud” and asked the Hindus to work toward an “RSS-mukt Bharat”. He went on to say that the RSS is encouraging Islam and taking “Hinduism to the path of golden destruction”. Madhu Kishwar angrily responded to Bhagwat’s DNA statement by saying “ the expiry date of Shri Mohan Bhagwat ji predates his becoming head of RSS” and the “RSS has nothing to do with propagating Hindu ideology; they are more Gandhian than Gandhi”. Many others have said that Bhagwat is deviating from K B Hedgewar and M S Golwalkar, who wanted to deny even voting rights to Muslims.

For any such dialogue to be successful, the RSS should engage with such Muslims who are widely respected by the whole country and are not seen as “sarkari Musalman”. As per Hindutva ideology, we are all citizens of one country and should come out of identity politics. Accordingly, no exclusive Muslim group can have a superior claim in such dialogues. Liberal Hindus have an equal stake in such conversations and Muslim delegations must include some prominent Hindu scholars and activists who have spent a lifetime espousing Muslim causes.

In an age of majoritarianism, the RSS chief is one person who can initiate and lead Hindutva’s perestroika. In this atmosphere of hate and distrust, he can restore sanity, tolerance and accommodation — the essential attributes of classical Hinduism. He alone can rein in the aggressive Hindutva forces and convince them about the values of diversity. Similarly, prominent Muslims must rein in fanatics and fundamentalists from their community. Extreme positions cannot solve contentious issues. Let the RSS chief and Muslims search for the middle ground, re-examine the stereotyped positions, and understand and appreciate each other’s perspectives.

The writer is a constitutional law expert

First published on: 29-09-2022 at 07:41:37 pm
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